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Laramie – University of Wyoming PhD candidate Rebecca Cockrum began looking at feed efficiency in sheep using residual feed intake (RFI) a year and a half ago with the intent of helping producers cut costs by selecting high efficiency animals for their flock.

“Producers have between 60 and 75 percent of their inputs attributed to feed,” says Cockrum. “If we can find a way to help them select for more efficient animals, that will be able to save producers money in the end.”

Working in conjunction with Wyoming producers, Bryce Reece and the Wyoming Woolgrowers Association and the Rambouillet Association, Cockrum has begun gather feed intake data using a specially designed GrowSafe system.    

The GrowSafe system used in Cockrum’s trial is a one-of-a-kind model constructed for use in sheep, rather than simply a modified cattle GrowSafe system.

“They have transponders in their ear, and every time an animal goes in, it takes measurements of how much feed is being consumed, how long they are in there and how many times per day they go in,” says Cockrum. “We also get a lot of behavior information.”

Using the data reported from the GrowSafe systems, Cockrum is able to determine whether animals are efficient or not.

“We generate an expected intake and look at how much the animals are actually consuming. From there, we can determine if an animal is more or less efficient,” explains Cockrum.

“If they are consuming more than what is expected for their given body weight, that is considered a less efficient animal.”

Cockrum’s preliminary data shows that the top 15 percent of rams studied consumed 22 percent less feed than the lowest 15 percent. RFI is calculated as the difference between actual and predicted feed intake. A higher RFI means the animal is consuming more food than predicted for their body weight and is less efficient.

Using RFI data rather than a simple gain to feed ratio provides an alternative that can be more accurate.

After collecting feed data, Cockrum will begin looking at blood samples she has taken from each animal to attempt to identify a genetic component for feed efficiency.

“I will probably have around 400 blood samples. I am going to identify those animals that are more or less efficient and isolate the DNA from blood samples,” says Cockrum. “We have been collaborating with a group in New Zealand to hopefully identify some markers that are associated with efficiency.”

AgResearch in New Zealand is also collecting samples and will likely have more than 1000 blood samples that Cockrum will contribute her data to.

“We are collaborating with New Zealand to be able to identify these markers accurately. We are looking at a variety of breeds and different environments with a large number of samples to increase accuracy,” says Cockrum.

“Hopefully one day, we will be able to see a producer be able to take a blood sample and test it on a chip to tell if their animals are efficient or not at weaning,” explains Cockrum.

“That is the ultimate goal.”

Cockrum also aims to identify if this trait is an ideal trait to select for. Research projects to address each of those components are being simultaneously carried out.

“For this to be an appropriate trait for producers to select on, we need to make sure it is independent of any carcass characteristics and growth traits, as well as any reproductive traits,” says Cockrum.

Though Cockrum started this project just over a year ago, she has data on the animals going back almost three years to aid her research.

“By the time I am done with my PhD, we will hopefully have some markers identified,” says Cockrum. “From there, we will have to go through several validation tests to make sure the markers we have selected are indeed going to work.”

Cockrum says there are some economic analyses that need to be conducted to see if the purchase of such a chip will be beneficial to producers.

“We need to see if it is really going to be worth it to producers to be able to purchase a chip like this and see how many markers they are willing to pay for,” says Cockrum. “I’m hoping to get in touch with several producers and collaborate with them to get economic figures.”
Cockrum’s project covers a variety of aspects of the sheep industry and aims to help producers in ways not seen in other industries.

“The sheep industry is on the cutting edge of technology. Even the beef and swine industries don’t have this kind of information yet,” says Cockrum. “This is a very integrated project.”

Cockrum is the primary student working on the project under the direction of Kristi Cammack. She is also working with Scott Lake and Bob Stobart at the University of Wyoming and Laramie Research and Extension Center.

Saige Albert is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Laramie – An experimental system at the University of Wyoming (UW) Livestock Research Center is giving wool growers a groundbreaking new tool to monitor feed-gain efficiency.
    The GrowSafe system is an electronic feed bunk that monitors specific feed intake information for individual animals. Each animal is equipped with a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag that is scanned each time the animal puts its head in the feed bunk. The system records the amount of feed consumed and the time of consumption. The data is compiled over time and provides specific feed intake information on each individual animal.
    Similar systems have been used for cattle and have been adapted for sheep, including one at the James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center (SAREC) in Lingle. However, the Laramie system is the first of its kind set up specifically to monitor sheep.
    Livestock Manager Brent Larson and assistant Kalli Koepke, a junior majoring in animal and veterinarian sciences, are on the ground floor of the GrowSafe operations. Larson and Koepke can access real-time information, as well as stored data, right from their office.
    As part of the real-time functions of the program, the user can monitor what animals are eating at any time. This capability has helped the Livestock Research Center to observe sick animals before they show outward signs of illness. In one such case, Larson noticed a buck sitting back from the rest, but the animal didn’t look sick. To be safe, Larson checked the ram’s feed intake and saw it had dropped considerably. A check revealed a high temperature and slight trouble breathing.
    “We treated him at about eight in the morning and by noon his temperature was down so I kicked him out with the rest,” Larson says. “He had gone from about eight or nine pounds of intake to only two pounds. The same day we put him back out he was over five pounds of intake again.”
    GrowSafe has offered other advantages for the UW researchers in Laramie and at SAREC, according to Animal Science Professor Bret Hess who works extensively with the GrowSafe system at SAREC. Because the feed is weighed in the bunks, abnormal weights can indicate a pest problem. The system can also indicate a missing animal if feed intake stops.
    Hess also said the system gives them an opportunity to look at aggressive feeding behavior or provide recommendations about the amount and timing of feed placed in the bunks.
    The flock used in the GrowSafe program is the same set of rams used by the UW for the Rambouillet ram test held every year (see sidebar). The system hosts eight pens and the 70 rams in the ram test can access all eight bunks.
    This year’s program is experimental and Bob Stobart, an Animal Science Department associate professor, says they’re still working through some of the system’s hiccups.
    “We’re not at 100 percent accuracy yet, but we’re really close to getting the bugs worked out,” Stobart says.
    While a price tag of more than $80,000 limits the system’s use on individual sheep operations, Stobart says GrowSafe is very beneficial to seedstock producers.
    “The results of the GrowSafe system can be used by those who produce rams commercially,” he says. “Because efficiency is a heritable trait, the data can be used by producers for selecting desirable traits.”
    The UW researchers hope to utilize the data in various ways. The results will help provide gain efficiency data on individual rams and might even provide a correlation between average daily gain and the time of day the animals feed.
    In the future, GrowSafe may also monitor environmental temperatures to illustrate how temperature relates to intake. The program might also someday monitor lambs or ewes and may be used for nutritional studies.
    Liz LeSatz is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Billings – What began as a matter of necessity for sheep producer Marv Dunster of Billings, Mont. has now turned into a business raising and producing guard dogs for different settings and situations across the country.
    “We moved to Montana, and when the sheep came off the truck they were wet and smelly, and within the first 24 hours we had an attack form neighboring dogs,” says Dunster. “Consequently, we ended up getting a female guard dog.”
    Following that, he added a stud dog and started raising a litter of pups every year, and now 5R Stock Dogs is busy year round, whelping and placing dogs with livestock producers around the country.
    “We were selling six to eight pups each year, and now we produce over 100 guard dogs every year,” he notes.
    Although Dunster started with Great Pyrenees, he soon added Akbash dogs, after wolves were reintroduced to Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
    “Great Pyrenees are the least aggressive, but they have long hair that’s high-maintenance, so we started crossbreeding them with the Akbash, which gave us the disposition of the Pyrenees with the athleticism, aggressiveness, short hair and large size of the Akbash,” he explains.
    The third breed added to 5R Stock Dogs was the Anatolian shepherd.
    “A genuine Anatolian is a very short-haired dog and they look a lot like a Great Dane with a fawn color and black muzzle,” says Dunster.
    In addition to purebreds, Dunster says he crossed them back with his Akbash and then with his Great Pyrenees, which he says resulted in a dog with short hair and athleticism.
    “The people in Oregon and Washington love the Anatolian shepherd,” he says. “That breed is what they had to begin with, and they’re happy with it.”
    In addition to those states, Dunster says he places dogs in Utah, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and California.
    Around six years ago a fourth breed was added to the stock dog operation – the Komondor, which comes from Hungary.
    “Many people don’t like their long, matted hair, so we started out breeding half Akbash, half Komondor dogs,” says Dunster. “We felt like when we got down to a quarter or an eighth Komondor we had our best dog – the hair was a little wiry, not long and matted, and the dogs had good dispositions. They’re aggressive and big, be we also found, in our program, that they’re some of the best maternal dogs we’ve ever had.”
    The most recent addition to 5R Stock Dogs is the Marrema breed, which hails from Italy.
    Of the placements for their dogs, Dunster says he offers a one-year health certificate on every dog he sells, and he guarantees all of them to be bonded with livestock.
    “We follow up with producers, talking to them five times the first year they own one of our dogs,” he says. “That’s how we know what dogs are doing best in certain situations. Placement is very important in how these dogs get started out – if we have a good placement, rarely do we have an issue.”
    “The number one trait we breed for in our program is disposition, because there are federal lands involved in allotments, and we don’t want joggers or children to be interfered with,” says Dunster.
    Dunster says guard dogs can be good tools for anyone who has sheep and has losses to predators. He says that 90 percent or more of his placements are for producers who have issues with coyotes, while other dogs are aimed to prevent fox, black bear and mountain lion predation.
    “We don’t expect these dogs to fight off a grizzly or wolf – I believe they’re more of a neutralizing agent,” says Dunster. “Their presence will keep the honest predators away.”
    “The honest predator will be on your property and won’t give you any livestock loss,” he explains. “There are many coyotes that live amongst the sheep and don’t kill sheep – they eat mice, rabbits and birds. The dishonest predator will come in and start taking a toll on your population.”
    “When you know you have a dishonest predator, 99 percent of producers will call in a trapper to destroy that animal or animals, and then you’re back to square one, dealing with honest predators,” he continues. “It’s cyclical, and you have to help these dogs with the dishonest predators.”
    “If you have two dogs on your sheep and you aren’t losing any lambs to coyotes, and you wake up one morning and see a coyote and shoot it, I have to assume you’ve shot an honest predator,” notes Dunster. “When you take an honest predator out of your system, you leave a vacancy and you don’t know what the next coyote will be like. I tell people that, if it was me, and I’m not having any losses and I see a coyote, I probably wouldn’t shoot it.”
    For a livestock producer who is looking at adding a guard dog to his management tools, Dunster says the time to introduce one is when you start thinking about it.
    “The most difficult time for placement is right after a predator attack,” he says.
    Dunster says he’s proud of his dogs, because he has worked to develop a program with a wide variety of dogs that will fit a wide variety of settings. He says he’s especially pleased with how well bonded his dogs are to livestock.
    “We don’t train these dogs, we bond them,” he says.
    For more information on 5R Stock Dogs, call 406-248-7060. Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Pilot project places dogs with cattle
    At the close of 2011, Marv Dunster, in cooperation with several other agencies and organizations, placed four guard dogs on a large cattle ranch with serious wolf predation in the past few years.
    “So far, the pilot project has been successful,” says Dunster.
    The agencies that are involved in monitoring the project are Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Montana State University, the Wildlife Conservation Society and People and Carnivores.
    “What we’re trying to accomplish is buying time,” says Dunster. “We’re pretty optimistic it will work, and the best thing we can have happen at this point in time is to have no wolf confrontation for as long as possible, to give the dogs time to gain confidence.”
    Dunster says he thinks there are a number of cattle producers in “hot zones” for wolf conflict who are interested in the project, and are waiting to see how it goes before becoming involved themselves.
    “On cattle, we’ll be careful to pick and choose our own placements,” says Dunster of sending dogs to cowherds. “If a guy calls in June and wants to start with dogs going into the forest, I won’t do that. There has to be some bonding ground so the dog can bond with the cattle and know where they belong, so that when they move into an area without a perimeter they’ll stay.”
    Of whether the project is a success or failure, Dunster says that will mean different things to different people, but he defines it in terms of the bonding and the dogs staying with the livestock.
    “If we do have a predator attack and have some loss, we need to start over where we left off, and the more we do, the more control we will have of the overall situation,” he notes.

Casper — “If we work together and we are proactive we can help keep the livestock protection dog on the clock,” said Michael Marlow, a wildlife biologist with the USDA’s Wildlife Service division.
Marlow’s position within the USDA, aimed at bridging the gap between ongoing predator research and livestock producers, is fairly new. He was a speaker at the early December Profitability Conference, an educational symposium held in conjunction with the joint winter meeting of the Wyoming Wool Growers and the Wyoming Stock Growers associations. “Early on I was approached by the American Sheep Industry Association on the issue of livestock protection dogs,” said Marlow.
The request came in the wake of a high-profile conflict between a recreationist on public land and a livestock guard dog. Beyond calling on Marlow, the national organization formed an industry working group to address the issue to ensure measures are carried out to protect the long-term presence of the industry’s ability to use livestock guard dogs.
“In the late 1970s,” said Marlow, “a resurgence in livestock dogs for sheep protection came about.” The increase arrived at the same time several predator control methods were outlawed.
“Many people were having trouble with existing techniques providing adequate relief from predation,” said Marlow. He also said there was an increased desire on the part of ranchers to establish non-lethal methods of control.
“This was 40 years ago,” he said. “Where are we now?”
“Lethal methods are continually under fire,” said Marlow. “In some cases states have eliminated the ability to use lethal methods.” In the wake of such decisions, the ability to utilize livestock guard dogs has become increasingly important.
“We’re seeing more conflicts,” said Marlow noting barking, attacks on domestic pets and a few cases where people and dogs have had troubles on federal lands. Southwestern Wyoming rancher Bill Taliaferro said Wyoming hasn’t been immune to issues with guard dogs. He said the Rock Springs Grazing Association has wrestled with the issue on a couple of different scenarios.
Marlow said efforts to make a proactive difference have been focused in three key areas — education, producer responsibility and research. In the area of education Marlow has been working with the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service to distribute information on guard dogs to those who utilize public lands for recreational purposes. Marlow said the goal is to “make them aware of livestock protection dogs.” They need to know how they should react if they come across sheep or guard dogs.
Producer responsibility is also being addressed through creation of Best Management Practices. “The old cliché is ‘one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel,’” said Marlow. “It’s the responsibility of producers to not produce a dog that affects the industry in a negative way.”
Marlow said, “It’s the producer’s responsibility to be familiar with state and local laws and ordinances that may be encountered.” He also said they need to be aware of their liability and ensure their dogs have proper vaccinations, such as rabies shots. It’s also imperative that the dogs be identified in multiple ways and the vaccination records readily accessible.
Marlow said a producer certification program is being considered. Producers who complete the program would receive special training and recognition for their efforts. Such a measure could also reduce their level of liability if their dog bites someone on public lands.
Research is also ongoing in the area of predator management. Wolves weren’t part of the picture in the 1970s when dogs came back on the scene on a larger scale. Marlow said research is exploring whether guard dogs might be attracting wolves into flocks. “Are they coming in to prey upon sheep or does he come to protect his territory?” asked Marlow. “This is something that needs to be researched.”
Dog aggression is also being considered. “Can we have a more aggressive dog and still maintain the use of dogs on public lands?” asked Marlow. “That’s probably not the best answer.” On the flip side of the coin he said, “We don’t want a dog so friendly that he doesn’t fulfill his role of predator defense. We need a dog more socially accepting to humans and still effective for predator deterrence.”
He also said they’re looking at items to protect dogs from wolves such as protective vests and collars.
“We’re on the right track to make a strong stance,” said Marlow of efforts to provide educational material, enhance producer responsibility and reduce liability.
Jennifer Womack is a staff writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The American Sheep Industry’s (ASI) Guard Dog Program is designed to provide funding for efforts on behalf of the sheep industry outside of lobbying.
“The idea was that our association and our industry needed some producers to step up and make contributions to help us address issues as they arise. Each year there are issues on a national and regional level that ASI can get involved in to help the industry. We needed a source of unrestricted funds to be able to support those efforts,” explains northern Converse country sheep producer and past ASI President Frank Moore of why the Guard Dog Program was initiated.
The idea behind the name was that just as guard dogs protect their flock, the Guard Dog Program will care for and protect the producers, explains ASI Executive Director Peter Orwick.
“We had one or two dozen requests for actual guard dogs from people who thought we were selling dogs when it first started,” comments Orwick with a laugh.
The program has operated for eight years and approximately 100 more contributors are added each year.   
“We generally received between $60,000 and $70,000 in contributions annually,” explains Orwick.
Moore lists getting involved in the reworking of the H2A program, predator control and more specifically the wolf issue in and around Wyoming as examples of efforts funds are being used for.
“This year we provided $10,000 in financial support to Wyoming for use on wolf management lawsuits,” adds Orwick.
Funding also supported a sheep station in Idaho recently when a Western Watershed project went after the station and attacked the existence of sheep and federal grazing on the land. Orwick explains that Guard Dog dollars aided in the defense of the station during the lawsuit that was filed.
Idaho Wool Growers also received Guard Dog funds to aid with their legal efforts in the 2008 Big Horn Sheep controversy
“There is a lot of heavy legal defense of the industry.  We utilize an executive board with 12 voting members to review requests for Guard Dog funds, which are typically sent in by state associations,” explains Orwick.     
There are several years when all funds aren’t expended, but the last couple of year’s all contributions have been used in annual efforts. Orwick says that is part of the design of the program and allows the necessary flexibility to help on issues as they arise and to an extent that wouldn’t be possible without the program.
“Full, annual membership is at about 750 members and 85 percent of those are individual sheep ranchers. In our minds they are all making very significant contributions and stepping up a level in order to help take care of industry business,” notes Orwick.
Contributors fill out a priority sheet with their contribution each year to determine top funding priorities. A contributor profile is also included in the ASI’s publication six times per year as a means of highlighting individuals who go a step beyond says Orwick.
“It’s been a very good program and has been well supported and very beneficial to the industry,” adds Moore.
For more information on the Guard Dog Program go to and request a packet. Heather Hamilton is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.