University of Idaho - I Banner

IGEM Funds U of I – Industry Project to Make Sheep Genomic Testing Cost Effective

December 03, 2019

MOSCOW, Idaho — Dec. 3, 2019 — A project to provide genetic testing for sheep to help producers minimize the impact of diseases and improve valuable traits will receive a grant from the Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission Council.

The $209,595 grant to University of Idaho animal science professor Brenda Murdoch and Meridian-based RILE Ag will help sheep producers employ an inexpensive test to greatly reduce economic losses to diseases and enhance their flocks’ productivity.

“This grant money will be a tremendous asset for further research and development of Flock54,” Murdoch said. Specifically, it will allow her research team to increase the number of genetic traits reportable and create indexes for production traits that are so crucial to producers. The team will also create a new online reporting tool so that producers can submit data with their DNA samples and receive their genetic report via this new online tool.

Murdoch is fine-tuning the Flock54 genomic test that provides a broad picture of a sheep’s “catalog” of genes. Variants or mutations in those genes can make the animal vulnerable to diseases such as ovine progressive pneumonia (OPP) or improve the animal’s weight gain and carcass quality.

RILE Ag is a subsidiary of Superior Farms, which works with sheep producers responsible for a third of the nation’s flocks.

“I am excited for RILE Ag and Superior Farms to continue our partnership with Dr. Murdoch at the U of I to enhance and improve genetics within the American lamb industry,” said Lesa Eidman, director of producer resources and sustainability for Superior Farms and director of RILE Ag. “The opportunity to improve the U.S. sheep flock with genetic improvement and Flock54 testing is tremendous, and I am excited to be part of this groundbreaking technology for the sheep industry.”

Idaho’s sheep industry ranks sixth nationally with 1,200 producers and 255,000 head of breeding sheep and lambs. The Idaho producers are part of the Superior Farms supply chain and are critical to the American sheep industry.

This grant will help Idaho producers capitalize on a low cost genetic tool to make genetic and economic gains in their production systems, Murdoch said. However, the scope of the project and the availability of the test is not limited to Idaho producers. All sheep producers have access to utilize the technology.

Murdoch, an assistant professor of animal genomics on the U of I Moscow campus, helped develop the first genomic tests for cattle. She will monitor results from the sheep testing and use the information to identify other genetic traits of interest for producers.

The sheep test will cost less than $20 per animal. The test is capable of identifying an animal’s susceptibility to major diseases, a broad range of genetic traits and the animal’s parentage.

OPP as an example can create major costs for sheep producers by reducing the number of lambs weaned by 8% and leaving survivors weighing 24% less. For a sheep producer who markets 1,000 lambs a year at $1.50 a pound, the financial hit can total more than $37,000 a year, twice the cost of testing, and that’s the effect of just one of the diseases detectable by the test.

To date, Idaho producers have utilized the Flock54 genetic testing, and have made improvements to their flocks. By identifying the parentage and specific genetic traits of disease these producers have been able to enhance their breeding flock and cull out the bottom producing and disease susceptible animals.

Idaho Commerce Director Tom Kealey said the IGEM funding will help advance the use of Flock54 genomic selection tool by Idaho’s sheep producers and others nationwide. A Boise State University project also received funding, the IGEM Council announced Nov. 25.

“The commercialization goals of each award represent some of the best research in animal genome science, advanced fluid materials and laser technology at the University of Idaho and Boise State University respectively,” Kealey added. “The genome research is for much better yield for sheep ranchers and processors but at a lower cost.”

Within the first six months of the test becoming available more than 10,000 samples have been submitted for testing. The collaborators anticipate producers will submit 150,000 test samples within the first three years, generating $2.25 million to $3 million in sales. Within five years, the business projects 500,000 samples will generate $10 million a year, leading RILE Ag to expand its lab and hire additional employees.

Media Contact

Bill Loftus
Science writer
College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

About the University of Idaho

The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, U of I serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, nine research and Extension centers, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. Home to nearly 12,000 students statewide, U of I is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. U of I competes in the Big Sky and Western Athletic conferences. Learn more at