Western Pa. Sheep Symposium: Producers can’t ignore scrapie risk

WASHINGTON, Pa. – More than 100 sheep producers from Pennsylvania and surrounding states gathered March 3 at the Western Pennsylvania Sheep Symposium.

The one-day conference featured lectures on health, nutrition and the current state of the industry. Key speakers included William Shulaw, OSU Extension veterinarian; Harold Harpster, Penn State ruminant nutritionist; Alan Brinker, Ohio sheep and cattle producer, and Roger High, OSU Extension sheep specialist.

Scrapie update.

Shulaw presented lectures focusing on parasitism and diseases. The bulk of the presentation on diseases addressed scrapie, the ovine form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.

According to Shulaw, the USDA has received sizable funding to eradicate scrapie and more research will be carried out in the next few months.

Shulaw emphasized symptoms could be any display of abnormal behavior, particularly uncoordination, reflexes that are not characteristic of the animal, and obvious weight loss.

The causes are still questionable, Shulaw said, although experts are pointing to the “prion” as a more likely trigger. A prion is an infected protein particle that has changed its shape. These prions can cause instability in the genetic code.

Shulaw said there are also two amino acids in codons 136 and 171 that influence the susceptibility to clinical scrapie.

Prevention and diagnosis.

Shulaw discussed several possibilities for diagnosis and prevention. A movement to breed animals resistant to the disease by targeting specific amino acid combinations that have displayed no susceptibility to scrapie may be a step forward for prevention.

For diagnosis, Shulaw described several tests that are used to determine the presence of the disease.

Histopathology is implemented after death to study the brain. Other tools used include immunochemical, genetic and third eyelid testing, all occurring while the animal is still alive. The third eyelid test is becoming one of the most well known exams for scrapie and, according to Shulaw, may become one of the best ways to diagnose the possibility of scrapie.

Flock forages.

Ohio shepherd Alan Brinker and Penn State’s Harold Harpster both addressed nutrition management in forage.

Brinker explained forage use and how to manage different types, using his own operation as an example. He advocates having specific fields with specific grass varieties, depending on livestock needs.

For example, ryegrass needs to be grazed shorter and is more appropriate for sheep while fescue and canary grass require a higher grazing and are better for cattle.

To extend winter forages, Brinker recommended stockpiling grass, or setting aside an area with orchard grass and fescue. These grass types, with thicker stalks, stand better over the winter months.

According to Brinker, the best way to stockpile is to stop work completely Aug. 1 and let the forage grow at least until the end of November.

Brinker also stressed the availability of water for every pasture.

Harold Harpster presented a similar theme in his lecture on year ’round forage utilization. Even when animals are on pasture full time, they graze only a relatively short time in the course of 24 hours.

Harpster described four systems producers can use to maximize their grazing potential: continuous, rotational, short periods, and increasing the demand first. Some methods Harpster spoke on to improve grazing were doubling paddock numbers, increasing livestock, planting a summer grass, winter grazing, and fencing out shade and ponds. All focused on maximizing the available forage base.

The symposium also gave updates on the current state and national sheep industry, with Tom Calvert, president of the Pennsylvania Wool Growers Association, speaking on the activities accomplished over the past year.

Don Van Nostrum, manager of Mid-States Wool Growers in Canal Fulton, Ohio, also gave an overview of the current international wool situation and his outlook on prices for the coming year.

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