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Published March 29, 2011, 01:11 PM

Wanted: More sheep producers

WOODWORTH, N.D. — It’s been a long, cold winter on the Brent and Codi Kuss ranch in Woodworth, N.D. But spring is in the air this sunny March afternoon, and Brent and Codi are all smiles as they go about their daily chores.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

WOODWORTH, N.D. — It’s been a long, cold winter on the Brent and Codi Kuss ranch in Woodworth, N.D. But spring is in the air this sunny March afternoon, and Brent and Codi are all smiles as they go about their daily chores.

“When you’re in livestock, this is the kind of day you really appreciate. They (the sheep) like it, too,” Brent says as the well-tended sheep frolic in their outdoor pens.

Producers like Brent and Codi — who began in the sheep business a decade ago with 13 ewes that lambed in an old garage — are increasingly scarce in the region’s long-declining sheep industry.

The number of sheep operations in North Dakota dropped from 3,500 in 1970 to 1,900 in 1990 to 680 in 2008, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Responding to the decline, the North Dakota Lamb and Wool Producers Association in 2008 launched its Starter Flock program, open to North Dakotans ages 10 to 18, to encourage a new generation of shepherds.

The program has drawn strong interest and is working well, says Wyman Scheetz, association president.

He and others involved in the sheep business say much-improved lamb and wool prices in 2010 have begun attracting more producers to the industry. Typically, the newcomers have small flocks, often as a hobby or to supplement income from off-farm jobs.

So far, though, the new producers don’t seem to have reversed the long decline in the region’s sheep numbers.

Sheep numbers decline

The number of sheep in North Dakota fell to a record low of 78,000 on Jan. 1, according to the National Ag Statistics Service.

That’s down from 105,000 from 2005 and 205,000 in 1982.

Other states in the region have fewer sheep, too.

Montana had 230,000 sheep on Jan. 1, down from 295,000 in 2005 and 616,000 in 1982.

Minnesota had 130,000 on Jan.1 and South Dakota 275,000. Both figures reflect long-term declines.

Sheep numbers nationwide have dropped sharply in the past 25 years because low prices have caused many producers to leave the business, according to USDA’s Economic Research Service.

The U.S. sheep population has been dropping since reaching a record 56 million in 1942, reflecting decreased demand for wool and greater competition from other meats, among other factors.

To put the long-term decline in perspective, consider this:

Today, the United States has about 5.5 million sheep, a record low, and about 308 million people.

In 1867, when inventory data began, the U.S. had about 45 million sheep and 38 million people.

As the number of sheep declines, there’s growing pressure on the so-called infrastructure, or the people and businesses that help to support the U.S. sheep industry.

For instance, it’s increasingly difficult to find veterinarians with sheep experience, Brent Kuss says.

The American Sheep Industry Association, which says the “danger of losing infrastructure is real,” is anxious to increase the number of sheep in the United States.

The organization earlier this year launched its “2 + 2 +2 = Rebuild” campaign. The goal is for every producer to add two ewes, increase the average birthrate per ewe to two lambs per year (sheep usually, but not always, have multiple births) and increase the harvested lamb crop by 2 percent.

Meeting the three targets would add 175,000 ewes and at least 315,000 lambs to the U.S. flock, the association says.

Why the decline?

Several factors, including poor prices, have cut into the number of sheep and sheep producers in the region, Scheetz says.

Farms in general are becoming fewer, and many of the remaining farm operations got out of livestock to concentrate on crops, he says.

Concerns about predators also have contributed to the decline in the number of sheep producers, he says.

Another factor, some people involved in agriculture say, is that many young people entering ag today don’t want to be tied down by the year-round, daily demands of livestock.

Brent Kuss has a few thoughts of his own on why the number of sheep and sheep producers have declined.

“It’s a lot of work,” he says of raising sheep.

Also, raising sheep “isn’t very prestigious. There’s a lot of prestige in being a cow guy; you don’t have that with sheep,” he says.

Some sheep producers who leave the business cite losses to predators, particularly coyotes, as a factor, Brent says.

His take on that:

“I feel people should at least try to help themselves by trapping or getting in contact with a trapper in their area, using guard animals — dogs, llamas, donkeys — or hunting them (predators) before using it as an excuse to get out of raising sheep,” says Brent, an avid trapper.

Prices have rallied

Better prices this winter should help to generate more interest in raising sheep, offi-cials say.

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

The reduced supply of sheep in the United States is partly responsible, as is a drought-related drop in production in Australia and New Zealand, both leading wool and lamb exporters, experts says.

Increased ethnic demand, reflecting growing numbers of Muslims and Hispanics in the United States, also is boosting prices.

“The ethic market has seen a huge push in the last few years,” Codi says.

Unfortunately for Brent and Codi, their ranch’s location, in sparsely populated central North Dakota, has prevented them from gaining much benefit from greater ethic demand.

Even so, they expect this to be their most profitable year ever. Unless prices tumble, they expect to receive about 30 cents per pound more for their lambs than a year ago.

The rising cost of fuel, feed and other expenses will eat up a “fair amount” of the higher prices, “but there’s still money to be made,” Brent says.

Codi says cattle, which she and Brent also raise, “are our true passion, but we make more money with sheep.”

The combination of crops, sheep and cattle provide much-needed diversity, Brent says.

“You never know from one year to the next which one is going to make the money. If we didn’t have all three, I don’t know if we’d still be here,” he says.

Farm kids, town kids

Brent Kuss, 37, was a town kid, growing up in nearby Carrington, N.D.

“All my friends were farm kids, and all I wanted to do was go out and help their parents on their farms. All my farm friends wanted to do was get to town and drag up and down Main Street,” he says.

Codi, his high school sweetheart, was the daughter of a farmer who raised crops and cattle.

She and Brent married in 1996 and were partners in a pig operation near Carrington. Times were tough then in the pig business; Brent calls the period the “dirty ’90s.”

“I always said that if I ever get my shorts back, I’ll put them on and run. The pig thing came around, and we finally got our money out of the pigs” and left the business, he says.

He says the venture “taught us to appreciate what you do have.”

He and Codi continued to raise crops and cattle on their farm, which originally belonged to Codi’s great-aunt. They worked in conjunction with Codi’s father, Arvin Goter.

Goter, who will be 65 in June, has retired from crop farming. This year’s crop will be the first that belongs completely to Brent and Codi.

Although he never raised sheep himself, Goter remembers neighbors having them when he was a boy. Rolling hills are common in the Woodworth area, and much of the land is better suited to livestock than crops.

Goter has helped Brent and Codi regularly, either by working with the sheep or by watching his three granddaughters while his daughter and son-in-law are busy with the livestock.

Brent and Codi have three daughters: Chayla, 10; Brekka, 3; and Cyrena, 2. Chayla already has her own flock of sheep, which are tagged to differentiate them from the other sheep.

Goter chuckles at the memory of the first time he worked with sheep. As a lifelong cattleman, he knew how to handle cattle. Sheep were another story.

“I just wasn’t handling them (the sheep) right. He (Brent) came over and showed me how. He said, ‘This is how you handle sheep,’” Goter says.

Advantages of sheep

In 2001, a neighbor with sheep asked Brent and Codi if they would lamb out 13 of his sheep.

They agreed, even though they lacked ideal facilities. They put the sheep in a former garage that had been converted to storage.

Brent and Codi decided to stick with sheep, partly to diversify their operation and also to make more efficient use of their land.

“You can run a lot of sheep on a few acres,” Codi says.

Some of their land includes 8- and 9-acre parcels that can’t be cropped. Sheep can make efficient use of such small parcels, while cattle can’t, Brent says.

Sheep also are good at controlling wormwood and ragweed, which were a problem on the farmstead at the time.

Another advantage of sheep is their cost relative to cattle, Brent says.

“Sheep aren’t such a big investment. For a couple of thousand dollars, you can get started in the sheep business pretty good,” he says.

Tough times initially

Lamb prices were low when Brent and Codi started in the sheep business.

“It was a rough go at first,” he says. “There was just no way we could make money.”

But they had very few sheep, which limited their losses, and they were able to subsidize the sheep with the other components of their farming operation.

Instead of selling their ewe lambs at a very low price, they kept the animals. Expanding their flock gave them greater profit potential when prices rallied.

Through the years, Brent and Codi have reinvested much of their profits from sheep back into the operation, particularly through new corrals and barns designed for sheep.

The new facilities, in turn, have allowed them to continue expanding their flock. For many years, Brent and Codi had about 250 ewes. Today, they have about 400.

‘Production-oriented’

Brent says he and his wife have a “production-oriented” flock. That means they want sheep that turn a profit, not ones that will win awards at shows and county fairs.

“We’re not about pretty. We’re about livestock that are profitable,” Brent says. For instance, show sheep tend to have long necks, long legs and little capacity to survive on forage, Brent says.

In contrast, sheep on the Kuss ranch have moderate frames, can survive on a forage base and generally are hardier, he says.

Brent and Codi have worked through the years to become more efficient and knowledgeable. They’ve talked with other producers and attended classes.

He speaks highly of classes at the Minnesota West Community and Technical College lamb and wool management program in Pipestone, Minn., which includes online course offerings, short course and tours, and home study. Brent, who attended a short course in Pipestone, encourages other sheep producers to check out the program.

Mike Caskey, an instructor at the Pipestone program, says sheep numbers need to increase to help keep the industry viable.

In the past, increased sheep numbers have led to lower lamb prices, says Caskey, a former president of the National Sheep Association.

What’s different now is that growing ethnic demand will allow prices to remain strong even if sheep numbers increase, he says.

Brent Kuss also says North Dakota is fortunate to be one of the few states with an Extension Service sheep specialist, Reid Redden.

Raising sheep isn’t for everyone, Brent says.

“But for some people, it makes sense. I’d really encourage people to at least take a look at sheep,” he says.

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