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Published February 08, 2011, 10:50 AM

Sheep shine this winter

Montana sheep producer Dave Hinneland was driving his truck down the highway when he got the reporter’s phone call.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Montana sheep producer Dave Hinneland was driving his truck down the highway when he got the reporter’s phone call.

No, he’s not worried about his sheep this cold, snowy winter, he says.

“We’re in good shape with feed. And sheep do just fine in this kind of weather. Sheep will out-winter a cow every time,” says Hinneland, a Circle, Mont., producer who also operates a trucking business.

Hinneland, president of the Montana Wool Growers Association, and other area sheep producers have plenty to be happy about this winter, despite heavy snows and frequent below-zero temperatures.

n Lamb prices are at record highs.

n Plentiful hay and grain harvests this summer and fall give producers plenty of good-quality feed.

n Sheep are built to do well in cold weather.

Sheep’s wooly coat provides a layer of insulation, similar to that of a jacket on a human being, says Reid Redden, North Dakota State University Extension Service sheep specialist in Fargo.

“The time we worry about sheep and cold temperatures is right after shearing,” he says.

Most sheep spend their winters on the range until shortly before lambing. It’s important to bring ewes to shelter before they lamb, so new lambs can remain dry, he says.

It’s also important that ewes in late gestation receive high-quality feed, he says.

High prices have attracted a number of new sheep producers, some of whom aren’t necessarily familiar with all the ailments that can afflict the animals, he says.

He advises new producers to watch their flocks particularly closely as lambing season arrives and to learn more about potential problems. For instance, clamydia, which is caused by a pathogen transmitted through the placenta and birthing fluids, can lead to abortions in sheep.

Strong prices help

South Dakota sheep producers are in good spirits this winter, say Steve Clements, a Philip, S.D., producer and president of the state Sheep Growers Association.

“The people I’ve talked with are pretty positive,” he says.

South Dakota ranks fifth in sheep and lamb production. Montana is sixth, North Dakota 13th. Texas leads the nation.

Wool prices are at their highest levels since 1974, while lamb prices have reached record highs, he says.

Declining sheep numbers in the United States are a big factor, as is reduced production in Australia and New Zeeland, both leading wool and lamb exporters, he says.

Clements, who’s been in the sheep industry all his life, remembers years when shearing sheep for their wool barely paid. Now, wool from a ewe is worth roughly $20.

Fed lamb prices in the Northern Plains have climbed to about $160 per hundredweight from about $100 per hundredweight in early 2010, says Tim Petry, livestock market economist with the NDSU Extension Service.

Typically, fed lamb prices peak in midsummer and decline for the rest of the year. In 2010, prices bucked the normal trend and continued to increase in the year’s second half.

That reflects strong ethnic and holiday demand, as well as reduced exports from Australia, Petry says.

Areas of concern

Sheep producers do have a few concerns, despite their overall optimism, Clements says.

Rising corn prices are one of them. In the Philip area, in west-central South Dakota, feeding 1 pound of corn every day to a sheep for a month costs about $3, which cuts into profits, he says.

Coyotes, the traditional enemy of both sheep and cattle producers, remain a major threat, he says.

Producers can work hard and successfully to reduce coyote numbers in a given area, but the predators quickly return, he says.

It’s encouraging that attractive lamb and wool prices are beginning to attract new sheep producers, he says.

“We want to bring more people into the business,” he says.

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