The American sheep industry has seen a steady decline in national sheep numbers dropping from a record 56 million sheep in 1942 to 5.23 million in 2017. A dramatic increase in production efficiency is critical to the future success of the sheep industry. Technologies like electronic identification (EID) tags and genomic testing have been profitably adopted by other livestock industries. We propose to work with a group of 5 sheep ranchers in California to demonstrate and evaluate the economics of how information from both EIDs, and a targeted sheep genotyping panel could be incorporated into commercial sheep production systems. These 5 ranchers have committed to implement electronic identification on their large sheep operations in collaboration with county-based UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) advisors, and are working in partnership with the largest sheep processor in California, Superior farms, to support the utilization of their new genetic testing program, Flock54. Flock54 is a targeted genotyping panel for the sheep industry for pedigree assignment and marker-assisted selection. EIDs and ear notch samples will be collected from all rams and at least 500 marketed lambs per ranch over a one year period. Lambs will be sold to Superior Farms for finishing and harvest, and data on carcass characteristics using a camera grading system will be collected. Genomic data will be used to determine parentage and for genetic evaluations. Costs and benefits associated with the adoption of both EID and DNA testing will be evaluated. The collaborating ranchers, Superior farms, UCCE specialists and county-based advisors are working collaboratively to plan, design, implement and monitor the project, and ranchers will be intimately involved in producer feedback panels at educational outreach events at on-ranch field days. This project will provide research and education on the feasibility of adopting EID and DNA technologies on commercial sheep ranches.
The broad goal of this study is to evaluate the benefits and challenges of adopting EID and DNA-based information in the California sheep industry. Adoption of these technologies is one step towards the increased use of information to improve production efficiency, which is currently needed to sustain the sheep industry in California and nationwide.
Specifically, we seek to:
1) Document the current operational costs and records maintained by the five cooperating sheep ranchers at the start of this project (pre-implementation)
2) Work with collaborating producers to place EIDs and collect DNA samples from rams, and at least 500 market lambs from each of their flocks and document the expenses associated with implementing these practices
3) Collect weaning weight data and other on-ranch phenotypes where feasible, and document the expenses associated with collecting these phenotypes
4) Collect processing, carcass, and camera grading data from Superior Farms on the lambs selected under objective 2
5) Genotype the DNA samples from the rams and 2,500 lambs with the Flock54 genetic test, determine relationships among individuals, and between phenotypes and genotypes
6) Utilize the information collected in this project to quantify the economics of using EID technology in sheep management
7) Assess the value of genetic testing in commercial sheep flocks based on economic analysis of projected positive change scenarios from selecting genetically superior rams based on the genotyping and phenotyping results obtained in this study
8) Share outcomes and findings with California sheep producers through three on-ranch workshops and publications that demonstrate the project’s findings, namely the utility and potential value of EID technology and genetic selection as a flock improvement tool.
- Entry interviews will be conducted with collaborating producers to review production costs of each operation. The UC Davis livestock producer cost and return study model (https://coststudies.ucdavis.edu/en/current/) will be used to guide the interview process. Costs will be documented based on total numbers of sheep in each flock and on a per head basis.
- Five large-scale, commercial sheep producers in California will place EID tags in all rams, and at least 500 of their market lambs to facilitate tracking of individual animal performance. Breed of ram will be recorded. Ear notch samples for DNA testing will be collected when EID tags are placed. Alternatively, EID tags may be placed when tails are docked and docked tails can be submitted for DNA testing. The exact timing and method of genetic sampling will be determined by each producer based on what works best for their operation labor and time resources. This study will focus on rams used in the 2019 breeding season and lambs harvested in 2020. Genetic samples will be placed in sealable plastic sample bags and frozen for transport to Superior Farms. EID tags may additionally be placed in females at the producers’ discretion, but the scope of this project is tagging, sampling and DNA testing potential sires and 500 market lambs. The sheep producers are located across California in Lake, Solano, Fresno, and Kern Counties. The UCCE Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor representing each county will work closely with the producer(s) in their county to assist in the placement of the EID tags and the collection of the tissue sample.
- Infrastructure needed to collect phenotypic traits like birth weight and weaning weight vary among the collaborating producers. As many phenotypic traits about rams and tagged market lambs will be collected as possible during the course of this project. Commercially important traits that are a priority include birth weight, twinning rate, and weaning weight. The five collaborating producers will be responsible for the collection of the bulk of this data, however, as often as possible, county-based UCCE Advisors will be present and assisting during lamb-processing and shipping. Combining parentage testing with economic returns from individual lambs will provide excellent insight on ram selection and subsequent impacts on lamb crop and return to the producer. Death loss in lambs prior to weaning is estimated at about eleven and a half percent nationally (USDA NASS 2018b); however, even in carefully managed flocks, death loss can easily exceed that level when disease and predators are considered (USDA ARS 2018). Increasing lamb survival and vigor and thereby reducing death loss by 1-2% could have a significant positive impact on producer profitability within five years. Lamb death loss will be tracked and quantified in each flock and genetic samples will be taken from deceased lambs to initiate data collection on genetic markers that influence lamb survival and vigor. Herders and caretakers will be asked to collect ear notch samples from deceased lambs for subsequent genetic testing.
- Superior Farms will collect quality and yield grade data on all carcasses processed in their plant. Superior Farms has committed to tracking study animals through their plant and returning individual animal carcass data back to the producer and the study team.
- All animals that have EID tags placed in their ears will also have a sample taken via ear notch or tail dock for DNA testing using Flock54. Flock54 genotypes will be used to determine relationships among individuals, and between phenotypes and genotypes
- (&7) A cost-benefit analysis comparing the cost of EID and genetic testing to projected positive change scenarios will be conducted. UCCE Livestock Economics Specialist Saitone will work with UCCE Animal Biotechnology Specialist Van Eenennaam and UCCE county-based Advisors to develop positive change scenarios. Scenarios will focus on two aspects: a) impact to operational costs and labor needs due to electronic record keeping, and b) impact to operational costs based on expected changes in production efficiency if genetically superior rams were used based on the genotyping and phenotyping results obtained in this study.
8. Three on-ranch field days will be held in the first quarter of 2021 to present the results of this project to producers and allied industry. Additionally, Advisor Macon will feature this information in his Shepherd Skills Workshop Series in Placer County focusing on new and small-scale sheep producers. To extend this information to a statewide and west-wide audience, we will convert portions of these field day presentations to an online video format and link this material to the California Wool Growers Association website (http://woolgrowers.org/), as well as to various UCCE websites.
Educational & Outreach Activities
We have not yet reached the portion of the project where we will be doing outreach. We are still in the data gathering and analysis phases.
We are not currently in the stage of the project where we are conducting outreach events. We are still in the data collection phase.
We are still in the data collection and analysis phase. Specifically, we have completed objective 2 for all fall lambing flocks, placing EID’s and collecting genetic samples. We have collected 2,164 samples total, with the number of samples varying from 424 to 662 among producers. We have one flock left to sample which is a spring lambing flock. This flock is currently lambing and will be marked and sampled soon. We have tracked the additional time and labor to perform these added management steps. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting quarantine, our plan was to begin interviewing participating producers for operational costs as part of objective 1, documenting operational costs, in May. This portion of the plan is probably still feasible as interviews can be done over the phone or via video conference. Sampled lambs are currently being fed, so data on carcass traits is pending harvest. It is expected that all data will be collected by the fall of this year, then we will begin data analysis and planning for outreach events.