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Sheep in a vineyard. (Photos.com)

Sheep in a vineyard.

(Photos.com)

Tight budget forces USask to count the cost of its sheep Add to ...

Budget shortfalls at universities across the country have left administrators scrambling for savings and set students and professors on edge – but won’t someone think of the sheep?

The University of Saskatchewan is hanging up its crook and selling its flock, putting 300 sheep kept year-round on its campus farm up for sale. It will mark the first time in more than a century that USask hasn’t kept its own wooly livestock year-round.

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It is a money-saving move in a year when USask, which has a longstanding reputation for strength in agriculture, has cut 40 jobs and left 10 more positions unfilled as a way to put a dent in a budget shortfall projected to hit $44.5-million by 2016.

On the university farm, sheep are the odd animal out, as the school looks to focus its scarce resources on poultry, dairy and beef. Even as the sheep go up for sale, USask is growing the size of its dairy cow herd, for the simple reason that “it’s much easier to get funding and there’s much more interest in the other species than there is in the sheep,” said Mary Buhr, dean of the College of Agriculture and Bioresources.

“We can do what we really need to do, the critical pieces [of teaching and research], we can manage in a much less expensive fashion,” she said.

The news hasn’t passed quietly. Dr. Buhr has had numerous calls from the sheep industry, and concerns about the plan even came up on the floor of the provincial legislature. But the university was spending about $100,000 annually to keep its flock, which has also been of use to USask’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine, and that’s after income from selling wool and before paying staff to tend them.

The cost-benefit dilemma USask faces isn’t unique. “It’s happening, and not just in Canada,” Dr. Buhr said.

The university will still buy sheep as needed for future student learning and research needs. Students taking the university’s course in sheep management have muddied their boots learning how to pick out a good sheep, shear it, feed it and drive a flock, among other things. All of that should continue, but what may be lost in selling the year-round flock is the chance to bring students to overnight lambing sessions, and “our students loved that,” Dr. Buhr said.

“The classes give them all the information, but the book learning and the actual this-is-what-it-actually-looks-like-on-the-hoof are different. So we can do almost all of that, except for the extensive lambing experience, with bought-in sheep,” she said. “We’re not giving up on sheep teaching or sheep research. We just can’t maintain the whole flock.”

At the very least, as the sheep move on to new pastures, they won’t miss their mates from the farm – the university is looking for single buyer for the whole flock, which is “of good genetic stock.”

“And, honestly, we wanted to make sure they went to a ‘good home,’” Dr. Buhr said. “You sell them as a flock, and we would know the producers that would be interested in them.”

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