Rangeland Sheep Research

Christine Gelley, OSU Extension Educator ANR, Noble County

On the border of Southwestern Montana and Eastern Idaho lay the rangelands that comprise the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) U.S. Sheep Experiment Station. My interest in sheep production and my nephew’s enjoyment of road trips, led us on the three-hour trek from Bozeman, Montana to Dubois, Idaho last week to set foot on the influential sites where many American sheep research and rangeland management discoveries originated. After catching up over lunch at an old-fashioned soda fountain in Ennis, Montana, we crossed the Idaho border, and continued on through beautiful stretches of native rangelands peppered with cattle grazing as we followed winding gravel roads to Dubois.

The Sheep Experiment Station Headquarters is located about six miles north of Dubois, although the grazing lands under station management total over 48,000 acres in two states, Idaho and Montana. Station Research Leader- Dr. Joshua Bret Taylor met us upon arrival at headquarters and gave us a whirlwind tour of the main facilities located on the 28,000-acre site surrounding the station office. Some of the earliest research on estrus cycles and out of season breeding occurred in environmental controlled buildings on the station nearly 100 years ago. The same buildings are maintained to original standards (even the same paint colors) and are still used for research today.

Three American sheep breeds were developed at the station in response to producer needs: Columbia, Targhee, and Polypay.

The Columbia breed is the result of crossing Lincoln and Rambouillet for a large bodied sheep with high wool and meat production abilities. Original work on Columbia sheep began in Laramie, Wyoming in 1912, but in 1918 was moved to Dubois, Idaho. Columbia sheep proved to be adaptable to a wide range of conditions but required large amounts of forage or feed to satisfy the needs of their body mass. Columbia remains a popular breed, although they are less popular on rangelands and are no longer studied at the station.

The Targhee breed was developed out of an increased demand for three-quarter fine and one-quarter long fleeces, which were of higher value than those provided by Rambouillet and Merino based crosses becoming common in the early 1920s, such as the Columbia and Corriedale. Thus, the Targhee breed was carefully developed from a Rambouillet, Lincoln, and Corriedale base flock as a “comeback sheep” to provide the characteristics desired by the market. While individual ranchers worked to pursue the same traits in their flocks, the USDA began their work in 1926. By 1938 the Targhee breed was ready for wider implementation and became popular with ranchers by the late 1940s.

The Polypay breed was developed in response to common frustrations of the sheep industry to create an all-in-one breed that would pay in many ways. Preliminary genetic work began in 1968. The first four-way crosses between Finnsheep, Rambouillet, Targhee, and Dorset were made in 1970. Within ten years the American Polypay Sheep Association was organized, and the breed has since been successful in a variety of diverse environments. The Polypay continues to live up to the five goals set for this “dream sheep” which include high lifetime prolificacy, large lamb crops in early maturity, ability to produce two lamb crops per year, rapid lamb growth rates, and desirable carcass quality.

Along with a facilities tour and history lesson, Dr. Taylor took my nephew Nathan and I into two exquisite libraries associated with rangeland ecology. While they may not look that special to someone outside of the sheep and forage world, they were extremely impressive to me. The station library was lined with shelves and shelves resource manuals and progress reports organized chronologically by topic going back to 1915 when the station was established during the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson. The forage laboratory contained the station’s herbarium, which is a library of preserved plants used for scientific study. The station’s collection of over 6,000 native plants is one of the most expansive collections in the West.

The U.S. Sheep Experiment Station currently manages a flock of about 3,000 breeding ewes across its expansive and diverse grazing lands which contain subalpine meadow, foothill, sagebrush steppe, and desert shrubland ecosystems. The diversity of the environmental conditions is extremely unique and continues to justify the station’s value to the people of the United States. According to the USDA, elevation across the land holdings range from 4,800 feet to nearly 10,000 feet, average annual precipitation ranges from about 10 inches in the Snake River plain to almost 21 inches on the land in Montana.

To manage the flock and station activities, the station employs 14 Great Pyrenees guardian dogs, 12 full-time research staff, and 10-plus additional researchers and seasonal staff of various backgrounds.

Visiting the station was on my bucket-list. I was thrilled that Dr. Taylor shared his time with us and even invited us back to spend a full day on the range with the research staff during the height of the grazing season’s activity. Added to my to-do list is a return visit in late-May or early-June when the rangeland is at its most lush state for a hands-on look at sheep life on the western rangelands.

We returned to the consistently green hills of Ohio on Friday with a new appreciation of eastern grazing systems, a heightened respect for western ranch life, and memories to last a lifetime.