Ohio sheep farmers focus on improved flock genetics at 2021 symposium

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A family poses together after receiving an award.
Roger and Jan Cox, of Morrow County, received the Charles Boyles Master Shepherd Award from the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association at the 2021 Buckeye Shepherd’s Symposium, in Wooster, Ohio, Dec. 4. Their family attended to support them as they received the award. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

WOOSTER, Ohio — Isabel Richards, of Gibraltar Farm, in central New York, knows what she’s looking for in her sheep herd — good body condition, ewes that are good at raising their lambs with minimal help, parasite resistance, to an extent. Not all of the sheep born on her farm make the cut to stay.

But different farms might have different goals for their flocks, Richards said at the 2021 Buckeye Shepherd’s Symposium, Dec. 3-4, in Wooster, Ohio. She encouraged sheep farmers to focus on whatever traits they want to encourage on their farms.

“The big thing is just to see what makes sense for you to select for,” she said.

Genetics

Speakers at the symposium focused on genetics and reproduction. Richards isn’t afraid to cull ewes that don’t fit her operation.

“Our ewe lambs get tough love,” she said.

Body condition score is one of the big factors she culls for. There are performance things that she looks for — ewes that produce a good number of lambs for their size, ewes that are good at mothering — but she also needs them to be able to maintain their body condition scores.

She also selects for growth, to some extent. In New York, hay is expensive. So, Richards tries to raise lambs that can grow to market weight before she has to start feeding hay in the winter.

Mike Stitzlein, who raises club lambs in Ashland, Ohio, considers things like temperament, as well, when he is working on improving his flock’s genetics. And as someone who raises lambs for the show ring, he’s noticed what the show ring wants isn’t always what’s best for the sheep industry as a whole.

“What pushes club lamb is what’s popular in the show ring … what’s popular in the show ring is just fads, sometimes,” Stitzlein said.

Record keeping

But also essential to improving genetics and reproduction is record keeping.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” said Brady Campbell, an assistant professor focused on small ruminant management with Ohio State University.

On her farm, Richards tracks things including birth weights, estimated breeding values, mothering ability for ewes, body condition scores, weights at 60 days and 120 days and fecal egg counts for her livestock. The estimated breeding values come from the National Sheep Improvement Program, an organization that offers a system for genetic selection to help sheep farmers improve their herds.

Those things take time, and can be expensive — being part of the national program costs Richards about $1,200 per year. But the numbers help her compare how well individual animals, and the herd are doing.

“We can measure all day long … but we also need to understand that we shouldn’t just collect data to collect data, if we’re not going to use it,” Campbell said.

Awards

The Ohio Sheep Improvement Association recognized award winners and scholarship recipients at the symposium Dec. 4. The Charles Boyles Master Shepherd Award went to Roger and Jan Cox, of Morrow County.

Roger and Jan Cox raise Katahdin sheep. The Cox family has a long history of sheep farming — Roger’s father raised sheep, and his ancestors, from Scotland and Ireland, also raised sheep. Roger Cox got his start in sheep with registered Hampshires in 1958, and later shifted to more commercial sheep, getting his first Katahdins in 2005.

“We’ve been so blessed,” Roger Cox said. “We had an opportunity to work hard, manage well,” and see things come together.

The Distinguished Service Awards went to Gary Wilson, of Jenera; Don Hawk, of Danville; Jordan Beck, of Wauseon; Lori Shroyer, of DeGraff; and Robert Hunter, of Pickerington, all of whom have served on the Ohio Sheep and Wool Program board. Mike Stitzlein, who retired as the president of the association in 2019, received the President’s Award.

The Friend of the Sheep Industry Award went to Amy Hurst, who assists with keeping track of membership records, checkoff accounting, newsletters and more for the association.

Youth recognized included Rachel Berk and Jim Stickley, with the Ralph H. Grimshaw Memorial Scholarship; Brandon Zuercher, with the Dr. Jack Judy Memorial Scholarship; Chelsea Graham, with the High Family Memorial Scholarship; and Emma Peters, Linsey Eddy and Ian Johnson, with the OSIA LEAD Council Scholarship.

The association also recognized Zoe Parrott, of Northmor FFA, as the state and national FFA sheep production proficiency winner, and Olivia Rinesmith, as the Ohio Lamb and Wool Ambassador.

Updates

Representatives of the American Lamb Board gave an update on the checkoff program. Because of the pandemic, said Don Hawk, of the American Lamb Board, the program shifted its strategy to focus less on fine dining, and more on retail and consumer education.

Through partnering with food blogs and getting lamb into new recipes, the program estimates it reached four million or more people in 2020. It is also helping fund several research projects, including one at Michigan State University that looks at the sheep industry’s environmental impact.

At the state level, the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association came up with a new strategic plan this year. Three broad goals in the plan are to ensure and maintain effective management, better serve members in Ohio and to provide relevant programming for the Ohio sheep industry.

With strong markets for lamb and wool and a strong base of farmers in the state, the association believes it is well-poised for the future.

“We probably have the greatest potential for growth,” Hawk said, about the sheep industry east of the Mississippi River.

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Reporter Sarah Donaldson is a former 4-Her and a Mount Union graduate from Columbiana County, Ohio. She enjoys playing and writing music, cooking, and storytelling in many forms. She can be reached at 800-837-3419 or sarah@farmanddairy.com.

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