Guest column: Feed curfew research project yields results

by Kiarra Stuck and Hailie Stuck
Northwestern Area High School Students

Editor’s note: This guest article was written by Kiarra and Hailie Stuck, freshmen students at Northwestern Area High School. The article is about their 4-H Science Fair project.

We decided to do a research project with our sheep this year. Our FFA advisor had told us about some university students that had studied feed curfews and E.coli in cattle. We had no experience in this area, and were confused about it. So we worked together to learn more about feed curfews and E.coli poisoning. We found some good information about the use of feed curfews, but not much in relation to sheep. What we did find talked more about cross contamination of fecal matter when the animal is slaughtered, and not much about reducing the quantity of the bacteria in the sheep. This seemed like a logical next step, so we talked to our parents more about the idea and decided to go forward from there.

E.coli poisoning in humans may have the following symptoms: nausea, vomiting, severe abdominal pain, watery or bloody diarrhea, fatigue, fever, and loss of appetite. One way that E.coli poisoning occur is through meat or milk of contaminated animals according to Most feces in all animals, including humans, contain some E.coli. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tells us that in 1999, 73,000 people suffered from E.coli poisoning. Unfortunately, 60 of them died from it. As of July 15, 2016, the CDC website “Burden of Food Borne Illnesses” estimates that each year, 48 million people get sick and 3,000 or more die from all food borne diseases. This includes E.coli, salmonella and other bacterial infections. E.coli causes approximately 100,000 illnesses, 3000 hospitalizations and 90 deaths annually in the United States according to the website Because of these statistics, we felt this was a good problem to try to help solve.

To do this project we used fecal loops to collect the fecal matter from our sheep. We had the University of Nebraska test the samples and we also tested the samples at home with E.coli ready petri dishes. We used the same units of measure as the university lab did. 1+ meant one quarter of the dish was covered in growth, 2+ meant one half of the dish was covered, 3+ meant three quarters and 4+ meant the entire petri dish was covered with E.coli. We got the results from the lab about 10 days after the testing. We were very happy and surprised that our testing at home almost perfectly matched what they found in the lab. Then we started the 48 hour feed curfew. Three sheep were fed normally with pellets and hay. The other four were given only water. We did watch them carefully to make sure they were not acting different or showing signs of starvation. At the end of the 48 hours we retested. We repeated the steps that we already outlined above. Again, we were very pleased that the lab results almost matched our results at home.

We found out that it is very likely that a 48 hour feed curfew could cut down E.coli in sheep meat. We both agree that more testing could be important to the meat industry. Our baseline set of results (with no animal on feed curfew). Both the lab at UNL and our own testing showed growth of 3+ in the ewes. This meant that the petri dish grew E.coli on three quarters of the dish. We only tested four ewes in our home study, but all four matched. The lab found both rams at around 1+ and the five ewes at 3+. The end results from the lab showed that two ewes that were not on the feed curfew stayed at 3+. The third sheep that was on normal feeding went down to 2+. The four animals on the feed curfew all went down in quantity. The first went from a 3+ to a 2+, the second from a 3+ to a complete 0, the third from a 1+ to a .5+ and the fourth from a 1+ to a complete 0. So all four sheep on the feed curfew had fewer E.coli total, while the three on normal feed stayed the same or slightly lower. Another interesting thing we found was that after the feed curfew there was not much fecal matter to be collected. We know this is an added benefit because when the animal is killed, it will release less fecal matter. This will of course, cut down on fecal matter and therefore E.coli in the area. We definitely feel this will keep sheep meat safer to eat. There will also be fewer salmonella and other bacteria upon slaughter.

We are so excited about the possible implications for the future with our results. We only have a few sheep at our farm, and this was just scratching the surface. But we do feel that this could be an important first step to cutting down on E.coli poisoning due to contaminated meats. We feel we have proven that this is an area that deserves more research.