I’m an easy going person and like to keep things light-hearted (refer to every previous edition of this column). However, I’ll draw the line and be brutally honest when it comes to the sustainability of our industry and way of life. Sheep and goat producers have indeed experienced some nice successes in recent history, thanks to the work of a lot of hard working industry members.
But let me be clear, small ruminant production in Texas as a whole needs take action against some serious threats that continue to chip away at our industry. Our future prosperity requires a mindset shift on some major points. If not, we can expect the same issues to cause the same results!
Dealing with predation is one of these topics. Predation in all likelihood is going to continue to get worse. I get it, predation is hard on the psyche of the rancher and a kid crop alike, and exchanging all the sheep and goats on the place for a few varmint-resilient cows has crossed all of our minds at some point. Reality is that those who can see the grander benefits and opportunities with sheep and goats have continued to adapt to predators and implemented new strategies. Consider this a challenge to be this type of producer.
I’m exceptionally proud of the AgriLife Livestock Guardian Dog program. It has heightened awareness of the importance of LGDs to the sustainability of the sheep and goat industry. This program has remained successful even despite resistance from some people within our own industry that disliked LGDs as they can make it harder to apply lethal control tools.
We have also raised the bar on how important it is to actively manage these dogs for them to be successful. Most often, poorly managed dogs don’t work and give those that do a bad reputation. Silver bullets don’t exist, but LGD and good fences are the best predator management tool for a lot of sheep and goat ranchers. They are a tool that allows us to combat predation vs allowing predators to dictate our success or failure.
Improving genetic selection strategies is another major topic, specifically not utilizing the available tools for genetic improvement of sheep and goats. Without these tools, we are limiting our potential, losing ground to foreign competition (who widely uses this technology), and may very well be selecting for animals that are less productive or less fit for our environmental conditions.
If we are real honest with ourselves, the way we have been ingrained to select small ruminants exclusively by how they look has created a barrier to other methods. Yes, genetics is a part of outward appearance, but our magnetism to visual appraisal above all else has lead to the breeding of animals that don’t perform at a high level or require unsustainable inputs to do so.
While there are a few exceptions, most breeding programs are entrenched in this longstanding approach. Same actions equals same results. For Texas, this is an 80% lamb crop confined to semi-arid low parasite risk regions of the state. When there is genetic potential for 150% lamb crop that can withstand much higher parasite loads, as demonstrated by foreign competitors.
Estimated breeding values (EBVs) through the National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP) are grossly underutilized by the Texas sheep and goat industry. These are not meant to replace current breeding strategies. In contrast, it expands the tools that breeders can use to find better genetics and/or eliminate genetics that are inferior. Especially for selection of traits that are hard to visually identify, such as reproductive potential and parasite resistance.
I strongly urge seedstock breeders to utilize the most state of art breeding programs for the betterment of their operations and the sustainability of commercial producers that source genetics from them. Similarly, I urge commercial breeders to buy breeding stock from breeders that offer EBVs and/or let their current seedstock breeders know that this is important to them. These technologies were developed using sound science and proven to have significant positive impact in other livestock species domestically and sheep industries outside of Texas.
Admittedly, this technology can be complex and will take time to learn. To add confusion, genomically enhanced breeding technologies are rapidly becoming available to small ruminants thanks to the progressive actions of other livestock industries. In essence, genetic technology can take multiple forms and is best utilized in concert with each other. We are always here to help with the adoption and implementation of these technologies. Never hesitate to ask questions or share concerns that you may have.
In summary, change can be hard and it rarely comes without complications. But without leaders that take on this challenge, the majority of people will sit on the fence and wait for someone else to do it. I think it is a fair generalization to say that raising sheep and goats in a drought-prone area is hard. And I know that with the lack of rain, growing predator pressure, and fluctuating markets it can be difficult to invest time and money into a long-term management change. I would like to point out that history has always favored those that think ahead, act before it was too late, and see opportunity where others see toil. I’m confident that the leaders in Texas are capable of embracing new technology and redefining our destiny. Consider this article a strong urge to do so!
To provide feedback on this article or request topics for future articles, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 325-657-7324. For general questions about sheep and goats, contact your local Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service county office. If they can’t answer your question, they have access to someone who can.