Sheep and wool research is conducted mostly in university research institutions or independent laboratories. Research relates to areas of economics, genetics, biochemistry, nutrition, wool metrology (objective measurement of wool properties), animal welfare and animal health.
In wool metrology, much of the scientific research is concerned specifically with wool follicles and the biology of fibres which results in wool measurements. In turn, the results of those measurements affect sheep selection in breeding for performance and productivity gains by farmers. Cloning technology in agricultural science means offspring have 99.8% of the genetic identity from carefully selected adult animals. The ability to control the genomes of the offspring also supports reproduction of farm animals such as sheep with a remarkably high value. Cloning farm animals is a highly popular new biotechnology service in the agriculture industry in many countries.
One well-known example of sheep used in genetics research is from the successful birth of Dolly the sheep in Scotland in 1996. Dolly was cloned however she was not cloned from embryonic cells like had been previously successful at that time in cows, frogs and mice. Instead she was cloned from an adult sheep cell. The significance is that a single adult cell, which is specialised in its function, provides the DNA necessary to make an entirely new organism with approximately 200 specialised cells. As cloning technology improves, so too do the options available to researchers such as zoologists and geneticists. With enough advances in technology, we may eventually have the opportunity to use cloning as a way to protect and grow endangered populations.
Sheep enterprises can be divided into specialities of wool production, prime lamb production and breeding studs for flock replacement. The success of any enterprise will depend mostly on the suitability of the breed selected and, of course, the husbandry skills and knowledge of the farmer. Sheep breeds differ greatly. Understanding this is the foundation for a thriving enterprise in sheep farming. Husbandry skills can be learned, however there are basic initial considerations for those entering or expanding any sheep farming enterprise:
Sheep are a great asset to hobby farms, providing a ready supply of meat, wool and milk. There are hundreds of sheep breeds in Australia and more than a thousand worldwide, though there are only a handful or breeds suited to the smaller land plots of a hobby farm. Before selecting a breed, it’s necessary to think about why you’ll be keeping sheep. Different breeds are suited to different purposes and there are several breeds which can be used for both wool and meat. Although all sheep can produce milk, non-dairy sheep produce very little milk compared to specialised breeds.
Some hobby farmers keep sheep for their own use. Others sell sheep products to niche markets such as meat sheep for buyers who are looking for a “farm-to-table” supplier. If you’re hoping to turn a profit off your wool, remember that wool must be of the highest quality, and many sheep require shearing expertise. Your herd must be large enough to produce enough wool to sell, and most hobby farmers are not likely to produce enough wool to make any serious money from it. If you are going to sell wool, smaller producers can also sell to niche markets such as local spinners and weavers. If you’re committed to high quality wool and are willing to “jacket” your sheep by putting sheep-sized jackets on them to protect their fleece, you may also be able to sell to specialist garment manufacturers.
Some hobby farmers add sheep to their land for pasture rotation because they graze lower down than larger herbivores, like cows and horses. Sheep do a great job cleaning up paddocks after cows and horses have been through, readying it for rest. Their feet (cloven hooves) are smaller than the hooves of cows and horses and so work well at flattening out the land which has been rutted. It’s a common soil management procedure on grazing land to run both sheep and cows together.
Horses and sheep are often run together to help in parasite control. Multi-species grazing like this lessens the parasite load since sheep eat a larger variety of grasses and they eat lower to the grass root (generally) than horses. Additionally, sheep can inadvertently eat the larvae of the equine specific parasites which is beneficial for horses because the parasite growth cycle is halted.