MADISON, Wis. – Dave Thomas is one of the best friends sheep and the people who care about them ever had.
Linda Leake wrote that in her letter nominating Thomas for a distinguished-service award presented by the University of Wisconsin-College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Beginning in the early 1970s Thomas served the sheep industry through research, UW-Extension and teaching. He retired in 2017 as the UW-Madison professor of sheep management and genetics.
But he’s still found at sheep shows; it’s a sign of his dedication to the industry. That dedication recently was celebrated during the agriculture college’s honorary recognition-award banquet and ceremony.
“I’m very humbled,” Thomas said of the award. “There are many people – UW staff and faculty – who have much-more-distinguished careers. I appreciate the fact I was nominated.”
Leake said, “Dave has always been a good person. I admire and respect him, and he was an excellent student.”
They were classmates when both were undergraduates at UW-Madison. Both were members of the college’s Saddle and Sirloin Club. They worked together on the annual Little International Livestock and Horse Show, hosted by the club.
Thomas served a year as chairman of the livestock program and in 1971 earned an outstanding member award from the club. He earned that year a bachelor’s degree in animal science from UW-Madison. It happened a day after he married his high school sweetheart, Lynda. Less than two weeks later the newlyweds were on their way to Kenya; they had joined the Peace Corps. He worked in the animal-production division of Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture and she was a nursery-school teacher. A year later he served as the animal-production officer in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province. He worked with agricultural district officers, who are similar to county agents.
Thomas pursued a master’s degree at Oklahoma State University after returning to the United States. He earned a doctorate in animal science in 1977. He was an assistant professor in the animal-science department at Oregon State University. He moved to the University of Illinois in 1981 but returned in 1991 to his native Wisconsin. He became a professor in the department of meat and animal science at UW-Madison, involved in research, UW-Extension and teaching.
“Dave has had an outstanding career in sheep science,” said Dan Schaefer, a UW-Madison professor, and director of meat science and animal-biologics discovery. “He has understood the needs of the sheep industry; he knew genetics and alternative-production systems, such as hair sheep and dairy sheep.”
The dairy-sheep program that Thomas and fellow UW-Madison sheep researcher Yves Berger established in 1994 was his proudest accomplishment, Thomas said. The two men collaborated on the dairy research with Bill Wendorf, a professor in food science at UW-Madison as well as John Jaeggi at the Center for Dairy Research.
Located at the UW-Spooner Agricultural Research Station, it was the only dairy-sheep-research program in North America. It was closed in 2017 due to state-budget cuts. No other such program exists so it’s difficult for dairy-sheep producers to access production information. They mostly rely on each other or researchers from Australia, New Zealand or Europe, Thomas said.
But he’s happy the Dairy Sheep Association of North America continues to hold the annual Dairy Sheep Symposium, he said. That conference evolved from the Great Lakes Dairy Sheep Symposium, which Berger originally spearheaded.
Thomas said another of his proudest accomplishments was discovering spider lamb syndrome in Suffolk sheep. It was the result of a genetic defect due to a single recessive gene. Carriers of severe skeletal deformities in lambs can now be detected with a blood test prior to breeding. The test was developed by molecular geneticists at the University of Illinois and Utah State University. With deoxyribonucleic – DNA – testing it’s possible to eliminate the syndrome in colored breeds of sheep, Thomas said.
Thomas also was instrumental in developing and implementing the National Sheep Improvement Program. It provides estimated breeding values for economically important traits.
“A forward thinker, he proposed in 1983 establishing the national program,” Leake said. “He continued to serve as a technical adviser until he retired.
“During the past 26 years of his distinguished career as an academic powerhouse, Dave was the sheep specialist at UW-Madison. It’s doubtful anyone has had a more profound, positive and lasting impact on the Wisconsin sheep industry. His influence is destined to endure in Wisconsin and beyond for many generations to come.”
Thomas has expressed disappointment there is no longer a sheep-research program or a sheep-production class at UW-Madison.
“There are always budget constraints but I feel bad about it,” he said. “I’m happy we do have a flock at the (UW) Arlington station for teaching purposes.”
Programs on lambing and shearing are held there. Thomas said he’ll remember the look on student faces when they helped newborn lambs or just learned how to shear a sheep.
“You could see their sense of pride,” he said.
Attendees of the honorary-recognition program no doubt could see a similar sense of pride in Thomas as he received the distinguished-service award.