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Congressional Priorities for the Sheep Industry
Susan Shultz, ASI President
With things moving quickly in Washington, D.C., despite a still relatively challenging pandemic lockdown, here are some legislative priorities for consideration:
S. 792 Haulers of Agriculture and Livestock Safety (HAULS) Act
• Introduced by senators Fischer (Neb.), Tester (Mont.), Wicker (Miss.) and Smith (Minn.).
• Eliminates the requirement that agriculture and livestock hours-of-service exemptions only apply during state designated planting and harvesting seasons.
• Amends and clarifies the definition of “agricultural commodities” based on feedback provided by agriculture and livestock organizations.
• Authorizes a 150 air-mile exemption from HOS requirements on the destination side for agriculture and livestock haulers.
ASI supports the HAULS Act
Modernizing Agricultural Transportation Act
• Introduced by senators Hoeven (N.D.) and Bennet (Colo.)
• Establishes a working group at the Department of Transportation to examine the Hours of Service regulations and the Electronic Logging Device regulations.
• Suspends the Electronic Logging Device mandate for commercial motor vehicles hauling livestock, insects or perishable agricultural commodities until the date on which the secretary proposes regulatory changes.
ASI supports the Modernizing Transportation Act
H.R. 1603 Farm Workforce Modernization Act
• Introduced by representatives Lofgren (Calif.) and Newhouse (Wash.)
• Establishs a program for agricultural workers in the United States to earn legal status through continued agricultural employment and contribution to the U.S. agricultural economy.
• Reforms the H-2A program to provide more flexibility for employers, while ensuring critical protections for workers.
• Focuses on modifications to make the program more responsive and user-friendly for employers and provides access to the program for industries with year-round labor needs.
• Provides a limited allocation of H-2A visas per fiscal year for sheep or goat herding.
ASI continues to work with the Senate to address concerns with the Farm Workforce Modernization Act
S. 617 Death Tax Repeal Act
• Introduced by Sen. Thune (S.D.) with companion legislation introduced in the House by Representatives by Smith (Mo.) and Bishop (Ga.)
• This bill would permanently repeal the federal estate tax.
• House companion Preserving Family Farms Act – Introduced by representatives Panetta (Calf.) and Walorski (Ind.) ASI supports the Death Tax Repeal Act
Endangered Species Act
S. 973 Grizzly Bear State Management Act
• Introduced by senators Lummis (Wyo.), Barrasso (Wyo.), Crapo (Idaho), Risch (Idaho) and Daines (Mont.)
• This bill would remove grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from the Endangered Species List and shift management of the grizzlies to wildlife scientists in the states.
ASI supports the Grizzly Bear State Management Act
Conservation and Climate
S. 1251 Growing Climate Solutions Act
• Introduced by Chairwoman Stabenow (Mich.) and Sen. Braun (Ind.)
• This bill creates a certification program at USDA to help solve technical entry barriers that prevent farmer and forest landowner participation in carbon credit markets.
ASI supports the Growing Climate Solutions Act
Sponsoring USDA Sustainability Targets in Agriculture to Incentivize Natural Solutions (SUSTAINS) Act
• Introduced by Ranking Member Thompson (Penn.)
• Authorizes the “Contributions for Private-Sector Partnership,” a USDA account that allows for private sector donations; incentivizes private funding by awarding sponsorship of targeted conservation initiatives; authorizes funds for USDA to match certain donations.
Restoring Environments, Soils, Trees and Operations to develop the Rural Economy (RESTORE) Act
• Introduced by Rep. LaMalfa (Calf.)
• Gives the secretary of agriculture authority to conduct landscape-scale forest management projects in states where the governor requests such activities; provides new statutory authorities to execute cross-jurisdiction forest management projects and reduces unnecessary bureaucracy.
Forestry Improvements to Restore the Environment (FIRE) Act
• Introduced by Rep. Johnson (S.D.)
• Requires the U.S. Forest Service to complete a survey of National Forest System land that has been impacted by a wildfire within 60 days after containment; provides new management tools to expedite restoration; enables rural communities to get salvage timber to market, increasing financial benefits to local communities.
These are only a small number of legislative priorities ASI is currently working on. Additional annual appropriations priorities are also top of mind right now for sheep producers.
The Legislative Action Council held a virtual meeting and briefing – in place of the annual Spring Trip to Washington, D.C. – on March 22. You can find all the briefing materials to share with your congressional delegation at SheepUSA.org under Issues – ASI Positions.
JULIE STEPANEK SHIFLETT, PH.D.
Juniper Economic Consulting
In April, the wholesale lamb composite set another record – propelled by record-high primals, including the rack, leg and loin. The wholesale composite averaged $489.76 per cwt., 4 percent higher monthly and 14 percent higher year-on-year.
Record wholesale prices are due to a combination of factors: tight supplies – as seen in lower feedlot numbers and lower freezer inventory – lower imports and strong demand. Benny Cox, senior salesman at Producers Livestock Auction in San Angelo, Texas, explained the strong demand to Bloomberg, “Adventurous millennial eaters and home chefs willing and able to spend more time cooking have fueled a good portion of retail demand.”
Livestock Marketing Information Center estimates support this forecast. Live lamb prices are sharply higher than in the recent past and forecasted to stay high through 2022. In the third quarter, it is estimated that live, negotiated slaughter lamb prices could average $179.50 per cwt. – 32 percent higher year-on-year and 15 percent higher than in the third quarter of 2019. Feeder lamb prices are estimated at $226.50 per cwt. in the third quarter, up 34 percent from a year ago and 37 percent higher than the third-quarter in 2019.
Wholesale Lamb Cuts Higher
The 8-rib rack, medium, averaged a historic high of $966.44 per cwt. in April – 5 percent higher monthly. The loin, trimmed 4×4, averaged $720.28 per cwt., 2 percent higher monthly. The leg, trotter-off, saw $456.94 per cwt. in April, up 5 percent from March. The shoulder averaged $363.66 per cwt. in April, up 1 percent from March.
At $720.28 per cwt., the loin was up 38 percent from a year ago. Recall that the loin averaged $523.52 per cwt. in 2019 and $587.31 per cwt. in 2020. The leg averaged 17 percent higher year-on-year and the rack was 13 percent higher year-on-year. The shoulder was 7 percent higher year-on-year.
Ground lamb strengthened by 4 percent in April to $656.75 per cwt. and jumped 14 percent from a year ago.
In the United States, there is no evidence that lamb demand will weaken as the economy reopens. In fact, demand will only strengthen as the foodservice sector rebounds. Additionally, the lighter-weight lamb market will continue to tug on commercial lamb supplies and resources.
“Between 30 to 50 percent of the lambs in the U.S. are going to the non-traditional market,” said Reid Redden, director of the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at San Angelo.
Meat and Livestock Australia market information manager Stephen Bignell commented, “Overseas markets continue to offer optimism that future demand will hold up for high quality product.” In fact, Bignell suggested that the challenge moving forward for the international sheep industry is that demand will soon outpace supply. Tight domestic and imported supplies coupled with strong demand will support the live lamb and meat markets moving forward.
Lamb Availability Tightens
Lamb supplies are tight as shown in lower freezer stocks, feedlot inventory and harvest numbers.
In the first trimester of 2021, estimated lamb harvest was 599,439 head, up 4 percent year-on-year. Estimated lamb production was 29.1 million lbs., up 4 percent. However, numbers are lower than pre-Covid 2019. Estimated lamb harvest in the first trimester of 2021 was down 5 percent from the same period in 2019 and estimated lamb production was down 8 percent.
At the beginning of April, lamb and mutton in cold storage was 25.3 million lbs., down 6 percent monthly and down 33 percent year-on-year.
At the beginning of May, feeder lamb inventory in Colorado was 91,844 head, 15 percent lower monthly and a 20 percent reduction from May’s five-year average.
In the first quarter, total lamb imports were 52.4 million lbs., down 12 percent year-on-year. Lamb imports from Australia were off 17 percent to 37.7 million lbs. and New Zealand’s imports were up 4 percent to 14.1 million lbs.
Feeder and Slaughter Lambs Higher
The live lamb market in April found support from tighter domestic and imported supplies. In April, live, negotiated slaughter lamb prices averaged $187.77 per cwt., up 10 percent monthly and up 15 percent from pre-Covid March a year ago. Weights averaged 144 lbs. in April, up 10 percent monthly, and 4 percent lower than March 2020.
April’s average commercial slaughter lamb price was 93 percent of its record high that was set in August 2011. Equity Cooperative Livestock Sales Association sold 1,500 lambs from California in April at $213.25 per cwt. to $215.50 per cwt. at 117 lbs.
In the Western Video Sheep Video/Internet Auction Report, more than 3,000 head traded at $273 to $276 per cwt. for 100- to 120-lb. lambs for May delivery. Just more than 1,000 head traded at $237.50 to $248 per cwt. for June delivery. And, 1,070 head of 90-lb. lambs traded at $257.50 per cwt. for August delivery.
Sixty- to 90-lb. feeder lambs at auction in Fort Collins, Colo., Sioux Falls, S.D., and San Angelo averaged $276.43 per cwt., up 9 percent monthly and up 62 percent year-on-year.
Lighter-weight slaughter lamb prices at the New Holland, Penn., auction averaged $309.76 per cwt. for 80 to 90-lb. lambs, 8 percent higher monthly. Ninety to 100-lb. lambs averaged $312.89 per cwt., up 12 percent monthly.
In early May, the Eastern Orthodox (Greek) Easter likely gave lamb demand a lift, as did Eid ul-Fitr – the Muslim festival of fast breaking – in mid-May.
Pelt Market Steady
Reportedly, demand in the American pelt market remains constant and steady. There is interest from overseas markets, including China, and some interest from Turkey and Eastern Europe. The challenge has been in getting skins shipped. Freight costs have reportedly tripled in the last couple of months.
This year, lambskin quality is very good. The dry winter with little moisture in the West produced clean skins with little vegetable matter.
The tariff on American lambskin exports to China remains a challenge to expanded exports. The logical effect of removing the tariff would likely be higher-valued pelts to American producers in time.
The rise of hair sheep numbers in the United States reminds us of the uniqueness of wool-on lambskins. In general, hair sheep produce a fine, supple skin – similar to cattle – however, one cannot make a paint roller, automotive seat cover, or shearling bomber jacket with the skin of hair sheep. In general, Merino sheep do not produce the finest leather, but the value is in the wool. Without wool, hair sheep skins compete with leather from all competing species. Another challenge to marketing hair sheep skins is the lack of quantity and the lack of a consistent quantity.
Lambskins remain in fashion as evidenced by recent media reports. Men’s Health published an article this spring titled, Here’s Everything You Need to Know When Buying a Shearling Coat. The tagline was: How to buy a cold-weather classic that will last for decades. Men’s Journal also had a recent publication: Get Some High Quality Wool and Sheepskin Coats on Sale at Overland. The articles emphasized the benefits of the shearling bomber jacket as well as new wool apparel and shearling designs.
AMERICAN Wool Prices See Year-on-Year Lift
In early May, the Territory States (Western wools) were 17 to 36 percent higher year-on-year; however, prices were 17 to 36 percent lower than May 2019. The Chinese tariff on American wool exports was erected in mid-2019, so reportedly a lot of May sales escaped the protectionist measure. Eighteen micron averaged $5.42 per lb. clean, 19 micron averaged $4.60 per lb. clean, 20 micron was $4.04 per lb. clean, 21 micron was $3.85 clean, 22 micron was $3.38 per lb. clean,
23 micron was $3.34 per lb. clean, 24 micron was $3.16 per lb. clean and 26 micron averaged $2.09 per lb. clean.
Domestic buyers, in particular, drove the market, seeking out better-styled wools, meaning bold crimp, good color (bright white), good length (about 3.5”) and good strength. Yields were about 60 percent.
In early May, 782,587 lbs. of wool traded mostly from the 2021 clip, but some sizable volume of the 2019 and 2020 clips was included, as well. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service, most of the finer wool traded within 80 percent or better of Australian prices, while medium to coarser wools traded around 75 to 80 percent.
In the Fleece States (mostly Midwest/East wools and some Californian wools) wool averaged $3.36 per lb. clean for 22 micron and $2.88 per lb. clean for 24 micron. The 22-micron wool averaged 35 percent higher than May 2020 and 38 percent lower from May 2019.
There was little to no demand for coarser wools. American wools that are about 24 micron and coarser remained depressed, about steady to 10 percent higher than last year, but about half of 2018 values. International wool demand is focused on finer wool. While finer wools were down by about one-third from 2018, coarser wools are down by half.
The American wool market continues to track the Australian wool market closely. The USDA/AMS percent share that American wools bring is about 75 to 85 percent of Australian wools, but select Merino wools with more than 3.5-inch staple length and bright white color can bring about 90 percent of Australian wools.
In general, wools measuring 3 to 4.5 inches are preferred in the current market. Staple length determines wool’s use with longer wools spun into smooth yarn for apparel. Reportedly, it is possible that wools longer than 4.5 inches can jam up machines. It is also possible that wools 2 inches and shorter can be more challenging to market.
The Australian Easter Market Indicator averaged 1,319 per kg during the first week of May, 13 percent higher year-on-year. In U.S. dollars, the EMI topped $462 cents per lb. clean – 35 percent higher from a year ago. The EMI in U.S. dollars jumped 62 percent from it 2020 low last August.
The U.S. to Australian dollar exchange rate movement added to the strength of Australian wool prices in U.S. dollars in April. The Australian dollar gained 20 percent against the U.S. dollar by early May, to 77.27 U.S. cents.
It might take some time for the wool industry to recover. There is currently little demand from Europe and negligible interest from China. Domestic buyers are reliant on U.S. and global demand growth that could be a few years out.
“Stronger global economic growth over the medium term to 2025-26 is forecast to lead to higher wool prices, especially for superfine and fine micron wools used in woollen apparel,” according to the Australian Government this spring.
In the next four years, the Australian Government forecasted that wool prices could rise 25 percent, topping Australian 1,500 cents per kg clean by 2025. A recent Australian Government wool report reminds us that wool price volatility will remain. Wool is a high-value niche product; thus, availability of cheaper substitutes means its price is volatile and sensitive to small changes in demand and supply.
A new category called Shepherd/Shepherdess has been added to the 2021 ASI Photo Contest to include photos of producers, herders or others working with sheep. The new category replaces the action category in this year’s contest.
“We’ve received some great photos in the past of producers and others working with sheep, but we didn’t always have a great category for these types of photos,” said Sheep Industry News Editor Kyle Partain, who oversees the ASI Photo Contest each year.
“The new category was actually a suggestion from an ASI member during the 2020 contest. Our entire staff agreed that it would be a great addition to the contest. We look forward to seeing some wonderful images of our members and the men and women who work with them to keep the American sheep industry moving forward.”
Other than the one category change, rules and prizes for the 2021 contest are the same as last year. Photographs entered in the contest will be judged on clarity, content, composition and appeal.
More than $1,000 will be awarded, with awards of $125 going to the first-place photographer in each of the five categories listed below; $75 for the runner-up in each category; and a $50 prize for third place in each of the five categories.
Entries must be received in the ASI office by 5 p.m. mountain time on Monday, Aug. 2, to be considered. Only the top three photographers in each category will be notified of their winnings.
Photographers are advised to submit photographs in the largest file size possible. Also, judges and ASI staff encourage entrants to provide both horizontal and vertical photos. This will better assure these talented and creative photos can be shared in future issues of the Sheep Industry News, as well as in the 2022 ASI Calendar and other American sheep industry publications.
The five categories in this year’s contest are:
1. Shepherd/Shepherdess – Photographs of producers, shepherds or others working with sheep.
2. Scenic (East) – Photographs of sheep outdoors located east of the Mississippi River. Photos entered in this category cannot include people.
3. Scenic (West) – Photographs of sheep outdoors located west of the Mississippi River. Photos entered in this category cannot include people.
4. Working Dogs and Protection Animals – Photographs in this category should show herding dogs, livestock guardian dogs or any other livestock protection animal in their natural environments. Photos must also include sheep in some fashion as proof that these truly are working animals.
5. Open – Photographs with subject matter that does not fall into the four above-listed categories.
Other contest rules:
• ASI can use or reproduce all entries at the discretion of ASI. In addition, entries will not be returned.
• ASI is not required to notify photographers when photos are used in materials.
• Photographs can be submitted via hard copy or electronically.
• All entries must be at least 3 inches by 5 inches, color or black-and-white, high-resolution photos (larger sizes encouraged).
• Entries must be submitted in the name of the person who took the photograph.
• Entries are limited to two per category per person.
• Only photographs that have been taken in the past six years can be entered.
• Photographs submitted in previous years cannot be re-entered.
• The following needs to be included with each submission: title of photo; category (from the five listed above) into which it is being entered; photographer’s name; mailing address; phone number; email address; and approximate location/date of photo.
• If there is a particular story that goes with the photo, please include that, as well, with the entry.
Entries should be emailed to Partain at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line of ASI Photo Contest. Those mailing photos should send them to ASI; Attn: Photo Contest; 9785 Maroon Circle, Suite 360; Englewood, CO 80112.
Coyotes make up the majority of Steve Clements’ neighbors in Philip, S.D., these days, so it’s no surprise that the third-generation sheep producer is an advocate of predator control. Following in his father’s footsteps, Clements has worked with the state legislature in Pierre, S.D., on the issue to the benefit of livestock producers throughout the state. This year, he’s serving as chair of ASI’s Resource Management Council and co-chair of the council’s Predator Management Committee.
I Graduated high school in 1975 and had very little interest in going to college. I went to work for a neighbor at that time and worked for them for about 10 years. In 1979, Pam and I got married and started a family. I worked for the neighbors up until 1985 and then I went to work on a share deal on a place for three years. We had a few cows put together by then, so we leased a small place about 10 miles from home. Pam and I moved back to the home place in 1992. I had 35 sows and I asked dad if I could bring those over. He said he didn’t care, but on the way home that night I got to thinking about it and since the home place was set up for sheep, why would I want to have pigs there? So, I sold the sows and all the pig barns and stuff and went and bought 100 old ewes and 100 young ewes, and that’s what we got started with. We’ve had all the way from 200 ewes to 1,200 ewes depending on the year.
My grandpa homesteaded here in 1907 and we’ve been here ever since. Grandpa got into the sheep in the first three years he was around here. He herded sheep for a guy one summer and at the end of the summer the guy couldn’t pay him, so he gave him the sheep. That’s how he got into the sheep business. We’ve had sheep here ever since. Mom and dad raised sheep and cattle. They usually ran about 1,200 ewes and about 75 head of cows back then. Labor wasn’t a problem for them because there were 7 of us kids.
At one point, PAM and I sold most of the ewes and then we got back in and have had sheep ever since. That was when they lost the wool incentive. We ran sheep for a year or two after that, but the price of lambs was down and we took 30-some cents a pound for good white-faced wool that year. It was tough. But I had to look at it as part of our income and we were actually losing money on the sheep. So, we sold the ewes and didn’t know if we’d ever get back into sheep. Then, the lamb market turned around and the wool market came back a little bit and we started buying ewes again.
We didn’t want to sell the sheep. I’ve been around them all my life and Pam grew up in Rapid City, but she really liked helping dad with the sheep and taking care of our sheep. And she still does. She pretty much lambs them out. Usually if I go to the lambing barn, I cause more trouble than I help. I feed and water and then I get out of there. Otherwise, I start turning lambs out too early and causing more work for her. She pretty much handles all of the lambing and stuff like that. I do the calving, so it works out pretty good.
Here in South Dakota, our trappers are under state Game, Fish and Parks Department and we have Wildlife Services doing our flying. I’ve always been real involved through the South Dakota Sheep Growers to try and improve the conditions out here for everyone. They made some changes that weren’t good for us and we’ve slowly come back around. Hopefully changes keep coming and things get better here. Coyote numbers are just unbelievable. Across the nation, we need predator control. We can’t just let them run unchecked. For 26 years, they flew the planes here and got about 1.5 coyotes per hour for that time. When they made those changes, they’ve gone as high as 6 to 8 coyotes per hour. That tells me that there are probably five to six times as many coyotes as there used to be here. They just flew about an hour and a half right around here the other day and killed 20, and that’s the third flight I’ve had this spring. My dad initiated the predator control program in South Dakota back in the 1970s. He spent one spring in Pierre with Al Miller fighting to get a program in place.
We have two daughters and a son. They all live close by. One of the girls lives in Philip and the other lives just east of Philip on a ranch, and our son lives just a mile down the road on the place. We sold him part of the place and he lives here with his family. Our daughter in town, her two girls love coming out here. She always loved the sheep and her girls are the same way. They love riding horses and coming out here and helping grandma lamb. In the last year with COVID, they’d come on Sunday night and stay until the end of the week. It was backwards of normal because we used to just see them on the weekends. Last year, we got them all week and they went home on the weekends. So, we got a lot of help with lambing and I got to take seventh grade math over again.
With homeschooling wrapped up for the day, the Tregilgas girls – Molly, 12, Adele, 10, Maxine, 7, and Ida, 2 – hop in the truck with their parents for a short drive from the family home into a sheep pasture just across the road. It doesn’t really take six people to drop a bit of net fencing and push the sheep into an adjoining section of the pasture. But the thought of spending time together as a family played a big role in Spencer and Melissa’s decision to live this life. So more often than not, the work is a family affair.
“We had other career ideas, but quickly realized that we were going to end up spending most of our time away from the kids and away from each other,” says Melissa. “And neither of us are sit-in-the-office type of people. So, here we are.”
Renting a house, dairy barn and 90 acres of pasture from the American River Conservancy, Spencer and Melissa have brought livestock in the form of sheep and dairy cows back to a once-abandoned farm near Placerville, Calif. While neither of the two came from an agricultural background, they were drawn to the idea of being stewards of land and pursuing a career where they could work together and spend quality time with their children.
The couple didn’t dive into the deep end of the farming pool completely unprepared, however. They worked at dairies and livestock operations on both the East and West Coasts to prepare for one day building their own farm. But a big part of the appeal of farming was land and livestock, and so they set out to find their own path.
“We started visiting farms and were thinking about something like a vegetable CSA (community supported agriculture). We visited some farms that had livestock, as well, and found that a lot more interesting than the vegetables,” Melissa says. “No offense to vegetable farmers.”
“Now we look at how vegetable farmers can just turn on the water and leave for a few days, and we wonder if vegetables might have been a better idea,” Spencer jokes. “But we just love the sheep and cows.”
The couple started with three heifers and 12 sheep on the place back in 2016. They’ve since turned Free Hand Farm into a source of raw milk – customers buy shares in the operation and can stop by the farm on a weekly basis to pick up their milk – as well as pasture-fed lamb and beef. Spencer handles most of the milking and dairy responsibilities each morning while Melissa and the kids knock out the day’s school lessons.
“But Melissa manages the flock and I take my orders from her when it comes to the sheep,” Spencer says. “She knows them all by name (Melissa says they don’t all have names) and can identify them all at lambing time.”
The couple ended up with Jacob sheep, as well as a few of fellow California producer Dan Macon’s self-described mules.
“We have little mutt sheep and they work for us,” says Melissa. “We started with the Jacobs and the lady we bought them from offered basic sheep care classes. We’re not the prettiest flock out there, but we love them. A lot of people have suggested going into hair sheep, but I just keep thinking that eventually the wool will be worth something. So, I want to be there when that market, God willing, becomes a thing. I really like the colors we get, and I think there’s a growing market for natural colors. We’ve done some direct marketing of fleeces.”
But the biggest seller for the couple so far has been pelts. Spencer says customers love the spotted and multi-color pelts, and that they sell like hotcakes.
“We were always interested in sheep from the get-go,” Melissa says. “But it seemed like a small dairy was a way that we could potentially make a living without having a lot of acreage initially.”
The family hit a milestone of sorts in 2019 when Spencer was able to abandon side gigs – painting houses, fixing other people’s fences, etc. – and live solely on farm income.
“We’re fishing about for more acreage to lease around here,” Spencer says. “There’s some big pieces of land in the county, but they’re held by landowners who aren’t making a living off of them. They might run a few cows, but they aren’t doing much with the land. It’s hard to get onto those bigger parcels as a relative newcomer, but we’ll see.”
As with any young farmers who started an operation from scratch, the couple often debates the merits of moving too quickly to expand an operation that has only recently become profitable enough to hire an extra hand.
“We’ve been trying to be smart about it,” Melissa says. “10,000 acres sounds like a lot of land, but with drought conditions that land doesn’t go very far with cattle. It could go farther with sheep.”
Targeted grazing offers a potential new income source for the couple as California enters its dry season. While the farm seems somewhat remote, it’s less than an hour from Sacramento and opportunities abound in suburban neighborhoods in the area.
“We’ve done a little bit of that already, but we’re looking for more opportunities,” Spencer said. “We just want to make the sheep a profitable enterprise on their own, and we see that as one way to get there.
“It hasn’t always been easy starting our own farming business, but it always comes back to what is our real reason for farming? We want to be together as a family, to raise a quality product and to feed ourselves and our community.”
Jausonne Spencer didn’t set out to create her own breed of sheep, but that’s exactly what happened as she worked to develop a flock that could thrive for her in southwest Iowa. She’s dubbed her breed the American Blue Morrit after the unique blue color that is fairly common in her breed.
“I really stunk at sheep,” she admits. “My kids had Suffolks and other breeds, and they just didn’t do well with me. One day my then husband brought home a flock of Navajo-Churros, and they were crazy. When I was young, I spent four or five years on the Navajo Reservation, so he thought it would make me happy to have something from my childhood. He thought he was doing something nice, and I guess in the long run he did. But it didn’t feel that way at the time.”
Because they were a gift, Spencer worked to make the best of the sheep. She hoped to improve the flock’s general temperament but also quickly realized that it would be next to impossible to sell fleeces from the flock due to the breed’s double coat.
So she decided to bring in a Cormo-Romney ram that helped breed out some of the craziness of the flock while improving the wool to “middle of the market fleeces.”
Then came a Cormo ram that Spencer says was the foundation sire of the breed.
“I never did decide if he was brown or black. After his first sheering, I called the breeder and told her the wool was either brown or black depending on the light or shade,” Spencer says. “The first year he was used, he produced a funny little ram that started out black and changed colors for the next two years. This was Rumpelstiltskin.”
Eventually, great colors began showing up on a regular basis: blue, burgundy, purple, gold and even pink. One thing that is guaranteed is the sheep will all change into something other than their original birth color.
About five years ago – 10 years after that Navajo-Churro flock first arrived at her home – Spencer began to notice a lot of consistency in the flock. In the last three years, she says things have been pretty well “locked in.”
“I have a waiting list for my fleeces now,” she says. “The main reason is the colors, but it’s also the fact that they have less grease in them.”
That’s a result of the Navajo-Churro base of the flock. While there hasn’t been a Navajo-Churro sheep in Spencer’s breeding for a number of years, her flock has retained an outer coat that helps protect the fine wool under coat that produces fleeces her customers are paying $35 to $40 a pound for on a regular basis. The best part is that outer coat – which makes most Navajo-Churro wool practically worthless to American wool buyers – essentially sheds off on its own.
Spencer shears the flock twice a year and gets a four to six-inch staple length with each shearing. With low amounts of grease and vegetable matter, Spencer’s customers can spin the fleece right out of the bag. No processing is required in most cases.
“We get 45 mile per hour winds almost constantly where I live, and the wind wears down that outer coat,” Spencer says. “Even though that outer coat is barely visible, it keeps the sand and the junk out of the fleeces.”
Spencer uses hand shears to remove the fleeces herself in an effort to avoid second cuts and other imperfections that might affect the price of the highly valuable wool.
“It takes me about 20 minutes for each sheep, and I only shear three or four a day. Doing it twice a year, that seems to keep me shearing a lot.”
Spencer also praises the breed’s hardiness, adding that she rarely vaccinates or worms the flock. She credits much of her success with the breed to the fact that it requires little care on her part. Once again, the Navajo-Churro influence can easily be seen, as that breed is known for its ability to thrive in harsh conditions.
“I can honestly say that the sheep are the only thing that keeps my life going right now,” Spencer says. “They take very good care of me. I always sucked at sheep before, but I don’t suck at these guys.
“I’d really love to see Americans fall in love with sheep again, and I think sheep like mine could play a role in that. You don’t have to be an expert at raising sheep to raise these sheep. I think they’d be a great breed for people just getting started with sheep. Sheep are our history – not just American history, but world history – and I want to see people succeed with them.”
While she makes the breed sound close to perfect, Spencer says they aren’t the prolific producers that breeds such as Polypay or Finnsheep can be. They generally only produce one to two lambs per breeding. However, Spencer says she can breed them twice a year, which helps offset that issue.
“They definitely have some legitimate benefits that I’d like the chance to share with the industry,” she says.
Plans are underway for The Trailing of the Sheep Festival’s new permanent monument which honors the sheep industry, ranchers, herders and their 150-plus years of history in the Wood River Valley and Idaho.
The festival’s board of directors plans to unveil and dedicate The Good Shepherd monument in Hailey, Idaho, on Saturday, Oct. 9, during the festival’s milestone 25th anniversary event, which runs Oct. 6-10. The monument will be installed on the landscape strip at Roberta McKercher Park facing Highway 75 in Hailey.
The monument – by sculptor Danny D. Edwards of Danny Edwards Bronzes – will consist of 11 life-sized bronze sculptures featuring eight sheep, a sheepherder, horse and a dog.
“We have dreamed of bringing something like this to the community for many years,” said John Peavey, festival co-founder and board president. “This unique tribute is made possible, in part, due to a generous gift from the estate of Patricia Lane. But the majority of the monument costs will be covered through fundraising efforts that are currently underway, including engraved pavers and sponsorships, so we encourage all those who love sheep to contribute to this lasting legacy.”
The monument pavers – which are engraved with the donor’s personalized text – range in price from $125 to $1,500, depending on size. The first round of pavers will be installed for the monument unveiling this year.
Monument sponsorships for individuals and businesses are available at levels from $2,500 to $10,000, although gifts of any amount are welcome. The Trailing of the Sheep Cultural Heritage Center is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization.
For details and information on how to contribute to The Good Shepherd monument, visit TrailingoftheSheep.org/monument.
The Trailing of the Sheep Festival will celebrate its 25th anniversary year in 2021 in the picturesque Wood River Valley of Idaho. Each fall, the popular festival celebrates the 150-plus year tradition of moving sheep (trailing) from high mountain summer pastures down through the valley to traditional winter grazing and lambing areas in the south. This annual migration is Idaho living history and a family-friendly festival (with estimated attendance of 25,000 people) that highlights the people, arts, cultures and traditions of sheep ranching in Idaho and the West.
With shearing and lambing in the rearview mirror for most American sheep producers, now might be the perfect time to start looking at those long-range goals you’ve been dreaming of pursuing for years.
If the only thing standing in your way is funding, then you should consider applying for a loan from the Sheep and Goat Innovation Fund, managed by the National Livestock Producers Association.
Money is available in the form of a loan at rates that are competitive with any you might find from more traditional lending institutions, said Pierce Miller of Texas. Miller is a longtime loan committee member of the fund. The committee votes on approval of all funding requests.
“We’ve put out in excess of $50 million into the industry,” Miller said, adding that projects on the wool side of the American sheep industry have seen the biggest concentration of loan requests from the fund. “But we’ve funded projects in both meat and fiber production, as well as for dairy products.”
Miller is one of three sheep producers who sit on the board – Jamie Gillmor of Utah and Dan Lippert of Minnesota are the other two. This assures sheep producers that people with knowledge of the industry will be considering their loan requests.
“There’s a lot of diversity of backgrounds on the board, but we’re a good working group,” Miller said. “We’re always looking for projects that will benefit the industry and those who work in it. But since I’ve been on the board, we’ve struggled to educate the public on this program and how it might benefit producers who are looking to expand their operations in some form.”
Gillmor said his main goal in serving on the seven-member board is to “get more money out there for the success of our industry. What people don’t always realize is that we can tailor a loan to fit their needs in most cases. We’re committed to the industry more than a traditional lender might be, so we have a familiarity with the industry and a better understanding of the projects that producers might need money to tackle.”
The Sheep and Goat Innovation Fund can also provide partial funding for projects for those who might have access to a portion of the necessary funds to expand their flocks, add barns or other infrastructure or expand into a secondary market for their sheep-related products.
“I think the fund is a great option for younger producers with mentors and backing who might not have a lot of credit available to them, but it also works for proven operations that might need to expand to improve profitability,” Gillmor said. “We love innovative ideas and the use of technology or anything that adds value to your operation. Our big focus is helping the industry stay in business.”
To learn more, visit SheepandGoatFund.com.
Trailblazers Tour Set for September
The Howard Wyman Sheep Industry Leadership School is teaming up this year with the American Lamb Board and ASI’s Young Entrepreneurs to host the inaugural Trailblazers Tour on Sept. 26-28. In cooperation with Texas AgriLife Extension, the tour will feature all facets of the Texas sheep and goat industry, commencing in Austin, Texas, and culminating in San Angelo, Texas, with multiple stops along the way.
For more than a century, Rambouillet sheep and Angora goats were foundational to ranching in west Texas. While mohair and wool are still produced, meat goats and hair sheep have gained significant popularity in this region, resulting in a diverse small ruminant industry. Texas producers have capitalized on the strengths of these different species and breeds to capture value in today’s ever-changing market as well as maximize their production from what many deem “true sheep and goat country.”
Historic fine-wool ranches, premier Dorper seedstock operations, large scale meat goat production utilizing herders, state of the art feed mills and local custom processors are all on the itinerary for this unique four-day tour.
The tour will commence in Austin where participants will be able to experience the renowned local food scene and Texas BBQ at its best. The tour will travel through Texas’ scenic hill country, Edwards Plateau, and eventually conclude in the sheep-ranching hub of San Angelo. Along the way, participants will be offered a glimpse at what sheep production looked like in Texas 100 years ago as many families are still operating on the same country. Participants will also experience a new generation of younger producers who are capitalizing on technology and innovations to prevent sheep production issues.
The Trailblazers Tour application will be live on the National Lamb Feeders Association website on June 1.
OSU Students Get Hands-On Learning
The world should be considered a classroom where daily learning takes place, as long as you seize the opportunities given to you. If you’re fortunate enough to study Animal Science at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, your labs might even extend into one of the farm units, where hands-on learning takes place for students.
The OSU Sheep and Goat Center is one of those places where students can learn each semester about the daily care of the animals from feeding and nutrition to general health, breeding, lambing and kidding, and more. According to Darin Annuschat, herdsman at the unit, about eight different classes come to the unit each semester for labs. Another four to seven students work there during the year, taking care of the 100 head of sheep and 50 goats daily and improving their animal husbandry skills along the way.
The flock consists of a mix of black-faced crossbred ewes along with some purebred Hampshires and Dorsets with the goal of raising club lambs to sell to young exhibitors. The Boer goat herd is also bred to raise show wethers. While teaching is important, the No. 1 priority is to keep all the animals healthy and get the mamas bred.
“It’s those girls’ job to be mamas. It’s the point of why we have them. So, their overall general health benefits so many things like reproductive efficiency and the ewes having more twins and being in better physical shape,” Annuschat said.
He credits the nutrition program the ewes and does are on for helping keep the animals feeling and looking healthy. They have been on the DuraFerm program since before Annuschat started managing the sheep and goat center seven years ago.
“It seems like those ewes breed a little quicker. It seems like we don’t have nearly as many open ewes. It just helps so much from that end of it, but you get into lambing seasons and those ewes are in even better shape. They end up milking better, raising those lambs better. We don’t have as many parturition problems. It’s just the ball rolling down the hill. It helps from the beginning and helps down the line,” Annuschat said of the DuraFerm mineral.
Some of the best lessons are learned outside, and the lessons learned at the Oklahoma Sheep and Goat Center are teaching young livestock enthusiasts how to strengthen their stock with a sound nutrition program.
AGRILIFE OFFERS Digital Education
The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service has launched a new digital education course, Sheep and Goat Ranching 101. The series of 12 videos cost $25 and allows participants to learn at their own pace at AgriLifeLearn.TAMU.edu.
“This online course is for people new to the sheep and goat industry,” said Reid Redden, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension sheep and goat specialist and director of the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Service Center at San Angelo. “This course covers the basics of what people need to know, everything from how much animals typically cost to the type of facilities you’ll need to have to raise sheep and goats.”
This online course is geared toward beginners and taught by AgriLife Extension specialists, agents and graduate students. Using instructional videos, the experts walk viewers through the first steps to getting an operation started. They also provide viewers with the basic knowledge needed to maintain an operation. Redden said the course provides essential information for small farms or ranches with less than 100 acres, new landowners or managers, and retirees moving back to the homestead.
An advanced online course is currently being developed and will also be available when completed.
MICHAEL L. THONNEY, 1949-2021
Michael Thonney, professor in the Department of Animal Science and director of graduate studies in the field of animal science at Cornell University, died April 23, 2021, in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 71.
During a Cornell career that spanned more than 45 years, Michael made numerous contributions to animal science and agriculture through research that enhanced year-round sheep production systems and nutrition. He combined these efforts with innovative extension and teaching programs, most recently creating a new course focused on dairy sheep management.
Michael was born on June 2, 1949, in eastern Washington state, where he was raised on a farm with a small flock of Hampshire sheep. He earned his bachelor’s degree in animal science in 1971 from Washington State University, completed a master’s degree in 1973 and a Ph.D. in 1975 – both in nutrition from the University of Minnesota.
Michael joined the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 1975 as an assistant professor of animal science. He was promoted to associate professor in 1981 and to full professor 1988. In 1998, he became director of the Cornell Sheep Program, and he served as the director of graduate studies in the field of animal science since 2013.
One of his early research interests was quantifying the skeletal and muscular body composition of sheep and cattle as they grew and matured.
Later work included investigating which genes and DNA markers play a key role in aseasonal breeding and milk production. He also looked at the role of vaccinating ewes in protecting their lambs from enterotoxemia type D, or overeating disease – common in livestock production systems with high-grain diets.
His most recent research and extension projects involved optimizing feeding and management practices for both milking and grazing sheep. In overseeing the Cornell flock, Michael developed research, extension and teaching programs that promoted better nutrition, health, selection, management and marketing strategies for highly productive sheep systems. He was deeply committed to the viability of small livestock farms.
With funding from the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability in 2018, Michael launched a novel project at the university’s Musgrave Research Farm solar site in Aurora, N.Y., to determine the efficacy of using sheep to control vegetation growth and protect the panels from shading.
In addition, he served many years as a reviewer of applications for the Sheep Heritage Foundation’s Memorial Scholarship, for which ASI is eternally grateful.
He is survived by his daughter, Elizabeth Thonney, and son, Benjamin Thonney.
When it came time for the American wool industry to find a new home for large-scale, commercial wool testing, the Bill Sims Wool & Mohair Research Laboratory offered a time-tested and trusted partner that could grow into America’s lab of the future.
That future will begin in January 2022 when the lab is expected to be fully operational for commercial testing. But that future is also built on 100 years of experience as the lab originally opened in College Station, Texas, sometime between 1919 and 1921, according to new lab manager Dr. Dawn Brown. In fact, Dr. Ronald Pope with Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center said the original lab was instrumental in developing early methods for yield testing, even ahead of Australia.
“This long-standing history dedicated to wool testing and research created an enduring relationship with ASI (and forerunners such as the American Sheep Producers Council and National Wool Growers Association),” Brown said. “It seems this is also one of the main reasons ASI and its Sheep Venture Company decided to entrust their support for establishing an American wool testing center to us. The Texas lab and ASI have long been partners for the good of the wool industry.”
SVC President Tim Turner said meetings among those in the wool industry in recent years led to the decision that the American sheep industry needed a domestic lab option to replace Yocom-McColl as it closed after decades of meeting the country’s commercial wool testing needs. ASI, SVC and Texas A&M AgriLife had originally hoped to have the new center completely up and running in 2021, but delays on getting the necessary equipment pushed that back to 2022. In the meantime, commercial samples have been sent to New Zealand for testing.
“I think we all realized the need for a domestic lab,” said Turner. “With COVID, there was some concern about whether we could even get samples to New Zealand for testing. This was a good opportunity to invest in the American sheep industry. Any time you take on a project of this size, there are lots of questions. We had lots of conversation about what we needed and the best way to meet that need. But we need a lab in the United States, so we will make it work.”
The venture is backed by funds from ASI, SVC, the National Sheep Industry Improvement Center and Texas A&M University in a joint partnership similar to ASI’s involvement with Chargeurs and the SuperWash line in South Carolina.
Brown took control of the Texas lab in early April and has hit the ground running.
“Our goal is to create a lab that not only provides the commercial wool industry New Zealand quality services, but to a better level. We are here in the United States and have a long-standing history of dedication to American wool producers and the American sheep industry. Our benchmark is fast testing, trusted results and client convenience. The additional (and proud) benefits of choosing our lab come from services provided by a proven, long-term partner committed to the betterment of our domestic wool industry.”
Along with acquiring and installing the necessary equipment for testing, the lab is building out other aspects of the new commercial operation, such as a customer portal that will handle billing while allowing customers to track their samples and all related data. A new website is in the works, as well as social media accounts.
Be on the lookout for @theamericanwoollab on your favorite social media platform in the months to come. That account is already active on Instagram.
At a time when the American sheep industry is often contracting, the addition of a new wool lab and two new lamb processing facilities are worthy of a celebration. Infrastructure is important no matter the industry, and the sheep industry is no exception. If the new wool lab proves half as successful as the SuperWash line has, then it will be money well spent for everyone involved while providing a necessary piece of the puzzle for growing the American wool industry in the years to come.
Look for more on the wool lab in the months ahead in the Sheep Industry News.