November 5, 1999 | By: Haven Miller
LEXINGTON, KY

Advocates of Kentucky's sizable beef, swine and dairy industries may be a bit surprised to hear the first official residents of the University of Kentucky's Animal Research Facility have breed names like Polypay, Polled Dorsett, and Hampshire, and that they bleated their way down the loading chute.

In deciding on those first residents, UK College of Agriculture administrators and researchers took a long look at the state's vast forage base -- and the economics of ruminant research -- and recognized sheep as a tremendous asset to the Commonwealth's animal research efforts. The Facility's first new livestock building to be occupied is called the Sheep Center, and it represents a big research emphasis on forage utilization, evaluation and management. Sheep provide an important and economical way of studying this important natural resource.

"Sheep are an excellent model for any ruminant study dealing with nutrition and reproduction," said Guy Kiracofe, chairman of the animal science department at the University of Kentucky.

"I would guess that within the next twenty years you will see a great deal more of the research related to cattle production done with sheep," said Kiracofe. "This facility is going to be a key component in forage research."

"Sheep are a cost effective way of testing forage use because they help provide the same data on smaller amounts of land," added Kiracofe. From the looks of the pastures already set up around the center, this kind of research is poised to begin in the very near future.

"We already have 16 fields fenced in three-acre plots. A single field will hold 15 ewes," said Don Ely, sheep nutrition researcher and instructor in the UK College of Agriculture. "So you can see we can get a lot of numbers from a relatively small area."

Ely's wish list of research projects suggests a wide array of strategies that will evaluate efficiency of forage use, and at the same time help improve the environment.

"If properly managed, sheep can be allowed to graze a riparian area (a strip of land beside a stream that is maintained in grass and shrubs and usually fenced off to keep out livestock)," said Ely.

"Once sheep graze and take in water, they move to high ground to sleep and, in the process, they leave little or no manure near the water source," said Ely. "I think that testing this natural tendency has significant potential in the future as far our environment is concerned."

"Down the road we would like to set up some of the land so we can do companion grazing with combinations of livestock using cattle, goats and sheep," added Ely. "We also have the necessary wiring installed so we can do some animal behavior research somewhere down the road."

The Sheep Center is not your typical barn. Visitors will see a high-tech nutrition center complete with different feed batch mixers and a totally computerized bunk-feeding system. There is a multipurpose room that can accommodate 30 students, as well a small lab which will help with research sample preparation.

The center's barn area can handle 240 ewes. There also is space to set up 64 mini-pens, or "jugs," to hold a single ewe and her lamb(s) for two or three days immediately following birth. That space can be re-aligned to individually feed 32 lambs different experimental rations.

To some, the building may seem extravagant, but Ely and his UK counterparts expect a lot of exciting research efforts to be carried out in and around the complex, and that requires more than a typical building to house and feed lambs and ewes.

Will the new center prompt a renewed interest in sheep production for Kentucky?

"Sheep are an economically efficient enterprise.... even though there are not very many in this state, there is good potential for them. If we can demonstrate some of the economic and environmental advantages of this ruminant we might be able to stimulate some additional production in the state while answering some critical questions about forage use for all our ruminant livestock," said Ely.

Traditionalists need not worry that the world has been turned upside down. The research farm's beef and swine research facilities will welcome their first occupants early next year with their own complement of exciting new ideas for research and extension efforts for the next millennium.

Contact: 

Writer: Haven Miller (606) 257-3784
Writer: Mark Eclov 606-257-7223 Sources: Guy Kiracofe 606-257-2686 Don Ely 606-257-2717