Little improvement in the productivity of the US sheep has occurred over the last three decades in part due to limited access to and use of genetically evaluated breeding stock. The National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP) recently adopted the Lambplan genetic evaluation system which provides producers faster access to a larger number of economically important traits. However, only 4 flocks from WV and surrounding states were enrolled in NSIP in 2014. To address this problem we conducted 7 workshops cross WV and PA specifically addressing the issue of selection decisions and approaches to selecting and evaluating animals. Additionally, we presented information on approaches to selection and use of genetically evaluated animals in 6 general producer meetings. The workshops and meetings were supported by at least 47 on-farm visits in which elements discussed at the presentations were reinforced and demonstrations were conducted. To increase access of producers to genetically evaluated animals we conducted 5 ram test and sale including testing and sale of animals from farms that were enrolled on Lambplan. Over 50 farmers reported changes in knowledge skills and attitudes. These included a greater appreciation of the benefits of selecting animals based on genetic values, what traits could be improved, what variables need to be measured and a greater awareness of the factors to consider when purchasing breeding stock. Six (6) new farmers enrolled in Lambplan more than doubling the number of producers that were enrolled in the region prior to the project. One (1) producer reported significant improvement in the growth rate of his lambs by continuously using genetically evaluated breeding stock and, performance of two (2) of his rams were assessed to be in the top 10 in Lambplan for weaning weight. The results of this project were communicated to farmers through field visits and at presentations made at the ram test. After the expiration of the project we plan to conduct field days at producers who have enrolled in Lambplan so that other producers can hear about their experiences. Therefore, the project was effective in not only increasing the knowledge of skills used in selecting animals but also increased the availability of genetically evaluated animals.
There is overwhelming evidence that selection based on the use of genetically evaluated animals increases the productivity of livestock. For example, in the beef industry, the yearling weight of Angus calves reported in the Angus Herd Improvement Records increased by 4.8 lbs or 0.5% per year between 1991 and 2010 (AHIR,2011). In sheep, Notter (2008) noted that the 120d post weaning EBV for NSIP enrolled rams born in 2008 was 3.7 lbs more than rams born in 1996, equivalent to a 0.3% annual increase in postweaning weight due to genetic improvement. In another study, Thomas et al. (2000), found that lambs born to NSIP enrolled Suffolk rams with an average EPD of +2.6 were 3.8 lbs heavier at 120-d than non-NSIP enrolled rams. This increase in weight gain translated to an increase in revenue of almost $650.00 per 100 lambs. Currently, the NSIP/Lambplan genetic evaluation is capable of providing EBVS for 20 traits (9 weight traits, 5 wool traits, 2 body composition traits, 3 reproduction traits and 1 for parasite resistance) and 4 indexes (Notter, 2011). Therefore, producers have more opportunities to select animals and build a flock that is best suited to their economic environment. In so doing they can increase productivity and produce a product that is more in line with industry requirements while minimizing the cost of production through reduced input requirements. The benefits of using sheep with superior breeding values will only accrue to producers if there is greater access to and use of genetically evaluated animals. Currently, No Suffolk, Dorset or Hampshire flocks are enrolled in NSIP in WV, PA, and MD, and only one Suffolk and one Dorset breeder are enrolled with NSIP in VA (http://www.nsip.org/.), which makes access to animals with known genetic values limited and potentially expensive. Therefore, the focus of this project was to increase enrollment of flocks in the NSIP/Lambplan program and to enhance the use of genetic information in selection decisions. Based on increases in weight gain observed in NSIP evaluated rams (Thomas et al., 2000), using genetically evaluated animals, greater use of genetically evaluated animals will result in a minimum of $200,000 in additional revenue per year from the sale of lambs and will reduce the cost of production as animals better suited for our environment are used in flocks. These benefits are consistent with the goals of increasing the numbers of animals evaluated and used in commercial flocks and increasing flock productivity by 2% set by NSIP and the American Sheep Industry (ASI), respectively.
AIPL (Animal Improvement Program Laboratory), USDA. 2011. Trend in milk BV for Holstein. Accessed online: http://aipl.arsusda.gov/ eval/summary/trend.cfm?R_Menu=H O.m#StartBody
AHIR (Angus Herd Improvement Records), American Angus Association. 2011. Performance/AHIR/BRS. Accessed online: http://www.angus. org/ performance/Default.aspx
Notter, D.R. 2008. Suffolk NSIP Notebook, August 13, 2008. Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences, Virginia Tech. No. 9 (Accessed March 6, 2012 at http://nsip.org/?page_id=177)
Notter, D. R. 2011. The NSIP EBVs in NSIP EBV Notebook. Accessed online http://nsip.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/NSIP-EBV-Descriptions-FINAL-1.16.15.pdf (March 6, 2012).
Thomas, D. L., Y. M. Berger, B. C. McKusick, R. G. Gottfredson, R. Zelinsky, and G. Rosa. 2000. A comparison of market lambs sired by Suffolk rams of United Kingdom or UNITED STATES origin. Proc. 48th Annual Spooner Sheep Day, Dept. Animal Sci., Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison. pp. 10-15.
Objective 1: To increase access to and use of genetically evaluated breeding stock
Objective 2: To increase awareness and use of genetic information in selection decisions
The objectives of our project were to increase use of genetic information in selection decisions and to increase access to and use of genetically evaluated animals. To achieve the goal of increasing use of genetic information we implemented a holistic educational program involving the following:
- Generating awareness of the program through mailing information out to over 200 farmers in WV, PA and MD and hosting two (2) an informational meeting in the first quarter of the first year of the project.
- Writing and publishing an article on our website about the project and its benefits and conducting field visits to 12 producers to discuss the project
- Conducting seven (7) workshops over the next 2 years throughout WV, MD and PA. These workshops were done in conjunction with experts including three four that was conducted by the Director of the National Sheep Improvement program.
The workshops all included elements of the following:
- Approaches to selection of breeding animals –
- Benefits of knowing the genetic value of animals using genetic evaluation in the selection of animals
- Developing Breeding Objectives- how to? What factors must be considered in developing breeding objectives?
- Traits of economic relevance
- Traits and Indices evaluated in flocks/animals enrolled in NSIP/Lambplan-what traits and indices measure
- What data must be collected
- How traits impact productivity and profitability of the sheep enterprise?
- The NSIP/Lamplan system- including enrolling, collecting and inputting data, generating reports, interpreting breeding values, using breeding values to make selection decisions, Marketing your genetically evaluated animal
- Our educational program also included presentations made at various producer meetings and conferences including the annual WV Women in Agriculture Conference. The linking of presentations and workshops to annual conferences or previously scheduled producer meetings allowed us to use the contacts and advertising mechanisms of these organizations to reach a larger audience.
- The awareness and interest were assessed by the number of persons interested in getting more information, willingness to enroll in Lambplan, interest in accessing genetic evaluated animals.
To increase access to genetically evaluated animals we implemented three (3) strategies:
- We encouraged and supported the most active producers to enroll in Lambplan. The supported included taking them through the steps of enrollment to install the software on their computers, acquiring flock ID, training and assisting producers to develop NSIP animal ID with flock ID, inputting historical data, submission of information and interpreting results. Subsequently, we provided advice on additional data to be collected and recorded.
- We partnered with West Virginia University (WVU) and the WV Extension Service and conducted five (5) ram-test and sale with a greater emphasis on consigning rams from producers that were already in the Lambplan system. WVU also independently purchased rams from enrolled flocks enrolled in Lambplan and made the progeny of these animals available to producers.
- The project supported producers in the acquisition of rams with known breeding values.
Our project resulted in six (6) new producers enrolling in Lambplan. Prior to our project only 4 farms across WV, MD and PA actively assessed the genetic value of their animals. Additionally, over 50 commercial producers indicated that they h were interested in getting “the numbers” on the animals in order to inform their selection decisions. Producers were particularly interested in the ability to select for tolerance/resistance to internal parasites.
More than 25 rams originating from farms enrolled in Lambplan and with known breeding values were tested and made available to producers to be purchased.
Three (3) producers from within WV purchased animals from flocks enrolled in Lambplan and known to possess premium genetics.
Seedstock producers represent a small proportion of sheep producers and in WV, and only 2 producers possessed animals with known breeding values prior to the start of the project. Therefore, getting 6 new producers to enroll and 3 or 4 to continue to genetically evaluate their animals was a significant achievement. Additionally, a larger number of producers are now aware of the tremendous impact of using genetically evaluated animals can have on the productivity of their animals and more producers are interested in obtaining and using genetic values in their selection decisions. One producer who enrolled in Lambplan – Mark Teets was assessed to possess sheep genetics that ranked in the top 10 percentile in growth traits which resulted in significant interest in and value of his animals.
The project also contributed to a significant increase in the availability and a wider genetic base of animals with known genetic values. This increase in availability of improved animal genetics and increased knowledge of producers on how to make better selection decisions will contribute to the enhanced productivity of producers in WV and surrounding states.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
To increase knowledge on the use of genetic evaluation in selection decisions and of the NSIP/Lambplan system we conducted 7 workshops cross WV and PA specifically addressing the issue of selection decisions and approaches to selecting and evaluating animals in 2-3 general producer seminars conducted annually. The workshops were supported by at least 47 on-farm visits in which elements discussed at the workshops were reinforced and demonstrations were conducted. Workshops and presentations were advertised through sending announcements and fliers through our email list. Additionally we partnered with organizations or producer groups to deliver presentations and workshops at there regularly scheduled events which they advertised through popular press and social media. Examples of announcements are presented below.
The workshops included a discussion of the following:
- Economically relevant traits. Producers were encouraged to discuss the characteristics of their animals that influence their productivity and profitability
- Approaches to selection of breeding animals – In this section we discussed the pros and cons of selection based on performance/phenotype, pedigree and progeny and the benefits of using expected progeny differences. The NSIP publication “The ram buying guide: was reviewed and selecting the optimum animal for your production system using NSIP/Lambplan ranking of animals was demonstrated.
- Benefits of knowing the genetic value of animals
- Developing Breeding Objectives- Attendees were taken through the process of how to develop breeding objectives and what factors must be considered. We utilized different production scenarios or production and marketing environments to discuss how that will influence an individual producer’s breeding objectives and traits that they should prioritize.
- Traits and Indices evaluated in flocks/animals enrolled in NSIP/Lambplan- Explanations were provided on the different traits and indices assessed in Lambplan. For the major traits producers were informed on what data/measurements must be collected and when it should be collected.
- The NSIP/Lamplan system- This section of the workshop focused on how a producer might enroll in Lambplan and the financial and technical support provided by NSIP. Demonstrations of collecting and inputting data, generating reports and interpreting Expected Breeding Values of different traits and indices
- How to use Lambplan reports- Discussion on how to utilize the reports to make selection decisions to meet production goals or improve traits of interest was discussed.
Examples of presentations used in workshops and producers meetings and support documents provided to producers are given below
These workshops were conducted jointly with Russell Burgett Program Director of NSIP and other scientist from Virginia Tech. University of Rhode Island and Agriculture Educators from WV and PA.
A list of the major workshops and presentations including dates and attendance is presented in the table below.
To increase access of producers to genetically evaluated animals we conducted 5 ram test and sale. we encouraged the testing and sale of animals from farms that were on lamb plan. West Virginia Univesity as a partner purchased rams with known genetic values, from breeders that were registered in Lambplan. The offspring of these rams were made available to producers thereby further increasing access of producers to genetically evaluated animals.
Three (3) articles were also published in newsletters highlighting the benefits of selecting replacement animals based on genetic information.
List of Major Workshops and Presentations Conducted
Farmers reported changes in the following:
1. The potential benefits to productivity that could be derived from selecting animals based on genetic values.
2. What traits could be improved and what variables need to be measured and what records to keep. Most farmers indicated that they could make better decisions from weighing their animals at key points in the production cycle. This required identifying their animals which in turn supported recording and analyzing other types of data.
3. Producers indicated they were more likely to ask suppliers of breeding stock more information that would allow them to assess the genetic merit of the animals.
The practice we introduced was new to many farmers and required the implementation of other practices including individual identification system, recording performance on several traits and inputting data into a computerized system. These challenges did not prevent 6 farmers from actually enrolling in Lambplan with a focus on genetically evaluating their animals. One (1) producer reported significant improvement in growth rate of his lambs by continuously using genetically evaluated animal and performance of some of his rams were assessed to be in the top 10 in Lambplan. This producer further invested more than $50,000 in sheep handling and data recording system to assist in tracking performance of his animals. He reported significant interest in his animals and plans to establish a website to market his animals.
Even more producers benefited from the knowledge of knowing how to use genetic information in their selection decisions, the selection process, tips on buying rams and from greater access to genetically evaluated superior animals.
One producer who had previously enrolled in Lambplan – was assessed to possess sheep genetics that ranked in the top 10 percentile which resulted in significant interest in his animals.
More than 50% of producers showed significant interest in using genetically evaluated animals to impart resistance/tolerance to internal parasites in their flock.
This project was largely successful. Seedstock producers represent a small proportion of sheep producers, therefore getting 6 new producers to enroll and 3 or 4 to continue to genetically evaluate their animals was a significant milestone. Additionally, a larger number of producers are now aware of the tremendous impact using genetically evaluated animals can have on the productivity of their animals. Moreover, they have greater access to genetically evaluated animals and are now more familiar with the traits to consider.
The approach of linking our presentations and workshops to regularly scheduled producer meetings, workshops and conferences allowed us to utilise their advertising mechanisms and to reach a larger audience. Additionally it removed a significant amount of coordination effort from the project leaders allowing us to conduct more outreach and training activities.
Additionally, the strategy of encouraging the consignment of animals with known genetic values to already existing ram test and sale enhanced awareness and distribution of these animals to an already engaged audience.
Our approach should have included greater opportunities for one on one consultations visits with producers which would have enhanced learning related to the actual use of the Lambplan software, how to input data and interpret results. Including workshops at Purebred Shows and Sales could also have created greater awareness among this very influential component of the industry that has for some time focused on phenotype and less on genetic values.
Further educational efforts aimed at enhancing producers knowledge of selection based on genetic values are needed. The benefits of using genetically evaluated animals would only be fully realized when a large proportion of producers begin to demand genetically evaluated animals and utilize these evaluations in their selection decisions.