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The Importance of Genetically Modifying Sheep Through Breeding Protocols For Efficient Grass-Grazing

- By Jack Middleton, 09/01/2022

Sheep are some of the most challenging livestock animals to raise. Everyone we know (including ourselves in the past) have always had problems with parasitic worms in their sheep. Because sheep graze grass so close to the ground, they are more susceptible to pick up worms. In years past, we struggled with keeping worms out of our sheep. We always found ourselves constantly deworming our sheep with dewormer and having multiple deaths in our herd. We got to a point of desperation where we were grazing our sheep properly and they were still getting sick. We later realized it wasn't our grazing patterns or soil health that was the driving factor, it was our breeding protocols.

There's a great quote from a sheep farmer named Greg Judy, where he stated, "if your sheep die from worms, you have the wrong sheep." He is 100% right! How did we get to the point where we've bred an animal that lives entirely on grass but can't survive endemic parasites that live on grass without being continuously treated with chemicals? The answer: we are breeding sheep with poor genetics!

By constantly deworming sheep weekly or daily, it is creating genetics that aren't naturally hardier to parasitic worms. When breeding sheep that have been dosed with dewormer often, the ewes will birth lambs that do not have a strong immune system to fight off worms. When we began this business, we were deworming our sheep every month. We would notice lambs that were struggling and plagued with worms, so we would gather them all up and dose them with dewormer. For short-term measures, it was effective, however, in the long run, it was becoming economically unviable because we were purchasing so much dewormer.

Once we began implementing a stricter breeding protocol, we noticed the number of lambs that were getting worms reduced drastically. We began selecting lambs for replacement ewes and rams that came from a hardier mother and were never severely impacted by worms.

Over time, by implementing this process, we noticed less lambs becoming sick because they had the genetic trait of a stronger immune system to fight off parasitic worms.

In regards to lambs that did become sick, we would remove them from the herd and place them in what we call our "hospital pen". When sheep catch worms, it is vital they are removed from the herd because the worms will come out in their feces and spread all over your pastures. We would hope the sick lambs would make it, but most of the time they wouldn't.

Although it is always tragic when you lose a livestock animal, it is actually more beneficial for the entire herd to have the sick ones removed. Similar to when animals are in the wild; when one of the herd members fall ill, the entire herd will leave that member as it will likely bring predators to them and make them more vulnerable.

Over the last two years, our farm has been focusing on breeding hardier sheep. Our goal is to be able to produce sheep that can forage all year round with zero worm problems. We still occasionally have the one or two lambs fall sick and die, but in comparison to the years before, it has been a 95% improvement!

This process will take many years. We are currently at the point where we will deworm our sheep once a year in the middle of the summer when worm activity is at its peak, but we will eventually be at the point of never having to use dewormer again! By selecting hardier ewes and rams, it will make raising our lambs more efficient in the long run and they will be able to grow larger just by eating grass and forage.

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