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Sheep industry picks up public interest

The U.S. sheep industry is rebounding, and Travis Hoffman says he'll do his part to see that continues, especially in North Dakota and Minnesota. "I believe there's room for growth, partly because of the resources available and also, importantly,...

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Photo by Michael Palmer

The U.S. sheep industry is rebounding, and Travis Hoffman says he’ll do his part to see that continues, especially in North Dakota and Minnesota.

“I believe there’s room for growth, partly because of the resources available and also, importantly, we’ve seen a rejuvenation of a younger generation wanting to be a part of the sheep industry and to diversify or expand an existing operation,” says Hoffman, the new extension sheep specialist in the two states.
Hoffman succeeds Reid Redden, who left the NDSU and Minnesota position last year to join Texas A&M as its extension and goat specialist. Redden is a Texas native and still has family there.
These are encouraging times for the U.S. sheep industry, which had been in long-term decline. The U.S. had 5.32 million sheep at the beginning of 2016, 1 percent more than a year earlier, according to federal statistics.
North Dakota’s flock rose 14 percent in 2015, the largest percentage increase in the nation. Minnesota’s official sheep numbers, bucking the national trend, fell slightly last year, although Minnesota sheep industry officials say they think the state actually gained sheep in 2015.
The growing “nontraditional markets,” also known as the religious and ethnic markets, is increasing demand for lamb, and contributing to rising sheep numbers, industry officials say.
So is the relatively low cost of starting a small flock of sheep; establishing a small herd of cattle is more expensive in comparison.
New sheep producers, especially small-scale ones, also benefit from being “able to work to develop a market and connecting directly with the farmer. A lot of consumers want to make that direct connection,” Hoffman says.
Existing sheep producers, including ones with large operations, have potential to expand their flocks, as well, he says.
“There’s opportunity for everyone,” he says.
Lifetime of experience
Hoffman is no stranger to sheep. He grew up on a diversified livestock operation near Rockham, S.D. The family operation raises registered Corriedale sheep and commercial feeder cattle, and grew grains.
Diversified operations, one that combine several types of livestock or livestock and grains, often makes financial sense in this part of the world, Hoffman says.
“It allows you to mitigate risk,” he says. “When prices rise or go down, being diversified can be beneficial."
He earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science from South Dakota State University and a master’s degree and a doctorate in animal science with a meat science emphasis from Colorado University State in 2015.
His Ph.D. research was part of a 2015 National Lamb Quality Audit. It focused on defining and quantifying consumers’ willingness to pay for lamb quality in the U.S. marketplace.
His research found, “The main reason people buy lamb is because of the flavor, and the main reason they don’t is because of the flavor,” he says. “One of the main things we’ll be working on (in his new position) is how can produce lambs with the flavor that our customers prefer.”
His advice to customers: “Be adventurous. Try lamb on your plates, either at home or the restaurant. It provides a little bit of variety to your meal.” Lamb “is unique, a bold-flavored protein.”
Hoffman, 35, was an instructor in meat sciences at SDSU before taking the NDSU and Minnesota extension sheep specialist position. He’s taught several sheep-related courses and written a number of articles on the sheep industry.
He says he’s excited to be working full time in the sheep industry.
“There really is so much opportunity,” he says.

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Travis Hoffman

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