URBANA—When the new University of Illinois South Farms Beef/Sheep facility opens it may also mark the initiation of a cooperative sheep research and breeding program with Illinois State University.
“We’ve been involved in cooperative beef cattle programs with Illinois State University in the past, but this will be a ‘first’ for sheep,” explained A. Richard Cobb, U of I Extension sheep specialist. “It is an evolution of the long-standing and productive U of I sheep program.”
The new sheep portion of the Beef/Sheep facility will replace the existing barn which was constructed around 1915, Cobb said. The new sheep barn will be 40 by 110 and is organized so feeding studies could be conducted in it in the future.
“A strong tradition of sheep management and research is associated with the U of I and we believe a cooperative arrangement with ISU will work to the benefit not only of the institutions involved, but the state’s sheep producers,” said Neal Merchen, head of the Department of Animal Sciences.
Previous sheep research at the U of I led to a reliable test for spider syndrome in sheep, making it easier for producers to avoid that debilitating problem in their flocks. The first research on confinement production of sheep was also conducted in the old South Farms sheep facility.
Illinois has a significant sheep industry, Cobb noted, with about 52,000 breeding ewes in the state and 2,400 sheep producers.
“While most of the sheep production is concentrated in the northern and western parts of Illinois, there are sheep in just about every county and region, all the way from the north border of the state, through Cook County, to the southern tip of the state,” said Cobb.
“The increasing cultural diversity of Illinois brings dietary patterns that include lamb as a traditional meat, which creates opportunity for the marketplace,” he said. “We have a growing market for lamb and some producers have direct links with consumers.”
While much of this market is in and around Chicago, Cobb noted that a farmers’ market in Urbana includes two lamb producers, “who appear to be doing real well.”
When the new sheep facility comes on line, it will hold 50 lambs that will be used in teaching. In addition, 15 to 20 yearling ewes, also used for various courses, will be maintained. The ewes will be grazed on pasture and will be visible to passersby.
“We use sheep in animal husbandry, sheep production, and introductory animal sciences classes,” said Cobb. “Our sheep are used quite a bit in our teaching program.”
As a result of a cooperative program with Illinois State University now being discussed, that institution’s sheep farm at Lexington may receive 40 to 45 breeding ewes from the U of I flock. If the agreement is finalized, the two institutions will cooperate on the management of the animals. Each fall and spring semester, 15 to 20 yearling ewes from the flock at Lexington will be sent to the U of I sheep facility for use in classes.
“We’ll also use the animals in our judging programs,” Cobb said.