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A new UW initiative hopes to become a powerful resource for wool producers in Wyoming and beyond

The sheep at LREC will return to the pasture behind the facilities as soon as the lambs are weaned. The wool from these sheep will produce the blankets for the UW Wool Throw Project.
Ivy Engel
Wyoming Public Radio
The sheep at LREC will return to the pasture behind the facilities as soon as the lambs are weaned. The wool from these sheep will produce the blankets for the UW Wool Throw Project.

Wyoming has a long history of raising sheep and the state is known to produce high quality wool - and a lot of it. In the 2017 Census of Agriculture, Wyoming ranked number one in wool production with almost 2.8 million pounds shorn.

"The arid environment where we run a lot of our sheep breeds here in Wyoming lend themselves well to find wool sheep breeds," said Whit Stewart, the University of Wyoming Extension's sheep specialist. "But there's a lot of dual purpose breeds that excel in meat production that have a coarser type of wool. That still is great, just a different important use. So yeah, there's different types. But we really are renowned for our fine wool production."

The University of Wyoming sheep program is trying to build on that with the new Wyoming Wool Initiative.

"Being number one in the country in terms of wool production and value, it's important that we have an immediate tie back to our producers," said Stewart, who is a co-founder of the initiative.

The way the young initiative is structured specifically allows for its longevity. It's self-sustaining - each year the program will make a limited edition wool blanketand other wool products. The money made from those sales will fund the following year's production and productions in the future will continue to do so.

"We are able to create this Wyoming Wool Initiative because of the support we had from last year's blanket project. And I was blown away. And I'm so grateful that we are able to grow," said Lindsay Conely-Stewart, who works with the initiative.

"This isn't just, like, an annual fundraiser. Now, it's an initiative that will have an impact on our sheep and wool producers, it will potentially create more jobs, it creates just economic activity for entrepreneurs to come in and say, 'Oh, here's a sustainable material that already exists in Wyoming and we can do endless things with it,'"

Stewart added that the way the initiative is set up is key. It's not another grant. "Grants have a shelf life, right? And attention span when it comes to long term impact isn't always there on federally funded proud projects, right?" said Stewart. "So this is unique because it allows us to do a lot more and a lot more sustained efforts to bring about innovation and change in the wool industry."

That innovation and change is going to come from the research and experiments the initiative is working on. The Wool Initiative isn't strictly about the white fluffy stuff that comes off of a sheep - they're also interested in the animal itself. According to Stewart, while they are looking at different uses for wool, they're also looking at improving how sheep are raised and other agricultural techniques.

And to do this, they're bringing students to Mountain Meadow Wool Mill in Buffalo to learn about wool processing and supporting interns in all aspects of the initiative - sometimes with the help of industry groups.

"I think that's another cool thing, is the American Sheep Industry Association, which is our big industry group in the US Sheep Industry, reached out to us after seeing what we've been doing with the project and said, 'Hey, we'd like to fund a student to do some of this work in conjunction with you,'" Stewart said.

One of those interns involved with the initiative is Dylan Laverell, a graduate student in the animal science department. He's been involved with the UW Sheep Program since his undergrad, taking advantage of several research opportunities, which, he said, has given him a lot of relevant experience for his future career.

"The way that I see it with that is that the Wool Initiative stuff has kind of formalized a lot of that action and direction in terms of getting students out there," he said.

He thinks the initiative expands those opportunities making it more visible.

"There's a more formalized sort of initiative to get that stuff done. And I think with that, we've also gained a lot more opportunity," he said.

Lavrell has also been involved with the initiative after its founding by helping with sheep shearing and sorting the wool before it's sent to Mountain Meadow Wool to be turned into the annual blanket. He said he learned a lot about wool classification and its importance.

"I'm super excited to see what it can do for the next generation of students here at the University of Wyoming, relating them and connecting them in the sheep industry as a whole," he said.

A sentiment that was echoed by undergraduate intern Tessa Maurer, who has also been learning important research techniques and animal handling skills through the initiative.

"I didn't come from an agricultural background. I'm from Arvada, Colorado, which is just the suburbs of Denver," she said. "And this opportunity allowed me to learn how to be with the sheep and how to take care of them, which you don't really get to learn in the classroom."

Courtney Newman, a master's student in animal science and another intern, has been instrumental in helping the initiative explore the uses of blockchain in the sheep industry to trace materials, like wool. Her internship was a part of her master's project.

"It was a really cool culmination of all that work that we did at the university and then up at [Mountain Meadow Wool] so that we could put that together and generate a report of how we can trace that wool entirely through the process, what data points are important, and then showing the end consumer where that blanket has been, where it was processed, those different dates, what sheep it's from," Newman said.

She spent July at Mountain Meadow Wool, observing the process and determining which data is important and even feasible to keep track of. According to Stewart, they've also been learning from others.

"We've been talking with other international partners, seeing how they've made [blockchain] work in their sheep industries, and we're tailoring it to the uniqueness of our industry," he said.

And by doing that, Stewart hopes the Wyoming Wool Initiative can become an important source of knowledge for producers.

"But we don't need to be the source of saying 'Here are the products that need to be made and this is how it's done.'" he said. "We want to be the clearinghouse of information for private industry to come to us and say, 'How do I make this work? I have an expertise. How can you help me connect the dots?' That's really what we're leveraging."

And the project hopes to continue expanding, bringing in more partners across UW.

"Yes, the core of this is housed in the College of Ag, but using some of the design capabilities, maybe, that we have in other departments to help us make these products really unique," Stewart said. "But also the MBA program, and working with them on this feasibility study of how feasible is it to first stage process wool in the state of Wyoming. Lots of other countries internationally are doing that since the supply chain was disrupted internationally."

Stewart stressed that the initiative helps build on the land grant university mission and expands the university's outreach.

"The fact that we all have leveraged all three aspects of the land grant mission in this wool initiative, teaching, research and extension, and outreach to our stakeholders, it makes it really powerful. I mean, I still believe in that mission of the land grant university system when it's done right. And I think this is just an example of that," said Stewart. "Obviously, we're new into this, but we've already got some outcomes to really show the impact we can have."

And he said it helps build on the College of Ag and Dean Barbara Rasco's push for entrepreneurship. There are a lot of opportunities for the Initiative to continue growing, Stewart thinks. It just takes a bit of ingenuity and a lot of sheep.

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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