Unknown to many Cornellians who rarely venture past the Ag Quad, the University maintains a flock of sheep for teaching, research and Cornell Cooperative Extension programs.
“Most people from lower campus don’t have a clue what goes on up here,” Doug Hogue, sheep extension specialist and professor emeritus, said. To him, the center of the University is where the animals are.
The flock peaked around 1,000 sheep a few years ago, but now there are about 700. Half are ewes — or female sheep — the other half are lambs. There are usually about 15 to 20 male sheep, called rams, at a time.
The sheep barn is in Harford, N.Y., about 15 miles east of campus.
“The purpose of sheep farm is to serve as a catalyst for sheep production in the state,” Prof. Michael Thonney, animal science, said.
The program’s mission is to enable families to support themselves using sheep, which produce meat, dairy and wool.
But Cornell’s main contribution to sheep farmers is the development of a system to increase the number of lambs born per year, which increases revenue, according to Thonney. Most sheep are seasonal breeders, meaning they only have lambs in the spring, but sheep in Cornell’s system breed more frequently.
Around 1980, Hogue and former shepherd Brian Magee developed the STAR system.
They found that both one-fifth of year and half the gestation period of sheep are 73 days. This means that with certain management, it is possible for the ewes to have lambs five times a year. In total, each ewe has five lambs every three years instead of one a year.
Once the system was developed, the shepherds started selecting for ewes that would breed out of season and stay on the STAR system. Rams are selected from mothers that give birth more frequently and have more twins, Thonney said.
More frequent births require better feeding, Thonney said. A certain level of fiber is important for growing lambs and lactating ewes, he said.
The STAR system ewes are just as healthy as ewes that only breed once a year, although they may live longer if they only lambed once a year, Thonney said.
Cornell’s flocks are primarily composed of Dorsets, a breed of sheep that breeds a-seasonally, which aids the success of the STAR system. The current flocks trace their ancestry back to Dorsets purchased in 1903.
The University’s farm is also looking at lambing management and set-ups to minimize work for farmers. This involves behavioral tests to see which ewes are good mothers and which lambs are more nurse more vigorously.
“A lot of projects are very long term,” Thonney said. “You can’t just do one experiment and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got the answer.’ It leads to more questions.”
The sheep program also provides opportunities for students. Thonney teaches AS 3800: Sheep, and a few students usually intern or volunteer on the sheep farm.
Many are pre-vet students who want to get hands-on experience working with larger animals. Students generally help with feeding, bedding the pens, changing the water and recording the weights of newborn lambs.
Kevin Phipps ’12, an animal science major, recently began working with Thonney’s research on vaccines.
“It’s something I should check out even if not what I ultimately want to do,” Phipps said. “It’s good because I won’t be dumbfounded by sheep, and it’s fun just to learn something new.”
“Sheep are nice to work with because it’s unlikely you’re going to get killed by a sheep,” Thonney said.