The number of sheep in this country has been cut in half in the last 20 years. In reality, since the late 1940s, when the American sheep industry peaked, the number has been decreasing. Domestic sheep herds are only one-tenth the size they were during WWII.
Economic and cultural factors have combined to cause the downturn. Ranchers are wondering, “When are we going to reach rock bottom?”
Some sheep are bred for wool, while others are bred for meat. In the United States, consumption of both lamb meat and wool has decreased. If you look at the labels on your clothing, you’ll notice that many of them are made of synthetic fabrics such as nylon, rayon, and polyester. People are wearing less and less wool as these man-made fabrics become more popular and affordable.
Lamb is the same way. In the early 1960s, the average American consumed 4.5 pounds of lamb per year. In 2011, this was down to less than a pound.
Despite the decline of the American sheep industry, Australian and New Zealand wool and lamb imports are on the rise, pressing into niche markets that American sheep farmers are struggling to fill.
Ranchers are feeling the pinch, whether it’s due to a severe drought, a scarcity of feed, harsh winters, or market fluctuations.
Albert Villard, a sheep rancher in Craig, Colo., said, “The numbers are just way down – and fewer sheep ranchers, just in general.”
Villard’s herd has been culled to its lowest point in a long time due to blizzards and drought over the last three years. It hasn’t been quick to put it back together.
“I think the industry as a whole is trying to get the numbers up, but there are a lot of reasons for that,” Villard said. “I don’t think there’s a single thing to blame.”
Double J Feeders outside of Ault, Colo., one of only a few lamb feeding operations in the world, is also feeling the pinch. At any given time, the feedlot will carry up to 50,000 sheep, fattening them up until slaughter.
The changing agricultural environment across the country may be contributing to the decline. Farms have increased in size and sophistication, and there are fewer small family farms today than ever before.
“Thirty or forty years ago, every farmer will buy 1,000 lambs in the winter, run them out on beet tops, corn – whatever – and then sell them in the spring. All of that has changed now,” said Double J Feeders owner Jeff Hasbrouck.
Hasbrouck claims that most farms are no longer fenced in and have become so large that keeping a sheep herd is no longer economically viable. For a big crop grower, it’s more hassle than it’s worth.
Mountain States Rosen, a massive co-op that markets lamb to meatpacking companies and locks in rates, owns Hasbrouck’s feedlot. However, the lamb and sheep industries are also extremely unpredictable. Price spikes are common, and when the risk is too great, ranchers can pull out.
Another issue that has troubled the industry is the general public’s view of lamb. Long-time sheep farmers attribute the problem to meat fed to soldiers during World War II.
“Those soldiers were fed canned mutton, and when they returned home, they said, ‘No more lamb, no more cattle.’ ‘None of it can be eaten.’ And that’s where we saw the gradual decline,” said Brad Anderson, Mountain States co-livestock op’s supply manager.
The steady decline in sheep numbers began about the same time that beef, chicken, and pork production became much more productive. Lamb was unable to compete. Although cattle research has made beef production a well-oiled, highly profitable operation, Anderson claims the same cannot be said for lamb production.
“We only have a fraction of the research budget that other proteins have, so it’s very difficult to get that kind of research and get that knowledge to the producers,” Anderson said.
Producers of sheep, on the other hand, have reason to be optimistic. Sheep ranchers have benefited from the growth of farmers markets and local food because many sheep and lamb operations are small. According to the American Sheep Industry Association, one-third of all lamb sold in the United States is now sold directly from supplier to market. Big cities, too, have plenty of space for expansion.
“It’s multicultural communities,” says the narrator. According to Peter Orwick, executive director of the American Sheep Industry Association, “every major metropolitan city in the United States has a significant immigrant neighborhood.” “Can you tell me where the people are coming from? They prefer lamb where they live. It’s their meat,” says the narrator.
Albert Villard, a rancher in Northwest Colorado, is concentrating on the coming year because he has no time to think about the future. While prices have recently risen, he expects to see even more of his neighbors abandon their homes as a result of the recent drought.
“A lot of guys could liquidate because they don’t want to fight it anymore,” Villard said. “This might be a good thing for me because I need to buy more sheep.”
It’s good for him to expand his herd, but it’s bad news for an industry that’s dwindling every year as fewer young ranchers join the ranks.