MADISON, Wis. – Jan. 17 marked the end of a steady leadership presence for Wisconsin’s sheep industry. It was Dave Thomas’ last day as University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of sheep management and genetics. Thomas retired after more than 25 years as sheep specialist at UW-Madison.
Many sheep producers considered Thomas a valuable resource and a friend, as he patiently answered sheep-related questions at producer events or on the phone, always keeping practicality and economics at the forefront. Though he’ll maintain a campus office as an emeritus professor, he plans to step away from sheep-industry events for a while as he adjusts to retirement.
He and his wife, Lynda, purchased an 1847 rock house in Mineral Point, Wisconsin – Dave Thomas’s hometown – which he said should keep him busy. He and his three brothers also own a non-working farm in Lafayette County, Wisconsin, at which Thomas wants to spend more time. And he’s trading sheep for bees, intending to add a few more hives to that small enterprise. The Thomases plan to visit children and grandchildren, and travel internationally.
Thomas grew up in Iowa County, Wisconsin, the son of a farmer who switched to the feed business. Thomas said he’s been interested in sheep for as long as he can remember.
“I remember sitting in the Iowa County Fair sheep barn before I got sheep and just being excited to be there,” he said.
When Thomas was in high school, his father bought a yearling Hampshire that had one little weak lamb that didn’t make it. It was a difficult entry into sheep production for someone who would become a research powerhouse in the industry. But, undaunted, Thomas acquired more Hampshires; by college graduation he had 45 ewes. He showed at the Wisconsin State Fair and other competitions.
Thomas married his high school sweetheart, Lynda, the day before he graduated in 1971 with a meat and animal-science degree from UW-Madison. That same month the couple headed to Kenya with the Peace Corps. Dave Thomas served as personal assistant to the head of the Animal Production Division within the Ministry of Agriculture in Nairobi, Kenya, and as animal-production officer in the Rift Valley Province – the equivalent of an Extension specialist. Lynda Thomas taught school.
Peace Corps produced an abiding interest in international agriculture and a desire to travel. Dave Thomas has worked on sheep projects in Bulgaria, Kenya, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. He’s attended conferences and visited research institutions and farms in New Zealand, England, Scotland, Wales, France, Greece and Turkey. He was the U.S. Agency for International Development scientific liaison officer to the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya from 1997-2005. And he’s presented research papers around the world, including in 2013 at the World Congress on Animal Production in Beijing, China.
With a master’s in animal science and a doctorate in animal breeding from Oklahoma State University, Thomas worked with sheep at Oregon State University and the University of Illinois before coming home to southern Wisconsin in 1991. He became a specialist in UW-Madison’s Extension outreach program – for sheep research, teaching and as a sheep specialist. Beginning in 2010 he no longer had Extension responsibilities, though he remained a familiar presence at producer events.
Thomas’ retirement is bittersweet for Wisconsin’s sheep industry because a new sheep-specialist won’t be hired. His retirement, in large part, resulted in the sale in October 2016 of the 300-ewe dairy-sheep research flock at the Spooner Agricultural Research Station.
“I was retiring and the department decided there were higher priorities in a short-budget situation than hiring a small-ruminant person,” said Thomas of the university’s decision to disperse sheep at Spooner. “Unfortunately Wisconsin is following a trend that’s taken place at many other universities.”
The first ewes were milked at Spooner in 1996; it was the only dairy-sheep research program in North America, importing the first East Friesian and Lacaune genetics from which most dairy-sheep flocks in the United States today descend. Ground-breaking dairy-sheep nutrition and lactation-physiology research was done at Spooner.
The 350 ewes under the care of Todd Taylor at the Arlington Agricultural Research Station, near Arlington, Wisconsin, will be maintained. Arlington has purebred flocks of Hampshire, Polypay, Targhee and Rambouillet.
Two particularly vibrant university sheep programs are at Montana State University and Texas A&M University. Both programs include PhD graduates who worked under Thomas.
Sheep – and goats – are minor livestock species in the United States now, even though Thomas said, worldwide there are as many sheep as cattle. As of January 2016, there were 5.3 million sheep in the United States, with 76,000 in Wisconsin. In 2012, the most recent count available, there were 2,590 farms in Wisconsin with sheep, ranking the state ninth. Texas was No. 1 for sheep operations.
“The U.S. has developed a cattle culture over a small-ruminant culture,” Thomas said, fingering labor input as a primary deterrent to more farmers raising sheep. “We know they have potential for small family farms, but we don’t have the large commercial entities in the spotlight, like the large dairy-cow herds in Wisconsin. And we don’t have a large checkoff program that brings in large amounts of money to support research.”
Thomas has made important contributions to the industry. Two projects in particular garnered significant attention.
One was discovering that spider-lamb syndrome in Suffolks was a genetic recessive due to a single gene. Because of that, carriers of severe skeletal deformities in lambs can be detected and the condition has been reduced in the breed.
The other was correlating tail-dock length with rectal prolapse. The multi-state study of 1,200 lambs showed an 8 percent incidence of rectal prolapses in sheep docked short, 4 percent in those with medium-length docks and 2 percent for longer docks. Most sheep in the show ring, however, are still docked short.
Thomas said a favorite role at UW-Madison was teaching. He said he has been impressed by the intelligence of today’s animal-science students.
“The questions get better every year,” he said. “The students keep you on your toes. They’re a really great group of people to be around.”
Thomas was also instrumental in development and implementation of the National Sheep Improvement Program, which provides estimates of genetic merit for economically important traits of each sheep in a participating flock. He proposed establishing the national program in 1983 and has continued to serve as a technical adviser.
Two final questions for the retiring sheep expert:
- What’s his preferred sheep-management system?
^ Thomas prefers managed pasture and ewes, and nursing lambs ready to graze in early May. He prefers weaning lambs toward the end of July, feeding them whole-shell corn and protein pellets in a dry lot.
- What’s his favorite breed of sheep?
^ When pressed, Thomas said Romneys are big gentle and pleasant sheep.