New WVU Project Aims to Revive Sheep Industry

Articles appeared in the Farm Bureau News, November 1998

Family farming is in a state of crisis in America! You may have heard that or known it first hand, even before you saw the recent documentary "The Farmer's Wife" on PBS or the Farm Aid Concert in October. Faculty members at West Virginia's land-grant university are tackling the issues head on.

One of West Virginia's greatest agricultural assets is pasture, best utilized by ruminant livestock. West Virginia University has been a long-time leader in beef cattle performance testing and in studies of forage utilization.

In the 1970s, WVU's Allegheny Highlands Project, conducted in nine counties, showed that application of new technology systems could enhance productivity and profit from beef cattle and sheep operations. Now, WVU is beginning a new project utilizing a systems-based approach to revitalize and expand the state's sheep industry.

Applying what we've learned

"WVU faculty see opportunities to apply what we have learned, especially in the areas of reproductive technology, genetics and forage management," said Paul Lewis, professor of animal science at WVU.

"West Virginia is ideally located to meet the now increasing demand for lamb from Eastern urban centers, both geographically and in relation to climate and ability to produce an abundance of high quality forage," noted Ed Rayburn, WVU Extension agronomist.

"We initially proposed this idea to the federal Fund for Rural America in 1996," Dr. Lewis noted. "But most of those funds were diverted to flood relief in the upper Midwest. Then Del. Harold Michael (D-Hardy) suggested the West Virginia Legislature as an alternative source of funding."

Legislative support was approved in this year's budget. The project will be led by Lewis, Dr. Rayburn, and other WVU faculty in animal and plant sciences, agricultural economics, and Extension.

"The decline of sheep production is an example of the crisis in family farming," said Keith Inskeep, WVU professor of animal science. "In the late 1800s and the first half of this century, a major portion of the U.S. sheep industry was centered in the Appalachian region. The Delaine Merino was developed in the tri-state area of West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio. There were nearly 50 million head of sheep in the U.S., and about a million of those were in West Virginia in 1942."

In 1954, Congress declared wool to be a strategic commodity and decreed that tariffs on imported wool be used to provide an incentive payment for wool production. It was not enough. Demand for wool decreased, costs of land, labor, and fencing increased, and predation became an increasingly negative factor for the industry. Numbers of breeding ewes in West Virginia have declined continuously since 1942, paralleling a national decline, except for a period in the 1970s when WVU worked with farmers to increase sheep production in the Allegheny Highlands Project.

Today, there are only an estimated 5,850,000 breeding sheep and lambs in the U.S., and only 40,000 of those are in West Virginia. But not all the news is bad. The national lamb crop averaged only 103 lambs per 100 ewes in 1996, but the average was 130 lambs per 100 ewes in West Virginia and Virginia.

"Higher litter size is a positive factor we can build upon," said Lewis.

"The decline in total supply of lamb, both domestic and imported, recently has produced high prices," Dennis Smith WVU professor of agricultural economics and marketing, noted. "This has been especially true in the early spring period, when supplies of both fed and new crop lambs are at annual lows."

Controlling predators

"The decline in sheep numbers in West Virginia has been accelerated by increasing losses to predators and a sense of futility on the part of producers relative to their ability to limit losses to predators," said Tom McConnell, WVU Extension farm management specialist.

In West Virginia, 34 percent of all losses of sheep and lambs in 1994 were attributed to predators, 54 percent of those by dogs and 41 percent by coyotes. By 1995-1996, the major predator in West Virginia was the coyote, according to a survey of shepherds in 23 counties. That survey was completed in June 1996 by McConnell and Bill Bonwell of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal Damage Control Program (ADC). Both are members of the team for the new WVU project.

The survey showed that coyotes accounted for 83 percent of all losses of lambs and 30 percent of all losses of ewes to predators. Losses totaled 4,048 lambs and 809 ewes and were concentrated in the months of April through June, when lambs were on pasture with their mothers.

Through an initiative of the Legislature, a predator control program has been funded through the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, and predation is being reduced. During a six-month period in 1996, predator management services provided by ADC, inculding use of guard animals, snares and M-44 cyanide devices, apparently reduced coyote predation by 45% compared to the previous year on 40 farms in three counties. In 1998, that program has eliminated 78 coyotes on farms where sheep, goats, or other livestock have been taken.

Starting with lambs

The long-term goal of the new project is to improve the competitive position and income of independent, small livestock producers and enhance economies of rural communities. To start this process, University faculty and collaborators in the state and federal Departments of Agriculture will work with farmers to change lambing dates of a portion of the flocks and to improve production, management and marketing practices in a six-county area. The system will be tested in ewe flocks on at least 20 cooperating farms in Grant, Hardy, Pendleton, Pocahontas, Preston, and Randolph Counties. Data will be collected simultaneously on 20 control flocks to compare systems. As the project progresses, new cooperators and flocks will be added. The project will be headquartered in Pendleton County, which, said WVU Extension Agent David Seymour, "is the center of current sheep production in West Virginia."

Lewis said, "The specific objectives of this project are:

  1. to shift lambing dates from March and April to November and December, with a goal of marketing lambs before Easter and reducing losses to parasites and predators;
  2. to change production of pasture and harvested feed, reproductive management, breeding and selection, flock health programs, predator control measures and marketing to maximize efficiency and profitability from the shift in lambing date;
  3. to increase utilization of sheep as an enterprise, with attendant increases in:
    a. quality and productivity of pastures,
    b. diversity and amount of farm income, and
    c. contribution of small, independent livestock producers to the rural community, and
  4. to evaluate the economic effects of fall lambing compared to the conventional system of spring lambing compared to the conventional system of spring lambing."

"Producers are anxious for this project," said Bill Shockey, WVU Extension agent in Preston County. "One of our part-time farmers called me early in the spring this year for advice on breeding his ewes in May. With help from WVU reproductive physiologists, 73 percent of his ewes are delivering lambs in October. Now we have to help him with the rest of the system."

"We are excited about the long term-prospects for increasing income to farmers in this project," added Del. Michael. "This initiative has the potential to contribute as much to our economy as a new industry hiring people to work off the farm."

The project team and ADC predator control team first presented the project to a group of sheep producers meeting in Circleville September 29. A lively discussion ensued, and several producers indicated a desire to participate. Interested producers should contact the WVU Extension agents in the participating counties.