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Resources Available for the American Sheep Industry

Susan Shultz, ASI President

This summer and fall should provide us multiple opportunities to re-connect with our sheep neighbors and friends at fairs, ram sales, summer meetings and educational events. As we discuss our successes and failures with our sheep enterprises during the last year, the question often arises where do we get the information to make changes to our operations that will gain us proficiencies and profitability?

ASI has several quality sources of beneficial and educational information. If you are interested in legislative activity, tune into the ASI SheepCast with Chase Adams. The ASI Research Update Podcast – hosted by Jake Thorne – highlights specific topics that are of interest to producers looking to improve their operations. Since 2012, Jay Parsons has hosted the popular ASI Let’s Grow webinar series. All of these 36 highly regarded webinars are archived and can be viewed at any time by going to, clicking on Let’s Grow Resources, and scrolling down to Educational Webinars. To date, more than 56,000 viewers have accessed these webinars. A sample of the wide variety of topics includes: Reducing labor at lambing, understanding sheep nutrition, out-of-season breeding, ewe selection and culling, accelerated lambing, parasite resistance, and artificial lamb rearing

Also, on the ASI website, you can find three valuable resources that every shepherd should read: The Sheep Care Guide, the set of 12 fact sheets on Best Practices to Increase Your Lamb Crop, and the latest edition of the SID Sheep Production Handbook. You can now purchase the handbook – which includes a flash drive – or just buy the flash drive separately.

As I have said before, our industry is so fortunate to have an enthusiastic and knowledgeable group of educators and researchers with programs throughout the United States that support all sheep producers and the improvement of their flocks. Two examples of long running programs that are sources of practical, science-based information are the Pipestone Lamb and Wool Program of Minnesota West Community & Technical College and the University of Maryland Small Ruminant Page.

For more than 45 years, the instructors and sheep producers that are a part of the Pipestone group have made great strides in increasing efficiencies in sheep production. They are leaders in increasing lambing percentages and conduct their operations with profit in mind. Online courses are available with Phil Berg and Ann Kolthoff as the instructors. Even if you raise sheep in a different environment or production system than the Pipestone group, there is so much to be learned from these progressive producers.

You can gain information on facilities, nutrition, reducing labor, raising bonus lambs and so much more. This is the year for the Pipestone Sheep for Profit School – which will be held on July 7-10 – and the Pipestone Facility Tour is scheduled for June 2022. I highly recommend that you check out for more details on these opportunities.

This year marks the 23rd year of Susan Schoenian’s University of Maryland Small Ruminate page at Susan is the sheep and goat specialist at the university and she has assembled a variety of educational information on her site that she updates on a regular basis. Sheep 101 and Sheep 102 offer sound information for beginning shepherds and for all of us that are lifelong learners. There is a link for online FAMACHA and her newsletter titled Wild and Woolly has informational articles on both sheep and goats.

Many of our states/regions now have new sheep extension specialists or university sheep researchers/instructors. If you are serious about improving your sheep operation, seek these folks out, get on their mailing lists and check out their web pages. They can be a terrific resource.

Sound information leads to making sound decisions and as we anticipate expanding our operations or making them more profitable, it makes sense to seek out the best information available.

For those of you in dire need of moisture, I certainly hope the rains come your way.

My best.

Optimism Abounds

Juniper Economic Consulting

Two of the top 20 retailers reported double-digit increases in lamb sales in 2020 and into the first quarter of 2021, according to Midan Marketing for the American Lamb Board in May. Midan reported that a couple of top retailers see “bright opportunity for continued lamb sales,” sparked by a “renewed interest in lamb.”

Dollar sales of American lamb increased 25 percent from 2019 to 2020, and volume sold jumped 18 percent, according to Midan. In December 2020, lamb dollar sales increased 36 percent year-on-year and pounds sold increased 31 percent.

The American lamb industry is segmented by region and targeted consumer group. Midan reported that the Northeast remains the highest-selling region by both dollar and pounds sold, selling more than $140 million of lamb in 2020 (up $25 million from 2019). The Northeast accounts for 30 percent of all sales of lamb (dollars and pounds) in the United States. After the Northeast, the Southeast region is the highest-selling region in the United States and accounts for 16 percent of all dollar sales. New York, Baltimore (Md.)/Washington, D.C., and San Francisco are the top three best-selling metropolitan markets in the country.

If volume and dollar sales increase – which they did in 2020 – then this is a good indictor that lamb demand rose. Expanded demand is likely due to quality, increased diversity of product offering, pent-up income from reduced eating out, and inspiration by younger generations to explore new recipes and proteins.


Retail Lamb Prices: How High is Too High?

If lamb supplies continue to tighten year-on-year, only expanded demand can keep retail prices at current or lower levels.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughter data, the federally inspected lamb market is contracting, down 11 percent from 2016 to 2020 and down 8 percent from 2019 to 2020. A much smaller lamb market of lighter-weight lambs in state inspected facilities – accounting for about 13 percent of the heavier-lamb, traditional market – is growing, up 28 percent in five years and up 5 percent in 2020. As sheep and lamb inventory contracts nationally (ewe numbers were down 1 percent in 2021), the pull from the growing lighter-weight market will intensify, putting pressure on feeder lamb prices.

In early June, 68,907 head of feeder lambs were reported in Colorado feedlots, down 15 percent monthly and down 29 percent (nearly 28,000 head) from June’s five-year average.

In the first 20 weeks of the year, federally inspected estimated lamb harvest was 755,990 head, up 4 percent year-on-year. Estimated lamb production was 36.1 million lbs., up 2 percent year-on-year. While head count at harvest was higher, live weights slipped 1 percent lower during this period to 132 lbs. It is believed that increasingly federally inspected harvest is capturing lighter-weight lamb sales.

Lighter-weight lambs – typically harvested for ethnic markets – are also being assimilated into more mainstream marketing channels. There are many FI plants that process lambs for the Halal ethnic market, and lambs that would normally go into the traditional market are now going to the ethnic market.

Total lamb imports were down 10 percent in January to April year-on-year to 71.6 million lbs. Australian imports were down 14 percent to 51.1 million lbs. and New Zealand’s imports were up by 2 percent to 19.5 million lbs.

There have been dramatic swings in reported freezer inventories in the last year. By May, freezer inventory was 48 percent lower than its all-time high in June 2020 of 48 million lbs. At 24.7 million lbs., freezer inventory was down 2 percent monthly and 39 percent lower year-on-year. Lamb and mutton in cold storage dipped to its lowest level in May since early 2017. Reduced stocks help to support lamb prices through the marketing chain.

Summer is typically a tight lamb supply period, but it is anticipated that the industry will face a supply squeeze unlike any seen before in coming months, which will raise prices further, and test the resiliency of consumer demand.


Best Performing Lamb Markets

Four markets – San Francisco/Oakland, Baltimore/Washington, D.C., Boston and New York – sell more than twice the amount of lamb per capita relative to the rest of the United States according to Midan Marketing’s Category Development Index in May. This means that promotional efforts in these markets can increase or support lamb recognition.

These top performing markets also have significant ethnic populations. The minority populations – which accounted for 35 percent of America’s population in 2008 – consumed a disproportionate 58 percent of the lamb available, according to Shiflett, Williams and Rodgers in 2010. The study also found that consumers that do not speak English at home consumed an estimated 3.3 lbs. of lamb per person annually at home and 2.4 lbs. of lamb per person annually away from home. By comparison, Americans eat about 1 lb. per person per year.


Live Lamb Hit Record High

At the time this article was written, negotiated lamb prices had reached new record highs surpassing those set in 2011. In May, live, negotiated slaughter lamb prices averaged $202.60 per cwt., up 8 percent monthly, and 24 percent higher than March 2020 (USDA did not report prices last May). The average harvest weight in May was 144 lbs.

In the Western states, feeder lambs averaged $240 to $265 per cwt. for 80 to 95 lbs. lambs in the Western Video Sheep Video/Internet Auction. The report noted that nearly 5,000 head traded for early June through October delivery.

In early June, South Central feeder lambs (Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas) averaged $263.75 per cwt. for 85 lbs. according to the Equity Cooperative Sheep & Lamb Video/Internet Auction.

Historically, mostly wooled and shorn lambs sold at the New Holland, Penn., auction, but then the momentum swung toward more light-weight hair sheep and USDA termed the auction “nontraditional.” The pendulum has now swung the other way, with the majority of lambs selling from wooled/shorn breeds. This exerts increased demand on wooled breeds in the West, South Central and Midwest, from traditional feeders (finishing lambs in a feedlot) and ethnic buyers.

In May, 80- to 90-lb. lambs at the auction in New Holland averaged $249.31 per cwt., down 8 percent monthly and up 35 percent from last June (Good & Choice 1-2. USDA did not report prices last May). Ninety- to 110-lb. lambs averaged $241.47 per cwt. in May, down 6 percent monthly. Higher quality lambs in the same weight range brought $290 to $295 per cwt. in May.


Wholesale Rack Tops $11 per Lb.

At wholesale, the rack appeared unstoppable, gaining 39 percent in May from its Covid-low last September. The 8-rib rack medium averaged $1,113.38 per cwt. in May, up 12 percent monthly. The loin, trimmed 4×4, saw $790.49 per cwt., up 10 percent from April. The leg, trotter-off, averaged $501.18 per cwt. in May, up 10 percent monthly. The shoulder, square-cut, averaged $392.25 per cwt., up 8 percent monthly.

Annual gains in primals have been unprecedented. In May, the rack was 30 percent higher annually, the loin rose 65 percent annually, the leg gained 29 percent, and the shoulder was up 18 percent year-on-year. Ground lamb averaged $707.09 per cwt., up 8 percent monthly and up 26 percent year-on-year.

The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service no longer reports a lamb carcass price. However, it reports an estimated national lamb carcass cutout value, which “represents the estimated value of a lamb carcass based on prices paid for individual lamb items,” according to USDA/AMS. The cutout value represents all weights, and a yield percentage that is based upon a 65-lb. carcass. In May, the estimated national lamb carcass cutout value was $531.45 per cwt., up 9 percent monthly and up 29 percent year-on-year. Since February, the monthly lamb carcass cutout value has broken its previous month’s record.


Wool Market Stronger

This spring, domestic buyers (some buying for export) carried the market and provided sufficient competition to support prices at levels that traded a significant amount of wool. Yet, reportedly, a fair amount of wool remains stored on growers’ farms and ranches. Given recent gains in the Australian wool market in early June, there is some sentiment that the fall wool market looks promising.

In early June, renewed buying interest from India and Europe – coupled with continued Chinese support – led to higher Australian Merino and crossbred wool prices according to Sheep Central. While the Australian Eastern Market Indicator regained some of its pre-Covid value, the coarser crossbred fleeces only recently saw an uptick. In general, the price of superfine wool has tripled during the last two years while coarser wools have lost value.

The EMI averaged Australian 1,393 cents per kg (U.S. 489 cents per lb. clean), 4 percent higher monthly, and 19 percent higher year-on-year in early June. The EMI was the highest in 14 months, but remained considerably lower than its 2019 average of Australian 1,742 cents per kg clean. Given the rate of recent price gains, it could about a year before the EMI reaches pre-Covid levels.

Australian wool prices trend very differently by micron, however, with finer wools regaining some of Covid’s losses while coarser wools (25 to 32 micron) only recently saw a small uptick in values. In May, the finer wools saw month-over-month price strengthening while the coarse wools lost value. Eighteen micron averaged $6.92 per lb. clean in May, up 3 percent monthly and 51 percent higher year-on-year. Coarser 30 micron saw $1.46 per lb. clean in May, down 8 percent monthly and down 4 percent from a year ago.

In general, as micron-measuring equipment improved in the early 1990s it became increasingly clear that wool fibers 30 micron and more were less comfortable close to the skin than superfine wools (18.5 micron and lower). As a result, demand for finer wools expanded (and prices rose); demand for coarser wool contracted.

Producers Weigh-In on ID & Traceability

Director of Analytics & Production Programs

Sheep producers identify their animals in various ways, the most popular being visual ear tags and paint brands. Today’s technology has improved such that animal identification can provide a variety of benefits from animal performance and management to animal disease traceability.

The U.S. cattle and swine sectors have adopted animal ID technology at a greater pace than the American sheep industry, while many sheep producing countries with national animal ID and animal disease traceability systems are increasingly adopting electronic ID.

Animal ID is a must for animal disease prevention measures to be effective in the event of a disease outbreak. For animal health officials to quickly implement preventive measures they need to know as soon as possible which animals have been exposed or infected. Such an animal disease traceability system would also minimize the impacts to the American sheep industry and help ensure continuity of business for producers.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service established four overarching goals to increase animal traceability to allow for rapid tracing to stop the spread of an animal disease. One of these goals is to, “Use electronic identification tags for animals requiring individual identification in order to make the transmission of data more efficient.”

Given all the discussions surrounding animal ID and animal disease traceability systems, ASI conducted an online survey of more than 500 sheep producers to gather information on these topics. The information requested in the survey provides participants and the sheep industry with valuable information regarding industry animal ID practices and perceptions regarding a national animal disease traceability system.


Survey Demographics

Survey respondents represented various ages, experience, location and operation types. Slightly more than 60 percent of respondents were in ASI Regions II, III and IV, with 28 percent located in the Western regions (Region VI, VII, VIII), 6 percent in Region I, and 5 percent in Region V. Respondents above the age of 55 accounted for 59 percent, while 41 percent were ages 54 and younger.

Most respondents (81 percent) fell into the 1 to 299 head (ewes 1-year-old and older) operation size category, followed by 11 percent having 300 to 999 head and 8 percent with more than 1,000 head. Not surprising given the operation breakdown, 43 percent of respondents identified their operations as farm flock, followed by seedstock/purebred (22 percent) and range flock (13 percent).


Sheep Identification

When asked what form of animal ID respondents use, the majority use visual ear tags and paint brands. More than 80 percent of respondents use visual ID ear tags, with only 9 percent using electronic ID tags, 8 percent using both visual ID and electronic ID, and 3 percent not using any form of animal ID. Survey response totals add up to more than 100 percent because of multiple responses.

As to why respondents do not use electronic ID, 63 percent stated the cost relative to visual ID, followed by 37 percent who believe it does not provide value to their lambs/sheep/wool. In addition, 32 percent prefer visual ID and 32 percent stated a lack of familiarity with electronic ID. Of these respondents, 43 percent have considered using electronic ID, and when asked about attending a webinar and/or workshop on how to use electronic ID, 40 percent responded yes, 40 percent responded as maybe and 19 percent responded as no.

For those respondents that use electronic ID, 78 percent do so for animal identification and to monitor individual animal performance, 77 percent stated for accuracy of data collected and 70 percent use it for faster collection of data. In addition, 47 percent use electronic ID to monitor animal health, 22 percent for animal disease containment and traceback, and 20 percent say it adds value to their sheep/lambs/wool.


Animal Disease Traceability

When respondents were asked if they would support a national mandatory electronic animal ID disease traceability system, 26 percent of respondents were in support, 35 percent indicated maybe, while the remaining 39 percent said no.

For those who support such a system, 92 percent said it would be helpful for animal disease containment and response, 58 percent think it will help with consumer transparency and 45 percent say it has the potential to open export markets for American lamb and wool. In addition, 40 percent think it would thwart sheep theft and speed recovery of stolen animals with 38 percent of respondents thinking it will add value to their sheep, lambs and/or wool.

Of those opposed to a national mandatory electronic ID disease traceability system, 82 percent cited concerns regarding the cost and who is going to pay for the program, followed by 60 percent who believe scrapie tags are sufficient, and concerns over data confidentiality (51 percent). In addition, 44 percent believe who they sell sheep/lambs should be private, while 26 percent think it will slow down commerce and 25 percent believe it will lead to potential liability from future buyers. Many respondents relayed a general sense of opposition to any mandatory government program.

When asked if a such a program should be expanded beyond the current National Scrapie Eradication Program to include other significant animal diseases, respondents were split with 51 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed.

If a national electronic animal ID disease and traceability program became mandatory, 59 percent have concerns regarding the confidentiality and security of data.

If USDA/APHIS were to implement a mandatory program, 47 percent of respondents believe the federal government should pay for the official electronic ID/RFID ear tags followed by 29 percent supporting a cost-share between government and producers and 13 percent who were not sure. If producers had to transition their flock to official electronic ID/RFID ear tags, 49 percent of respondents indicated a reasonable time would be two years or less, 18 percent said it would take three to four years, and 17 percent said more than five years.

Discussions surrounding animal ID and animal disease traceability systems will continue as technological advancements and calls to defend the domestic food system from foreign animal diseases increase. This survey shows there are producers that oppose any form of expanded animal ID and traceability systems and there are producers that see the benefits technology can provide.

Sheep Center Accepting Grant Applications

The National Sheep Industry Improvement Center’s Board of Directors announced in June that it is accepting grant proposals from July 1 through Sept. 15. The grants must be designed to improve the American sheep industry.

The sheep center has budgeted about $300,000 to support projects consistent with the grant program. The average grant amount during the last four years has been about $29,000. Financial assistance provided by the sheep center must accomplish one or more of the following objectives:

1. Strengthen and enhance the production and marketing of sheep and sheep products in the United States through the improvement of infrastructure, business, resource development and the development of innovative approaches to solve long term problems.

2. Provide leadership training and education to industry stakeholders.

3. Enhance sheep and sheep products in the United States through assistance to all segments of the industry to address sustainable production and marketing of sheep and sheep products.

4. Promote marketing of sheep and sheep products through an organized method that can measure tangible results.

5. Enhance the sheep industry by coordinating information exchange and by seeking mutual understanding and marketing within the industry community.

The sheep center will review each proposal, recommend funding and submit final recommendations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service for approval.

For more information about applying for a grant, contact NSIIC Program Manager Steve Lee at 207-236-6567,, or National Sheep Industry Improvement Center; 1578 Spring Water Way, Highlands Ranch, CO 80129

The sheep center was established as part of the 2008 Farm Bill and was awarded funding by AMS to be used for the Sheep Production and Marketing Grant Program as part of the 2018 Farm Bill. Grant funding can be used on activities designed to strengthen and enhance the production or marketing of sheep and sheep products in the United States.

Visit to learn more.

Mid-States Hair Sheep Co-Op Hosts Field Day

Veteran sheep producers mingled with those new to the industry while sharing valuable information and education at the Mid-States Hair Sheep Cooperative Small Ruminant Field Day in Lexington, Neb., in late May.

Clint Pettit made the trip from western Nebraska just a day after purchasing 230 ewes as he looks to guide his family farm into a profitable future that his young daughters, Micca and Zeva, can take over someday. Micca, in particular, seems interested in doing just that.

“She’s got 15 ewes, and I see the potential,” Pettit said. “The difference – in my mind – from a cow-calf operation and a sheep operation is about tripling revenues. I honestly believe I can triple my revenue with the same resources, so I’m looking to build something for my daughters to take over someday and sheep seems like the way to go.”

Pettit became the majority owner of the family operation in the past year and has been looking for opportunities to supplement existing operations. He’s considered a dairy operation (sheep, goats or cows), but decided a ewe flock might provide the best return on his investment.

Which is why he and his daughters were among the first to arrive at the co-op’s field day.

“I started looking online for people in the industry and found the co-op’s Facebook group,” he said. “I don’t even really know anyone in the organization yet, but I like the idea of purchasing together, selling together and making it possible for us to send semi loads of sheep to the final market. But, I don’t know enough yet. You can’t manage what you don’t know, so here I am.”

The field day was hosted by Mid-States Hair Sheep Cooperative Secretary Neal Amsberry at his Bull Tackle Feed Co. farm. Participants got a look at the sheep facilities at his operation, as well as a glimpse into ultrasound technology from Kathy Rieker, DVM. Also on hand were two sheep experts from South Dakota State University Extension – Jaelyn Quintana and Dr. Kelly Froehlich – who spoke on a number of topics ranging from marketing of lamb to using dewormers and determining fecal egg count.

Co-op member Barbara “Barbie” Zahradnicek said she found the ultrasound presentation to be one of the more interesting aspects of the day.

“I grew up back East in Virginia and Georgia and I have a background in small animal veterinary medicine, so that’s something I’ve been looking into for myself as a possible side gig. There’s a real need for that in Nebraska because so many of the vets in our area don’t work with sheep very often. It would be nice to be able to tell producers that their ewes are carrying instead of them just waiting to see who’s going to pop and who isn’t.”

Working with Amsberry, Zahradnicek produces a few Dorper show lambs and market lambs, and has sold lamb directly to some Jamaican co-workers.

“My ex-husband was a cattleman, but his dad decided to get into sheep and they ended up our place. It was handed to me, so I just started researching and doing what I could to figure them out. I’ve gotten more serious about the sheep since I started out on my own because I want to be able to use them as a form of income.”

Also on hand for the field day was cattle nutritionist Leanne Litton. She’s seeing more interest from her clients in developing mixed grazing operations, so she jumped at the chance to learn more about hair sheep.

“I think most of my cattle-based ranchers would be more interested in hair sheep because that’s one less labor requirement,” she said. “Hair sheep would be attractive to a lot of them for that reason. A lot of my clients are looking at running sheep and cows together, so I’m learning what I can about how to manage small ruminants or a mixed ruminant herd.”

Based in Nebraska, the Mid-States Hair Sheep Cooperative boasts members from nearly every surrounding state, as well as from Arkansas and Tennessee to New Mexico and Oregon.

To learn more, visit

Dohne Merinos Improve Wool for Nick Theos Family Ranch

Paul Neilson, DVM, and his wife, Renae, could have left well enough alone. After all, they were just a few years away from handing control of the Nick Theos Family Ranch in Northwest Colorado to their daughter, Kelcee Vroman, and son-in-law, Ryan. But like most parents, they wanted more for the generations to come.

So, they set off on the Dohne Merino project, injecting new bloodlines into a Columbia-based flock that was in serious need of improvement when it came to wool quality. The result has been finer, whiter, longer wool without sacrificing meat quality or quantity.

Developed in 1939 in South Africa, Dohne Merino sheep placed an emphasis on both wool and meat. Their influence has turned the ranch sheep into a true dual-purpose flock.

Wool quality had long been a concern for Paul and Renae, even before they took over ranch operations from Renae’s dad, Nick Theos, in 2011.

“We wanted to improve the wool quality and not lose anything on the lamb side,” Paul said. “We thought that without increasing the expense of running the ewes, we could increase the wool quality to generate greater revenue without greater expense.”

Faansie Basson, a South African sheepdog trainer they met through the annual Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials, provided the answer they’d been looking for when he introduced them to the Dohne Merino breed.

“It almost seemed to be too good to be true,” Renae said.

And it almost was. Disease issues have made it impossible to import sheep embryos from South Africa into the United States, but through patient research, the Neilsons found another avenue. The breed had been imported to Australia, and it was possible to get both embryos and semen from there into the United States.

MacQuarie Dohne Merino Sheep – under the leadership of Dr. Greg McCann and John Nadin – had imported the breed into Australia in the 1990s, and could meet Paul and Renae’s needs. McCann traveled to the family ranch in Meeker, Colo., in the fall of 2017 to transfer purchased embryos. Knowing that the use of embryos and semen would be crucial in helping the Neilsons achieve their goals, McCann encouraged Paul (a large animal vet) to learn laparoscopic artificial insemination, which he did.

Lambs were born in February 2018 and they became the basis of a purebred flock that Paul and Renae are developing as they work with the next generation to establish crossbred ranch sheep that produce quality wool and lamb.

“We were fortunate with our other jobs that we didn’t need the ranch to make a living,” said Paul, who owns a local veterinary clinic. Renae is the longtime assessor in Rio Blanco County. “Because of that, we were able to pass the ranch on to the next generation (three daughters: Kelcee Vroman, Morgan Pfeiffer and Taylor Neilson) a lot earlier than some ranchers. A lot of times in my work with ranches, I see that the father dies at 85 or 90 and that’s when a 60-year-old makes his first decision. Ryan and Kelcee wanted to be making the decisions. But it’s hard to do that without the decisions affecting you, and now the decisions affect them.”

As far as sheep are concerned, Paul and Renae’s only responsibility is the Dohne purebred flock they are developing. Their main customers to this point have been Ryan and Kelcee, but they aren’t complaining.

“We’d like to see the ranch go on and continue to run successfully,” Paul said. “And we think these type of sheep will make that possible. The goal wasn’t to be a big Dohne Merino breeder in the United States. The goal was to improve the wool quality of the ranch flock. We wouldn’t have done this project without that goal. Fortunately, the kids have been receptive to it and seem to like the sheep that we are producing. This year, for the first time, we’ll probably have some extra rams to sell.”

In years past, the ranch bought replacement ewes from Tom Kourlis, a longtime producer in the area. But his family ranch sold out a couple of years back. So, it was a good time for the Nick Theos Family Ranch to start raising its own replacement ewes.

“We like the idea of raising our own, and maybe eventually selling replacements to other producers,” Kelcee said. “Because we lost Tom and his ranch, we had to build a good amount of ewe lambs quickly. We needed 600 right away and to make that conversion to supplying our own replacements as quickly as possible.

The ranch now has 400 head of half-Dohne yearling ewes and 600 head of half-Dohne ewe lambs.

“One of the concerns Ryan and I had is that we need tough sheep to make it in this winter country, and we’ve always had tough sheep. We wanted to make sure we didn’t lose that. So far, they’ve done just fine and handled the winters pretty well. We’re only crossbreds so far on the ranch, but the bucks have held up and the ewe lambs are doing great.”

And the change has paid off in the wool quality that everyone in the family was looking to improve.

“I don’t think we even had a specific number in mind to be honest,” Kelcee said. “We had been in the 22 to 23 micron range for so long. So, when we started seeing numbers in the teens in the first year, I was just amazed. Anything better would have been good. We were definitely suffering with short, coarse wool.”

The fiber diameter numbers on the initial half-blood Dohne ewe lambs were measured at 18.6 microns. The wool was noticeably whiter and longer, as well.

“That was a huge difference,” Paul said. “It paid more per pound, so that part is working. Hopefully, it will just get better and better. Even the weights will probably be higher, but that’s not necessarily something we’re driving for. We don’t want to lose anything on the lamb side. We’re already seeing that everything on the wool side is better.”

The crossbreds have also proven to be good mothers, which is crucial for the family’s range-lambing flock.

“According to the propaganda on the breed, they selected for that,” Paul said.

“But more importantly, I believe what I hear from Ryan and from Toledo (longtime herder Toledo Echevarria Penez),” Renae said. “They’re out there with the ranch flock every day and they’re telling us these sheep are good moms. That means a lot to me.”

In their mid-60s now, Paul and Renae said they’d reached a point in life where they either had to take action on improving the flock’s wool or just give up entirely and leave it to the next generation to figure out.

“Even at our age, we want to be doing something and to have a purpose in life,” Paul said. “We like the industry. We like the sheep. They are such efficient animals, and they fit this country really well. If we’re going to have sheep, we might as well have good sheep.

“There’s not a huge margin in this industry, so if we could find a way for the sheep to be more productive and generate more revenue, then that would help the ranch continue to thrive.”

“Ryan said the other day that the perfect mix is probably going to be a 3/4-blood Dohne,” Renae added. “That’s what he’d like to get the ranch flock to. He’s really liking those white sheep.”

While it wasn’t the primary goal, Paul and Renae would also like to see the flock get slightly smaller in size. Ewes on the ranch are in the 200-pound range these days, where they used to weigh in about 165 pounds.

“I’ve seen it in the cattle industry where they got to a 1,700 and 1,800-pound cow and it produced a slightly bigger calf, but it didn’t account for the increase in resources that they needed to get there,” Paul said. “I think the whole cattle industry has now moderated back to a smaller cow. I think we’re going to see the same thing in the sheep industry.”

Or maybe, the next trend will be working to improve wool quality, for which we can thank the Neilsons.

Weathering the Drought

South Dakota Soil Health Coalition

Farmers and ranchers like to come together and help each other in times of crisis, and this year’s drought could very well turn into such a crisis for South Dakota producers. Thankfully, there’s a website that will allow producers and landowners to work together and help each other weather the drought.

“The lack of adequate forage in rangelands during dry years requires livestock producers to seek additional grazing and feed resources sooner in the production cycle if they are to maintain livestock performance,” South Dakota Soil Health Coalition Specialist Dave Ollila said. “The simplicity in using the South Dakota Grazing Exchange helps producers find those needed feed resources.”

The South Dakota Grazing Exchange ( helps producers with livestock in need of forage to connect with landowners who have pastures, cover crops or crop residue in need of grazing. The free website allows users to create profiles listing what resources they have available, and they can search for others near them who are listing the resources they need. If they find what they’re looking for, they can connect with other users to form private grazing agreements.

The website allows producers to list multiple species of livestock, including sheep, goats, beef cattle, dairy cattle and others. Landowners can list multiple land resource types, including pasture, native/rangeland, crop residue, cover crops and others. This allows producers and landowners to match with the exact resources they need.

Some livestock producers in the drier portions of the state need to start planning now for additional forage resources later this summer. Landowners can help those producers by listing their grazing resources on the South Dakota Grazing Exchange. With the advances in temporary fencing, any field with crop residue or a cover crop could be grazed.

“You would list the number of acres, the time of year it would be available, what land base it is, and also whether it has a fence, whether there would need to be a hotwire fence, whether there would need to be water,” SDSHC Coordinator Cindy Zenk said. “If we can connect the livestock owners with the people with available cropland, pastureland, even Conservation Reserve Program land, possibly, we can keep agriculture in South Dakota very healthy.”

“Sheep perform especially well grazing cropland as they have a prehensile lip allowing them to pick up grain seeds and small leaves which in most cases are the most nutrient dense part of the plants,” Ollila said.

When droughts and wildfires strike, people in the farming and ranching community often donate hay to affected producers. However, if landowners can form grazing agreements with those producers, the relationship will be mutually beneficial. While the producers receive additional forage for their livestock, the landowners receive the soil health benefits that come with the integration of livestock. Some of those benefits are nutrient cycling, increased soil biology and better soil structure.

“Cycling nutrients through a ruminant animal helps the soil biology make better use of the animal dung as it works to become organic matter once again,” Ollila said.

When producers and landowners form a grazing agreement, they should work together to form a grazing plan that benefits both parties.

“Planning for water sources, weather protection areas and livestock handling should be developed to have the least amount of impact on the soil. A predetermined plan for the amount of biomass to be removed should be developed in creating a positive relationship for all parties involved,” Ollila said. “The South Dakota Soil Health Coalition has people and resources to help producers develop grazing plans.”

Visit to begin using the South Dakota Grazing Exchange. To learn more, visit, call 605-280-4190 or email

Have a Game Plan for Receiving Feeder Lambs

Purina Animal Nutrition

An important factor to the success of any lamb feedlot is its receiving program. Receiving protocols can vary from feedlot to feedlot based on a number of factors such as operation size, location, type of lambs and available feedstuffs.

Some smaller lamb feeders might only feed their home-raised animals, but most feedlots purchase lambs from other farms and ranches. Purchased lambs might be freshly weaned and hauled hundreds of miles before being introduced to a new environment.

It can be stressful for newly arrived lambs and a recipe for disease outbreaks if not properly handled. Water, nutrition and health are the keys to starting lambs off right when they arrive.


Start with water

When lambs walk off a trailer and into their new environment at the feedlot, they’re going to be thirsty. However, they might have never been exposed to a water tank before, with many being used to drinking water from ponds and streams. Get lambs drinking quickly by ensuring water tanks are easily accessible with clean water.

Ideally, water tanks will be open across the top. Some insulated water tanks feature a float-ball animals must push down to access water. It will take some time for newly arrived lambs to learn how to drink from this type of device, so having an open tank makes it easier to transition.

The tank height needs to be where lambs can effortlessly reach them. When taller tanks are used, consider adding something for lambs to stand on, like gravel, bricks or concrete blocks.


Nutrition for newly arrived lambs

Starting with a palatable diet high in fiber and low in energy is a great way to get lambs going during receiving. Hay, a high-fiber grain or a pelleted ration are all good options to help start their metabolism and keep the immune system functioning.

When feeding high-risk lambs, using a pre-made ration has proven beneficial. Pre-made receiving rations can be top-dressed on hay or mixed with commodity feeds to get lambs started quickly. The pre-made rations are usually pelleted to prevent sorting that can occur with grain mixes.

A pre-made receiving ration can be fed for up to a month and slowly phased out as a more concentrated grain ration is introduced.


Healthy for the long-haul

Value-added programs that prioritize weaning lambs for a set number of days with vaccinations and deworming aren’t prevalent like we see in the cattle feeding sector. Most lambs haven’t gone through a health protocol, leaving room for optimizing lamb health when entering a feedlot.

Keeping stress low during receiving ultimately helps the immune system function the way it should. Waiting 10 to 14 days to vaccinate and deworm lambs is the preferred method. It allows lambs to acclimate to their new surroundings and reduces the chances of going off feed or water.

Those who do vaccinate right away aim to get all the stress events done at once. Then it is all uphill from there for the lambs. It can be good to get a C.D.-T vaccine into lambs early, so their chance of catching tetanus in the early stages of feeding is lowered. However, the additional stress might cause lambs to stop eating or drinking, and it raises the chances of vaccines failing because of a reduced immune response.

Setting a groundwork with nutrition and water will go a long way toward cost-effectively raising healthy lambs. Getting lambs on feed and water quickly will help limit stress and is the best way to prevent shipping fever. Water or feed additives can also be used to help limit coccidiosis.

Receiving and starting lambs with the combination of quality water, nutrition and health ensures they’ll have optimal performance.

Visit to learn more. Clay Elliott, Ph.D., is a small ruminant technical specialist with Purina Animal Nutrition. Contact him at

Lambs Keep MSU Red Bluff Research Ranch Busy

MSU News Service

Throughout a Montana spring, baby livestock become a welcome feature on the landscape, with both wild and domestic newborns appearing across the state. For the staff at Montana State University’s Red Bluff Research Ranch near Norris, Mont., the arrival of springtime means preparing for several hundred new lambs.
Red Bluff, which covers nearly 11,000 acres between Norris and the Madison River, is staffed by ranch foreman Noah Davis, sheep foreman Wyatt Geis and shepherd Raul Franco-Urcos. All three live on the property, which proves useful when the time comes for lambing. Nearly 700 lambs are born in five weeks each spring.

“Usually, we get about a 130 percent lamb crop,” said Davis. “We have sets of twins and triplets as well as single lambs, depending largely on the genetics of the sheep.”

With just less than 600 sheep living permanently at Red Bluff, lambing becomes hectic after the first lambs are born in the beginning of April each year. One of the three men gets up hourly through the night to check the pastured flock for new lambs and ensure any new babies don’t get too cold.

Red Bluff’s sheep facility includes two dedicated barns for ewes and their lambs after birth. The ranch also houses around 200 head of cattle, which began calving in early May. The facility is used for both teaching and research, constituting the hub of MSU’s agricultural sheep research, spearheaded by Brent Roeder of the College of Agriculture’s Department of Animal and Range Sciences and an MSU extension specialist.

“There’s always genetic research going on, since we have four different breeds, looking at how heritable certain traits are and things like that,” said Davis. “We’re exploring research on mixed-species grazing since we have both sheep and cattle here. What does it mean for the diet of the animals if you graze sheep before cows, or vice versa, or at different times of the year? There’s a broad array of topics you can look into.”

In addition to leading research efforts, Roeder has published work on the effectiveness of livestock guardian dogs, which are becoming more common with ranchers to mitigate conflicts between livestock and wildlife. Red Bluff also has two new guard dog puppies, large mixes of Kangal and Turkish Boz who were trained by guard dog specialist Steve Skelton, a rancher near Choteau, Mont., who has used the dogs successfully in grizzly bear country for several years.

But in spring, lambing is the No. 1 priority at Red Bluff. The process starts in November, with either artificial insemination or with rams turned out with the 450 ewes of breeding age for around 45 days. The other 150 sheep are known as ewe lambs, yearlings who aren’t yet old enough to be bred and kept separate until they turn 2 years old.

After those 45 days, the rams are then removed to MSU’s Fort Ellis Farm in Bozeman, Mont., said Davis. The sheep gestation period of around five months leads to the extremely busy lambing weeks for Davis, Geis and Franco-Urcos. As lambs are born, they are taken with their mothers into Red Bluff’s lambing barn, where they are kept in pens known as jugs. The smaller, more private space gives mother and lamb an opportunity to bond and for the lambs to begin nursing.

Most lambs are on their feet and walking within about 15 minutes of birth, said Geis.

“They’ll be in the jugs for between 12 and 24 hours,” said Geis. “We dock their tails and tag their ears not long after they’re born and record all the information about size and weight and whether we had to assist with the birth or not.”

After their time in pairs in the lambing barn, the ewes and lambs are moved into the mixing barn, where they are gradually exposed to larger groups of sheep to give the lambs the opportunity to practice finding and following their mothers. After several days in the mixing barn, they move into pastures and finally onto Red Bluff’s rangeland acres. When the next spring arrives, the entire flock will be sheared and a sample of each fleece taken to MSU’s Wool Lab to continue ongoing research in wool quality and the variables that influence it.

ASI Goes to Great Lengths to Market American Wool

Sheep Industry News Editor

ASI wasn’t able to bring international wool buyers to the United States in the past year – due to the COVID-19 pandemic – so the association is taking the usual reverse trade mission experience to the wool buyers through a unique program that was developed to clear a handful of hurdles that have hampered marketing efforts for American wool in 2020-21.

International buyers would generally make a trip to the United States through ASI’s reverse trade mission opportunity that is supported by funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service. Instead, those funds were used to develop a virtual reverse trade mission that offers international buyers an online portal for viewing videos from American wool warehouses, as well as informative videos from sheep producers, shearers and other industry insiders.

The virtual RTM program will get a significant profile boost this month as ASI sends American wool gift boxes to international buyers around the globe. The boxes include all the items you might expect, from wool socks to a promotional brochure, cup, pen and more. But the most eye-catching piece in the box will be a video brochure that plays automatically upon opening the front cover. It’s an innovative promotional tool that ASI’s wool team was happy to find.

“No matter where in the world we send these video brochures, the buyers will be able to watch them,” said ASI Deputy Director Rita Samuelson. “We’ve had a lot of issues with sending any type of technology into some of these foreign countries – especially China. We’ve sent videos on flash drives, and their computers wouldn’t play them. We’ve sent links and they were unable to get them to open. So, we’re excited about these video brochures and the opportunity they offer to present American wool in a favorable light to buyers all around the world.”

ASI staff prepared boxes for shipment in June, stuffing the specially printed American wool boxes with promotional materials and products that are sure to catch the eye of international buyers. A QR code on the box (as well as the back cover of the video brochure) will guide buyers to a specially designed website with promotional videos that walk buyers through much of what they would see during a normal RTM tour. The videos were captured in 2020 as ASI sent a film crew on a unique road trip – Winnebago and all – that hit every major wool warehouse in the United States. Along the way, the crew captured video of American wool products in use and visited with producers and shearers about this unique, time-tested fiber.

As life slowly begins to normalize in 2021, there’s hope that the years to come will bring a return of the popular RTM tours. Each year, these tours are responsible for the sale of countless pounds of American wool. But until then, the ASI wool staff (with guidance from ASI’s American Wool Council) has developed an avenue for putting your wool front and center with buyers from all around the world.

It remains to be seen if these efforts will be as successful as the RTM tours, but with many producers sitting on two years worth of wool clips – thanks to to the trade war and the pandemic that followed – ASI wasn’t willing to just sit on its laurels and hope that the situation resolved itself. Challenging times like these demand action, and the virtual option presented the boldest course of possible action for marketing American wool in a global lockdown.

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