Sheep producers are accustomed to having a species that isn’t well-funded when it comes to research. Producers are pretty much on their own when it comes to learning anything new about sheep health, reproduction or other aspects of husbandry.
But the demand for lamb is growing, and the majority of lamb consumers in the United States live in the northeast. There’s also a demand for high-quality fleeces for hand spinning, especially fleeces that have color. Fortunately for sheep producers, Chris Posbergh, a PhD student at Cornell University, is interested in sheep. Chris did some undergraduate genetics research work in horses and sheep in an honors program, and is currently working with Dr. Heather Huson in Cornell’s livestock genetics lab.
For his PhD work, Chris is involved with several genetics projects that will help boost sheep breeders’ bottom lines. “The emphasis now is more toward a genomic-based approach,” said Chris. “We’re looking at the whole genome as opposed to individual genes.” Chris is working primarily with sheep, and also helps with genetics projects involving cattle, goats, dogs and musk ox.
Chris grew up on a sheep farm in New Jersey, where the family started with Dorsets, then added Romneys. As they learned more about wool, Chris discovered there’s a variety of colors between black and white, and explains that moorit is the term for brown sheep. “The wool will be brown, around the eyes and nose, the hooves, and even the tongue will be brown,” he said. “It isn’t a pattern, it’s a base color, and there are many different shades. Is it the same mutation in different breeds, or is it different in each one that causes the brown coat? That’s what I hope to find out.”
The genomic work that Chris is doing will be economically important for small-scale producers who market moorit and black natural-colored fleeces. He’s also doing work that will be important to commercial producers, focusing on out-of-season lambing and mature body size. Chris noted that although he isn’t currently working on the genetics of parasite resilience (the ability of the sheep to withstand a certain level of parasitism), there are several southern universities focusing on such work. He also says at a conference he recently attended there are research projects aimed at locating regions of the genome that indicate resilience.
For his coat color research, Chris is using Finn, Shetland, Romedale, Merinos and several other breeds. “As long as they’re moorit or black,” he said. “I want to see if the mutation is the same across breeds. For the out-of-season lambing research, I’m working mostly with Dorsets and Polypays. For mature body size, I’m working with as many breeds I can get, and have data on Jacobs, Shetlands and Icelandics, Suffolks, Hampshires, Dorsets and Lincolns.”
Chris says one of the challenges for students interested in doing small ruminant research is that many land grant universities are downsizing flocks. He believes it would be worthwhile for the sheep industry to look at how other species (dairy and beef cattle, swine) in the U.S. and sheep in countries such as New Zealand and the United Kingdom have used genomics and production measures to improve profitability. “There’s a lot of miscommunication between the shepherd and the end consumer, whether it’s lamb or wool,” he said. “Even within the industry itself—there’s miscommunication between what feedlot buyers want versus range lambs and commercial producers.”
Regarding the lamb industry’s tendency to change in the face of current trends, Chris noted the trend for bigger market sheep in the show ring has shifted in favor of animals that grow fast to meet market demand while maintaining an animal with a relatively small body size that doesn’t cost a lot for the producer to maintain.
The market for lamb in the northeast tends to be non-traditional, usually marketed toward ethnic consumers who prefer smaller lambs than those finished in western feedlots.
During his research, Chris had an opportunity to sample Dorsets from the United Kingdom, where fall lambing is the norm. “They don’t want any spring lambing,” said Chris. “The breeders I worked with have a contract with a grocery store to supply lamb during the off-season, and over there, Dorsets are the only breed that will lamb in fall. They get a much better price for lambs because of that.” Chris added that U.K. producers also want to use genomics and genetics to select sheep at a younger age so ewes that are less likely to conceive for fall lambing won’t be retained in the flock. “They can prioritize their selections earlier so they aren’t keeping sheep that won’t produce,” he said. “That’s one of the long-term goals of the work I’m doing—I want to give a test back to the producer that they can use instead of waiting five or six years until they have progeny and lambing records. It won’t be a perfect test, but it will be a good idea of what the sheep will be.”
Chris noted Dorsets were originally developed through careful selection for their ability to breed out of season, and with more tools like genome mapping, he’s confident that there will be more progress in selecting for the fall-lambing trait. “If people could do it 200 or 300 years ago,” he said, “we can do it now.”
To help fund his coat color research at Cornell, Chris is using a crowd-funding campaign, experiment.com/moorit-sheep, and he’s eager to help shepherds learn about the genetics of coat color. “We as researchers have to communicate better how things actually work,” he said. “That way the producer will benefit, and they can produce whatever color or pattern of fleece they want.”
In order to have an adequate sample size for his research project, Chris would like to be in contact with owners of well-managed purebred flocks in the Northeast. On the farm, he takes blood and/or hair samples, and for mature body size, he measures bone lengths and circumferences, which he prefers to do shortly after shearing. Additional data regarding breeding dates, birth dates and weights provided by the producer. Breeders who are interested in participating in the project can contact Chris at email@example.com.