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Davis, California

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Column: Counting sheep

I spent last Saturday at the 91st annual California Ram Sale. In the dusty valley town of Tulare, I stood surrounded by bales of hay, pens of rams and dozens of old cowboys with bristly mustaches and nicknames like “Lucky.”

It seemed like an unlikely place to learn about science.

Yet there were 20 UC Davis undergraduate animal science students, members of a class studying beef and sheep production.

“I’ve never judged sheep before, so it’s going to be a learning experience today,” said Jake Murphy, a senior animal science major.

With the disappearance of public grazing lands and the lack of mutton on American menus, the U.S. sheep industry is shrinking. Field trip leader Dana Van Liew, lecturer in animal science and manager of the UC Davis Sheep Program, said he thinks the industry would be more efficient if there was more scientific research on sheep.

So these animal science students are not just future sheep breeders, they are the generation that could bring the industry back to life.

“I haven’t seen so many sheep students in forever,” said Mike Corn, manager of visiting company Roswell Wool.

The students learned to judge rams on body mass, muscular structure and their bulky frame size – all genetic traits passed from rams to their offspring. Van Liew told the class to look for rams with a “modified hourglass shape” – meaning wide, smooth shoulders and a wide, muscular rump.

Van Liew also encouraged his students to talk to the experienced sheep-breeders and learn about the business.

“These people are very gregarious, like sheep, they’ll talk to you,” Van Liew said.

While wandering between the stalls, I found Bob Paasch, a UC Davis alumnus and sheep-breeder, whom the other breeders nicknamed “The Dean of the Sheep Industry.”

“I sold my first sheep at the California Ram Sale in 1959,” he said.

He called his meticulous breeding records “The Family Bible,” and some of the rams he sold on Saturday are descendants of his original herd.

Paasch described animal science during the 1950s.

“We were taught that one way of castrating [rams] was to bite the testicles off with your teeth,” Paasch said.

Times have changed, but college students are still learning how to raise sheep.

Tara Urbano, a senior animal science major, is a resident student shepherd for the Sheep Barn at UC Davis. Urbano lives in a bedroom inside the barn, and she and two other student shepherds do all the chores and make sure the sheep stay healthy.

“I learn a lot everyday,” Urbano said.

In the fall and late winter, the shepherds even wake up at 2 a.m. to check on pregnant ewes.

“During lambing times, we’re in charge of making sure everything stays alive,” Urbano said.

When I looked around the sale, I took notes of the contrasts. The old cowboys helped their kids and grandkids groom the sheep. The UC Davis students chatted near Paasch’s new generation of rams. There were steel-toed work boots and flip-flops.

But everyone there had the same passion: sheep.

Around noon, the college students turned from the ram pens to their rumbling stomachs. They gathered around the lunch provided by the California Wool Growers Association: barbequed lamb.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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