The main goal of this project was to reverse the decline in the sheep industry in West Virginia (WV). Briefly, the technical and economic feasibility of three breeding programs was compared. They were traditional breeding, out-of-season breeding, and an accelerated breeding program, in which the ewes were bred out-of-season and then again in the winter. By utilizing out-of-season breeding, not only was there a more consistent supply of lamb for consumers, but also the profitability of sheep producers was increased. It was necessary to enhance profitability of sheep producers so that they were not forced to exit the increasingly competitive industry. To enhance profitability, some producers had to shift all or a portion of their ewes from traditional breeding to out-of-season breeding. By switching, they were able to take advantage of the benefits of out-of-season breeding, which include higher lamb prices at market, lower mortality rates due to parasites and predation, and increased ewe productivity. Despite the benefits of out-of-season breeding, adoption of this system remained low among producers in WV. To target why adoption remained low, surveys were mailed to all sheep producers in WV to see what factors influenced the decision to shift to this type of breeding system. The results of this project were presented and discussed with producers and stakeholders at annual meetings and workshops, and were also made available online via the WV Small Ruminant Project’s (WVSRP) website (see attachment entitled “Survey Results”). The long term impacts of the project included improvements in the quality, quantity, and consistency of lamb supply; increased productivity of existing agricultural lands; maintenance of more environmentally sustainable production systems; and a reduction in the rate of decline in the population and economic base of the rural community.
The sheep industry in WV has declined by 19% over the past ten years. The traditional production system employed by most sheep producers results in the majority of lambs marketed when annual prices are lowest. Additionally, it exposes lambs to high levels of predation and parasitism, and limits productivity of ewes, which can reduce profitability and cause producers to exit the industry. In contrast, breeding ewes outside the normal breeding season allows producers to take advantage of higher lamb prices and can enhance ewe productivity by placing ewes in an accelerated breeding program. Thus, out-of-season breeding can help small-scale producers survive in an industry that is increasingly competitive and risky. Although many benefits of out-of-season breeding exist, the use of this production system among sheep producers in WV remains low. Little is known about the position of producers in the adoption process or what specific factors limit the adoption of out-of-season breeding among sheep producers in WV. Evaluating the technical and economic feasibility of this production system and determining the factors that limit more widespread adoption is necessary to guide efforts to encourage producers to strategically shift the breeding season of ewes and, in doing so, increase profitability of their enterprises.
Lambing records from fall 2011 traditional breeding were collected and entered in an online database for analysis. Upon lambing in spring of 2012, a portion of the lactating ewes was weaned in April and rebred in May of 2012 (OUTS group). Upon lambing in the fall, the records were collected and entered in an online database for analysis. This group was rebred in the spring of 2013. Lambing records were collected and entered in an online database for analysis. A second group of ewes that had lambed in spring 2012 were rebred in fall of 2012 (TRAD group). The lambing records from this group were collected in spring 2013 and entered in an online database for analysis. A third group of ewes that had lambed in the spring of 2012 were rebred in May of 2012. These ewes lambed in October of 2012 and were rebred at least 45 days postpartum in December of 2012 (OUTSPLUS group). Lambing records from the May 2012 breeding were collected and entered in an online database for analysis. Lambing records from the fall 2012 breeding were collected upon lambing in spring 2013. The data on breeding and management costs of each of the 3 groups was collected and analyzed to determine the economic feasibility of each breeding system. Comparative production budgets and related financial analyses were developed and made available to producers via the WVSRP’s website.
A survey was developed in order to identify the socio-economic factors which influence the adoption of out-of-season breeding among sheep producers in WV (see attachment entitled “Sheep Producers’ Survey”). The survey included farmer-specific attributes, farm-specific attributes, and perceived characteristics of out-of-season breeding. Over 1,500 surveys were sent out via postal mail and email. In total, 150 responses were collected and analyzed.
The results of the technical and economic analysis of out-of-season breeding and the results of the sheep producers’ survey were presented at the 2013 Sheep Short Course in Franklin, WV (see attachment entitled “Survey Results”) and at the 2013 Extension Risk Management Education National Conference in Denver, CO (see attachment entitled “Benefits of OSB”). In addition, the results of the project are currently being written for submission for publication in a scholarly journal.
Activities involved in demonstrating the technical and economic feasibility were conducted in collaboration with the West Virginia Small Ruminant Project (WVSRP), county extension agents, and participating sheep producers. Six farms were selected as demonstration/study farms to generate and compare the technical and economic coefficients resulting from traditional and out-of-season breeding systems. To demonstrate the technical feasibility of out-of-season breeding, beginning in fall of year 1, 600 ewes were bred during the traditional breeding season following synchronization of estrus. Upon lambing in spring, lactating ewes were randomly assigned to one of three (3) groups within farm. Ewes in group 1 were weaned in April and rebred in May (OUTS; n~200). Ewes in the OUTS group lambed in the fall and were rebred the following spring. Ewes in group 2 were rebred during the traditional breeding season only (TRAD; n~200) in the fall of year 2. Ewes in group 3 were assigned to an accelerated breeding program and were bred during both the traditional breeding season and out-of-season (OUTSPLUS, n~200). OUTSPLUS ewes were bred during the out-of-season breeding period in the spring of year 1 while still lactating. Upon lambing in the fall of year 2, OUTSPLUS ewes were rebred in December. Ewes in group 3 lambed again in the spring of year 2 and were rebred during the non-breeding season (spring/summer of year 2). Lambs born in the spring (from ewes bred in fall of year 1 and OUTPLUS and TRAD ewes bred in the fall of year 2) were marketed in late summer and fall. Lambs born in the fall of year 2 (from OUTS and OUTPLUS ewes bred in the spring/summer of year 1) were marketed in the spring and summer of year 2.
The ewes used for this project were primarily Suffolk, Dorset, and Katahdin and ranged from two to five years old. All animals were managed on mixed grass legume pastures and were allowed ad libitum access to water and shade. Ewes, which had been separated from rams for at least one month prior to the beginning of the experiment, received a controlled internal drug releasing (CIDR) device five days prior to introduction of rams. Ewes were assigned randomly to receive a 3 mL injection of P.G. 600® [i.m., 240 IU equine chorionic gonadotropin (eCG) and 120 IU human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG)] at CIDR insert removal, one day prior to insert removal, or no further treatment. Rams, fitted with marking harnesses, were joined with ewes for approximately 40 days beginning at CIDR removal. To detect estrus, ewes were observed for the presence of raddle marks during 24 through 96 hours after ram introduction. Pregnancy diagnosis was conducted between 30 and 35 days after ram introduction to determine pregnancy to the first service and again between 50 and 55 days after ram introduction to determine pregnancy to the second service. Ewes were scanned via trans-rectal ultrasonography using an Aloka 500 (Corometrics Medical Systems, Wallingford, CT, USA) with a 7.5-mHz, linear trans-rectal probe.
The following variables were collected to determine the feasibility of out-of-season breeding: estrous response (number of ewes marked by rams), conception rate (number of ewes diagnosed pregnant as a percentage of ewes marked by rams), pregnancy rate (number of ewes diagnosed pregnant as a percentage of all ewes exposed to rams), prolificacy (lambs born per ewe lambing), and lambing rate (lambs born per ewe exposed).
To demonstrate the economic feasibility of out-of-season breeding, all activities associated with rearing/managing ewes and their lambs were recorded. The cost associated with each activity was estimated and average price received for lambs derived from each breeding program was recorded (Table 2).
To identify the major factors influencing willingness to adopt out-of-season breeding and management practices, information on producers and farm characteristics and their perception of out-of-season breeding were collected using a survey method. The survey was sent out via postal mail and email to over 1,500 sheep producers. Only 150 responses were received and analyzed.
Increasing awareness of the benefits of out-of-season breeding is inherent in the various methods used to achieve objectives 1 and 2. Briefly, on-farm trials were used to compare and demonstrate to producers the technical and economic feasibility of out-of season breeding. Conferences and workshops were used to present and discuss findings with producers and stakeholders. The results of the technical and economic analysis of out-of-season breeding will also be summarized and published via the WVSRP quarterly newsletter.
The trends in the data were similar to what is reported in the literature. For example, the estrous responses, conception rates, pregnancy rates, prolificacy, and lambing rates were all lower in ewes bred out-of-season compared to ewes bred during the natural breeding season (see Table 1). Although fertility of ewes bred out-of-season was lower than that of ewes bred in season, the returns from fall-born lambs were significantly higher than those of their spring-born counterparts (see Table 2). Additionally, the cost of excess feed for ewes bred out-of-season was outweighed by the returns from the fall-born lambs. The difference in market prices of fall-born lambs and spring-born lambs was significant in the northeastern region of the U.S. and enabled sheep producers to continue to be profitable year-round as they bred their ewes both in season and out-of-season. In conclusion, placing ewes on an accelerated lambing program, in which a proportion of ewes will have three lamb crops in two years as a result of increased productivity of the ewe, was both technically and economically feasible for the majority of sheep producers in WV, due to the higher market prices of the fall-born lambs.
The technical feasibility of out-of-season breeding depended on several operation-specific attributes, such as the cost and availability of feeds, facilities, cash flow, labor and management resources, other agricultural enterprises on the farm, the market that was being targeted, and market lamb prices. Most producers that participated in this project found their operations feasible to employ the out-of-season breeding system based on their operation-specific attributes mentioned above.
The economic feasibility of out-of-season breeding at individual farms depended on variables such as market availability, differences in prices, and predator losses, all which have different impacts on the cost of production between lambing seasons. Overall, most sheep producers reported receiving positive profits from both fall-lambing and spring-lambing systems, with fall-lambing being more profitable due to the higher market prices.
The level of adoption of out-of-season breeding among sheep producers in WV was evaluated. The sheep producer survey revealed that only 30% of sheep producers in WV currently practice out-of-season breeding (Figure 1). Of those that do breed ewes out-of-season, 90% were at least satisfied with the results of the production system (Figure 2). The factors that had the most influence on producers’ decisions to adopt out-of-season breeding were higher market availability and prices, less labor required, fewer losses due to predators and parasites, and higher overall profitability.
This project not only led to an increase in profitability of sheep producers in WV, but also contributed to more environmentally sustainable production systems in the state. Additionally, the project demonstrated that the breeding season of a proportion of ewes could be successfully shifted from spring-lambing to fall-lambing, taking advantage of higher lamb prices and lower mortality rates due to predators and parasites. Furthermore, fall-lambing could be used as part of an accelerated lambing program.
From the project, we also became aware of the factors which influence the majority of sheep producers’ decisions to adopt out-of-season breeding, and we plan to discuss these issues with the producers that have not employed this production system in an effort to increase the profitability of their enterprises and the productivity of their flocks.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
The results of the project were presented at several annual meetings, including two Sheep Short Courses in WV (see attachments entitled “OSB powerpoint” and “Survey Results”), the Extension Risk Management Education national meeting in Denver, CO (see attachment entitled “Benefits of OSB”), and two Animal Science meetings (see attached references). The results were also made available online via the WV Small Ruminant Project’s website at http://sheepandgoats.wvu.edu/.
In addition to presenting the outcome of the project at meetings, we have had several informal discussions with the sheep producers we work with. When we traveled to each farm, we explained the details of the project, the rationale behind the project, and the expected outcome. Additionally, we answered any questions the producers asked.
The economic feasibility of out-of-season breeding was evaluated and compared to that of in-season breeding (Table 2). Variables such as market availability, differences in prices, losses due to predators and parasites, and feed costs all impacted the cost of production between lambing seasons. However, the majority of sheep producers reported that although they had higher management costs for fall-lambing, the returns from fall-born lambs outweighed the extra cost associated with the production system. Additionally, one producer targeted certain ethnic markets so that the price for his fall-born lambs was further increased. Overall, out-of-season breeding was more profitable than traditional breeding for sheep producers in WV.
The response of farmers to the project was positive. We were able to successfully shift the breeding season of all or a portion of the ewes, resulting in an increased productivity of the ewes. Farmers were able to take advantage of higher lamb prices for the fall-born lambs as compared to the traditional spring-born lambs.
For those sheep producers that have not adopted out-of-season breeding, we plan to discuss the outcome of this project with them in hopes of impacting their decision on this production system.
Additionally, the sheep producers that participated in this study continue to breed all or a portion of their flock out-of-season. Using the results of our study as a basis for their decisions, they continue to take advantage of the higher market prices for fall-born lambs and lower losses of animals due to predation and parasitism, both of which are added benefits of breeding ewes outside of their normal breeding season.
Areas needing additional study
In addition to the outreach activities that have been completed for this project, we would like to continue talking to sheep producers not only in WV, but also in the surrounding areas about the benefits of breeding their flock outside the normal breeding season.