Katahdin sheep are the focus of a long-term research program at the Agricultural Research Service’s Dale Bumpers Small Farms Research Center outside of Booneville, Ark.
“Our research is grounded in what producers say they want and fueled by their questions. They talk, I listen,” research animal scientist Dr. Joan Burke said.
Meat sheep farmers are seeking naturally parasite resistant sheep that are also prolific and carry ideal maternal traits. That combination does not currently exist. Since, according to Dr. Burke, Katahdin’s are the best fit for the southern environment, they are the logical choice for the core breed in developing sheep with the meat producers’ desired traits.
In addition to those traits, producers should be aware of increased consumer demand for natural and welfare conscious livestock products. What this means in terms of all research herds is following welfare guidelines, specifically in this case Dr. Burke’s 160-head commercial herd and 40-head organic herd, to qualify for Animal Welfare Approved certification, one of the strictest standard animal welfare certifications available for commercial herds.
Further, the practices used and the resulting sheep must be practical both financially and in management practices for the producer. Since the center’s focus is small farmers, this program must be manageable at the small farm level for small producers to implement without expensive outside help. The vehicle that makes both the research and producer implementation possible is a program in Australia run through the National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP). Dr. Burke and farmers send data such as birth and weaning weights and fecal parasite egg counts to the NSIP for a fee that is then used to make breeding decisions which, in this case, is used for natural parasite resistance. Data results are available in a few days. Ten years of research data collection and breeding indicates a substantial decrease in the parasite egg count in the research herds in U.S. Katahdin flocks enrolled in NSIP remaining fairly stable until last year when more producers started using the process in their own herds resulting in greater flock resistance as well.
“Our Katahdin rams are now as parasite resistant as St. Croix, the breed with the highest natural resistance,” Dr. Burke explained.
Dr. Burke will continue to select for natural parasite resistance in sheep but is planning to improve maternal traits such as lambing percentage or prolificacy, milk production and year-round breeding. Further, in order to push ewes to their potential, they will be bred to a terminal sire, either Suffolk and/or Texel, both solid meat breeds, to obtain hybrid vigor and determine how effectively the ewes can produce market lambs born in either the spring or fall.
The dual breeding seasons have two advantages. One is fresh meat distribution throughout more of the year, an important marketing factor because the emerging ethnic market is year round when previously demand was mostly during Easter. Additionally lambs from fall breeding need no worming because worms are less of an issue during the cooler months. They also need no supplemental grain because the protein level of forage during those months is also naturally higher and sufficient to successfully bring lambs to market. During the cool months, a lactating ewe is still fed 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of 16 percent protein grain feed per day, but the lambs receive no grain. Combining grain savings with savings from not having to worm those lambs is an attractive output reduction to producers.
One PhD and one master’s student are currently running Katahdin sheep-related projects. One is investigating vaginal AI that a producer can learn and implement without veterinary aid. The other is investigating and quantifying the fall breeding opportunity. Should the program reach all of its current goals, Dr. Burke will look at selecting for other traits and investigating the relationship between other traits such as the relationship between other traits associated with animal welfare sheep horns or scurs (buds), parasite resistance and good foot health. These further studies may improve herd quality and productivity even more.
The 2,300-acre research facility uses soil testing, and organic pastures are treated with appropriate amounts of chicken litter while conventional pastures are treated on a nutrient specific basis using commercial products.
“Our current research is focusing on minimizing farmer inputs through pasture composition and management and animal health intervention through genetic selection and management,” Dr. Burke said.
Animal research at the facility also includes cattle and goats.


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