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Can Midwest change lambing time?

By Staff | Mar 20, 2016

A NEWBORN LAMB nurses from its mother. An Orange City-area sheep producer said he hopes Midwest shepherds can implement a plan to get lambs to market earlier than their western counterparts, to alleviate the typical meat supply glut in winter.

ORANGE CITY – Since the bulk of U.S. lambs are born during spring, the industry said it is typically stuck later in year with a glut of lambs heading for the market, cutting the price.

So some in the industry, including Mark Van Roekel, an Orange City-area sheep producer, are pushing for winter lambing inside facilities with a high-energy diet, so marketing can start in June.

This would get Midwest lambs to market earlier, ahead of western lambs, spreading the meat supply over a longer term and, hopefully, lifting the cash price for all producers.

“I see it has a huge opportunity for the Midwest,” said Van Roekel, District 1 Representative of the Iowa Lamb and Wool Promotion Board. “Although it’s cold and takes facilities, if we can (lamb in winter), they help to fill the hole that the western lambs can’t.

“We can start marketing them in June and continue it through September or October,” he added. “By that time the western lambs are starting to come to market.”

He said Midwest lambs are weaned at an early age and fed a high-energy diet, creating an opportunity for them to go to market before six months of age.

This, he said, opposes what happens with western lambs, who are weaned much later and fed a mostly grass diet, which gradually adds weight, before they go on a high-energy diet to finish them out.

Van Roekel said he sells lambs between 4.5 months and 7.5 months of age. He said western lambs typically go to market anywhere from 9 to 14 months.

Feed conversion for a Midwest lamb might be 3:1, whereas on western lambs, he said it tends to be closer to 7:1.

Van Roekel said Iowa continues to lead the nation in number of sheep flocks, but those flocks are smaller – between 50 to 100 ewes.

Large flocks of 1,000 ewes or more – found primarily out west – are beginning to decline. He attributes the decline to increasing ages of ranchers in the west, environmental issues, predator problems, and regulations involved in maintaining foreign workers in the U.S.

Vision grading

He said helping the sheep industry overall is the use of vision grading techniques that can show a lamb’s percentage of loin, leg and fat.

“I’m confident and hoping that there will be more lambs sold on a carcass-merit basis,” said Van Roekel. “This vision grading eliminates visual error.”

“If producers can be paid on the carcass of the lamb,” Van Roekel added, “the industry will move to a lamb that the consumer will like (instead of what’s available to them from the producer).”

He said that kind of technology is being used today by the U.S.’ two major sheep-packing plants, and has been developed in the last five years.

Van Roekel added packers are not anxious to use that technology. That’s because it’s difficult for them to offset the cost of that technology, because it doesn’t necessarily reduce the still-necessary labor force.

New tools

Van Roekel said the sheep industry has developed meal-ready lamb entrees – a product marketed with other commodity meat.

He said the sheep industry has, for the last 10 to 15 years , been using a record-keeping system that estimates breeding values on sheep.

It offers producers information such as number of lambs born and weaned and weaning rates, so they can make educated choices about the genetics of their flocks.

“It’s a program that evaluates lamb, but it goes back to the ewe and its sire, to the brothers of the sire, brothers or sisters of the ewes, you end up with a huge family that (gives you) a predictable outcome when you start mating sheep,” he said, adding that producers can improve their flocks, and in turn, improve offerings to the consumer.

He said most of the lamb meat sold is consumed by people of Mediterranean backgrounds and is consumed primarily on the East and West Coasts as well as Florida.

There is not much lamb meat consumed in the Midwest, according to Van Roekel, so it’s not pushed and not found readily in those stores.

He said one-third of U.S. lamb meat is sold to people of Jewish or Muslim descent for their holidays and he added it offers opportunity for lamb meat sales in the U.S.

But, he said, it presents challenges because those lambs don’t go through traditional packing plants, so it’s more difficult to keep the existing infrastructure in place in the lamb meat industry.

Van Roekel said those wanting to purchase lamb meat in an area where it’s not found in stores can obtain a lamb from a producer or sales barn and have it custom processed.

He added the lamb market is down today because of a combination of factors – the glut of sheep on the market (from the western lambs) and the high U.S. dollar.

“Our dollar is high enough that (Australia and New Zealand) can sell their lambs for two-thirds of what we can, so American lamb is higher priced in the retail market,” said Van Roekel.

Lamb is currently around $1.20 per pound, as compared to the $1.40 and $1.50 per pound price last summer, Van Roekel said. The lower price is attributed to the large crop of 2015 western lambs, which he said were up anywhere from 20 to 40 percent.

Midwestern lambs, he said, still have their market place, but producers will need to stay focused on input costs just the same.

“There is a huge demand for Midwest-produced lambs,” he said, adding that lambs that are young don’t have problems selling. “But because we have such a huge supply of imported and old crop lambs, there will be a tendency to hold down the price of our lambs that are lambing right now.”

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