Stewart looks at positives in sheep industry
Douglas – With a new Extension Sheep Specialist in the state, Wyomingites in the sheep industry have expressed optimism for the future of the state, and Whit Stewart, who filled the position, noted during a presentation at the 2017 Cattlemen’s Conference, that with Wyoming’s history in the sheep industry, the state is well poised to continue its success for sheepmen and women.
“Wyoming has not only a very storied history in the sheep industry, but we, at the present time, are one of the major players in the national sheep industry,” he said. “We produce one of the highest-valued wool clips in the nation, and we have a dynamic and diverse sheep industry.”
Future of sheep
“As an aspiring sheep specialist, I grew up hearing that the sheep industry isn’t what it once was, and the industry is on the decline,” Stewart commented. “If we look at a lot of figures, we can say that, yes, absolutely the industry is declining.”
However, Stewart tempered the statement saying that, looking more closely, the ag industry as a whole has contracted to a degree since the 1950s.
“Are sheep numbers what they were in the 1950s? No,” he said, “but I would make the argument that we are an industry in transition and not necessarily in decline.”
Using a USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service map, Stewart displayed areas across the U.S. experiencing both increases and declines in the U.S. sheep industry.
“Areas of decline seem to be a lot more prominent than areas of increase, but there are micro-pockets within the sheep industry that are experiencing growth,” he said, noting that disappearance of industry infrastructure is a bigger challenge. “The University of Wyoming was interested in addressing this problem.”
With a vibrant industry in the state, Stewart continued that providing tools for the continued ability of the industry to succeed is imperative.
Wyoming’s sheep industry, he noted, enjoys one of the lowest costs of production in the nation on a per ewe basis.
“This give me all kinds of optimism for the future, and there’s other optimism out there,” he said. “When we look at lamb consumption, however, we have seen a decline. As that declines, we’ve fallen short of meeting demand. This isn’t a question of demand. It comes back to cost of production.”
Recently, Stewart explained, demand has also begun to surge, with an increase of 13 percent in food service and seven percent in retail, according to Superior Farms data.
“Whether we use USDA or industry data, one common theme is millenials are a demographic who are more predisposed to try new and flavorful cuisines,” Stewart said, adding that the same group of consumers also find the dual-resource production from sheep attractive. “We product both a sustainable fiber and red protein.”
“The bottom line is, hopefully everyone is running sheep and cattle,” he commented. “When we look at rates of return, even across a volatile five-year stretch from 2005-10, there are merits in sheep production.”
Working to improve
With optimism about the future, Stewart noted that the industry is not without room for improvement, first noting his goal is to build Wyoming’s Extension sheep program to the best in the country.
“The industry is in a place to make Wyoming’s sheep program the best in the country,” he said. “I have an expectation to fulfill Extension, research and teaching responsibilities. I have to do my part to helping build this program.”
Stewart explained that his goal is to provide objective information to producers across the state to improve their production.
“Information is literally at our fingertips today, but what we struggle with is taking the objective information that is tried and true – not based on profit – and getting that into producers’ hands in an efficient manner,” he said.
He also laid out a variety of other goals for his time at UW, including his desire to focus on young sheep producers, address parasite resistance and more.
“We produce a tremendous amount of the agricultural economy in the state of Wyoming,” Stewart concluded. “As the new sheep specialist, I’m not naïve enough to think I can do it on my own. I’m not naïve enough to know that we can do it without collaborating. We have to work with our industry group – the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, and we’re going to work together to accomplish these goals.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.