Ewe roundup reveals sheep research

Amy Olson

Jill McGinnity squints at an ultrasound monitor, pointing with a smile to the faint gray outline of a tiny beating heart.
Although ultrasound is an increasingly common technique, at least one aspect separates the scene from most others: The fetus McGinnity is monitoring isn’t human.
Ewe pregnancy is the subject of research for McGinnity, a third-year veterinary student, and Theresa Anttila, a first-year veterinary student. They tried to demonstrate how researchers can diagnose and monitor sheep production as part of the annual summer sheep roundup at the University’s Sheep Research Barn on the St. Paul Campus on Wednesday.
The roundup was open to farmers from across the state who raise sheep. More than 150 farmers attended the roundup, learning about research conducted by scientists from the University and the Extension Service on everything from feeding techniques to managing the soil nitrogen levels.
Researchers use ultrasound to monitor ewe pregnancies. Since some experiments require twins, ultrasound can help determine which ewes to include in studies comparing food intake and growth. The research helps farmers devise new diets to maximize weight gain or wool production.
As McGinnity and Anttila prepared to demonstrate the ultrasound, the docile ewe was held in midair by a modified cradle used to keep sheep still during examination. Unlike the external ultrasounds performed on human mothers, the procedure used on ewes is internal.
The transrectal ultrasound technique was developed by professor Juan Romano over the last five years. Romano left the University this month to teach at Texas A & M University.
“He was a pioneer in using the technique,” McGinnity said.
Using ultrasound, researchers can see the fetus as early as 16 days after conception. Depending on the breed, ewes carry one to three fetuses for about five months. Between 40 and 50 breeds are raised in the United States.
Kathy Lavengood, owner of Goodrath Farm in Maple Plain, said sheep owners choose the breed they raise according to the characteristics they prefer. She considered her personal preference, Dorset sheep, a “good, all-purpose breed.”
Sheep are easier to raise than cows or horses because they need less-regimented schedules and can adapt to feeding schedules as the owners need, she said.
“Sheep are nice because they’ll wait until you get to them,” said Lavengood. She said she couldn’t raise horses because they require more work.
Lavengood decided to raise sheep in 1982 while she was battling cancer. She and her husband had wanted to raise animals, and sheep required less work than other animals.
Now 70, Lavengood is raising 168 ewes by herself.
Lavengood, like many farmers, attended the sheep roundup to learn how to increase wool and meat production from her flock. Lavengood hoped to learn about pioneering techniques in sheep farming at the event, like the ewe ultrasounds.
Many of the demonstrations at the roundup involved research conducted by veterinary and agriculture students at the University.
McGinnity said working with sheep is a beneficial exercise for vet students, especially those who aspire to treat larger animals. After working with small animals like cats and dogs, sheep are a good introduction to large animal veterinary medicine, McGinnity said.
“Sheep are a good transition,” she said.