Two key messages came out of a media event held Oct. 25 at Riverwood Farms near Powell: the U.S. sheep industry needs more sheep, and Ohio is well suited to assist with that expansion.
“It’s runaway demand for both lamb and wool, and the only way we’re going to meet it is by increasing how much we have to sell into the markets,” said Peter Orwick, executive director of the American Sheep Industry (ASI), who was on hand to explain the industry’s “Let’s Grow with twoPLUS” campaign.
The primary objective of the Let’s Grow campaign is to encourage current producers to expand their sheep numbers by 2014. If carried out, the initiative will result in 315,000 more lambs and 2 million more pounds of wool for the industry to market. The three main goals are: encourage producers to increase the size of their operation by two ewes per operation or by two ewes per 100 by 2014; encourage sheep producers to increase the average birthrate per ewe to two lambs per year; and encourage producers to increase the harvested lamb crop by 2% — from 108% to 110%.
With record-setting prices today in lamb and wool, current producers should have the confidence and enthusiasm to consider expansion, Orwick said. The Australian flock has shrunk from 170 million head to 70 million head, and many New Zealand sheep producers are switching to grass-based dairies, so there is the opportunity for U.S. producers to fill that market void. Plus, new wool-milling technology that allows for against-the-skin wool products opens new doors to market potential that didn’t exist 20 years ago.
“Long-term, we’re going to have to fill the demand if we want to keep the grocery stores, the farmers markets — all sectors of lamb and wool consumers in supply,” he said. “People love the product, so it’s up to us to take care of these accounts that have signed on for American lamb and American wool. It’s an opportunity where the greatest risk is whether or not the retailer can continue to carry the product, because the supply isn’t there.”
New sheep producers also are being encouraged.
“The sheep industry has a lot of advantages, number one being what it costs to get into it,” Orwick said. “You don’t have a huge requirement for buildings or equipment, and the forage base is a pretty unique aspect as well. If you have grass, if you have crop aftermath grazing, sheep are a beautiful animal to put on there.”
According to the numerous Ohio sheep producers at the event, the Buckeye State is perfectly suited for expansion. As the largest sheep-producing state east of the Mississippi River, a solid infrastructure is already in place with a number of traditional market outlets. Plus, the nation’s second largest Somali population, which enjoys consuming lamb, is in the Columbus/Dayton area.
“If we can keep our infrastructure strong, you don’t have to go very far in Ohio to be able to market your lambs and your sheep,” said Roger High, Ohio Sheep Improvement Association (OSIA) executive director. “Plus, we’ve got one of the strongest wool-marketing cooperatives in Ohio with Mid-States Wool Growers in Canal Winchester. So, there are a lot of marketing opportunities.”
Several producers stressed Ohio’s ability to grow grass in areas where crops are not suited, and sheep are the ultimate forage animals. It doesn’t take a lot of land to raise sheep, sheep can graze crop residues, even in tough times sheep turn a profit, and they are easier to handle than most other types of livestock, the producers said.
Ohio also has a strong intellectual infrastructure in place to help people get started in the sheep business, through OSIA, Ohio State University Extension and a number of veteran producers who can serve as mentors, said Jim Percival, OSIA president and a Greene County sheep producer.
“It makes it simpler for someone to get in and move forward with us,” Percival said.
Current Ohio shepherds are not producing enough lamb and wool to meet demand, he said.
“There’s tremendous demand both here in Ohio and in states surrounding Ohio that’s not being met,” Percival said. “We have an opportunity now to meet that demand and make a very good profit in this industry. Now is the time to step up and not only grow our own flocks, but encourage others to get into it too.”
That opportunity likely isn’t going away anytime soon, as it will take years to increase supply enough to fill the current void, High said. Not only are sheep numbers down, but through checkoff dollars, the sheep industry is promoting its products better than it ever has before, resulting in added demand.
“This is not going to happen tomorrow,” High said. “It’s a two-, five- or 10-year project to get our industry back to where it needs to be.”
The wool market is in the same boat.
“We’re in a period right now where we’re looking at a 20-year high in prices and yet we don’t have enough product to provide to the world. Whether it’s here in the United States or it’s in the export markets, we just don’t have enough,” said David Rowe, general manager of Mid-States Wool Growers. “We get phone calls on a weekly basis of people looking for wool and we just don’t have the volume to meet those phone calls. The world production of wool has shrunk and that has forced buyers into other markets. So additional volume would be very welcomed, and I don’t think we’d see a whole lot of negative impact on price, because there’s just not enough sheep numbers in the world.”
Rowe encouraged new or expanding sheep producers to consider breeds that meet the demand for both lamb and wool. Targhee is one breed that is seeing increased interest, because they are a little more durable and hardy than some breeds, they work well on grass, they provide a nice fleece, they lamb out of season and have a high rate of twins, and they are good mothers, he said.
“So there are some breeds out here that you can look at that can improve both your lamb crop and your wool clip to allow both of them to contribute positively to your bottom line,” Rowe said.
Regardless of the breed, or how they are raised and marketed, the key thing is to get started if the interest is there, said Rowe, who also raises sheep on his farm near London.
“The infrastructure is strained right now because the volume’s not there. If we don’t start growing the volume, we will see some infrastructure contraction,” Rowe said. “There’s room for you under this tent. We’re excited about getting people involved.”
ASI has developed a website, www.growourflock.org, and materials to help spread the word of the Let’s Grow initiative. The site includes a video explaining the twoPLUS program, Let’s Grow partners who are participating in the campaign, resources for producers, an open forum for producers to communicate with one another and a section for media promotion.
American Sheep Industry Executive Director Peter Orwick gives an overview of this Nationwide program.
Roger High, Executive Director of The Ohio Sheep Improvement Association, talks about the advantages Ohio has for the industry.
David Rowe of Mid-States Wool Growers updates the status of his industry.
Greene County sheep producer and OSIA President Jim Percival says opportunities are there for current and new producers.