To View the January 2024 Digital Issue — Click Here
Brad Boner, ASI President
The Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act has been introduced in both chambers of Congress, and currently there is a push to have it included in the 2024 Farm Bill. As written, the OFF Act would have major detrimental consequences to the American Lamb Board’s ability to do meaningful and needed industry research going forward.
It is important to point out that America’s sheep producers have twice voted to support the American lamb checkoff since its creation in 2002. Both national referendums were approved by a super majority of votes, which had to be counted two ways to be approved: by individual producers and by share of sheep production.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture currently provides stringent oversight of the lamb checkoff. A USDA representative attends each meeting of the American Lamb Board via telephone or in person. Transparency is also evident on the American Lamb Board’s website at AmericanLamb.com. There, you will find annual reports and audited financials.
I believe it to be an extremely bad idea to change federal statutes after our industry has invested its own dollars to build and approve an industry-specific promotion program. Sheep producers designed a promotion program with ranchers, lamb feeders and lamb packing companies each paying a share, and with all three sectors having representation on the American Lamb Board and therefore a say in how promotion efforts are carried out.
Sheep ranchers, lamb feeders and lamb meat companies continue to see the benefit of promoting American lamb. Many of us can remember and witnessed first-hand the negative impacts on our markets when American lamb promotion was absent from the marketplace.
For years, the major food expos, trade shows, advertisements and culinary events were solely represented by imported lamb. It was an important step when we decided as an industry that we couldn’t complain if we weren’t fighting for our own business with our own dollars.
ASI stands opposed to the OFF Act and its unwarranted attempt to re-write a program that the American sheep industry has spent two decades growing and developing.
Happy New Year to the readers. Hopefully, everyone had a great holiday season. Thank you to the readers for your comments and suggestions throughout last year. As we head into the new year, a visit to a year ago and where the current market is can us help think about the year ahead. Some sectors seem too similar to last year, but lamb prices have some positivity when looking through the details.
In the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture retail summary price report, there has been a mixed bag of signals from the consumer sector. From a retail perspective, prices are not far off from the previous year. The current feature rate is at 7.8 percent compared to 11.3 percent from a year ago. For a refresher, the feature rate is the number of sampled stores advertising any reported lamb/veal item during the current week, expressed as a percentage of the total sampled stores.
Thus, lamb is being featured at a lower rate, but still positive throughout the stores. Prices are steady compared to a year ago, with chops holding par and racks being the current price leader at $15.19 per lb., which is $0.55 per lb. higher than last year at this time.
The lamb cutout is down 2.4 percent compared to a year ago at $464.67 per cwt. June was the lowest valued cutout value for 2023, but since then, the cutout has increased approximately $32.80 per cwt. This is the highest value since December 2022.
Thus, the beginning of 2024 is looking similar in trend to last year. Both the Hindsaddle ($509.28) and Foresaddle ($573.97) values in November have increased in the last two months leading into the end of the year and are higher than last year.
While wholesale prices have been increasing the last few weeks, the slaughter numbers are up compared to the previous five-year average and last year. Thus, while slaughter numbers are up – 42,000 weekly head slaughtered in early December – prices are holding relatively steady, which indicates strong demand for domestic lamb product. While slaughter is up, weekly slaughter dressed weights are oscillating around 60 pounds, which is approximately 10 pounds lower than compared to a year ago.
Thus, the market is slaughtering more head than a year ago, but total production is down. Given that the national flock has been constricting, tighter supplies lend to stable to higher prices as we head into 2024.
FEEDER LAMB PRICES
As we end the year, the three-market (Colorado, South Dakota and Texas) feeder (60 to 90 lb.) lamb prices of $248 per cwt. are ending stronger than any time in 2023, while also being the highest since the summer of 2022, when it was $248.06 per cwt.
In South Dakota, prices are above the average at $266.45 per cwt. for 40 to 60 lb. lambs, which is up from $202.83 per cwt. this time last year. In New Holland, Penn., prices are even higher and holding steady in the low $300s per cwt.
Thus, the slaughter segment of the supply chain is showing some steadiness with smaller dressed weights. That creates demand for feeders, as space opens up with each week. Feeder prices are showing positivity not only as we close out the year, but also now have the biggest positive sign since the summer of 2022. As we head into 2024, production totals – number of head slaughtered and dressed weights – in the next few months will be a key signal for the potential ceiling for the Easter run in 2024.
At the time of this writing, the latest export data available was for October as we head into the close of 2023. American lamb and mutton exports accumulated $1.1 million monthly value in September and in October, which is $287,000 lower than last year for the same two months, but still the highest since March 2023.
In September, the United States exported 287 metric tons of product, while in October, the country exported 183 metric tons of product. The vast difference in tonnage exported while still having the same value indicates that there are markets paying for quality American lamb.
From an import standpoint, during September and October, the United States imported 4.4 million pounds of lamb and mutton with the majority being sourced from Australia. While there is a sticker shock to 4.4 million pounds, the volume is still vastly lower compared to the 12.7 million pounds imported during those two months compared to the same time a year ago.
As we close the year, there have been continuously increasing weeks of positivity from the wool sector. In particular, the U.S. fine wool grades (micron 16.5 to 19) have gained steam. Micron 17 graded wool gained the most steam in early December at an increase of U.S. $0.10 per lb.
Medium wool (micron 19.5 to 24) in the U.S. decreased before the December recess. In Australia, the medium wool grades are on the opposite with continued weekly increases, with 21 micron graded wool increasing at the greatest rate. In crossbred wools (micron 25 to 32), prices for 25 and 26 micron both increased the last few weeks in Australia and in the United States, while all other grades were steady to lower.
The increase in prices is largely due to China mills’ demand. During the past few weeks, China has increased its demand for Australian wool. The China Wool Textile Association made known this was expected back in May. The reason for the increased demand is because China consumers are wanting more “locally” produced wool products, which is a market shift that was influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic situation in China.
At the time of this writing, the market is headed into recess, thus, prices will most likely hold up around the same prices as we head into 2024.
As the year kicks off, producers had a rough – although some positive – time in 2023. As we kick off this year, the markets have shown positivity compared to the same time a year ago. As producers watch the drought monitor, feed costs and market prices, there also seems to be some upward momentum as we kick off this year.
Wool Excellence Award Winner Greg Groenewold passed away unexpectedly on Dec. 6, 2023, and will be honored posthumously at the 2024 ASI Annual Convention in Denver. He was chosen for the award earlier this year by ASI’s Wool Roundtable.
“It is with deep sadness that I share the news of the passing of Greg Groenewold early this morning,” ASI Wool Marketing Director Rita Samuelson wrote in an email to industry executives. “He was a dedicated and influential figure, who has been an integral part of the U.S. wool industry for decades.
“Greg was a force behind many of the positive developments of the U.S. Midwest wool sector and Groenewold Fur and Wool. His passion for wool was instrumental in shaping the landscape of the entire industry. He will be remembered as a principled man and for his kindness, leadership, ethics and compassion. His commitment to wool was unwavering, as even after he experienced physical challenges due to his Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis, he was regularly in the office, strong as ever, buying and trading wool.
“During this time, our thoughts and condolences are with Greg’s family, friends and those who worked alongside him. May his memory continue to inspire us to uphold the values and standards he believed in. He will be missed.”
Gregory Grant Groenewold was born on Sept. 8, 1960, in Freeport, Ill. Passing away after a 25-year battle with Multiple Sclerosis, he was 63 years old.
Greg graduated from Forreston (Ill.) High School in 1978 and attended Western Illinois University. After college he followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the family business. As a pivotal figure in the company, Greg played a key role in its growth to become the largest wild raw fur business in North America.
In 1998, he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Greg fought the disease with the same determination and passion he had at work. Serving as an example for all who knew him, Greg’s continued positive outlook and faith carried him through many stages of health.
He loved his family, friends and church. Serving as an elder, he was a longtime member of North Grove Evangelical Church. Greg was a loving and guiding uncle to his nieces and nephews, and a loyal and trusted friend to many. He tried to live his life to his favorite words and song, Humble and Kind.
Greg is survived by his son, Grant (Araceli) Wonder; one sister, Elizabeth (Ekkehard) Schoettle; two brothers, Gary (Kathie) and Guy (Dawn) Groenewold, and many nieces and nephews whom he adored. Greg was preceded in death by his parents Grant and Beverly Groenewold. Funeral services were conducted on Dec. 11. In lieu of flowers a memorial has been established for North Grove Evangelical Church.
No American sheep producer is surprised to learn that the country is overrun with lamb meat imports. But did you realize the same could be said for sheep’s milk products? Wisconsin’s Ms. J and Company is looking help develop the industry and to change that.
Established in 2015, the company began milking sheep in rural Juda, Wis., four years later at a state-of-the-art facility under the watchful eye of Portugal native Mariana Marques de Almeida.
“Our dream was to help increase sheep milk production in the United States,” Mariana said. “The US is the largest importer of sheep milk in the world but the US availability of sheep genetics to produce milk has been scarce and that is where we are helping. I don’t know if the sheep industry here is aware of all that is going on with the dairy side. Even some people in the sheep industry are surprised when I tell them we’re milking sheep. But sheep’s milk is a great product, and can be used to create amazing cheese, yogurt, and other products.”
Along with partners Shirley Knox and Jeff Wideman – the first initials of their names form the Ms. J moniker – Mariana hopes to provide an endless supply of sheep’s milk cheese to American cheesemakers. In addition, the company is building a flock of Assaf sheep that provides additional genetics to sheep dairies all around the country.
“We haven’t put this much money into this facility, and the incredible people, with doubt,” Wideman said in the same Cheese Reporter article. “We need to show the industry our success so the dairy manufacturer, as well as the marketer, has confidence in quality and supply. Our success is support.”
ASSAF ALL THE WAY
An animal scientist with years of experience raising sheep and making cheese in Portugal and Spain, Mariana met Wideman while judging a cheese competition in Spain. That led to her judging at the world championship cheese contest in Wisconsin and started the ball rolling on Ms. J and Company.
This fall, the company was milking more than 350 ewes and producing nearly 2,500 pounds of milk a day with twice daily milkings. Each ewe has an RFID bolus in its rumen that registers in the milking parlor and allows production to be tracked and studied. Sheep are sorted into groups based on milk production, and an electronic sorting gate allows for sheep to be automatically removed from their groups based on that production.
The milking parlor was built with expansion in mind, as Mariana hopes to be milking up to 1,000 ewes a day in the future. Insulated curtains raise and lower automatically along the sides of the barn based on the outside wind and temperature, both of which can become extreme during Wisconsin winters. But the hearty Assaf-bred sheep aren’t complaining.
The course wool breed is a cross of Awassi and East Friesian sheep that originated in Israel but is now synonymous with Spain. Assaf sheep are known for their Roman nose, floppy ears and fat tails. The breed comes in a variety of beautiful, spotted white and brown colors and East Friesian adds black to the mix.
“The lambs tend to have a lot of color,” Mariana said. “We’re lambing every two months (a necessity for a dairy operation), so we always have a lot of lambs around. We’re a scrapie-free certified flock and, because we are using imported semen from Spain, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service requires we tag everything at birth.
“Spain and the Assaf breed started an improvement program 30 years ago, increasing milk production traits” Mariana said. “Eight years ago, they started genotyping their population and, together with all the data collected in 30 years, they are now able to add that powerful tool to make accurate genetic predictions of their young animals. We’ve already sent samples of all our rams be genotyped testing. We got the first results this fall, and it was so amazing.
“One of the oldest rams from 2021 that I thought was pretty good proved to be one of the five best rams we have right now. I was happy about that. But I was surprised by a few rams whose moms are amazing. They weren’t as good as I thought they would be. I’m very happy to have the information, even if the results aren’t what I expected. It’s nice that we don’t have to wait five years to really see genetic value of the rams like we do in a traditional genetic improvement program.”
While producing a genetically pure Assaf is the guiding principle at Ms. J and Company, the ultimate goal is to establish a healthy, productive and easy to milk sheep flock.
“I wanted to go with the Assaf with a really good udder conformation, good milk production and, good overall conformation” Mariana said. “Milk production was pretty much guaranteed, so I went a step back and started focusing on the overall best females we had. We are starting to see more and more of that ideal Assaf sheep, but there is still a lot of work to be done. But we have some that are 75 to 87.5 percent Assaf who are really good and productive milkers. We’re focused on that good udder, good conformation and easy milking. We are getting to the Assaf part slowly, but soundly.”
Moving from Portugal to rural Wisconsin in an effort to expand sheep milk access in the United States seems like a bit of a crazy adventure. But Mariana said she’s always had a penchant for tackling exotic ideas.
“For me, it was a huge challenge to do something like this,” she said. “I think that all of the sheep milk and sheep cheesemakers in the United States are amazingly resilient. There just haven’t been a lot of resources here for them. I came here in 2014 to see what was available, and I realized that what we were talking about doing (making cheese) wouldn’t be possible unless we brought in high-producing, proven genetics from outside the United States. There was no way this investment was going to work without being able to improve the milk producing sheep we had available here.”
Those genetics are now available to American producers. Rams not sold as breeding stock are castrated before leaving the property.
“We also control the girls we sell for meat,” Mariana said. “We want to support the industry, but we’ve made a big investment to bring in these genetics to build and improve our flock, so we can’t just give them away.”
The company’s main product, of course, is the milk, fluid and frozen. Pallets of frozen milk ship out to companies all around the United States. It ends up in a variety of products, such as cheese, ice cream, yogurt or even healthy drinks.
“Sheep’s milk is different – it doesn’t have the taste of goat’s milk and it’s more digestible than cow’s milk – and I think companies need to take advantage of that to produce some great products,” Mariana said. “I think more and more people are starting to notice the value of sheep’s milk.”
Learn more at MsJandCo.com.