WATERTOWN, S.D. — If the hog and cattle markets are now being hammered by effects of the COVID-19 crisis, the sheep industry was slammed sooner and harder.
The virus market effects started setting in about the time that slaughter numbers were increasing. The last load he’s been able to ship was March 26, with no bids — none — on finished lambs.
Trevor VanWell, and his mother, Stephanie, and brother, Travis, run VanWell Livestock LLC, of Watertown, S.D. They are a family pivotal to sheep farming in the Dakotas.
Trevor said market losses appear to be $45 a head in April, probably $60 per head in May.
“The timing of the virus was really unfortunate, because we were going into a critical time of the year in the sheep industry,” he said. “It’s actually our biggest order of the year with Easter and Orthodox Easter.”
Stephanie and her late husband, Dion, moved to the farm in 1993 and have been in business since then. Dion, a key entrepreneur in the sheep industry in the Dakotas, died at age 47 in 2014, and the family has pressed on. The VanWells have 11 employees at the home place, including eight Peruvian workers — all with special skills and experience in the sheep trade. Peruvian crew-members have been hired for many years, coming on the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visas.
With the COVID-19 crisis, it’s been a challenge to pay the men and even find the rice and other provisions they prefer. Because they are foreign workers, the VanWells are ineligible for the company to get Paycheck Protection Program compensation through the CARES Act. They’ve written to U.S. senators, asking for help to get workers their paycheck.
“We wouldn’t be able to make it without them — just like the rest of the country,” Stephanie said.
But this is worse, with no income from fat lambs, “it’s hard to pay the bills,” Stephanie said.
VanWell Livestock has more than 6,000 ewes, lambing October through May. The VanWells maintain a growing facility south of Watertown, from lambs or home-raised lambs, weaned at eight weeks.
The company also buys feeder lambs to take to finish — roughly up to 140,000 lambs a year. This time of the year, the lambs usually are shipped to Chicago, Detroit and Ohio packing plants.
Typically, about 90% of them go markets in the east. Prices have plummeted 35% from before the COVID-19 crisis. Some slaughter facilities have been affected by employees declining to show up for work out of concern for their own health, or because employees that have tested positive for COVID-19. Some have shut down because of lack of orders for the meat they might produce.
In February and March, the VanWells purchased more feeder lambs from California than normal.
The VanWells have been an important market for small producers. They historically have run a buying station at Glacial Lakes Livestock in Watertown every Monday, but that has been closed down since March 16.
“Right now, we’re backed up around 5,500 lambs that should have already been through the chain,” Trevor said. “The problem with being backed up at this time of year, there is no major holidays coming up.”
“I’ve been telling those guys (packers) that any little movement would help us right now, to stay current,” he said. “It’s been nearly impossible. We can’t even get bids for packers that are east of the Dakotas. No bids at all.”
Two plants in Colorado were continuing to slaughter but weren’t having issues with employees being absent.
Nationally, industry sources say processors are killing 11,000 fewer U.S. lambs than without the COVID-19 crisis Still, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 2.19 million pounds of imports the first week of April, as carcasses or boxed meat products in major cuts —roughly the equivalent to about 27,000 live animals.
Says Stephanie: The problem is dire but not hopeless.
“It’s going to hurt us, but we’re going to get through it,” she said. It's too soon to say how.