Future looks bright for sheep industry

The U.S. sheep industry could have a very bright future and it appears that Midwesterners are in a better position than most of the nation to expand its sheep flocks because of the region’s access to cheaper feed resources.

Future looks bright for sheep industry

The U.S. sheep industry could have a very bright future and it appears that Midwesterners are in a better position than most of the nation to expand its sheep flocks because of the region’s access to cheaper feed resources.

In the U.S., we only supply half of domestic demand for lamb. We import lamb from Australia (65%) and New Zealand (35%) to fill the void.

Domestic production of lamb is concentrated in the Western states by large operations. These large operations (> 1,000 sheep) represent only 2% of the sheep producers. However, they produce greater than 50% of the lambs. Western operations are facing hardships that will likely cause more retraction in the industry. These hardships include, but are not limited to: land prices exceeding realistic agricultural revenues, conflict with protected species, and strong desire by activists to remove public land sheep-grazing permits.

Internationally, demand for lamb is expanding with population growth, as well as increasing demand for proteins in developing countries. Demand in the U.S. for traditionally produced lamb products has declined in the last five years, in part due to a lackluster national economy.

Key Points

• Demand should grow significantly for sheep as minority population increases.

• Midwest producers are in the best position to supply the market.

Farm-based flocks show more expansion possibility than Western range operations.


However, the nontraditional lamb market has been a very stable industry during the last 10 years. In 2008, it was estimated that 58% of the total U.S. lamb supply (including imports) was consumed by minority populations (35% of the U.S. population). By 2050, minority populations are expected to rise to greater than 50% of the U.S. population. Lamb demand should follow this change in demographics. Moreover, the demand for locally sourced foods has doubled in the last 10 years.

In North Dakota, commercial sheep farming can be divided into two segments:

Range-based systems, which rely on large amounts of land typically not suitable for crop farming. This industry has been declining. If it continues to decline, there will be an even larger demand for American lamb and wool products. Farm flock-based systems, which require much less acreage. They have been increasing in popularity. With adequate facilities, 300 to 1,000 ewes can be managed on a small-acreage farm. In this scenario, ewes are managed on inexpensive feedstuffs (often byproducts) most of the year. Just prior to lambing (45 days), higher-quality feed is provided to ewes, typically alfalfa hay and corn. Ewes remain on this ration through weaning (60 days). Lambs have access to creep feed (corn and soybean meal) from shortly after birth, through weaning. Thereafter, lambs are kept on self-fed rations consisting primarily of whole corn and a protein pellet.

Lambs managed in the flock based system are efficient (5:1) and reach profitable market weight (140 pounds) quickly. After weaning, ewes are typically turned out to graze on available pasture or crop aftermath.

Currently, market lambs are worth $225 each. If an operation markets a 150% lamb crop, keeps ewe overhead costs at or below $75 per year, and feeds each lamb for $75, then it can net approximately $150 per ewe. This type of operation requires labor, equipment, facilities and expertise. However, the majority of labor needs are concentrated in the winter.

If managed well, sheep farming can be an additional source of revenue for a farming operation, and can diversify risk. Although half the sheep industry operates small hobby farms, it is a fact that sheep farming can be a profitable livestock enterprise that serves a domestic food and fiber demand. For existing or new operations to function properly, they must invest time and effort to develop a sound flock management plan.

The future looks bright for the U.S. sheep industry, but a new generation of sheep farmers is needed to produce the lamb and wool products.

Redden is a North Dakota State University Extension sheep specialist. This article is reprinted from the North Dakota Corn newsletter.

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