CORVALLIS — Every year, the Oregon State University’s Sheep Center draws children and families and classrooms and teachers from around the state to witness the ewes and lambs during the spring lambing season.
But now the rustic barn four miles northwest of campus on Oak Creek Drive is empty, and there’s a good chance that the public will not be able to visit the ewes and their tail-wiggling newborns next spring.
Following a pair of disease outbreaks, OSU officials said they were forced to downsize the flock by more than half. The Sheep Center sold 250 ewes that tested positive for exposure to either Q fever or Johne’s disease a year ago.
OSU College of Agriculture administrators said the current flock of ewes has a clean bill of health.
“We were able to identify approximately 100 animals that tested free of both of these agents,” Animal and Rangeland Science Department head John Killefer wrote in an email to the Corvallis Gazette-Times.
The Sheep Center will not be the home of the flock this year, said Larry Curtis, the associate dean of the College of Agriculture.
“When you have those diseases, the organism stays in the soil — so they could pick it up again,” Curtis said. Sheep become infected when they eat contaminated grass.
The sheep that tested positive for exposure were sold at auction during the summer and fall. Curtis and Killefer both noted that Q fever and Johne’s diseases are common among sheep flocks, and it doesn’t affect their market value. But the diseases do affect the sheep’s value as breeding stock and for research.
While humans can contract Q fever, it has not been proven that they can contract Johne’s disease. Killefer said that, to the department’s knowledge, no humans were exposed to the diseases.
As a short-term response to the outbreak, center personnel managed human exposure to the diseases by providing protective gowns during last year’s lambing season.
The long-term solution, called “Clean Up the Flock,” resulted in physically relocating the sheep that didn’t test positive for exposure to Q fever or Johne’s disease.
The clean ewes now are grazing at different OSU locations, including around the new animal pavilion on 35th Street and the dairy facility on Harrison Boulevard.
“To minimize chances of reintroducing these agents to the flock, facilities are being thoroughly cleaned and animals are being housed in areas that have had minimal presence of sheep in the past,” Killefer wrote.
Curtis said the recovery process is expected to take about a year. For that time, the land around the Sheep Center will remain fallow.
The herd is grazing in a new area that can host up to 350 sheep.
“We can grow the flock to whatever we need to rather quickly,” Curtis said.
But due to the current size of the flock, Curtis said, administrators still are deciding how to handle the spring lambing season, which usually begins in February.
“Normally, we’d be lambing a large number of animals,” he said. “We can’t do this the way we used to because we have fewer sheep.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences has made other changes as well as it adapts to shrinking budgets.
For instance, the OSU’s horse and dairy cow herds also were thinned as part of the merger in June of Animal Sciences with the Department of Rangeland Ecology and Management. Curtis said enough animals remain to meet teaching and research demands.
It isn’t only the ranks of the animals that are changing. Effective Jan. 31, three unit managers will be replaced by one person in an umbrella position over all three.
“We’re getting away from silos to get more flexibility and efficiency,” Curtis said.