I got my marching orders yesterday — add two ewes to my flock asap. The U.S. needs more lamb. I’m not sure that’s what my husband should hear, given that our youngest child will head to college in a year and I am not half the sheep wrangler she is. But I get the point of the media event yesterday — the demand for U.S. lamb is high and there aren’t enough sheep in this country to supply it.
“Let’s Grow Our Flock” is the new campaign of the American Sheep Industry Association (ASIA). Lamb and wool prices are at all-time highs and the pelt market is lucrative (“Thank God for teenage girls running around in sheepskin boots,” says Peter Orwick, president of the ASIA). Two major grocery chains, Kroger and Walmart, have made commitments to carry American lamb in their stores, and nontraditional markets such as on-farm sales, farmers markets, and small processors serving ethnic communities, have grown in the past decade.
Technology for making washable, lightweight, and non-itchy wool clothing has meant increased demand for wool by the U.S. military, the largest domestic consumer of U.S. wool.
Add to that a drought that has decimated herds in Texas, the state with the largest number of sheep and sheep farms, and demand has outstripped supply. The ASIA wants producers to add two ewes to their herds (or two ewes for every 100). “This is the time to expand,” says Orwick. These producers also need to mentor and encourage new sheep producers, including “rural lifestyle producers” who might start with only a few ewes.
Kolby and Micky Burch got in the sheep business by way of the showring. They now have 350 ewes producing club lambs near Coon Rapids, Iowa. “It made sense for us as a young couple,” says Kolby. “We could buy an acreage and get started with 150 ewes. It was much less investment than cattle.” They intensively graze their flock in six paddocks on 16 acres, with supplemental feed for 10 months of the year.
Brothers Mark and Kyle Hoogendoorn specialize in that skill needed by all sheep producers — shearing. Mark, 24, travels the country from his home base in Rock Rapids, Iowa, shearing 20,000 sheep a year. When Kyle, 19, graduates from Iowa State University he plans to join him. What do they charge for shearing? “How many sheep do you have and how far do I have to drive?” asks Mark. Feedlot lambs are about $2.25 each and ewes on smaller herds are about $4 each to shear. The brothers also own 260 ewes and hope to increase the herd, but since they buy all their grain and hay, “We are struggling with feed costs,” says Mark.
One concern with expanding the sheep herd is packer concentration, says Leland Shipley, who has 100 ewes near Nodaway and is president of the Iowa Sheep Industry Association. “I sell to one buyer who goes to one packer,” he says. “I think that is a problem. Sometimes they are full for three weeks and can’t take my lambs. We can see a $20 swing in a week’s time.”
Orwick says all the major lamb processors are working with ASIA to sponsor the “Let’s Grow” initiative. The U.S. need 175,000 additional ewes and 250,000 more lambs heading to market by 2014 to meet growing domestic demand, he says.
Kolby and Micky Burch raise club lambs near Coon Rapids, Iowa, and sell them to buyers in 30 states.
A hoop barn provides shelter to the herd.
Mark (right) and Kyle Hoogendoorn specialize in shearing, but Mark would like to retire from the back-breaking job when he is 30 and raise sheep full-time with 1,500 ewes. “My number one obstacle is land,” says Mark. “Crop ground sold for $14,000 an acre a few miles from home.”