Identifying ewes resistant to gastrointestinal parasitic worms during gestation and lactation

Final Report for OS09-045

Project Type: On-Farm Research
Funds awarded in 2009: $14,866.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Southern
State: Arkansas
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Joan Burke
USDA, Agricultural Research Service
Expand All

Project Information


Selecting sheep resistant to gastrointestinal nematodes will diminish parasite challenges in pastures, leading to reduced infections. The relationship between fecal egg counts (FEC) in the ewe during lambing and her offspring was examined. There was a positive relationship between FEC of lambs at 90 days of age and dams at 30 days post-lambing, and FEC of lambs at 120 days of age and dams at 60 days post-lambing. There was a negative relationship between FEC of dams at 60 days post-lambing and weight of offspring at 60 days of age. These relationships will help develop selection strategies for producers.


Sheep are an ideal species for small farms, especially those interested in organic or forage based production. However, an alarming increase in resistance of parasites to chemical dewormers has occurred. Long-term sustainability depends on developing alternative parasite control. Selecting sheep with resistance to parasites has the potential to produce animals that are less susceptible to parasites and to diminish the parasite challenge in their environment.

The key management issue for raising small ruminants in the Southeastern US is the barberpole worm (Haemonchus contortus), a nematode inhabiting the stomach (abomasum). This parasite causes extensive losses due to anemia, leading to death and decreased weight gain.

There are two approaches that producers can use to control parasites: management practices to minimize level of infestation and selection of sheep that are genetically resistant to worms. Management practices have been explored (SSARE grants LS05-177, LS04-164, LS02-143; However, practicality of these practices on small farms common in southeastern US is not always feasible. Using sheep that are genetically resistant to parasites is an option that can be used by both smaller and larger operations.

There are two periods when sheep are more susceptible to parasites; as young lambs (6 weeks to 8 months) before immune resistance develops and as ewes during late pregnancy and early lactation (peri-parturient period).

Producers in this study raise Katahdin sheep and have worked with the National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP;; to develop an EPD (expected progeny difference) to identify parasite resistance in lambs. Heritability of parasite resistance is moderate in the lamb, but it is not known if selection for parasite resistance in the lamb is genetically related to parasite resistance in the ewe. There is little known on parasite resistance in the peri-parturient ewe.

The lactating ewe, during this time of nutritional stress, is the major source of worm infestation on pastures. In this study, we propose to look at resistance in the lamb and in the ewe and begin determining if progress can be made in identifying genetics that are highly resistant to the parasites during the peri-parturient period. If resistance in a ewe is correlated to that of offspring, animal selection can be made at an early age and at a more logical time of sample collection (it is more difficult to collect from ewes at a time when they should be bonding with offspring).

Also, if producers can identify sheep that are resistant to nematodes both as a lamb and as a peri-parturient ewe, they will be able to limit infestation of the pastures, reduce mortality and performance losses and reduce their reliance on dewormers. Increasing the resistance of the sheep will also work to prolong the effectiveness of dewormers that have not succumbed to worm resistance. Sheep that are genetically resistant to parasites, will also remove the major barrier to producing organic lamb meat in warm, moist climates and increase environmental and financial sustainability.

Project Objectives:

Objective 1) Measure worm FEC of ewes during late gestation and lactation. Fecal samples will be collected directly from rectum from ewes every 14 days, starting approximately two weeks before lambing is due to begin until approximately four weeks after a ewe has lambed (only samples that approximate Days -14, 0, 14, and 28, where Day 0 = day of lambing, will be used for FEC analysis). A pooled fecal sample from several ewes will be cultured to determine population of gastrointestinal nematodes. Flocks without a predominant Haemonchus contortus worm species may not be included in data analyses. However, it is expected that H. contortus will be predominant worm. Cultures will be conducted at ARS, Booneville and FEC will be determined at Louisiana State University (Dr. James Miller’s lab; Drs. Burke and Miller have an extensive collaborative history) using a modified McMaster’s technique.

Objective 2) Measure FEC of offspring at first significant exposure to worm parasites. Fecal samples will be collected from lambs for FEC as described above at approximately 60, 90, and 120 days of age. Offspring from ewes described above will be used. A pooled fecal sample from lambs will be cultured to determine population of nematodes.

Objective 3) Examine genetic resistance of ewes during the peri-parturient rise with that of their offspring. Genetic analyses will be conducted to determine whether resistance to parasitic worms in the lactating ewe is heritable and correlated with resistance to nematodes as lambs. Correlations will be determined between FEC from each time point from ewe and offspring. A regression analysis will be conducted between ewe FEC and offspring FEC (FEC will be log transformed).


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Kathy Bielek
  • James Morgan
  • Milledge and Roxanne Newton


Materials and methods:

Feces for FEC analysis was collected from ewes at lambing (between January and April), and 30 and 60 days post-lambing at the ARS, Booneville farm and on three private farms. A pooled fecal sample from several ewes was cultured at this time to determine population of GIN. FEC was determined on offspring at first significant exposure to worm parasites (on-farm) or at 90, 120, and 150 days of age at the ARS farm. A pooled fecal sample from lambs was cultured to determine population of GIN. Blood was collected from ARS lambs at 90 and 120 days of age for blood packed cell volume (PCV) Body weight of lambs was determined at birth, 60, 90 (ARS), and 120 (ARS) days of age. Lambs were dewormed if FAMACHA score was greater than 3. Pearson correlation coefficients, means and standard deviations were calculated among variables.

Research results and discussion:

The population of GIN on 2 of 4 farms was predominantly Haemonchus contortus. There was a significant percentage of Trichostrongylus spp. and Cooperia spp. (late March 2010) during cooler months at the ARS farm and at most collection times from the remaining two farms. There were not enough observations from single born lambs for meaningful correlations. Lambs born as multiples were grouped together for statistical analysis. There were 44 and 69 multiple born lambs from Farm 1, and 105 and 97 multiple born lambs from the ARS farm in 2009 and 2010, respectively, and 29 multiple born lambs from Farm 2 in 2009. Farm 3 was not included in this preliminary analysis. Body weight of multiple born lambs at birth, 60, 90, and 120 days of age was 3.7 +/- 0.75, 18.3 +/- 5.1, 22.4 +/- 4.2, and 29.4 +/- 7.1 kg among farms. The FEC of lambs at 90 and 120 days of age was 1161 +/- 1327 and 3010 +/- 7442 eggs/g. The PCV at 90 and 120 days of age was 30.8 +/- 2.7 and 29.4 +/- 4.0%. The FEC of dams at birth, 30 and 60 days post-lambing was 2066 +/- 2412, 1879 +/- 1994, and 936 +/- 1550 eggs/g. There was a positive relationship between FEC of lambs at 90 days of age and that of dams at 30 days post-lambing (R = 0.17, P = 0.002, n = 173), and FEC of lambs at 120 days of age and that of dams at 60 days post-lambing (R = 0.24, P = 0.008, n = 117). There was a negative relationship between PCV of lambs at 90 days of age and FEC of dams at birth (R = -0.24, P = 0.001, n = 193) and 30 days post-lambing (R = -0.18, P = 0.01, n = 188). There was a negative relationship between FEC of dams at 60 days post-lambing and body weight of offspring at 60 days of age (R = -0.32, P = 0.001, n = 193).

Additional funding was received to expand this project and collect more data. Results from this study will aid in developing breeding values for Katahdins, which can be used as a model for other species. Identification and selection of parasite resistant sheep and goats will be essential for organic farms and those without reliable anthelmintics.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Burke, J.M., Morgan, J., Notter, D., Miller, J.E., 2010. Examining the relationship of fecal egg counts of ewes during the peri-parturient period and their offspring. Presented at the annual meeting of the North Central Extension and Research Association-214 (Increased Efficiency of Sheep Production), Lexington, KY, June 2010; and the Southern Coordinating Committee-81 (Sustainable Small Ruminant Production in the Southeastern U.S.), Corpus Christi, TX, February 2011.

Additional analysis and a peer-reviewed publication are in progress.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

This project could greatly impact sheep producers actively selecting parasite resistant sheep. The National Sheep Improvement Program aids in genetic selection of sheep based on estimated breeding values. There is a breeding value for fecal egg counts of lambs at first significant exposure to parasites on pasture for breeds like the Katahdin. These data generated in this and the continued project will contribute to additional breeding values and options for producers. Genetic control of parasites offers the most reliable technology available considering the crisis associated with anthelmintic resistance. Values generated in this project will serve as a model for additional breeds and species facing parasite infection.

Economic Analysis

This was not conducted in this project.

Farmer Adoption

Sheep producers are recognizing the importance of using breeding values to improve genetics in their breeding flocks. There are a total of 10 farms included in a grant to advance this area of study and expand the data set from this project to create more reliable indicators of genetic selection for parasite resistance. It is anticipated that there will be wide adoption of this technology by farmers throughout the southeastern, Midwest, and even northeastern U.S.


Areas needing additional study

The sheep industry is ahead of the goat industry in genetic selection of parasite resistant breeding stock. Selection indices for meat goats need to be developed and expanded because goats are typically more susceptible to parasites than sheep.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.