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Three of the major challenges facing the American sheep industry today include (1) depleting wool prices, (2) increasing resistance by the major internal parasite in sheep, Haemonchus contortus, to all forms of chemical control (dewormers), and (3) the health challenge of scrapie, a prion disease in sheep. This research project addressed all three challenges.
The Katahdin Hair Sheep breed was selected for this project because it produces no wool and does not need shearing. The return to most sheep producers from the annual sale of wool is typically less than the cost of shearing. Meanwhile, the price of lamb meat is typically strong and rising. Hair sheep are known as a single purpose sheep or a meat sheep. The researchers selected Katahdins with good body conformation and sound production records. The ewes that formed the base research flock were purchased from reputable breeders across the country.
Katahdin hair sheep have the strong potential to take advantage of the factors of low wool prices and a strong market for meat. They have good mothering instincts, are good grazers, are able to breed out of season to capture high market prices when supply of lambs are typically low, and are a low-maintenance breed of sheep. They are known as the sheep breed whose time has come. Katahdins can fit on a farm as a primary enterprise or one that is supplemental to other farm enterprises. They are easy keepers for novice or experienced sheep producers.
Techniques to test for resistance to internal parasite infection and the prion disease scrapie were used in this project. Selective crossbreeding was used to produce a strain of hair sheep with improved natural resistance to Haemonchus contortus and genetic resistance to scrapie. An unexpected spinoff for this project was the development of the technique by sheep research workers in South Africa that made monitoring parasite infection levels easier for farmers. This technique is known by the name FAMACHA. An investigator of this project became one of the few in the northeastern United States to be certified for training producers on how to use this on-farm procedure to monitor internal parasite load.
In cooperation with Dr. Katherine O’Rourke, of the USDA Agriculture Research Service based at Washington State University, this project used genetic testing techniques to select Katahdin sheep with greater resistance to scrapie. This valuable approach offers the opportunity along with the USDA Scrapie Eradication Program to rid the sheep industry of this disease.
The project also used selective breeding on the farm to provide the genetic base for producing a more acceptable lamb carcass with increased slaughter weight, better muscling, and greater leanness for today’s market. Crossbreeding was used to improve carcass characteristics including size of the carcass, leg muscle size, and increased loin muscling. The crossbreeding also resulted in hybrid vigor with faster growing and heavier muscled lambs.
The project also provided the opportunity to investigate the biological mechanism of how animals are more resistant to Haemonchus contortus.
The breeding stock developed from the project (ewes and rams) were distributed to 10 selected shepherds in the Northeast through an application process in August of 2005. Since that distribution, the researchers have worked with these select producers by providing information, assistance, materials, monitoring equipment and special training. Comments from these producers may be found in the appendix.
The Katahdin hair sheep breed has grown in popularity on an international scale and is now one of the largest sheep registries (based on the number of registered sheep) in the United States. The producers who received the Katahdin breeding stock from this project have excellent opportunities to produce high quality meat lambs. In addition, the sheep producers have the potential to greatly benefit from the unique genetic features by selling offspring as breeding stock.
The Katahdin Hair Sheep Upgrade Project was designed to provide the genetic base for more profitable production of lamb using sustainable agricultural techniques. The end product provided an improved hair sheep that is resistant to a major internal parasite, requires less management, and has lower input costs than traditional sheep production, while producing a carcass size that meets today’s lamb market need.
This project provided the sheep genetic base to Northeast farmers for producing lamb meat and the opportunity to add significant income from the sale of breeding stock both nationally and internationally. The project upgraded the Katahdin Hair Sheep, a breed developed in Maine in the 1950s. The project used genetics of Suffolk, Gulf Coast Native, Dorper, Dorset, Florida Native and East Fresian breeds of sheep with the Katahdin to produce a larger, more acceptable carcass. Our goal was to produce a sheep that will not require shearing, docking, crutching, or extensive foot care; be resistant to scrapie; and have natural resistance to internal parasites. The upgraded sheep was selected to produce lambs using rotational or intensive grazing systems and locally produced concentrates (grains).
Three performance targets included:
(1) By the use of field days, written articles, slide and other presentations, provide 1,600 current and new sheep farmers with information about the potential of using improved Katahdin sheep as a farm enterprise. Informed farmers will learn the advantages of rotational grazing, the use of production records, the importance of the scrapie certification program and the features of a proactive health program.
(2) Through a defined crossbreeding plan and using a detailed selection process, upgrade the Katahdin sheep to be parasite resistant and produce lambs that have a more market acceptable carcass weight.
(3) At the end of the project, approximately 10 farms will be provided with a starter flock of upgraded Katahdin ewes and ram to produce and sell meat lambs and breeding stock.
Sixteen hundred (1600) current sheep farmers and those considering sheep who will receive information about hair sheep, rotational grazing, use of production records, the scrapie certification program and proactive sheep health programs.
At this time, we estimate that we reached approximately 1,500 current sheep farmers through field days, tours, articles, television feature stories, educational displays, presentations and workshops. This is a bit short of our original goal.
We are unable to fully document meeting all of the original performance targets at this time. These original targets included:
20 farmers have added hair sheep to their farming operation. We know that at least eight farm families have added Katahdins to their operations.
30 improved their efforts in using rotational grazing on their sheep farm. This target was not fully measured as parasite resistance and scrapie resistance became a priority for the project.
20 began the use of a production record system. At least ten farms are using a production record system because of their involvement in this project.
20 joined the scrapie certification program. The number of sheep farms in the Northeast participating in the volunteer scrapie free certification program have increased substantially over the past seven years. However, other factors such as a major push by the USDA Scrapie Eradication Program influenced this increase.
20 began a customized preventative health care program. This goal was reached and surpassed as over 200 farmers received training in the use of FAMACHA technique of monitoring as a result of this research project.
Through a defined breeding program and using a detailed selection process, the Katahdin Hair Sheep will be upgraded to produce a larger, more market acceptable lamb carcass weight and have an increased resistance to internal parasites. We have accomplished this target and have proof with our production records, muscle measurements, and parasite monitoring records.
By the end of the project, at least 60 breeding ewes will be produced and ready for distribution to selected producers in the Northeast. Applications will be received from at least 25 farms and 10 farms will be selected to receive a group of upgraded breeding animals for production of lamb meat and breeding stock. This selected group of farmers will also commit to participation in the formation of a group breeding and marketing program. This target was reached. At this time however, only 8 producers remain in the project.
A major focus of this project was to breed for and select breeding stock that grew efficiently, females that had strong mothering skills, and rams and ewes that had natural protection from expressing the clinical symptoms of infection by the barber pole parasite, Haemonchus contortus.
Lambs were weighed at birth and at 30, 60, 90 and 120 days. Using standard formulas lamb weights were corrected for type of birth (single, twin, etc), gender, and age of ewe to create an index value for each lamb for each weighing period. Particular value was placed on the 60-day and 120-day weight periods. Animals showing the best growth index at 60 days were judged to be from ewes with the highest milk production, while lambs with highest indexes between 60 and 120 days were judged to be the best lamb genetics at using available feed/environment for growth. Breeding stock was selected from the top one-third of the for these growth measurements.
Lambs for breeding were also selected only from ewes that showed excellent mothering skills at lambing. Ewes at lambing were scored as either “good mother” or “cull.” Only excellent mothers continued in the breeding flock.
Parasite resistance: A major selection value for this project was selecting breeding stock that showed protection from infection by the barber pole parasite, Haemonchus contortus. The parasite attaches to the lining of the digestive tract and consumes blood from the host. As the infection increases the red blood cell count of the host decreases and the animal may develop anemia and die. As the adult parasite thrives in the host it can release as many as 5,000 eggs per day via fecal material. Levels of infection can be measured by monitoring numbers of parasite eggs in fecal material and either directly or indirectly measuring red blood cell counts of the host.
Our procedure for selecting breeding stock resistant to infection by the barber pole worm was to place animals on pasture known to be infected with parasite and monitor the animal response (fecal egg counts of the parasite and red blood cell counts).
Direct red blood cells (RBC) counts were measured using a standard microscope counting technique. Indirect RBC counting was done using the new FAMACHA technique. Fecal egg counts were done using the Mc Master suspension and counting procedure.
In addition to the biological aspects of this study, field days and practical workshops were used to engage the target audience. Numerous sites were used to attract participants and presentations were made during different seasons of the year. PowerPoint presentations, handouts, displays, and discussions were used at events. Recordkeeping templates were created and distributed to all participants to encourage application of specific monitoring and management techniques. Practical information was a key component of every presentation. Much of the information disseminated could be applied in any sheep or goat operation and was not limited to Katahdin Hair Sheep. Our message was to promote natural parasite resistance in flocks and herds, record keeping, customized health program for flocks and herds, and sustainability of resources.
From the very first breeding to the last, we have been pleased and pleasantly surprised at the high genetic heritability seen with breeding for resistance to parasite infection. This result is even more important now than when the project began since more and more sheep producers are finding that the chemical control of the parasite Haemonchus contortus is becoming less effective. Interest in and about the project has grown as we made presentations about the project and its objectives in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York.
By the end of Year Two, we produced 14 breeding animals that tested to be resistant to infection by the parasite Haemonchus contortus. By the summer of 2005 we had approximately 100 animals that have tested to be naturally resistant.
At the end of Year Five, we had a lambing percentage of 200% live animals (at weaning), that had an average weight gain of 0.60 pounds per day on grass with some grain supplement (creep fed). We have been able to demonstrate that it is possible to increase the level of parasite resistance and establish more clearly that selected breeding programs can be used as a powerful tool in controlling round worm infection.
One of the major breakthroughs that occurred during the second year of the study was learning about the FAMACHA technique for measuring the level of parasite infection. Other techniques require special expensive equipment and a great deal of time and practice. This new technique (FAMACHA) developed in South Africa requires no microscope or special equipment and virtually anyone with good eyesight can be trained to be skilled in the technique.
We recognized the importance of the FAMACHA technique and Professor Settlemire was trained in the use of the procedure. Currently he is one of the few individuals in the Northeast who is certified to train farmers and others in the procedure. This technique has not only made the work for this project more efficient but over 200 farmers, extension agents and research workers have been trained as part of this project on how to use the procedure. We surveyed participants of FAMACHA trainings in the northeast region late in 2005.
*1600 farmers learn about the project through field days, written articles, public presentations, newsletters and the web page. We have not yet met this milestone of 1600 producers. We were not able to get a web site up and working as we had expected. However, we estimated that we have reached approximately 1,500 producers and interested individuals with information from the project.
*300 farmers attend on-farm field days to learn about hair sheep and the production systems used in this project. We were able to hold five field days at which approximately 190 farmers attended (total). However, we hosted at least three tours of the research flock at which over 100 farmers (and farm couples) learned about the research project. We hosted the Katahdin Hair Sheep International Gathering in 2003. A total of approximately 100 people participated in some aspect of the three-day educational event. In October 2006, FAMACHA, using Fecal Egg Counts and understanding the biology of sheep parasites were a featured part of the Maine Shepherd School in which about 75 shepherds from the region took part. In 2007, approximately 100 individuals were certified in the use of the FAMACHA technique at special trainings held in May, June and July.
* 200 people will learn about the project by presentations at workshops, shepherd schools and sheep meetings. We believe this goal was accomplished. We had articles published in the Shepherd magazine, a magazine with a national readership. Presentations were given at 19 different locations. Educational displays were presented at agricultural fairs and sheep and wool festivals with posters and handouts.
* By the end of year two, a larger-framed body and increased resistance to internal parasites will be incorporated into the breeding ewes. This milestone was accomplished and the animals have improved each successive year.
* 50 farmers request information as a result of reading articles. We are unable to document this milestone at this time. However, articles about the project appeared in the Shepherd magazine, one of the most popular sheep producer magazines in the country. The editor of Shepherd magazine attended the Katahdin Hair Sheep International Gathering in 2003 held in Maine. He interviewed several participants.
* 60 will request information as a result of reading the web page. A web page is under development. This milestone has not yet been reached. Our hope is to make the information from this project available to interested parties by posting it on an existing web site sponsored by Cooperative Extension or the Maine Sheep Breeders Association.
* 20 will begin some form of production record program. We are unable to document this milestone at this time.
* 30 will begin or improve their use of rotational grazing. We are unable to document this milestone at this time.
* 20 farmers will join the national scrapie certification program. We are unable to document this milestone at this time. We know that several sheep producers have become registered to participate in the scrapie program in Maine over the last three years. However, we do not have proof showing it was our project that helped them make that decision.
* 60 farmers will request application material to receive a group of the upgraded Katahdin ewes developed by the project. This milestone was partially reached during the summer of 2005 when 25 farmers applied to receive the research sheep. Since that time an additional 5 farmers were interested in participating in the project.
* 25 farmers will complete the application requested breeding sheep, agreeing to participate in the group breeding program, become part of NSIP and join the scrapie certification program. This milestone was partially reached by 10 shepherds. Some still need to register with the NSIP and their state scrapie program.
* Ten selected farmers received mini-flocks (9 ewes and a ram each). They have formed a group which will continue to upgrade their respective flocks so as to market meat and breeding stock. This milestone was met in 2005.
Outreach to shepherds was a continual focus throughout the project. The project was featured on two television stations in Portland, Maine on at least three different dates. Workshops and presentations were conducted that explained the project. Field days that featured grazing systems, local feed usage, parasite resistance, marketing, sheep for profit, sheep health and FAMACHA training were presented throughout the duration of the project. Special workshops in fecal egg counting methods (FEC), proper use of a microscope, and the FAMACHA techniques were provided to selected farm families that received starter flocks of research sheep. FAMACHA trainings were conducted with over 200 farm families with sheep and/or goat enterprises being certified in the Northeast.
Educational displays were created and presented to sheep and goat producers with titles such as: Steps to Effectively Manage Internal Parasites; Steps to Involving Your Flock/Herd in the Scrapie Program; Let’s Do Our Part to Eradicate Scrapie; Protecting Your Flock from Diseases through Isolation; Genetic Testing for Scrapie Resistance in Sheep; Foot Care of Sheep – Foot Scald & Foot Rot; Foot Care in Sheep – Trimming & Foot Bathing; Using the Pearson Square to Formulate Simple Diets; and Distribution Chart for Marketing Sheep & Goats.
In 2007 alone, three FAMACHA trainings were conducted for sheep & goat producers and a presentation explaining the Katahdin Upgrade Research Project and findings was presented to over 100 participants at the 2007 Cornell Sheep & Goat Symposium in Ithaca, New York.
Additional Project Outcomes
Impacts of Results/Outcomes
A major impact of this project was the distribution of the animals obtained from the breeding in this project to farmers. This occurred in the summer of 2005. Ten farmers received a group of ten breeding animals (ewe lambs, brood ewes and a ram) with unique genetics. Three farmers dropped out of the project due to personal/business reasons and one was added. These sheep were resistant to infection by Haemonchus contortus, the cause of the number one problem in the sheep industry. The sheep producers who received the animals now have the opportunity to not only produce high quality meat animals without chemical intervention but also have the opportunity to sell breeding stock. We believe the offspring which are resistant to infection will be in high demand and offer excellent opportunities to have a sheep enterprise that will add significantly to their farm income.
See the appendix for Sheep Health Survey results conducted with individuals who participated in FAMACHA trainings – December 2005
See the appendix for survey results of seven (7) Star Flock Participant – December 2007
We feel the long-term contributions of this project will include both farm profitability and environmental stewardship.
In regards to farm profitability, sheep and goat producers applying the suggested monitoring methods for internal parasite infection will save time, money and materials by decreasing the usage of expensive anthelmintics on only those animals that need treatment. In addition, by using the monitoring methods and keeping records of individual animal’s performance and resistance farmers will be able to identify and select those animals that will be most productive in the long run for specific farming systems. This will be useful in culling animals that don’t meet the standards, in selecting replacement ewes for the flock, and in obtaining productive and naturally resistant rams for their operation and situation. If farmers can save time and money in any aspect of their enterprise, they are more apt to improve their bottom line.
In regards to environmental stewardship, farmers who can reduce outside inputs such as unneeded medicines help to improve their flock. In selecting naturally resistant animals, flocks and herds will be built and maintained for productivity and profitability. This project also promoted rotational, managed intensive grazing and use of local grains for livestock rations. These management decisions will in the long-run promote good stewardship and sustainability. Small ruminants have a useful and beneficial role to play on farms in the Northeast. They utilize forages and brush that range from top quality to marginal and can improve fields, pastures and soils.
Areas needing additional study
With the experience behind us of this research project, the areas of study that need additional research attention include the genetic aspect of natural parasite infection, the biology of natural parasite infection, the genetic aspect of foot scald and rot, and the lifecycle and biology of internal parasites.