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The long, slow decline of the U.S. sheep industry

Tatiana Bulyonkova / flickr commons

Credit Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media
Once a staple part of the American diet, we’re eating a lot less lamb. The U.S. sheep herd today is just one-tenth the size it was in the 1940s.

Over the last 20 years, the number of sheep in this country has been cut in half. In fact, the number has been declining since the late 1940s, when the American sheep industry hit its peak. Today, the domestic sheep herd is one-tenth the size it was during World War II.

The decline is the result of economic and cultural factors coming together. And it has left ranchers to wonder, “When are we going to hit the bottom?”

Some sheep are raised for their wool, others primarily for food. Both products – lamb meat and wool – have seen declining consumption in the U.S. If you look at the tags on clothes in your closet, chances are quite a few pieces will be blended with synthetic fibers: nylon, rayon and polyester. As these human-made fibers have become more prevalent and inexpensive, people are wearing less and less wool.

The same goes for lamb. In the early 1960s the average person in the U.S. ate about 4.5 pounds of lamb in a year. That has dropped to less than a pound in 2011.

At the same time as the American sheep industry’s decline, Australian and New Zealand wool and lamb imports are way up, squeezing into niche markets that America’s sheep producers are having a hard time filling.

Ranchers are feeling the industry contraction, whether it’s caused by epic drought, scarce feed supplies, harsh winters, or wild price volatility.  

“The numbers are just way down – and less sheep ranchers, just in general,” said Albert Villard, a sheep rancher in Craig, Colo.

Credit Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media
Sheep rancher Albert Villard from Craig, Colo., has seen the decline of the sheep industry first-hand. He’s been ranching at least part-time since he was a teenager.

 Blizzard and drought the past three years have culled Villard’s herd to its lowest point in a long time. Building it back up hasn’t been easy.

“The industry as a whole, I think, is trying to get the numbers up, but there’s so many factors as to why,” Villard said. “I don’t think you can blame any one thing.”

Double J Feeders outside Ault, Colo., which is one of just a handful of lamb feeding operations in the country, feels the decline too. The feedlot can hold up to 50,000 sheep at any given time and fattens them up before slaughter.

One part of the decline could be the changing agricultural landscape across the country. Farms have grown larger, more technologically advanced and there are fewer small family farms today than ever before.

“Thirty or 40 years ago, every farmer in the winter time would buy 1,000 lambs, run them out on the beet tops, corn – whatever – and then they’d market those lambs in the spring. Well, all that has changed,” said Jeff Hasbrouck, the owner of Double J Feeders.

Most farms aren’t fenced in any more, Hasbrouck says, and have grown so large that maintaining a sheep herd makes no economic sense. It’s more trouble than it’s worth for a large crop grower.

Credit Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media
Double J Feeders outside Ault, Colo., is one of just a handful of lamb feeding operations in the country.

Hasbrouck’s feedlot is part of Mountain States Rosen, a large co-op that markets lamb to meatpacking companies and locks in prices. But the lamb and sheep industry is still wildly volatile. Price swings are the norm and when risk is too high ranchers tend to bow out.

Another problem that has plagued the industry is lamb’s perception by the average consumer. Longtime sheep producers put the blame on the meat fed to soldiers all the way back in World War II.

“Those troops were fed canned mutton and when they came home they said, ‘No more lamb, no more sheep. Don’t eat any of it.’ And that’s where we saw the steady decline,” said Brad Anderson, livestock supply manager for Mountain States co-op.

That steady decline of sheep numbers started at the same time production of beef, chicken and pork all got way more efficient. Lamb couldn’t compete. So while cattle research has turned beef production into a well-oiled, highly profitable enterprise, Anderson says the same isn’t true for lamb.

“We deal with just a percentage of the budget that other proteins have for research, so it’s very tough to get that kind of research and be able to get that information to the producers,” Anderson said.

But there is hope for sheep producers. Because many sheep and lamb operations tend to be small, the growth in farmers markets and local food has benefited sheep ranchers. One-third of all lamb sold in the U.S. now is direct sale from producer to consumer, according to the American Sheep Industry Association. There’s plenty of room for growth in big cities too.

  “It’s ethnic communities. Every major metropolitan city in the U.S. has a large immigrant neighborhood,” said Peter Orwick, executive director of the American Sheep Industry Association. “Where are the people coming from? Where they prefer lamb. It’s their meat,”

With little time to worry about the future, Northwest Colorado rancher Albert Villard is focused on the upcoming year. Prices have risen recently, but coming off a drought, he expects to see even more of his neighbors dropping out.

“A lot of guys might liquidate because they don’t want to fight it anymore, which from my perspective, because I need to buy more sheep, might be a good thing,” Villard said.

A good thing for him to build up his herd, but with fewer young ranchers joining the ranks, a bad piece of news for an industry shrinking every year.