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New farm math: Calculating feed amounts based on a sheep’s genetics

Farmers are reducing herd sizes because raising sheep isn’t as profitable as it once was. But now sheep farmers are using actual genetically-based animal needs in their calculations to lower costs and thus raise their profits. It’s common to see livestock selected for their genetics to improve animal hardiness or carcass outputs. But it’s interesting to see sheep farmers flip that model by reducing their hard costs in raising sheep by matching each animal’s genetic requirements in food rations and other needs.

Mutton math

While many people count sheep to help them fall asleep, farm industry watchers do it to check the overall farm population. In many places, the counting goes quicker these days because there are fewer and fewer sheep. According to Statistics Canada’s Livestock Survey “the number of sheep fell 1.9% to 828,600 head as farmers reduced herds.”

The number of sheep is falling in the U.S. too. Although, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture inventory, “Market sheep and lambs on January 1, 2016 totaled 1.36 million head, up 1 percent from January 1, 2015,” that’s about half of the number from the 1990s.

And the sheep count is similarly falling around the world. The reason? “Competition from less expensive imported meat, land use decisions that turn sheep pastures into cropland or grazing for cattle, and labor shortages,” according to an article in The Tri-State Neighbor. The U.S. also stopped its incentive program for sheep farmers years ago, as have other governments.

Add to that consumer demands for a specific taste – no fat and not too strong a flavor – and the profit sweet-spot turns to bitter saccharin in a hurry. Just a few pounds over the perfect weight makes the meat fattier and taste much stronger. Hitting a perfect weight range for each animal is essential.

Adding the genetic factor to subtract costs

Software is available now to monitor sheep feedlots. Just like the computer programs for beef feedlots, the software helps producers monitor and manage feedlots, and predict when animals are at their market value peak based on feed consumption and health data. In the U.S., the software can be downloaded from the ISU Extension website for $600.

But it’s the Sheep BRaNDS software module that’s really interesting because it calculates the balance of feed rations by estimating the animal’s actual needs based on its genetics. It can also be downloaded from the ISU Extension website, for just $100. Fine-tuning rations to specific animal needs helps reduce feed costs and ensure the animal reaches and maintains its peak market value – a double win for farmers.

While I’m not endorsing this software, as I never endorse any product since mileage often varies for different users, I am fascinated with how Iowa State University found a way to flip the model on using genetics to improve carcass yields. Instead of modifying the animal’s genetics, they modify the feed based on the animal’s genetics.

It’s just one more example of how all the research in livestock genetics is paying off for farmers, animals, and consumers too. The end results are healthier and more resilient animals, and more and better food for a growing human population.

New farm math: Calculating feed amounts based on a sheep’s genetics

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