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Published December 03, 2012, 09:43 AM

Drought hits sheep producers hard

A year ago, we sold our fat lambs for nearly $2 a pound. The American sheep industry was on a roll. National industry leaders even launched a campaign encouraging producers to expand their farm flocks.

By: Rita Brhel, Agweek

I recently attended the 2012 Nebraska Sheep and Goat Conference in Wahoo. Mike Caskey from Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Pipestone, Minn., an industry leader whose curriculum has educated and influenced producers from around the world, spoke on what is happening to the sheep industry.

A year ago, we sold our fat lambs for nearly $2 a pound. The American sheep industry was on a roll. National industry leaders even launched a campaign encouraging producers to expand their farm flocks. Called the “Two Plus” program, the idea was for producers to add two head per hundred ewes to their flocks every year to keep up with the rising domestic demand for lamb among mostly ethnic markets as well as high-end markets, with the hopes of decreasing the need for the U.S. to import as much lamb as it does from industry rivals, especially Australia.

Producers were optimistic. Then the drought began. Pasture quality plummeted, hay became scarce and feed costs rose exponentially.

Producers began to flood the domestic market with any available animal they had, because they didn’t have the forage or grain to feed them. What went to the slaughter houses was of much lower quality than consumers were accustomed to and demand went down, so much so that the federal government ended up buying up almost all of the lamb to keep the lamb market afloat. It kept the industry infrastructure in place, but prices have bottomed out.

This fall, we sold our fat lambs for 70 cents a pound, and that was pretty good, compared with most of the lambs at the sale barn that day. It’s only because we do not grain finish — they’re pulled off their pasture-only mamas on the day of the sale — that we were able to make even the smallest profit.

According to Caskey, the only way lamb producers can hope they will make money in 2013 is if they get a 200 percent lamb crop, meaning every ewe has two lambs, and those lambs have a feed efficiency of 1 pound gained for every 3 pounds of feed. In addition, lambs need to be finished out to 120 pounds and the ewe feed cost must be kept low, up to $105 at most. That’s dicey with corn prices going the way they’re going. I don’t know how many producers will be able to follow that formula.

I like sheep. I grew up on a sheep ranch. Sheep are in my blood. I have to admit, though, that while they get astounding prices some years, other years are downright dismal, and the volatility of the market is making me second-guess the use of our pastures. I want some sort of money-making animal out there, because we have the grass so we might as well use it to our advantage. I just don’t know if sheep are the right pick.

Cows are out, because we don’t have enough acreage to make that profitable. So, we’re back to considering goats. We tried dairy goats for a couple years, but neither of us have time to milk and the kid goats don’t bring on the prices like meat goats. They’re good-natured and make great pets, but not great money-makers. Meat goats, however, might be worth a second look. Apparently, their market value is consistently good.

We still have our sheep, and we don’t have immediate plans for buying meat goats, but it’s something to consider. Change is something we all have to consider, whether we’re raising sheep, cattle or crops. If climate change is behind this drought, we may be in for a long-lasting change in weather, pasture quality and water availability.

We might be at the intersection of history where the agricultural landscape as we know it is about to transform into something different to keep up with nature’s mood, which seems to be dry and humorless for the moment.

Editor’s Note: Brhel is a correspondent for the Yankton (S.D.) Press & Dakotan. This column originally appeared in the Press & Dakotan.