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The new Lamb-a-Year program looks to benefit students and ranchers

Young sheep stand in a pen in front of a barn. There is hay and snow on the ground.
Ivy Engel
Wyoming Public Media

The University of Wyoming (UW) based Wyoming Wool Initiative has launched a new program known as the Lamb-a-Year program. Loosely based on the Steer-a-Year programs found nationwide, it’s designed to give students hands-on experience with raising lambs and to give Wyoming producers valuable knowledge about lamb production in the state. It’s the first to do it with sheep.

“The Lamb-a-Year program essentially integrates all aspects of the land grant mission because producers donate their lambs, we monitor the performance of those lambs, we work on novel feeding strategies to reduce costs of growing those lambs to harvest weight, and then we give all the information back to the producer in terms of lamb growth [and] the quality of the meat once those lambs are harvested,” said Whit Stewart, UW Extension sheep specialist and an associate professor of animal science. “And then, of course, it's integrated into our programming here on campus.”

Four small bales of wool sit on plastic tables. In the corner, there is a whiteboard and a poster board.
Ivy Engel
Wyoming Public Media
The class is taught in a brand new converted classroom.

Stewart teaches the class, which meets weekly to learn about lamb production and track the progress of different experiments they’re running. The class is taught in a brand new converted classroom, which Stweart said was paid for by the funds that have been raised by the Wyoming Wool Initiative.

“Obviously this has more to do with lamb production than it does wool production,” said Stewart. “But the Wyoming Wool Initiative really is to help strengthen our state and regional sheep industry. And so this is just another one of those programs that is administered through that.”

Another part of the Lamb-a-Year program that can be tied to the Initiative is the new electronic scale the program purchased. Each sheep has a special RFID ear tag. When the sheep step onto the scale, the machine scans the ear tag and enters the weight into a spreadsheet with the rest of the animal’s data. This allows Stewart and his students to easily track and manage an animal’s information. The machine also automatically sorts the sheep by opening one of three gates to the proper pen depending on any number of variables he or the students put in including weight and if a certain set of sheep seem to be buddies. Stewart added that the system is still in its testing phases, which means they’re also providing valuable feedback to the company developing this new tool.

A sheep scale in a barn.
Ivy Engel
Wyoming Public Media
The new sheep scale is less stressful for the animal. It identifies individual sheep and logs their information with an RFID enabled ear tag.

The new weighing system is less stressful for the sheep and the information from these weekly weigh-ins is shared with participating producers so they can learn more about their animal’s development every step of the way. It’s even helping some feed companies learn more about their product.

NexGen Feeds donated some extruded corn, which is basically some processed corn, for us to help offset some of our feed costs in finishing these lambs,” said Stewart. “And in return, we're giving them some information on how those lambs do different levels of this extruded corn.”

Once the sheep are the proper age and weight, Stewart said they will be harvested and even that will be a learning experience.

“We're going to continue the class into the spring as we start to harvest these lambs, and really look at lamb merchandising, helping us understand the importance of purchasing American lamb, and how it helps prop up rural communities throughout the West,” he said.

The students will also get to study different quality metrics of the meat, like how lean it is. A select number of lambs will be available for purchase directly from the Wyoming Wool Initiative and they will be processed at the UW Meat Lab. The rest will be sold through a partner in Colorado. Stewart is also interested in finding ways to use the whole animal and give students an even wider range of experiences, like creating and selling lamb pelts.

He said the program had a great reception among Wyoming producers, who donated lambs or money in a tough economic year and while the market is on a downward trend.

“It's amazing to see how willing they were to help us pull this off. And many have commented, ‘Man, I hope this is a program that goes for years and years, because we want to see the program continue to grow,’” he said. “So that's kind of a good feather in our cap to keep going.”

Ivy started as a science news intern in the summer of 2019 and has been hooked on broadcast ever since. Her internship was supported by the Wyoming EPSCoR Summer Science Journalism Internship program. In the spring of 2020, she virtually graduated from the University of Wyoming with a B.S. in biology with minors in journalism and business. When she’s not writing for WPR, she enjoys baking, reading, playing with her dog, and caring for her many plants.

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