USMARC EasyCare Ewe Flock on pastureI was tidying up some photo folders, and founds some shots from last summer, when I toured the US Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in Nebraska. The tour was arranged as part of our annual Katahdin Hair Sheep International (KHSI) “Expo” conference. Our educational sessions were also held there, in the large auditorium they have. Timely, since last month, the New York Times published a very damning article about MARC. I’ll provide a link to that at the end, in case you haven’t seen it. But first, I’ll present my view and experience with MARC.

I love MARC! Above is a photo of their hair sheep ewe flock, on one of the many gorgeous pastures they have. MARC is housed in an old military complex that’s been re-worked to support the many diverse research projects going on there. We toured the site by bus, because it’s huge, many square miles of land and facilities. I also drove around a bit on the site in my rental car, partly because I got lost there one morning!

We Katahdin folks are very familiar with the work done by Dr. Kreg Leymaster and his staff, because they use our breed a lot in their research. They have purchased breeding stock from many of my peers, in order to maintain genetic diversity of their flock and ensure it represents a broad sampling from from our breeder base.

I first heard Dr. Leymaster speak at our KHSI conference in 2009. Kreg is a really nice man. Despite being an achieved academic, he’s one of those folks who’s easy to talk to at the lunch table, very down-to-earth. He’s extremely passionate about the work they do a MARC, which is all geared towards improving the farming of meat animals from many angles. An outsider might think these guys are working for “Big AG”, because we fear that’s the case everywhere. But when Kreg comes to our little gatherings of fifty-some Katahdin breeders, it’s clear to me that no, he’s working for us. For the small farmer who has twenty or two hundred, or maybe a thousand head of sheep.

The MARC projects I’m most familiar with that have touched my life personally are the “Easycare” ewe research, the meat quality studies, and the research on Ovine Progressive Pneumonia Virus (OPPV). 

Easycare

Dr. Kreg Leymaster giving us a tourTheir Easycare project is about developing a composite breed of ewe that has high prolificacy (read 200%+ lambing rates) and superb mothering instinct and abilities. The goal is to create a ewe that’s not only more productive, but also requires less labor and overhead than the standard “Midwest Model” ewe (my term). Because, it’s clear that the Midwest Model, invented in the 1960’s and later, was created to take advantage of cheap corn, cheap labor, cheap fuel, cheap bedding material, and the endless real estate of empty winter barns in the Midwest. Only, corn, labor, fuel, bedding, and building real estate aren’t cheap anymore.

So, ironically, there is now a need to return to the previous ewe model, that existed for centuries before: the pastured ewe. These ewes make efficient use of marginal grassland that’s often not suitable for row cropping. They are hardy, as are their lambs, and easily survive and thrive on pasture, including lambing there. As much as we think of barn lambing and putting ewes in 4’ jugs as “normal”, it’s really only been normal here, in the US, and only for the last fifty years or so. The hundreds of years before that, and still today in many other areas of the world, sheep have their lambs the old fashioned way: in the field. There is nothing new about this idea, in fact, it’s the oldest idea in the book.

EasyCare lambs at the creep feeder, drylotted to control parasite load during the most vulnerable ageSo, it is the endeavor of MARC to re-develop that model of sheep for the US, with a couple of twists: getting her number of lambs born and weaned up, so that she is a more productive and profitable ewe. And, breeding the wool off of her, so that she requires no shearing, and sheds naturally like a wild sheep. Viola, the perfect meat sheep: the Easycare. None of this should come as a surprise to Katahdin breeders, who are already accustomed to such a productive ewe. MARC is taking things a step further, though, taking advantage of heterosis; blending Katahdins with White Dorper, Romanov, Rambouillet and some Suffolk to maintain a high quality carcass while improving the conception rate and mothering ability of the ewes, as well as the hardiness of the lambs. Their success is impressive. I can’t quote numbers here, because I didn’t take notes on our walking tour. But they are getting some extraordinarily productive sheep and yields.

There is nothing weird about any of this, nothing GMO, no Frankenstein science: just old fashioned breeding principles, keeping records, and shifting the bell curve in the direction you want it to go. Just like plant breeders do. And this is combined with old fashioned husbandry principles, of getting the sheep out of barns and back onto pasture as much as possible.

Now, it is true that as you increase the conception rates of ewes, there will be some increase in the number of birthing complications, and also potentially of orphaned lambs, or lambs which wind up being under-fed by mothers that can’t produce enough milk. Taken out of context, a person could conclude more lambs will die, and thus, this is not a good direction to go. But, as long as you hold the % loss steady (by making wise breeding choices and still maintaining some husbandry overhead during birthing times), it’s easier to understand why this is the right direction to go.

For any given lamb crop, a 5-10% loss between birth and weaning is about typical. Lambs die for any number of reasons, they may be genetically weak, they may contract disease, they may not get enough food, they may get lost, they may get injured or killed in an accident, and there is always the constant force of predation. But still, even a 10% loss rate is still much better than Mother Nature, because we are there, saving animals which Mother Nature would let die. If the Midwest Model ewe has a 120% conception rate, you can figure 100 ewes will have 120 lambs, and twelve of those will be lost between birth and weaning. Now, if you can get your conception rate up to 200%, now you have 200 lambs, and twenty will die at the same loss rate. So, yes, more lambs die, but also more lambs live. Way more! The Midwest Model only has 108 weaned lambs per 100 ewes, but the modern ewe group would have 180 weaned lambs per 100 ewes! Even if we account for the potential that a few ewes may be lost due to the greater risks of multiple births, it’s still a net gain, more sheep live and thrive if you can get your conception rate up. So, it is a positive tradeoff. Now, of course, it’s important to breed ewes that have traits which keep the %loss down; otherwise there is no net gain. But we already know this is possible because it’s already been done. And it’s been done partly because of the research at MARC showing what’s possible.

And, I’ll say another thing about deaths. When you are raising livestock, deaths happen. Even if you had all the veterinary and labor resources in the world, you wouldn’t save them all. And we are raising food animals here, so we can’t apply all the veterinary and labor resources in the world, or meat would be $1,000 per pound. (And nobody would want to eat the meat that’s been heavily medicated in order to save a hopeless case). Not to mention, sometimes animals just die suddenly, and you literally trip over them in the pasture; where there was never any chance to detect something was wrong and try to address it. So there is a thin line between providing ethical care and accepting that some %loss is part of the bargain. Again, the %loss in most farming operations is much lower than it is in nature, because we do take good care of our animals. And one hopes that most farms give a swift death to any animal that’s suffering and is beyond the hope of saving.

Concrete half-pipe feeders, access is opened up by removing the hotwire strand at the bottom, they can be filled from the road sideThen there is predation. The only sure-fire way to stop predation altogether is to house animals indoors, or in feedlots surrounded by impenetrable fencing. But America doesn’t want indoor, feedlotted animals anymore! They don’t want them because it’s considered no good for those animals to spend their lives that way. But, we know if we put them back outside, then there will be predation. Despite every effort made to electrify boundaries and employ guardian dogs, predators still succeed some of the time. This is another balancing act choice we make, to sacrifice the lives of a few animals in order to ensure that the population lives a good, natural life.

Incidentally, here are two photos showing some breed differences. These are two drylots across the aisle from each other. The white EasyCare sheep, you can see, are really calm. Even though a big tour bus just unloaded a few dozen strangers, you can see lambs casually walking towards us, and more reposing, not bothering to get up. It was a very relaxed group of sheep.

Compare that to this group of Romanov ewes: they are plastered against the far fence in reaction to our presence. Quite a difference in flight zone distance! All with sheep raised in the same environment. Temperament is strikingly genetic!

Meat Quality

Another really cool research line at US MARC is looking at meat quality. This is another area where I feel their input has actually put the brakes on some extreme tendencies of the Midwest Model sheep industry. What MARC has discovered, in part, is that if you breed for a lamb that grows too fast and is too lean, the meat, lo and behold, doesn’t taste as good. It’s tougher and has less flavor quality. Since this is something we can now measure, we can breed for animals which excel at growth, feed conversion and profitability, but only to the point where the end product is still a quality eating experience. This is another area where MARC is helping the sheep industry. And recall that in our country, the sheep industry isn’t “Big AG”- the sheep industry is mostly made up of small family farms. So, another instance where I feel they are truly working for us.

OPPV

The third area where MARC has made tremendous research progress is in studying OPPV. OPPV is a nasty, lifelong, AIDS-like virus which cripples adult sheep with lameness, pain, and weight loss. It also causes lambs to be born weak and unthrifty, and impacts milk supply, so lamb losses in OPPV-affected flocks are high.

Though OPPV has been known about for at least fifty years; even ten years ago, it was still poorly understood. MARC has created a research flock of infected OPPV ewes, and has taught us a lot about how OPPV is transmitted and how it manifests. MARC’s latest achievement is to identify a genetic marker which identifies sheep which appear to be more resistant to infection, so that we can work to breed away from this devastating disease. Their work has completely changed the set of recommendations for infected flocks, in how to eradicate this disease in the most practical way. The project not only benefits farmer profitability, but benefits sheep welfare in a very concrete way.

Beneficial Research

All of this work has benefitted me personally, as it aligns with my own goals if growing low-maintenance, productive sheep that thrive in a natural pasture setting. And since I’ve had a brief scrape with OPPV, I’ve returned again and again to the literature from MARC to guide me in finding solutions. So, I thought it was a huge treat to tour the facility and hear more about the work they are doing. The entire place is neat as a pin: fences, buildings and equipment are impeccably maintained. All of the animals I saw were in superb condition. The feedlot areas were immaculate.

I should also mention that I have a friend who works there. My friend is an animal lover, who raises and trains border collies for herding competition, and maintains his own livestock herds for training dogs. My friend reports that MARC is a great place to work; and he loves being involved in all the innovative things that they do. His role there is to design and build many of the mechanical systems they need to house, handle, track and measure the livestock they work with. Listening to him describe their projects, seeing the place, and meeting some of the staff, I thought, what a neat place to work!

So, it was with great sadness that I read the article by the NYT last month, completely lambasting MARC. It’s a long read, and hard to get through. I suspect, as with many things, there are grains of truth in the story. If some of the anecdotes in the article are accurate, then this is disturbing and indicates there are at least pockets of problems within the organization that require investigation. But other aspects of the article, to me, just took small nuggets of fact and completely twisted them, or took them wildly out of context. My overall impression was this article had a quiet bias behind it, which is to condemn the meat industry altogether; by making normal, basic, natural, historic breeding and husbandry practices sound freakish and unnatural. It’s just another example where so many folks have gotten so distant from the source of their food, they struggle to even understand and accurately judge what’s going on.

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