More than 1,000 of the nation's best looking purebred sheep will star Aug. 16-18 at a national beauty contest in the Salt Palace.

Some people may consider sheep as just wooly farm animals, but they are among the most important animals man has domesticated because they provide both food and fiber.For the more than 500 sheep producers and industry leaders from throughout the United States who are expected to visit Salt Lake City next week, the 73rd National Ram Sale and Sheep Exposition is more like a fuzzy Miss Universe contest.

Throughout their lives, these prize sheep have been doted on and, before they enter the sales ring, sheep owners and their families and employees will spend hours brushing, combing, currying and flouncing their animals as if they were Hollywood stars about to go before a camera.

For owners, these sheep mean thousands of dollars in earnings. For buyers, the sheep mean new, blueblood replacement stock for their flocks and more and leaner meat and higher quality wool.

Utah is a fitting place for a sheep beauty pageant. It is the sixth largest sheep producing state in the nation with a long history of sheep production excellence. Utah sheepmen had a total of 478,000 sheep and lambs on farms Jan. 1, 1988, up 3 percent from last year's total, but still way below the 2.25 million head in 1940.

Since 1940, sheep numbers in Utah have dropped steadily. The value of Utah's lamb, mutton, and wool declined from 1930 to 1940, but then has moved slowly upward. Wool prices hit a high of 92 cents per pound, on the average, in 1981, then fell to 57 cents a pound in 1983, climbed to 66 cents in 1986, and then jumped to a record 93 cents a pound in 1987.

Average lamb prices since 1970 show an almost steady increase, with a record high of $71.60 per 100 pounds recorded in 1987, $5.90 above the previous high of 1985. Sheep prices during 1987 averaged $21.40 per hundred pounds, 10 cents above the 1986 average.

Utah wool growers and lamb producers collected $23.8 million in cash receipts during 1987.

One of the biggest problems Utah sheep raisers have is losses cause by predators, including coyotes, which are by far the largest single cause of loss, farmers say. Other predators include dogs, eagles, bears, and mountain lions. Some 53 percent of all sheep losses last year were due to predators at a cost of more than $4.7 million.

Losses to coyotes alone, farmers reported, amounted to 37,700 head of sheep and lambs worth $3.4 million.

While there are more than 30 different breeds of sheep in the United States, only eight will be represented at the national ram sale.

According to Patricia S. Jensen of the National Wool Grower magazine, the Polypay is becoming one of the most popular breeds in the United States and Canada. Polypay ewes range from 175 to 200 pounds and are known for their good disposition, mothering instinct, and milking ability. The wool dyes beautifully and is well suited for use by hand spinners and weavers.

The Rambouillet, originally developed in France, was perfected in America and today, after years of rigid breeding and strict culling, is almost a completely new breed and is considered the cornerstone of the American range sheep industry.

Producers of Columbia sheep consider them to be the world's most useful breed, since they have the best of both lamb and wool, they say. The Columbia breed was developed by the U.S Department of Agriculture. In 1912, rams of long wool breeds were crossed with high quality Rambouillet ewes to produce large ewes yielding more pounds of quality wool and more pounds of lamb.

Jensen said the Suffolk comes from southeastern England and sets records for rapid growth. It has a heavily muscled carcass for consumption. Mature Suffolk rams range in weight from 250 to 400 pounds.

The Hampshire, developed in southern England, was first imported to American in 1879 and for decades has been one of the leading breeds in U.S. commercial sheep production. Its popularity waned somewhat when longer, taller sheep came into prominence, but the Hampshire has come back in popularity with a larger frame and more efficient and faster weight gaining.