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Technologies to Improve Sheep Production Efficiency: Measuring Feed Efficiency & Early Detection of Parasitic Infection

Feed cost accounts for 45 to 80% of sheep production expenses. Research results from beef studies suggest that selecting feed-efficient animals could result in 10 to 12% decline in feed intake, 25 to 30% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and 15 to 17% reduction in nutrient loss. Current practices for measuring feed efficiency in ruminants are costly and require a lengthy trial (40 to 90 days) to measure individual daily feed intake and weight of the animals. Furthermore, despite promising results in cattle, research on sheep feed efficiency is lacking.

Another important factor affecting sheep production is parasite infections, which adversely affect sheep through reduced weight gain, lower immunity and increased susceptibility to miscarriage at preclinical stages. The current diagnosis methods rely on passive observation of clinical symptoms to detect the infection — even though at this point the infection is typically untreatable and the animal is culled. Production losses at the subclinical stage and the expense of diagnosis and treatment at the clinical stage both contribute to the increased cost of production. 

The Technology Access Centre for Livestock Production (TACLP) at Olds College of Agriculture & Technology is a research and innovation centre that supports the livestock industry in Alberta and beyond. The TACLP provides access to cutting-edge facilities, equipment, expertise and training for producers, entrepreneurs, students and researchers — and it aims to enhance animal health, welfare, productivity and sustainability through applied research, technology development and knowledge transfer.


Currently, the TACLP is conducting a research project to identify and quantify a panel of predictive blood biomarkers for feed efficiency and sheep parasite infection using genomics and metabolomics technologies. Two feeding trials with 80 lambs are happening in sequence from June to October 2023. Lambs began a feed efficiency test using the Vytelle SENSE feeding systems in June 2023. Following this test, they will then be randomly assigned to different parasitic (barber’s pole worm) treatments from August to October. Blood and tissue samples will be collected for metabolomics and genomics analysis, respectively. Hamza Jawad and Olufemi Osonowo, both students from Dalhousie University, are working with the TACLP on this project and will utilize the results to fulfill their graduate study requirements. 

The approach outlined in this study aims to revolutionize the detection of parasitic infection in sheep by focusing on early detection through the use of blood biomarkers. By identifying sheep that test positive for these biomarkers, the industry could selectively administer anthelmintic drugs to specifically targeted individuals, regardless of their infection levels. This shift towards targeted treatment is expected to significantly reduce the development of parasite resistance, in addition to minimizing the costs associated with anthelmintic purchases. Furthermore, the TACLP intends to develop and optimize standard operating procedures required for measuring feed efficiency in sheep — something that does not currently exist for the industry. Finally, genomic and metabolomic analysis of sheep feed efficiency may open the door to future testing options for identifying more efficient animals without requiring lengthy, expensive trials at a testing facility.

The lambs are currently on test at Olds College with the expected completion in October 2023. Trial results and preliminary findings are anticipated by spring 2024. Any questions or inquiries can be directed to Dr. Yaogeng Lei, Research Associate with the TACLP at