Connie Moore always liked sheep, and she doesn’t have an explanation why.
Her father raised sheep and Connie showed them in 4-H when she was growing up in Chadron. Now, Moore has about 60 of her own, as well as cows, pigs, and about 100 goats on her 350 acres of land south of Chadron.
It’s enough to keep the retired educator plenty busy, but Moore, who turns 70 in April, doesn’t let that stop her from serving on the board of directors of the Nebraska Sheep and Goat Producer Association. She’s also heavily involved with Chadron Special Olympics, where her son, a longtime Special Olympics athlete, competes in several events throughout the year.
Moore’s also a longtime member of 4-H. She and her late husband Pat were leaders in Keith County. Her children were active in the organization and now so are Moore’s grandchildren. She stays involved with 4-H through judging and through her grandkids.
A native of Chadron, Moore got her education in business and economics and was an educator for 40 years, teaching first in Thedford, then in Paxton, Rangely, Colorado, and in Crawford. She and her late husband, a former principal in Rangely, returned to Chadron about ten years ago following his retirement. Unfortunately Pat passed away six years ago, February.
At 60 sheep, her operation is more than a hobby – she says they work too hard at it for that to be true. Moore keeps the number of sheep where it is because that’s the amount her available pasture can hold, plus, as she says, “When they’re lambing, that’s enough.”
She’d prefer that lambing to occur in May or June, but says that doesn’t always happen. This time around her sheep are lambing in mid-February, made apparent by the day-and-days-old lambs huddled in their enclosures under heat lamps in the barn.
On a particular Wednesday morning in February, the sun was at least shining. But a heavily bundled Moore and five others still worked to fight off the chill as they gathered along with the sheep in Moore’s small barn, which had hardly benefited from the sunlight outside.
Joining Moore was her daughter, Melissa Nicholson, and son-in-law Bronc Nicholson, who help Moore on the farm. On this day, Moore also had three guests: Laura McHale, a wildlife biologist from Crawford, McHales’ significant-other-turned-research-volunteer Doug Zingula, and a curious The Chadron Record reporter. McHale was the reason for the gathering.
McHale, who has lived and ranched in western Nebraska for the better part of 20 years, is working for South Dakota State University conducting research into the presence and effects of mycoplasma ovipneumonia, referred to sometimes as m.ovi, in domestic sheep herds throughout western Nebraska.
“In 2015 the USDA published a pretty comprehensive article looking at 453 domestic sheep operations,” McHale says, “and they found this m.ovi bacteria that inhabits the respiratory tract of domestic and wild sheep and goats.”
According to the study, titled Mycoplasma ovipneumonia on U.S. Sheep Operations, which was conducted in 2011 across 13 states, about 89 percent of sheep populations were positive for the pathogen.
“Since then several articles have come out in the last couple of years that have found that there’s lower lambing rates associated with the bacteria,” McHale says. “Lowered lambing rates, lowered survival rates and daily gains of domestic lambs, and lower carcass values. So what I’m doing is going in and working with cooperating domestic sheep producers and we’re swabbing the noses of domestic sheep – the microplasm tends to be up in the nasal cavity – and looking at what kind of presence of the m.ovi bacteria we have.”
McHale is also collecting data on reproduction: lamb rates at birth, weights at weaning, and various reproductive parameters that might help indicate if m.ovi is causing lamb issues in our area.
According to McHale, cooperating producers are also asked to fill out an ecology questionnaire to see if there’s something site specific that might lend itself to the presence of the bacteria.
M.ovi in a domestic sheep doesn’t mean the animal is going to die, McHale says. In fact, infected sheep can look healthy and be asymptomatic.
“It doesn’t mean you have a healthy herd by any means,” McHale says, “it’s just small, subtle effects in domestic sheep herds. But on the wild sheep side, the presence of m.ovi can have devastating consequences.
“We’ve seen that up here in the Pine Ridge with our three Bighorn herds,” McHale says. “We’ve had very high levels of mortality across all age groups but especially in our lambs. For multiple years we had no lambs survive and then last year we had three lambs survive. There’s been ongoing research and monitoring of m.ovi in the wild sheep populations in the area intensively since about 2014.”
McHale says there’s currently a master’s student at SDSU studying m.ovi in wild sheep while she works on domestic herds.
“Ultimately what we’re hoping for is that together the domestic sheep producers and the biologists working at sustaining Bighorn Sheep herds, we’re hoping together we can really gang up on this m.ovi and see what we can do about reducing its prevalence across the landscape,” McHale says.
Given her love of sheep and background in education, it’s no surprise Moore was eager to work with McHale. Moore and her daughter Melissa produce the Nebraska Sheep and Goat Association newsletter where she learned of McHale’s project, and Moore reached out to McHale soon after, though it would be a while before she eventually made it out to test Moore’s herd.
Upon learning of McHale’s project, Moore was immediately on board. “Anything that is going to help the industry, I’m interested in,” Moore says. According to Moore, if McHale’s testing of her sheep is able to help develop a vaccine for both domestic and wild sheep alike, then having her sheep tested is worth it.
In all, it took less than two hours for McHale to collect samples from Moore’s herd.
With the sheep swabbed and their data logged, McHale will send random samples to be tested for the presence of the bacteria. She says she’d be shocked if they didn’t test positive, given how predominant the bacteria is.
Following the testing, McHale asked Moore to notify her of any sheep or lamb losses, and to pay attention to any one that may not be in good health. If death or poor health occur, McHale can then find that sheep’s sample and, if it wasn’t one of the random samples already sent for testing, send it off to determine if m.ovi was present in the animal. She’ll also take new posthumous samples or better yet, retrieve the whole carcass.
The results from Moore’s herd and the results of other cooperating producers will be kept confidential.
“I don’t report any specific location or owner’s results,” McHale says of her study. “I’ll be reporting results in the aggregate, all together. There’s no cost to the producers and they get copies of the results and project updates as we go through the next few years.”
Asked if the presence of the bacteria worries her, Moore said her interactions with McHale made her feel better about it, and that if her herd of domestic sheep can help the wild sheep, it’s all for the better.
Moore can also now use her experience and the knowledge gained from working with McHale, to better inform other Nebraska sheep producers through her duties as a board member for the Nebraska Sheep and Goat Producer Association. Moore says she plans to include an article about her initial experience in her May newsletter and then offer updates into the future.
Moore joined the board after an extension agent in Lincoln County asked if she’d be interested. She says her desire to learn more about what the board doing influenced her decision to join and she’s been serving for about four years now.
The board, which she says is looking for interested people to join, meets every month, either by video or telephone conference, or face-to-face. A great fit for someone like Moore, the board seeks to help educate producers and the public alike, and promotes sheep and goat production through such events as lambing and kidding schools and even tastings.
An educator at heart, the real reward for Moore is the opportunity to work with and help other producers. “It’s nice when you talk to new producers to be a mentor to them,” Moore says.
Collaboration between producer and producer, or Association and producer, or researchers and producers is important for the continued success of all parties involved and for the health of domestic and wild sheep alike.
“If we can partner with domestic sheep producers to improve their production and to hopefully work toward sustainable Big Horn populations, if we can do that together it would be an amazing partnership,” McHale says.