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Wyo woolgrowers suggest more producers, smaller herds boosting industry

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Anyone who visits with Wyoming woolgrowers will soon come away as optimistic as they are when talking about the health of their industry.

Sheep numbers increased more than 10,000 head from last year, and members of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association (WWGA) board of directors suggest the increase comes from more people getting into the business with smaller flocks.

The Association is this year’s University of Wyoming Outstanding Research/Partner of the Year Award recipient.

“We’ve been a player in Wyoming history as an Association since 1905, and when the university comes to us with an idea, and if it’s a good idea, I think we’ve been a strong supporter of the university,” says board member Regan Smith of Powell.

Weaves through Wyoming history

The sheep industry and Wyoming history are closely entwined, painting an early landscape of the state. There were 5 million sheep in the state in 1900, and by 2011, the figure was 275,000 – about the same number of sheep as on three early Wyoming operations – John Okie, Frances Warren and brothers Thomas, James and John Cosgriff.

Numbers have increased to 355,000 on Jan. 1, 2016.

Producers like what they see.

“We’re not going to see 10,000-head herds. That’s history,” says Peter John Camino, board member and third-generation sheep rancher from Buffalo. “But we are going to see people starting to figure out there is money in the sheep business. They are going to start out small and eventually get bigger. Especially with the decline in the cattle market, if we put dollar signs on the sheep side and beef side, we’re going to figure out which one is going to make money.”

Woolgrowers and the University of Wyoming have collaborated with ram tests since 1961 in the Animal Science Department.  The Association partners with the Mountain States Lamb Cooperative to conduct a black-face ram sire test and a white-face ram sire test with the University of Wyoming. Both are at the Laramie Research and Extension Center (LREC). Fleece characteristics are measured and combined with gain data to create an overall index.  

Seek sheep specialist

The board members have a unanimous answer to how the university could best serve them – hire a sheep specialist.

But they’re aware of the shrinking budgets.

Anyone who has lived in Wyoming knows the peaks and valleys of mineral revenues, says Smith.

“I don’t think any businessman, whether sheepman or anyone else, would want the university to not balance the budget,” he says.

But having a sheep specialist is still important, he notes. Progress is limited without the leadership a sheep specialist could provide.

“I think it’s paramount to get someone who can point UW in a direction, whether animal health or genetic research, whatever,” Smith says. “There are a multitude of things that can get done at the university, but we have to have someone spearhead it.”

Research center trials are also important. Producers don’t want to be the first to try something new and fail.

“If UW could test, then all the producers and taxpayers benefit from it,” says Smith. “That’s certainly a place the university can help.”

Education, information key

Sheep producers face the same issues they’ve always had – predators, funding, marketing, weather, the government and public lands, says producer Lisa Keeler of Kaycee.

“I think the university could help us by joining forces and assist us with education,” she says. “I think part of it is giving producers more tools with which to help us survive.”

She also suggests fresh information to help those already established, as well as information for those just starting out.

Management tool information is needed, as is information about genetics, says Camino.

“There is a lot of technology out there we should be able to use and can’t,” he says, also noting the lack of a sheep specialist and the benefits of providing information through meetings.

“Education is probably the number one thing to help producers,” says Camino.

Big Horn Basin producer Kay Neves of Emblem has seen quality improvement in sheep, which also improves lamb and wool quality.

“I think producers are working hard to improve their sheep, and they’re looking at a scientific basis for that,” says Neves.

International forces influence industry

Other issues are out of producer hands.

“The labor problem is probably one of the biggest we have,” Camino says. “If we don’t have labor, we can’t do our business. The labor department is putting on so many restrictions, it’s just about impossible to get outside help to come into the United States, and we cannot find American workers who will do sheep industry work. It’s just not there.”

Markets are at the mercy of international forces. Currently, the high dollar boosts wool prices but prompts imports of lamb at lower prices.

Camino, whose Basque grandfather came to America in 1904, says, “People see the future of the sheep industry as down. I don’t believe that.”

Neither does Amy Hendrickson, WWGA executive director.

“We have a vibrant sheep industry, despite all the pressures,” she notes. “It is not easy. Any ranching these days isn’t particularly easy,” but points out the rising sheep numbers in the state.

She also notes the need for a sheep specialist.

“The sheep industry is very supportive of the university, and they’ve done a number of things for us, but it is disappointing we have to go outside the state to get expertise on some things,” says Hendrickson. “They do everything they can to help us, but a sheep specialist would help. I think they do a great job at the LREC sheep farm. They do the best they can, and we are very, very appreciative.”

This article is courtesy of the University of Wyoming.

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