Nothing sheepish about lamb demand

MORTON, Minn. — The sheep industry is at a crossroads between taking advantage of an opportunity to grow or facing declining infrastructure, says a lamb and wool college instructor.

Mike Caskey of Minnesota West Community and Technical College said Dec. 4 at the Minnesota Lamb and Wool Producers Association's annual conference in Morton that the short supply of U.S. lambs is bringing record high prices. 

Live lambs recently brought approximately $1.60 per pound in Minnesota. Caskey predicts prices will stay high next year. 

Low supply is partly due to a buying network for immigrant consumers that's taking roughly one-third of U.S. lambs from the traditional market. Direct marketing and farmers markets are also causing less lambs to enter the conventional marketing chain. 

"We just don't have enough lambs being produced to meet the demand needs," Caskey said. 


Peter Orwick, executive director of the American Sheep Industry Association, told Agri News that producers are excited about the hot competition.

"These lamb buyers are fighting over every lot of lamb that becomes available," he said. 

Cull ewe and wool prices are also good and the pelt market has rebounded.

Demand from immigrant consumers is changing the U.S. sheep industry in other ways. The market no longer has seasonal price trends, some packers are producing their own flocks to ensure supply and the non-traditional market wants lighter finishing weights, which eliminates the need for lamb feeders. 

Some say producers could double their lamb crop without seeing a drop in their selling price. 

In fact, Caskey said increasing production is critical. 

"We don't have enough lambs or wool being produced to maintain our infrastructure," Caskey said. 

Without adequate supply, the industry runs the risk of losing traditional processors as well as veterinarians who work with sheep, shearers, equipment suppliers and researchers, he said.


ASI has formed the Rebuild the U.S. Sheep Inventory Committee, bringing together major lamb companies, wool warehouses, wool export firms and producers from across the country. They will develop a plan due next year on how to attract new producers and help current shepherds raise more sheep.

"Sheep are a very solid business opportunity," Orwick said, adding that they require less costs for facilities, handling equipment and upfront capital compared to other forms of meat production.

USDA figures show the country's ewe flock hasn't changed much recently. The country had 4.2 million breeding sheep in 2009 compared to 4.1 million in 2000.

The number of operations raising sheep has grown, from approximately 66,800 in 2000 to 82,000 in 2009. As of last year, 94 percent of flocks were under 100 head and the average flock size was 51.2 sheep.  

Orwick argues USDA's inventory is tracked through federally inspected slaughter and is not taking into account lambs processed on a smaller scale for the non-traditional market. 

"We believe there's actually a larger inventory of sheep and producers than what we can find in USDA analysis," Orwick said. 

In addition to expanding production, the country's shepherds are challenged by increasing scrutiny from animal rights activists and feel the threat of potential regulations that could restrict their livelihoods, said Caskey. 

He advised producers to make animal care and well-being a priority, to support organizations that promote agriculture and to get involved with initiatives that teach consumers about livestock production. 


Minnesota Farm and Food Coalition completed in August a survey that found 54 percent of Minnesotans don't know a farmer or anyone who works on a farm in the Midwest. Still, people picked farmers and veterinarians as the top sources they would trust on topics of animal care.

"We don't need spokesmen, we need farmers," said MLWP past-president Jeremy Geske. 

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