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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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Of all the red meat products available in the retail market, our domestic sheep industry produces some of the highest quality. According to Colorado State University Sheep Extension Specialist Steve LeValley, 90 percent of the lamb produced in the U.S. grades Choice or better, compared to just 60 percent of beef. 

To be fair, he says, the sheep industry in the U.S. has declined to really small numbers – so small that 60 percent of the lamb sold on the retail market in the U.S. is imported, mostly from New Zealand or Australia. 

“We just don’t have enough producers left to supply the needs of this country,” LeValley explains. 

“We don’t export any domestic lamb product, other than something like kidneys, because of scrapie,” he continues. “But we are optimistic that one day, we will be able to say scrapie is eradicated in the United States.” 

LeValley says the sheep industry hopes to be able to genetically identify sheep that may carry the scrapie genes to help with this eradication process.

Competition

Despite producing a high-quality product, lamb is not very competitive with other red meats in the retail case, mostly because of its high retail cost. Some consumers find it so cost prohibitive that retail grocers may not offer lamb for sale in smaller cities and rural areas. 

“Pork can dress about 75 percent, but lamb is only about 50 percent, which is a 25 percent difference in economic yield,” LeValley states. 

Quality

Despite that, lamb has the least amount of quality defects of any of the red meats. 

“In most cases, lamb is almost a natural product. USDA hasn’t been able to find any chemical residue. Most lambs come from the range almost natural,” he says.

At the processing plant, LeValley says a camera takes pictures of the side profile and the back profile of each lamb carcass. From those two photos, ribeye area, fat thickness and the weight of the carcass can be calculated almost instantly. 

By the end of the day, the packer knows how many pounds of loins, legs, shanks and ribs that have been harvested and can place a value on that, he explains. 

Revisiting lamb

Consumer preferences for lamb are also starting to change, LeValley continues. 

With more ethnic groups calling the U.S. their home, the demand for lamb is increasing. 

LeValley also sees a younger generation of people in the U.S. who enjoy cooking. 

“There are still some generational issues, but I think now we are facing a huge educational gap,” he says. People are intimidated by lamb. A lot of people will try it someplace and love it, but they can’t figure out how to cook it at home.”

“We may need to start holding some lamb cooking schools. Lamb is actually very easy to prepare. It is simple to grill, or it can be cooked just like a pork chop,” he explains. 

In fact, most consumers prefer to see lamb prepared in traditional ways. 

“The taste and quality is there. We are just working now to improve consistency in terms of size,” he says.

Delaying growth

One of the biggest problems with distribution is sheep are seasonal breeders, which causes most of the lambs to be ready for market at the same time. 

“Because of this, we see lots of different systems for lamb feeding,” LeValley says. 

In Idaho, they graze fields of radishes planted after the wheat is harvested, while in other areas, they graze on beet tops with a protein feeder for supplement. Sometimes, they just graze longer.

“It is important to find ways to delay the growth pattern because we need to be able to control how fat they are when they come to market. We need to hold off finishing that lamb until the right time of year when there is more demand,” he states.

Not all lambs can be harvested straight off the range, so many lambs have to be housed in a feedlot until distribution equals out, the Extension Sheep Specialist continues. Sometimes, these lambs will get too much finish, either because of the lack of demand or low price. So, the feeder holds onto them longer. 

Once they are processed, the packer will realize less value because most of this excess fat will have to be trimmed.

LeValley says the sheep industry is diligent in working toward producing an even better quality product. Producers and consumers can access sheep handling videos, the sheep quality assurance program and even lamb recipes through YouTube or on the internet. 

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Sheridan – Mountain States Lamb Cooperative (MSLC) held their annual meeting this year in Sheridan. The meeting hosted over 100 members from across 12 states – ranging from California and Oregon to Iowa and Montana to Arizona.

“We have had a really good meeting,” said Frank Moore, chair of MSLC, “and we had a really good turnout of our membership.”

Business

The MSLC event started with a variety of topics during their business meeting.

“We gave everyone an update from last year for the Co-op, including what we have marketed for the year and how things are going,” Moore noted, adding that this year has been important for MSLC. “We celebrated delivery of our 3 millionth lamb since our start in December 2002 when we delivered our first lambs.”

Double J Feeders delivered the Co-op’s 3 millionth lamb and received a wool pelt recognizing the milestone. 

MSLC membership also heard from Dennis Stiffler, the CEO of Mountain States Rosen, the organization’s meat company in New York, on the sale of both lamb and veal.

Collective strength

Moore said, “MSLC is a success story.”

With nearly 140 members from 15 states delivering over 250,000 lambs each year, he continued, “Things are going well. Our membership is happy, and we are getting along well.”

“We hope to continue to make MSLC stronger and make the lamb industry stronger,” Moore comments.

Tour

During the annual meeting, members also toured local sheep operations and listened to stories about the rich history of the industry in Wyoming.

On July 16, Jw and Thea Nuckolls of Hulett and Don and Peto Meike of Kaycee detailed the history of their operations.

“Jw and Thea and Don and Peto gave a history of their families coming to the country and starting in the sheep business,” Moore said. “It was really great.”

The following day, MSLC meeting attendees toured sheep allotments belonging to Regan and Wendy Smith, Kay and Dave Neves and Keith and Linda Hamilton and their families in the Bighorn Mountains.

Each operation brought a long history of a variety of challenges, as well as a history of working together to accomplish the mutual goals of the industry.

“Things have changed quite a bit,” said Regan Smith on running sheep in the Bighorn Mountains.

With challenges ranging from high recreation use on the areas surrounding their allotments to decreasing sheep numbers, the producers talked about how their operations have changed over time.

In particular, Smith and Kay Neves noted that the number of sheep has decreased dramatically. Neves said that at one time, there were 22 bands, but today there are only five.

They also looked at a variety of issues, including those related to running on Forest Service allotments and the use of guard dogs.

“People who are recreating up here often think these dogs are abandoned, so they try to take them to Sheridan. We put tags on them that say to leave the dogs with the sheep,” explained Neves as one example of an issue in dealing with people using the area for recreation.

Forest Service representatives were present on the tour and discussed the process of issuing and maintaining allotments, as well as the composition of the native range.

After a full day on the Bighorn Mountains at 9,500 feet elevation, the event concluded on the evening of July 17 back in Sheridan with a dinner celebrating the achievements of MSLC over the last year.

Sheep industry

Though more than 50 percent of its membership is in Wyoming, MSLC makes a strong impact on the sheep industry in the U.S. as a whole, and Moore noted that the sheep industry continues to survive.

“The sheep industry is doing ok right now,” he said. “When we have times like right now where the dollar is high, we see impacts from imported products. The sheep industry has to recognize and adjust for that.”

The global nature of the sheep industry has created some additional challenges for producers.

Look for more information on the sheep industry in two weeks after the Wyoming Wool Growers Association Mid-Year Meeting.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Park City, Utah – Nov. 4-6 saw the influx of sheep producers from Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming to Park City, Utah for the 2015 West Central States Wool Growers Convention.

With sheep producers from across the region in attendance, speakers highlighted the current market situation, production strategies and policy impacts during the two-day event.

As an area of consistent concern, lamb markets were a topic of conversation during the event.

Market situation

Kaycee sheep producer and National Lamb Feeder’s Association Treasurer Bob Harlan noted that the economics of the sheep industry have changed in recent years.

“As we go into this fall, the economics of graze-out lambs don’t exist,” he said. “Many of those lambs have gone into the feedlots.”

Because of drought in California and Oregon, pasture isn’t as available for lambs, and lambs in the feedlot are continuing to grow.

The over-fat lambs may create a problem later in 2016, he commented.

Raising sheep

While more optimistic than Harlan, Frank Moore, Mountain States Lamb Cooperative (MSLC) president and Douglas producer, acknowledged that an oversupply of heavy lambs after the first of the year may be a problem.

Harlan also noted that without economics to graze lambs, creating a consistent, year-round supply of product is nearly impossible.

“We can make it about 10 months now, with those lambs in the feedlot,” he said.

“Mountain States Rosen and our MSLC members are in good shape right now,” Moore said, “and I think we will keep them in good shape.”

Moore also noted that the sheep industry is in the same situation as it was several years ago.

Consumption and demand

“There isn’t any solution to this situation but to increase demand for lamb,” Moore emphasized. “We are going to see some things happen over the next few months that might be uncomfortable, but in reality, the sooner we can get demand to pick up and the sooner we start moving these lambs, the quicker we will get out of an oversupply, over-fat situation.”

With an understanding that consumers are going to be influential into the future, Harlan, Moore and Superior Farms CEO Rick Stott also noted that increasing demand for lamb continues to be paramount for the industry.

“In the last two years, we have seen an increase in consumption,” Stott commented. “Two years ago we saw an eight percent increase, and this year, we saw a 13 percent increase in lamb alone. This was the first time in 20 years we saw two years of increase in a row.”

This year, consumption increased 11 percent in food service and eight percent in retail, which is also encouraging.

Young audience

Millennial consumers are the key to increasing that demand, Stott added.

“Lamb is really hot right now,” he said. “It is showing up in magazines and in front cover articles.”

Stott further noted that lamb is receiving a disproportionately high amount of publicity compared to consumption.

“This is unprecedented in the history of the industry,” he said. “We are excited about the future, and consumers are waking up to the real value of lamb. However, we have some big headwinds.”

Maintaining market share

Of the biggest challenges for lamb, Stott noted that market share of domestic product compared to imported lamb is a delicate balance.

“The average premium we hold over Australian product is about 45 percent,” he explained. “At 45 percent premium, we maintain our market share. At less than 45 percent, we gain market share. Consumers come to us at that point, and price-sensitive consumers are okay with buying U.S. lamb at a 25 percent premium.”

However, if the premium for American lamb surpasses 60 percent, price-sensitive consumers start switching to imported product.

“The price shoppers disappear,” he said.

Recent history

In fall 2014, when the exchange rate moved 18 percent over three months, that change was reflected in the premium of domestic lamb over the imported product.

“We saw a 10 to 15 percent decline in our customers,” Stott said. “It became clear that, at a 65 percent premium, we lose market share and customers, and we have been in that position throughout the year.”

“The strength of the dollar does impact us,” Moore emphasized. “It’s important in our industry.”

Stott further noted that today, American lamb is at a 100 percent premium – and has been for the last two months.

“The exchange rate moved from 18 to 33 percent from a year and a half ago,” he said, noting that trends are very similar to the situation prior to the crash of 2012-13.

Looking forward

The sheep producers at the convention recognized that they must take action to avoid an industry crash.

Harlan said the industry will attempt to sell their current supply at Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.

“It probably won’t happen,” he commented, “and the backup will start.”

On top of lambs in the feedlot, Harlan noted that the strength of the American dollar continues to prove challenging.

“The dollar is so high that the only way we can compete is to lower the market,” Harlan said. “The market will go lower.”

Moore added, “It’s better to kill those lambs for a little less money today than for a lot less money in two months after we’ve also put a lot of feed into them.”

Further, Harlan predicted that feedlot supply will continue into May and June, when the industry will still be working to get rid of older fat lambs.

“We’ll kill what graze-out lambs there are in June, July and August, but by that time, they won’t be in good quality either,” Harlan said. “I think we are in the perfect storm right now, but I don’t know how we get out of that.”

Bright side

While things look dire right now, Harlan also added, “As negative as things might sound, we added 25 percent to our breeding herd, and we think there is a future for the sheep industry.”

Stott also remained optimistic for the industry, commenting, “This is about inspiring shared visions and where we can take this industry. There are exciting possibilities for where we can go.”

Look for an update on the wool market in next week’s Roundup.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Buffalo - Most aspects of Buffalo’s new Mountain Meadow Wool Company center around one word – nontraditional.
    “We’re trying to find nontraditional uses for wool,” says Mountain Meadow Wool’s Valerie Spanos. “Because we’re involved with the Wyoming Small Business Innovative Research grant program, I’m always looking for things that could apply to wool.”
    One such use came up a couple months ago when Spanos was searching through solicitations coming from the U.S. Dept. of Defense. “I saw something I thought would apply,” she says.”
    “People have always had suits to put on to be protected under hazardous conditions, but there wasn’t anything for the military working dogs,” she says. “The Dept. of Defense noticed there was a technology gap there and they thought the best solution would be to put them in a kennel or shelter of some sort where they’d be protected.”
    “I was looking at this dog shelter and I thought wool would basically have all of the necessary qualities innately,” she says. “Our premise was to make the substrate from wool and then add some of the other things for chemical and biological defense components.”
    “We thought wool would be a great product for these because it absorbs moisture and the dogs have to be in the shelter for 72 hours,” she explains. “They’ll be panting, and the best thing we could find that’s available right now was a plastic shelter with a respirator.”
    Of their first foray into dealing with the Dept. of Defense, Spanos says it was out of their expertise but their past grant writing experience helped.
    “We talked to Bob Stobart of the University of Wyoming and he put us in touch with another technical textile expert in wool who lives in the U.K., a vet toxicologist, a chemical engineer and a mechanical engineer,” says Stobart, noting that this team is ready to come together on the project if Mountain Meadow Wool is awarded the grant.
    “We’ll come together to design and implement a model with the premise that wool can be used as the substrate. We can start adding things to it to give it different properties or try weaving it in different ways,” she says. “When we began researching this I was blown away by all the qualities of wool.”
    The first stage of the project would be deciding how the shelters would be made, from woven or non-woven to how thick the wool needed to be. “All that has to do with air permeability and thermal regulation. We’re trying to keep certain things out but also allow carbon dioxide to go out and oxygen to come in, if that’s possible,” she says. “We still have a lot of questions to answer and that’s what the feasibility would do. In the second phase we’d actually put some together and sew them up and see if they’ll work.”
    Mountain Meadow Wool expects to know in about a month if they’ll be awarded the grant. “It’s kind of a long shot, but at least it’s getting the word out about wool,” she comments. “I don’t think people realize that wool is a viable option for many things that don’t have to be polyester and rayon.”
    The mill received their $5,000 Phase 0 award in November 2008 through the Wyoming Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer Initiative (WSSI) and the Wyoming Business Council. According to the Business Council, the SBIR Phase 0 Program helps Wyoming companies develop competitive proposals for the federal SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. The WSSI receives funding from the Wyoming Business Council and gives out $120,000 in Phase 0 awards each year.
    Spanos says another project the mill is looking at incorporating into their operation is natural pest control. “We’re very committed to being a green company, and because of that we’re going to have some challenges with pest control and fleas and ticks coming in on the wool. We’ve looked at some non-pesticide control methods and one of the things we’ve looked at is lavender oil.”
    Mountain Meadow is also looking at making detergent that’s non-petroleum based spinning oil.
    “We have this research side of the mill which is really challenging and exciting, but on the other hand we have our regular mill,” she says. She and her business partner, INSERT NAME, hope to have the mill up and running May 1.  
    In addition to processing wool as a service to customers and buying their own wool and selling it as yarn, the mill has a studio that will offer classes in weaving, spinning and knitting.
    “Our big push is in the yarn market,” says Spanos. “Initially we’re doing an undyed line because there’s a big interest right now for people to dye their own in the handcrafted industry.”
    She says it’ll be at least a year before the mill adds a dyed line. “Dying is more challenging, but we do have a lady that wants to be our ‘dye master.’” Spanos says leafy spurge makes a really good natural dye that produces a reddish-yellow or orange color in wool.
    “We’ve been involved with the Mountain States Lamb Coop and we’d like to do something with their wool because it’s already identified and they have a good back story so people can look them up and see where the sheep came from,” says Spanos.
    Although the coop will be their main source, the mill will eventually be buying wool from other sources. Meanwhile, she says anybody’s welcome to bring their own wool in just for processing.
    Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Sendcomments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..