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Analyzing Near Your Own Roots

Posted by Mary Stewart | December 8, 2014

This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend Tilth Producers of WA annual conference.  We will be posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.

Mary Stewart - student guest blogger
Mary Stewart – student guest blogger

At the 2014 Tilth Producers of Washington Conference I attended Dr. Susan Kerr’s workshop on parasites in farm animals. Worms especially are a serious problem in ruminants, notably sheep and goats. Slide after slide, Dr. Kerr showed sheep suffering anemia, bottle jaw and diarrhea. Ultimately such conditions can lead to death. Unfortunately, parasites cannot be eliminated, but they can be reduced to an insignificant or inconsequential level in the herd. There are several steps farmers can take to prevent their animals from becoming infected. Some practices are: rotational grazing, kidding or lambing during intensely cold weather, preventing overgrazing (minimum height of grasses at 3.5 inches), letting animals out after morning dew dries and performing fecal egg counts for each animal.

Photo: Jason Adams
Photo: Jason Adams

Upon returning to Pullman, I learned even more. I work for a farm in the Palouse that practices a mixed crop-livestock system. They have a sizable herd of sheep, about eighty ewes. Upon returning to work, I was faced with a “research meets practice” moment. Some solutions from the Tilth conference were practical. Lambing and kidding during the intense winter months and rotational grazing work well in the Palouse. Other solutions proved difficult to follow. Sheep love short young grass and will bite it to the ground, even if there is twelve inch high grass next to them. Worm larvae are passed from animal to animal in grass dewdrops. Dewdrops only rise three inches above the ground, right where sheep love to graze. Another researched solution that proves difficult to follow is performing fecal egg counts for each sheep and running sheep on pasture only after the morning dew evaporates. With a herd of of eighty ewes (relatively small compared to most other herds) it is nearly impossible to track the feces of each animal. Additionally when rotational grazing is practiced, it is difficult to move eighty sheep between the barn and field twice a day.

Worm larvae are passed from animal to animal in grass dewdrops. Photo: Boris Kasimov
Worm larvae are passed from animal to animal in grass dewdrops. Photo: Boris Kasimov

I truly enjoyed attending Dr. Kerr’s presentation. One of the most significant lessons I learned from it, however, was the relativity of farming practices. Each farmer must analyze for themselves the conditions and land they have. Instead of tracking the fecal egg count for each sheep, we will be taking a random assortment of feces samples from the field. From these tests we will make a broad generalization of the worm presence in our herd. Instead of letting the sheep out every morning after dew dries, we will take the risk of exposing the herd to morning dew. Luckily, here in the Palouse our climate is drier compared to others, which slightly lowers our risk of worms.

The last point of Dr. Kerr’s lecture was about parasite resistance to antibiotics. Some farmers “de-worm” their sheep with antibiotics every field rotation. Such frequent use of medications encourages parasite resistance. Parasite resistance means that medications will eventually no longer work. Ideally different medications will be developed, however the frightening concept of complete antibiotic resistance looms on the horizon. Thus it seems that a race has begun between antibiotic development and parasite genetic evolution.

Thanks to the Tilth Conference and the scholarship that got me there, the farm I work on will be performing a study on their worm population this year. I will research the fecal egg count for the herd. From the information I will gather, we will be able to use the correct antibiotics and during the most needed times of year. I am thankful for Dr. Kerr’s presentation, her one-hour lecture turned into perhaps years of education.

2 thoughts on "Analyzing Near Your Own Roots"

  1. Marc Stewart says:

    A clear, concise, cohesive, and helpfully informative piece. Nicely done.

  2. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs says:

    Wonderful example of WSU researchers, students, and growers working together toward better sustainability! Thanks to Tilth for providing such a timely lesson. It does sound like more streamlined testing is needed in order for more producers to successfully implement it. So much of IPM and similar decision-making processes depend on having really practical monitoring methods as well as having good control mechanisms to use when they’re really needed. Hopefully Mary and Dr. Kerr can help further improve this process, thereby reducing the drug load in both animals and manure, which affect land, water, and even human health. Go Cougs!

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