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Ollila looks at the importance of attracting new producers to the sheep industry across the West

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Buffalo – At the Northeast Wyoming Sheep Symposium in Buffalo, Dave Ollila, South Dakota State University Extension sheep field specialist, presented updates on SDSU’s iGrow program.

The symposium was held Dec. 11 and brought together representatives from the sheep industry.

“The American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) supported a program that I proposed to them three years ago to work with beginning sheep producers in South Dakota,” Ollila said.

He explained that his program was designed to support producers who will eventually replace current ones in the generational transition.

“We work to help those younger producers get a foothold and get into the industry,” he said.

Beginning efforts

At the start of the program, in the fall of 2012, there were 17 operations in the program, he explained. Twelve of those operations have added 50 or more ewes, and eight of them have added 400 or more. Ollila noted the importance of this is that established producers typically have larger flocks than newer producers can maintain.

“We know that there is profitability, and there is a future in the sheep industry,” he said.

“We have to work with those producers to reduce their risk, improve their efficiencies and increase their returns so their operations can continue,” Ollila explained.

Working together

The program matches new producers with experienced ones and guides the mentors to be realistic. If a mentor says that an accepted practice isn’t necessary, program participants should know why, he continued.

Field trips are another aspect of the program. Ollila noted that participants have been bussed to feed lots, packing plants, pelt plants and other sheep operations.

“One thing we have been able to do with these bus trips is include some older sheep producers who are willing to visit,” he said.

The program, Ollila noted, is developing a network of go-to people and ensuring that the young producers know who they can get information from.

Education efforts

Web-based learning is also available, according to Ollila. He reminded people to sign up and lets them know what the online sessions are about and when they are, encouraging them to participate.

“If a producer didn’t get it the first time, they can go back to the website and listen again,” he said.

Ollila noted that education is necessary because producers, consumers, retailers and bankers need to see that there is profit, value and opportunity in sheep.

“Grazing can be used to manage crop residue, insects and weeds,” he said.

A positive example provided by Ollila described sheep in South Dakota that are fed soybean hulls and distiller’s grains. He explained that those sheep are eating discarded feedstuffs that can not be utilized by cows.

He also noted that “native range land didn’t evolve and develop without a grazing animal.”

Managed correctly, he explained, sheep can be used as part of the natural ecosystem.

There is enough tradition, infrastructure and expertise in the northern plains to make sheep a viable enterprise, he said.

Expanding efforts

“If Wyoming wants to make that push helping young producers, there are programs already in place,” he noted, referencing ASI. “We don’t have to create a new program or create redundancy. We just have to take advantage of what’s out there already.”

Ollila said that 70 percent of the world’s population eats sheep and goat. He said 20 percent of the sheep in the United States  are in five states in the Northern Plains – Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas.

Referring to producers, distributers and consumers, Ollila stated, “We have to create paradigm shifts and intrigue these folks, proving to them that there is opportunity.”

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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