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Sheep: Making the transition from tradition

By Staff | Feb 20, 2009

Dennis DeWitt, Extension livestock field specialist, ISU has seen an increase in requests for feed rations specific to an operation.

SANBORN – Iowa sheep producers are facing challenges such few nearby processing facilities, a lack of businesses designed to meet their needs, low wool prices, a shortage of shearers and little in the way of financing for product development.

“Often described as ‘an industry in decline,'” said Dr. Thomas, of the University of Wisconsin, “this report (issued recently by the university and conducted by Thomas and federally funded) concluded that the U.S. sheep industry might be more appropriately referred to as an industry ‘in transition.'”

The Northwest Iowa Sheep Producers Association sponsored a day for educational meetings last week with a range of topics.

Thomas spoke on the changes being experienced in the sheep industry.

As professor of sheep management and genetics, Thomas has devoted a good deal of time to studying and raising sheep. He was appointed to a congressional study that compiled the report “Trends in the U.S. sheep industry.”

Dr. Dave Thomas from the University of Wisconsin spoke to Iowa sheep producers in Sanborn on Jan. 31.

The report showed that in the late 1940s to early 1950s, the U.S. had a much larger sheep population, which hovered near 50 million head. That number has declined significantly, but has remained steady at just under six million head over the past several years.

Thomas offered the following reasons for explaining the decline as:

  • Farm labor loss during WWII.
  • American GI experience with mutton during WWII.
  • Grazing permits and regulations.
  • Competition from other livestock, meat, and fiber sources
  • Predation losses.
  • Loss of the National Wool Act and incentive payments programs.
  • Foreign wool production subsidies.
  • Competition from imports.
  • U.S. dollar appreciation against Australian and New Zealand currencies.
  • Concentration in the U.S. packing and feeding industries.

This decline follows worldwide trends, Thomas noted. New Zealand and Australia have also seen a 20 percent decline in numbers. In 2006, there were 1.1 billion head of sheep in the world. China has the most with 173.8 million. Australia is second with 100.1 million followed by India, Iran, Sudan, New Zealand and United Kingdom.

In the U.S., the structure of the sheep industry has been seeing some changes, said Thomas. The range states are seeing fewer sheep numbers, but farm flocks are increasing east of the Mississippi. States such as Ohio, Oklahoma, Missouri, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin are seeing an increase in their farm flocks, while western states are seeing dramatic decrease in numbers.

A major accomplishment for the sheep industry has been its increased productivity. Since 1940 there has been a 124 percent increase in ewe productivity.

That is due to the importation of multiple birth sheep such as the Finnsheep and Romanov. East Friesan and Lacaunne breeds have increased milking production, Thomas said.

More producers are raising minor breeds. Forty years ago 10 breeds composed 95 percent of the nation’s registered sheep. Today that number is only 74 percent. The top 10 breeds have also changed with hair sheep such as Dorper and Katahdin replacing Corriedale and Cheviot breeds on the list.

Challenges facing the sheep industry include lack of industry infrastructure, especially in the slaughter arena. In 2005, the four largest slaughtering firms accounted for 70 percent of federally inspected lamb slaughter.

With fewer sheep numbers, providers for supplies and equipment become more scarce. Low wool market prices and a lack of available shearers also are a challenge. The sheep industry is the least funded livestock industry for research and development.

There have also been major accomplishments for the sheep industry. Productivity continues to improve.

One of those improvements is with sheep genome and genomic selection. EPDs are part of the sheep selection now. There has been improvements in packaging, shelf life and development of shopper friendly products.

The American Lamb Board works to get American lamb on American tables. The direct marketing of lamb is growing as is the ethnic market.

With better technology to grade carcasses, there are premiums being paid for a high-yield grade animals.

Contact Renae Vander Schaaf by e-mail at renaefarmnews@gmail.com.

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