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Attendees to the South Dakota Sheep Growers Association Convention in Brookings, S.D., learned that 2017 has been a good year for sheep and lamb producers.

SD Sheep Growers Convention looks at farm bill, research and promotion

BROOKINGS, S.D. — Sheep producers got updates on lamb promotion, research and industry policy priorities in the next farm bill at the South Dakota Sheep Growers Association Convention in Brookings, S.D., on Sept. 28-30.

American Sheep Industry Association Executive Director Peter Orwick provided an update on federal policy and says they're asking Congress to renew a critical animal health research program in the new farm bill.

"We have a minor use, minor species program that's incredibly important that we get funded. That's what helps bring sheep pharmaceuticals into the market in the U.S," he says.

The sheep industry also wants a Foot and Mouth Disease Vaccine Bank and are unified with the rest of the livestock industry because it is a food security issue.

"There is just a tremendous concern that we don't have a bank available in this country to vaccinate our way out of an outbreak. It's a serious enough issue we want to have the same tool that's available in other countries around the world," says Orwick.

However, the big challenge for Congress is funding.

"Obviously, I don't think they're expecting a major increase in the amount of funding available. This is a new program so those monies available would have to come from somewhere," Orwick says.

The other change the group wants in the farm bill is an update to their only risk management tool — the Loan Deficiency Program for Wool.

"My guess is that Congress is probably going to look at doubling the base loan rate to try get a program that actually reflects production costs, and the market that we have for American wool," he says.

Producers learned about the various promotion programs being done by the American Lamb Board designed to boost lamb consumption. Michigan sheep producer and ALB Director Dale Thorne highlighted their efforts.

"American consumers eat about three-tenths of a pound of lamb per year, per person, so our push is to try and increase that amount," says Thorne.

One of the challenges they have in trying to increase lamb consumption is the high retail price versus beef, pork and chicken.

"The reality is, in the U.S., American lamb is already very high priced. It's as high priced as seafood products," says Thorne.

Despite this, consumers do have a positive overall view of the sheep industry.

"Their perception is that it's a very green-pasture, grass-fed, non-confinement operation," he says.

One bright spot regarding demand is the ethnic market for sheep is growing in the United States. Benny Cox, Vice President of the American Sheep Industry Board, is also the manager of Producers Livestock Auction Company in Texas, which is the largest goat and sheep auction in the nation.

Cox says ethnic lamb consumption in Texas, especially in Houston and Dallas, has steadily increased since 1990 due to the large Muslim population.

"There's been an increased demand by the people from the Middle East and the Caribbean," he says. "They're lamb and goat eaters and so they've increased the demand."

Lisa Webster, the owner and operator of North Star Sheep Farm in Windham, Maine, shared her enthusiasm for promoting sheep from farm to table. She says there is growing consumer interest in fresh, natural and locally produced foods, including lamb.

"I think the best thing we can do is show the consumers that we raise a natural product, that is ethically raised, that we're proud of it and it's sustainable to the farms that actually raise it," says Webster. That includes using social and traditional media campaigns to show consumers the stories of the families that raise those sheep.

Webster says their farm is only 16 miles from Portland, Maine, which is one of the fastest growing foodie areas in the country — an opportunity they are trying to capitalize on.

"We have 660 plus restaurants that are not chain restaurants in our area, so getting tourists into Portland and getting quality lamb on their plates is critical to telling our story. My chefs are my best avenue for my product," she says.

Sheep producers also got an update on leading production research at South Dakota State University from Dr. Jeff Held, SDSU Extension sheep specialist.

"It includes some work with improvement in antibody production in lambs, to improve their overall health, reducing mortality and morbidity," says Held.

As far as technology, it's an exciting time in the industry.

"We have growers who are interested in new and innovative approaches to sheep production and more intensified management systems," Held says. "There's new tools available, both from research and tools brought in globally to handle data, to look at genetics improvement and selection. There's a lot of drive to improve the production practices and do things different and more progressive, innovative."

Held went on to say that 2017 has been a good year for sheep and lamb producers.

"We had a great year in the sheep industry, especially as we look at both lamb and wool prices through the spring and lamb prices through the summer," he says.