Industry Sets Research Priorities Part 2

Industry Sets Research Priorities (Part 2)

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series covering topics discussed in the U.S. Sheep Industry Research, Development and Education Priorities report issued through ASI in June 2016. Look for the first installment in the June 2017 issue of the Sheep Industry News. Read the entire report at Sheepusa.org/ResearchEducation_Publications_ResearchEducationPriorities2016.

According to the U.S. Sheep Industry Research, Development and Education Priorities report of 2016, one of the more “notable and advantageous characteristics of sheep is their versatility and ability to adapt and thrive under a wide variety of environmental conditions and management systems.”

While it’s easy to dwell on predation issues – after all, nearly every living thing bigger than a house cat can be a predator to sheep – the animals have seen growing popularity in the United States in recent years for a variety of reasons. The first is the opportunity for multiple income sources – meat, wool, pelts. But a major contributing factor must be the relative ease of keeping sheep compared to other livestock. This is especially true for beginning farmers and ranchers – a demographic that has been a major factor in sheep population increases within the United States in two of the last three years.

Grazing, Management & Nutrition

In looking at grazing and forage management, the study noted that sheep producers benefit from the fact that these animals are versatile, efficient converters of renewable forage to high-quality food and fiber. There are other benefits, as well.

“In many parts of the country, sheep provide residual economic benefit from crop production through the grazing of crop aftermath,” the report states. “Sheep are used to help control weeds on stream banks, croplands and pastures, reducing the need for chemical herbicides. In rangeland areas, strategic sheep grazing can be an effective tool for controlling invasive plant species that can damage critical wildlife habitat and for suppressing brush for wildfire control.”

As with any issue in the industry, advantages and challenges vary by region and management styles.

Intensive, rotational grazing was selected as the top concern for survey participants who operated a pasture-based operation. Range-based producers identified multi-species grazing as their top challenge. Often times, range-based producers are running livestock on public lands where grazing setups and conditions are generally limited by state and federal permits. Thus, rotational grazing is rarely a concern for these producers.

Regardless of operation size or management system, there is evidence that multi-species grazing shows increases in both production and profitability. The advantages of multi-species grazing  are based on complementarity in forage selection and grazing habits.

Research priorities in this area include: production efficiency, multi-purpose and/or multi-use public lands, multi-species grazing, alternative feeds/forages and parasite control.

The report calls for educational efforts in a variety of grazing situations, as well as updated literature and opportunities to train existing extension personnel in hopes that the knowledge base will trickle down to the producer level. There’s also a need for more education on risk management tools through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Public Policy & Social Issues

In many cases, this area is a larger concern for western producers because federal land decisions have a dramatic effect on their ability to produce lamb and wool. Those decisions are based on everything from the Clean Water Act to the Endangered Species Act and the way these regulations limit use of federal land for livestock grazing.

The top research priority in this area is the interaction of domestic and bighorn sheep in the intermountain west. The current policy of spatial separation of the two species  has yet to be validated by scientific research, and yet is being used to displace domestic sheep from long-held grazing permits on public lands.

Predator control – both lethal and non-lethal – is a concern regardless of location or management system. Producer surveys showed that nearly a quarter of those responding considered predators one of the top challenges facing their operations. Coyotes were overwhelmingly listed as the most difficult predator to control.

The report calls for continued development of predator control techniques with the understanding that such technology often needs to be species specific. 

Lamb Marketing

While there are a wide range of channels available to producers, lamb marketing continues to be one of the industry’s biggest challenges.

“The largest percentage of large commercial lamb operations market lambs to feedlots, national packers and through lamb pools and other cooperatives,” according to the report. Local auction markets, sale barns and on-farm sales tend to make up the bulk of lamb buys for medium to smaller producers.

According to the National Resource Council, “The emergence of new markets for lamb products presents arguably the best opportunity for growth of the lamb industry. The growth in the number of Muslims who reside in the United States is one example. Hair sheep lambs are well suited to the ethnic markets because of their smaller carcass size, presence of a tail and lower likelihood of feedlot finishing.”

Increased lamb sales are great for the industry, but consolidation and non-traditional markets have interrupted the flow of market information through Mandatory Price Reporting.

“The extreme volatility in lamb prices during the last few years can help explain why marketing was a high-ranking challenge,” according to the report. “Related to that is the limited number of price risk management tools available to the sheep industry.

Development priorities in this area then obviously include accurate and timely market information through Mandatory Price Reporting. It’s also important to continue to develop local markets for lamb.

Education priorities include value-based pricing and risk management through LRP-Lamb insurance.

Wool Marketing

Twenty-five percent of surveyed producers listed wool production as either their primary or secondary type of operation. More than 34 percent of respondents then sold their wool directly to a wool buyer, while nearly 19 percent used a wool pool.

A survey of wool buyers showed that a third of respondents expects their business to expand in the coming years. The fact that American wool is a local, domestic product is often its top-ranked quality. Modern-day consumers want to know where and how raw materials are produced before entering the manufacturing process. However, wool buyers generally see a contamination problem (paint, vegetable matter, polypropylene) as American wool’s biggest weakness.

Wool producer education could be an important step in reducing such contamination according to the buyers. Areas of research that they see as important include: new product development and improved wool quality, as well as reliable measurement of wool attributes.

The report calls for the development of a wool marketing campaign, as well as the continued development of new products, military products and wool technologies.

Resources for Research & Education

There’s a constant battle for local, state, federal and industry-wide dollars to contribute to research and education. According to the report, total funding for agriculture research decreased from $4.04 billion to $3.88 billion between 2002 and 2014 – a 4 percent drop. Funding for agriculture animal research dropped 7 percent during that time, and sheep-specific research funding dropped by 30 percent.

With drastic cuts expected throughout USDA in the upcoming budget battle, there’s little reason to believe that such drops will reverse course. This means the industry needs to find ways to maximize all available funding.

The report calls for improving information resources, specifically online resources as producers turned most often to the internet for information. Other suggestions include: developing regional centers for research and expanded checkoff funds.

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