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Montana Ag Network: U.S. Sheep Experiment Station performs big role for industry

Since 1916, the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station has been a leading research center for the U.S. sheep industry and other partners like the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and University Extension.

Dr. J. Brett Taylor is the research leader and said there’s a good reason why this U.S. Department of Agriculture ARS Research Center was built near Dubois, Idaho, with an emphasis on sheep genetics with a range interface.

“So, the producers got together, and they were able to work with the U.S. government to get the sheep station established to look at developing breeds that were most suited for these types of ecosystems,” said Taylor. “Mainly the sagebrush ecosystems and sub-alpine that we see in the distance to meet their production goals, to meet their livelihood goals and to better serve the consumer. That was 100 years ago but not much has changed since.”

Today, he says a lot of the focus is still in genetics, just with a more modern approach.

“Instead of looking more at the quantitative component, where we’re looking at the visual look of that particular animal, now we have new genetic techniques that actually allow us to dig deeper to be more precise in what we’re developing,” said Taylor. “We’re still into breed development. The U.S. Sheep Experiment Station developed the Columbia, the Targhee and the Polypay breeds. We’re still in the business of developing composite breeds that better serve the producers and consumers.”

Developing grazing strategies benefit livestock like sheep and are also good for wildlife species like sage grouse, and their habitat is a top priority at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station.

“This is sage grouse habitat, prime sage grouse habitat. Ever since the mid-60s, especially up in the 70s, we began monitoring sage grouse numbers. Basically, through their leks or where they mate each spring. So, we have that long-term and rich history of monitoring. That allows us to then go back and look at how grazing affects that,” said Taylor.

Producers like Terreton, Idaho’s Jeff Siddoway say the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station is a critical component to their operation.

“Whether it’s development of different breeds, it’s work on different diseases, how to utilize pasture or how we are going to interface with wildlife,” said Siddoway. “There’s also a huge amount of information dealing with wildfire or prescribed burns and sage grouse.”

He said although the sheep station has been targeted for closure by the USDA since 2014, there’s tremendous value for this research for the future.

“We’re in the sheep industry to provide food and fiber” said Siddoway. “We take a renewable resource and take the solar energy that converts to the feed that grows and we don’t leave much of a footprint and yet we provide literally thousands of jobs for people in this country to market our products, to retail our products, to utilize our products and then to have our head put on the chopping block by some bureaucrat in an agency that’s just looking for a way to save some money when our industry is in jeopardy because of all the other concerns is really upsetting. Because we’ve worked with our congressmen and senators and our national association, we’ve kept it alive for the past couple of years. But the agency needs to step up.”

For over a century now, the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station has led the way in research for the sheep industry.  And with the support of producers like the Siddoway’s, Congress and the American Sheep Industry Association, sheep producers nationwide can rely on this facility to provide continued research on genetics and sheep care for another 100 years.

Story by Russell Nemetz, Montana Ag Network

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