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ASI Volunteers, Staff Provide Leadership
My first recollection of learning about volunteer leadership was my involvement with 4-H. Growing up on a diversified livestock farm with three other siblings provided plenty of work to keep us busy in the summer, but the highlight of our summers was our involvement in 4-H.
4-H was the center of our world with our primary projects of cattle and sheep plus every other project imaginable. 4-H meetings were where we were able to see the neighbor kids, learn a little parliamentary procedure and share our success and failures with public speaking. Behind all this youth development were a dedicated and caring team of adult neighbors who served as volunteer leaders. They organized, encouraged and supported us every step of the way as we tried to be successful.
As an officer working with ASI, I know that our volunteer leaders are an integral piece in the success of our organization. The ASI Executive Board recently named more than 250 individuals to serve on nine different councils and committees. These individuals represent the diversity in our industry and are engaged in making it better.
Ivan H. Scheier – a writer on volunteerism – shares his thought that the broadest and most meaningful definition of volunteering is, “Doing more than you have to because you want to, in a cause you consider good.”
We value the input from our volunteer producer leaders and appreciate that they have willingly chosen ASI as an organization worthy of their time.
Just as volunteer 4-H leaders were supported by the land grant university faculty and their extension outreach arm, our ASI staff provides essential support to our producer leaders. Knowledgeable and helpful staff in conjunction with volunteer leaders are vital in making our organization function smoothly. The two groups can’t be separated; it takes teamwork, mutual respect, organizational skills and everyone pulling together to make forward progress happen. ASI is fortunate to have a very capable staff with each member bearing a wide portfolio of duties. The handful of employees each have areas they are responsible for to Peter Orwick, but nearly all projects and programs require multiple people to accomplish. Wool programs that Rita Samuelson and her team of Christa Rochford and Heather Pearce manage likely require Larry Kincaid and Zahrah Khan in the accounting department to process payments. Kyle Partain and Chase Adams operate ASI communications, but lean on Angela and Zahrah for mailing lists and follow-up with magazine advertising. Erica Sanko and Amy Hendrickson coordinate daily in support of the Lamb and Producer, Education and Research Councils and accompanying committees.
Successful teamwork between staff and volunteer leaders was never more evident than this past January when ASI had to make the quick conversion from an in-person convention to a virtual convention. Both volunteer leadership and staff stepped up and worked side-by-side in order to make the pre-convention policy forums, the zoom calls, the regional caucus meetings and the entire virtual convention a success.
Thank you to all the volunteer leaders and to the ASI staff for doing more than you have to because you want to, for a cause that you consider good. Our goal for 2021 is to work together as a team to advance our vision for our industry to provide our consumers with a premier protein and premier fiber that are both environmentally regenerative and economically sustainable. Let’s continue to work together to move this vision forward.
JULIE STEPANEK SHIFLETT, PH.D.
Juniper Economic Consulting
Due to the pandemic, lamb at retail has seen unprecedented sales.
“While shoppers used to be wary due to its higher price tag, store sales of lamb jumped 28 percent year-over-year in March,” the marketing research firm Nielsen told The Food Institute. Nielson cites the surge due to adventurous millennial eaters and home chefs, but also a “growing demand among first-generation Americans from the Middle East and southern Europe, where lamb is a staple.”
Once the foodservice sector fully reopens, lamb sales will likely see further increases. While most Americans do not eat lamb, some ethnic groups eat lamb regularly at home and away from home. ASI Vice President Brad Boner commented that during the pandemic, the ethnic market share of the national market was sizeable. Mediterranean chain Taziki’s partnership with the American Lamb Board in 2020 resulted in an 11 percent year-over-year increase in lamb-based menu items.
Strong retail lamb sales are expected well into 2021. In early 2021, a consumer survey found that “43 percent of shoppers are buying more meat than pre-pandemic, with 68 percent buying a wider variety of meat types and cuts.” By late 2020, 68 percent of consumers said they buy valued-added meat/poultry sometimes or frequently, including pre-cooked meat.
The seasoned shank from Superior Farms is one such value-added item that took off in 2020 and that is likely to see post-pandemic longevity. Although the foodservice sector has been severely restricted by COVID-19, the combination of higher lamb demand at retail and tighter lamb supplies has supported the live lamb market.
Live Lamb Prices Higher
Feeder lamb prices at auction in Sioux Falls, S.D., for 60- to 90-lb. lambs averaged $272.50 per cwt. in March, down 20 percent from February, but up 22 percent year-on-year. Sixty- to 90-lb. feeders averaged $266.50 per cwt. at auction in San Angelo, Texas, in March, down 3 percent monthly and up 22 percent year-on-year. At the Western Video Sheep Video/Internet Auction, lambs out of western states brought $225.00 to $252.50 per cwt. for 80- to 98-lb. lambs with more than 3,000 feeders trading.
At the online auction at Equity Cooperative Livestock Sales, 450 head traded out of California at 110 lbs. for $212 per cwt. In February, a similar sale brought $217 per cwt.
Live, negotiated slaughter lamb prices were relatively high in the first quarter, 30 percent higher than the five-year low observed in December 2017. Live, negotiated slaughter lamb prices averaged $170.25 per cwt. in March, 4 percent higher monthly and 4 percent higher year-on-year. Slaughter weights were relatively low at 131 lbs., and 12 percent lower year-on-year, indicative of tight supplies, but also indicative of the shift and growth in the lightweight lamb market, which harvests lambs at lower weights.
Rack Hits Record High
Propelled by the early Easter, tight supplies and strong retail lamb demand, the 8-rib rack, medium, topped a record $10 per lb. in March. Although it saw some weakening in 2020, the rack remained historically high through 2020 and moved even higher – to levels never before seen – in the first quarter of 2021.
The wholesale composite averaged $473.27 per cwt. in March – a record-high value – up 3 percent monthly and up 11 percent year-on-year. The 8-rib, rack, medium, averaged $947.05 per cwt. in March, 7 percent higher year-on-year. The loin, trimmed 4×4 averaged $702.67 per cwt. in March, 2 percent higher monthly. The shoulder, square-cut lost 1 percent in March to land at $361.10 per cwt. The leg, trotter-off, averaged $434.65 per cwt., up 4 percent monthly.
Lower Supplies Support Live Lamb Prices
In the first 12 weeks of the year, lamb and yearling harvest totaled 406,026 head, down 4.2 percent year-on-year. During the same period, mature sheep harvest was up 18.0 percent to 26,159 head.
The Livestock Marketing Information Center explained that the pandemic and closure of Mountain States Rosen processing plant last spring prompted lower weekly year-on-year slaughter levels. LMIC reported, “Combining lower slaughter levels with dressed weights that are about even with last year has led to lower available supplies which has elevated prices.”
On April 1, 108,451 feeder lambs were reported in Colorado feedlots, down 19 percent year-on-year and down 22 percent from its monthly five-year average. Overall, lamb numbers are down due to a lower national inventory, but it is also possible that the lighter-weight lamb market is siphoning off supplies from western feeder lamb markets. In February and March 2021, Colorado feedlot numbers were down an average 17 percent compared to its five-year average for these months. It is expected that feeder lamb numbers in Colorado feedlots will continue to draw down through late spring and summer before stocks begin to build again in the fall.
Lamb and mutton in cold storage fell to a four-year low in March. Typically, freezer inventories are at an annual low during the highest demand period of the year – Easter – and then begin to build again as the year progresses. This year, lamb and mutton in the freezers was down 34 percent year-on-year at 26.8 million lbs.
By early April, lamb supplies in the pipeline were very current. This can be seen by the 24-percent decline of heavier lambs (as indicated by yield grades of 4s and 5s) at harvest in March compared to last March.
Lamb imports in January and February saw a 19-percent decline year-on-year to 27.2 million lbs. Australia’s lamb imports were down 21 percent year-on-year in January and February to 20.6 million lbs., and New Zealand lamb was down 10 percent to 6.3 million lbs. Australia is now in its rebuilding phase and also faces short supplies in addition to increased competition for exports.
Lighter-Weight Lamb Market Continues to Expand
The growth of the lighter-weight lamb market – often called the non-traditional or ethnic market – is a concern for the traditional commercial lamb market of heavier-weight lambs. The concern lies in securing sufficient supplies. Lamb buyers for the traditional and ethnic market often bid on the same lambs, with the ethnic market securing the bid at higher levels than the traditional market might be able to pay, given feeding costs and the slaughter lamb prices after finishing.
In general, the two markets are distinct as lambs are processed through distinct distribution channels. Lowering per head costs in each of these markets requires a certain volume, and costs can be threatened if supplies don’t fulfill a given processing threshold. In theory, merging the two marketing channels could reduce sourcing, processing, distribution and marketing costs. Agreeably, lamb prices are currently relatively high, which is good news, but the key to expanded inventory is for more consumers to eat lamb at a given price level.
Through time, it is expected that the lighter-weight lamb market will assimilate into national retail and foodservice chains, but this assimilation has not occurred as fast as first hypothesized more than 10 years ago.
In 2015 to 2019, the volume of lighter-weight lamb harvest – as observed through non-federally inspected harvest (state and custom slaughter) – grew by 44 percent to more than 300,000 head. In that time, this state and custom exempt harvest grew from 11 percent of total FI harvest to 17 percent.
LMIC forecasted in early April that national, direct slaughter lamb prices on a carcass basis could be $168 to $172 per cwt. in the second quarter – 22 percent higher year-on-year. Feeder lamb prices, 60- to 90-lb., could see $220 to $225 per cwt. in the second quarter, up
31 percent from a year ago.
LMIC concluded that the lower sheep and lamb inventory, rising feed costs and widespread drought in the West suggest lamb supplies will remain tight in coming weeks. However, LMIC forecasted that commercial slaughter in the second quarter could be 582,000 head, up 2 percent year-on-year. It also forecasted that harvest could rise 1 percent year-on-year for 2021. Estimating the supply situation for the heavier-weight lamb market is tricky because lambs might be siphoned off by the ethnic market.
Even if supplies ease, it is expected that the reopening of the foodservice sector, and ethnic holiday demand such as Eid ul-Fitr (Festival of Fast Breaking) on May 12-13 and Eid ul-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice) on July 20-23 will help boost live lamb prices in both the heavier-weight and lighter-weight lamb markets.
Domestic Wool Market Poised for Steady Sales
By late April, domestic shearing will have been well underway and completed in many regions. Reportedly, wool quality this year is variable, dependent upon region. There are reports that the western drought had an impact on wool quality, but overall wool was cleaner than expected. Some wools this year are heavier with lower yields – meaning less clean wool is available for processing from a single clip. However, in other parts of the country, wool yields remained normal.
What is reinforced this season is that the finer wools with good color and preparation will see good buyer interest. However, the wools that are not as well prepared – that are short, dusty or burry – will continue to face challenges. As one wool buyer commented, it is unknown whether demand for wool is strong enough this year to market all wool. There is just not much “depth” to the market for inferior wools.
Coarser wools will likely see continued limited demand this year. On a promising note, a recent Australian wool market saw a lift in prices for coarser micron 26 to 32 wools.
Some major wool brokers have traded this year – with steady interest – while others waited for late April sales. There is hesitancy by some domestic wool buyers to inquire about American wool offerings due to volatility in the Australian wool market. They are waiting to see if the Australian market finds some stability. China – once a dominate buyer – has shown little interest as of early April.
Drought-induced dry feeding conditions this winter resulted in some clips that are more tender, or less strong when stretched end-to-end. If the tenderness results in a potential break in the wool, quality can be compromised based upon the position of the break, at one end or in the middle. The prices received for any wool clip are a function of its usability by processors. When ewes graze in particularly dry areas during the winter, wool becomes dirty and interruptions in nutrition can cause wools to develop a mid-point break.
The American wool market has a sizeable carryover from 2019 and 2020. It is believed that the Australian wool market also has a sizeable carryover. How carryover is managed in Australia will impact its prices, and thus prices in the United States, as well.
While Australian wool prices are on track to reach pre-COVID-19 levels in the near future, prices are volatile week-to-week. In March, Australian wool prices rebounded 50 percent from their 2020 low. Australian wool prices measured by the Australian Eastern Market Indicator averaged 1,295 Australian cents per kg clean in March, steady with February, and down 13 percent year-on-year. In U.S. dollars, the EMI averaged $3.77 per lb. clean in March, up one-quarter of a percent monthly and down 10 percent from a year ago.
The U.S./Australian dollar exchange rate continues to play a pivotal role in establishing Australian wool prices in U.S. dollars – the primary currency of international trade. The March 31st AWEX market report showed that the EMI had fully recovered in Australian dollars compared to a year ago.
ASI’s American Wool Assurance Program will take a gigantic leap forward when the program’s website launches later this month at AmericanWoolAssurance.org and allows producers to take the first step in the certification process.
In addition to providing general information about the voluntary program that will provide producers with a marketing tool for their wool clip, the website will offer the AWA educational course that is required to achieve AWA Level 1 (AWA Educated) status. Producers will need to complete the educational module, as well as ASI’s Sheep Safety and Quality Assurance course, to reach that first level of certification.
The SSQA course provides a foundation for good care and handling of all sheep, while the AWA course narrows the focus to wool sheep. For that reason, both are required in the first level of the AWA Program.
Subsequent levels of certification will require evaluations and audits, but reaching Level 1 status should take less than an hour for most producers (if they’ve already completed the SSQA course). The AWA learning course will guide producers through three separate modules: an overview of the voluntary AWA program, a look at year-round standards of care; and a section on shearing standards. The user-friendly course can be accessed on any computer or mobile device with an available internet connection.
“The new website will be a one-stop shop for producers who are interested in the American Wool Assurance Program,” said ASI Deputy Director Rita Samuelson. “Once you’ve created a login, you’ll have access to the learning courses, additional resources and certificates for each level of certification achieved through the program. I would encourage all wool producers to get online and take a look at the website. Consumers – and manufacturers of the animal-based products they buy – are looking for more and more information about the way these animals were raised. The American Wool Assurance Program will provide wool growers with a reputable, industry-driven way of meeting that demand.”
While there are other standards-based programs for wool, AWA is the only one that was developed with direct input from the American sheep industry, its producers and wool buyers. The program has developed a list of standards relating to animal care that most producers are already in compliance with on a daily basis. But the program also encourages producers to look at ways they can continually improve their operations in this area.
The online learning course will help industry members learn:
• Good care, management and handling practices;
• Why the program was developed;
• How the program can benefit their operations;
• The program standards and how they can be implemented.
The second level of certification – AWA Process Verified – will require producers to develop and implement an operating plan and undergo a second-party evaluation. Producers looking to reach the final level of certification – AWA Certified – will need to undergo a third-party audit and then must be audited or evaluated every other year to maintain that status.
While there’s no guarantee that AWA-certified producers will receive a premium for their wool clip, many manufacturers are starting to require a certification for any wool they purchase.
“This is the direction the industry is headed and we need to embrace that and meet the demand,” Samuelson said.
The Secure Sheep and Wool Supply Plan website continues to release new information for American sheep producers. The latest document available is the Premises Identification: What is Needed and How Is It Used? fact sheet.
National Premises Identification Number, Flock Identification Number, a Location Identifier or a scrapie premises ID – so many numbers – which one is needed for a foreign animal disease outbreak? Each identification type serves a different and important purpose, and the latest fact sheet offers a look at each type of identification and the purpose it serves.
For instance, the National Premises Identification Number is a unique national code that is permanently assigned to a single physical location. The PIN identifies the actual location of animals and can be used for tracing in the event of an animal health or food safety emergency. It is required for movement permits in an FMD or similar outbreak.
Even if you already have a scrapie premises ID, FIN or LID, you might still need a PIN. Why, you ask? PINs serve as a method of locating animals in a control area during an animal health emergency such as a foot and mouth disease outbreak. PINs – not scrapie premises IDs, LIDs or FINs – are required to request a movement permit during an FMD outbreak. A PIN is linked to the geospatial location reflecting the actual location of the animals on the premises. This includes a valid 911 address and a set of matching coordinates (latitude and longitude).
PINs are an important part of traceability during an FMD outbreak, which is critical to outbreak management as well as regaining trade status for sheep and their products. If an FMD outbreak occurred in the United States and your flock was located in a control area, a PIN would be required for both the premises of origin and the premises of destination in order to request a movement permit for animals or their products.
The SSWS Plan website at SecureSheepWool.org – a cooperative effort of ASI and Iowa State University’s Center for Food Security and Public Health – is a valuable resource for producers. Just this year, a number of informative fact sheets have been posted on a wide range of topics.
Learn more at SecureSheepWool.org.
Long before she was appointed chair of ASI’s Legislative Action Council, Tammy Fisher spent eight years working in the grind of Washington, D.C. Her time as a staffer to Rep. Kevin Brady (Texas) and as an appointee in the George W. Bush administration offers her a unique perspective on dealing with Congress and federal agencies. She also worked in the Texas Department of Agriculture (before moving to D.C.) but always planned to return to the family ranch in Sonora, Texas, and follow in the footsteps of her father and grandfathers as a fifth-generation grower of fine wool sheep. She also operated a private law practice in Sonora, but has dwindled the business to just a few clients.
My great, great grandfather came to Sonora in 1881 and started raising sheep quickly thereafter. My great grandfather raised sheep all of his 94 years of ranching. And my grandad, Vestel Askew, was one of biggest sheep producers in the area. I’m trying to follow in my dad’s footsteps by still raising wool sheep. We’ve always raised mostly Rambouillets. Always had a little flock of Suffolks to raise bucks. We’re one of the few left in this area that still raise Rambouillets. When my dad really retired two years ago, my brother, David, took over part of the ranch. My mom, dad and I were partners on the rest, and with dad gone, now it’s my mom and I.
I’d much rather ranch than be an attorney. I feel like I know when I’m going to get kicked at the ranch. I’ve got a lot of other irons in the fire and just had to let something go. I turned my office in Sonora into an Airbnb and it’s rented non-stop. It’s on the way to Big Bend National Park, so I get lots of travelers headed there. I shutdown for April last year when COVID-19 hit, but it’s been rented ever since. As long as Big Bend is open, then I’m open. I still have a little office there with a separate entrance.
I wanted to Serve on the executive board. I’ve wanted to do it for a long time, and the timing was just right for me to do it now. It worked out finally. I’ve always wanted to serve my industry and the agriculture industry. That’s been my goal since I started my first job, and that remains my goal. My entire goal is just looking out for the producer and the industry and making sure we can stay strong and thrive. I feel like I’m well versed in all of the issues – or I can get that way really fast – because I know how D.C. works and who’s who and what’s what there, even though I’ve been gone for a lot of years. So it’s real easy for me to look at an issue and see how it’s going to affect a producer and how we need to proceed with it: who we need to meet with and what we need to get done.
One of the biggest issues we’re going to deal with that we haven’t had to deal with in a long time is climate change. We really need to ramp up and show just how beneficial we can be in this area. The last time climate change was really on the table in Congress, agriculture was still looking like the bad guy. And now there’s been so much scientific evidence proving how good we are for the environment that I think we could be at the forefront of global warming and climate change bills. That’s something that will be huge for us in the next four years. I’m really excited about that because if you were to tell me 10 years ago that a climate change bill was coming up, I’d have stuck my head in the sand like an ostrich and cried. I would have thought then that agriculture was going to get creamed. But now, I have high hopes that we’ll be able to be in the mix and be helpful in providing carbon sequestration credits. I think that could be huge for us.
With the sheep, I’ve been working on improving my wool quality and I think I’ve gone down a whole micron in the past two years. That makes me super proud. And I continue to work on getting it a little finer. I’m about a 19.5 right now overall. That makes me pretty happy. It was about a 21 at my house and about a 20 at the other ranch when I started running them. I struggle with running wool sheep in Texas when so many in our area have switched to hair sheep. Honestly, I do. It’s a lot more work. Every year when we’re shearing and kind of cussing the whole world, I get to the point where I want to go to hair sheep. More than anything else for me it’s heritage. It’s the family tradition, so we keep doing it. I also do think wool is such a marketable product. And I think even now there’s so much more to come for wool. So, I’m not willing to quit. I’m so proud that we provide wool for our military. I hope that ewe right there is helping to cloth an American soldier somewhere in the world. That’s a big source of pride for me.
I would liken working in Congress to living in a casino. You never know if it’s night or day or what’s going on outside. You’re just in there and the entire environment sucks you in and keeps you there. It’s exciting. It’s not just work. Usually, we worked 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and then we went to two or three receptions in the evening that were work assigned. So it was kind of an all-day affair. Everything you went to after work was fun, but you were still working. My whole life was devoted to that job.
Rob Thompson’s phone rings earlier than he’d like on Easter morning, and instinctively he knows how the call is going to go. It’s a concerned citizen of Rocklin, Calif. – a town where he’s got nearly 1,500 sheep running on a targeted grazing contract this spring. They’re cleaning out 800 acres of open space before the dry season hits in late May or early June.
The concerned citizen wonders why Rob’s Dorper crosses have to eat the stunningly beautiful wildflowers across the street from her suburban home. Sure she wants the neighborhood open space grazed to reduce fire hazards, but couldn’t the sheep spend this particular weekend in another area? Rob just laughs to himself as the intricate planning he’s done with the city is called into question because one woman would like to enjoy the wildflowers a little longer.
“We have to remember that we aren’t in the sheep production business, we’re in the service business,” he says. “We come at it from that end and that keeps our clients happy. We’re here to provide a service, but we just happen to use sheep to do it. It’s a lot harder to deal with the problems of running sheep in town when you approach it as a sheep man and people are screwing with your animals. I’m always talking with people and explaining our process to them. I field at least one phone call a day from a concerned citizen. A dog’s out. The sheep are out. A fence is down. It might be a fence we left down on purpose when we moved the sheep out of that area yesterday, but we still have to take the phone call and check it out.”
Less than 10 years ago, Rob didn’t even own sheep. A cattle producer selling meat at farmer’s markets, he decided to invest in 20 sheep so he could offer lamb to his regular customers. He butchered 10 and kept the other 10. From there, Rob bought every small flock that became available.
“A buddy of mine mentioned he had some grazing jobs where he could use my sheep, then he asked if I could come help, too. Eventually, a job came up that he couldn’t fill and the contract was just sitting there,” Rob recalls. “It was pretty good money, so I leased some sheep from another friend of mine to do the job because my sheep were already tied up. That was the beginning of it, and it just took off from there. Now, we’re out of the meat business completely and 100 percent into grazing.”
After a few years in the grazing business, Rob was ready to pounce when Rocklin put 800 acres up for bid. The only problem was he didn’t have enough sheep to fulfill the contract.
“It was bigger than we could handle with our animals, but we just thought that if we got it, we’d figure it out,” he says. “So, we put in a bid and got the contract. Then we had to figure out how to get the animals to cover it. The first year we leased animals from a guy, but then he sold his flock. So, we went and got a Farm Service Agency loan and bought 1,200 ewes. Now we’re running those 1,200 ewes, bringing in our lambs and running two truckloads of feeder lambs trying to get it all covered.”
Those feeder lambs came from Ryan Mahoney at Emigh Livestock in California. A young producer open to a variety of new ideas, Mahoney first considered sending Rob some of his dry ewes. When that didn’t work out, Mahoney offered feeder lambs instead.
“So, we decided to give it a try,” Rob says. “The feed is pretty good early in the season, so we made a game plan to bring them in early, cover a bunch of ground pretty quick and then get them out of here before the feed turns on us. They came in March 17 and I’m hoping to be done with them by the first part of June. They’re doing really good right now. They came in off some really hot clover pasture and they were all a little loosey-goosey. This native feed really has tightened them up. It took about a week or two and they all started to fill in really nice. In early April, they were starting to put the weight on.”
Mahoney’s happy to help any efforts at reducing wildfire risk in his home state, but says that the move made sense for his sheep, as well.
“It works for us and allows us to get some feed in the sheep at a reasonable rate. It’s a win-win deal, and that’s what we look for,” Mahoney says. “We’re always discussing health things and what we can do to make the sheep better at the end of the day. It’s never just put them on a truck and don’t see them for three or four months. We’re very much in contact about the sheep.”
Selection is Important
Mahoney’s wool sheep are an anomaly in the Legacy Ranching program. Rob runs small- to mid-size Dorper and Dorper crosses that are “super hardy.” But his biggest concern is selecting sheep based on their feet and parasite resistance.
“They way we run, we’re always in creek beds, always in water and always picking up parasites or getting foot rot scald,” he says. “We have to eat the feed down farther than most sheep guys would because we’re not grazing for the animal, we’re grazing to meet a job spec. Then, we’re trying to balance animal nutrition around that.
“So, we have to have animals that can handle those big swings up and down. Big frame sheep would do alright in early spring when the feed is good and there’s lots of it. But when we get into late summer and early fall, those conditions are pretty tough on the big-framed sheep. The hair sheep and the small-framed wool sheep seem to do alright in those conditions. We don’t worry about wool quality so much. As we get animals that can thrive in our program, secondary things for selection include maternal instincts, lambing, and stuff like that. But if they can’t thrive in our program, there’s no sense keeping them because they can nurse twins.”
Early on in building the flock, Rob often kept wethers because they were low-maintenance sheep who understood their job and could be trusted to load and unload easily when the flock was frequently on the move.
“A sheep that runs right in when I open the trailer door, that’s valuable to us,” he says. “We move a lot and make sheep go through a lot of funny stuff that they might not want to go through. So, it’s great to have sheep that know and understand our program.
Regardless of the sheep he employs in the program, Rob places an emphasis on sheep health. A sick ewe can’t do her job, so there’s more to contract grazing than just turning the flock out onto the right open space.
“We’re trying to move them every one to three days, but we had some spots last year where we had to leave them there for two weeks,” he says. “The first three days they eat all the good feed and then we’re trying to get them to eat all the junk for the next week. I didn’t realize that when I first got into sheep. I’d run cows in the past and I thought sheep could eat anything and thrive. But there is constant monitoring on these animals. We supplement, we feed corn and alfalfa and protein supplements all just to keep them healthy and fat.
“In the process, we’re trying not to eat up the bottom line by feeding something that we don’t have to. People say all the time, ‘You’ve got free feed, why do you charge so much?’ But there’s a lot more to it than that. Animal health gets expensive.”
So does the electric net fencing Rob has up all over town to contain the sheep in open spaces that run through suburban neighborhoods. Hundreds of rolls (at roughly $1 per foot) are used on a daily basis.
“I remember buying my first 10 rolls, and it was a big deal because before that I was using a bunch of used stuff that I had picked up for free. I cobbled and patched it together, but it was just garbage. Having 10 nets was wonderful. Then I got to 30 and thought that was a game changer for me. I thought, ‘Look at how much I can do with 30 nets.’ Then I got to 200 and now I’m like, ‘Where did the guys leave all my nets?’”
Where Do We Go From Here?
As the owner of just six acres of land, Rob’s constantly working to figure out where the sheep go next. Spring is easy, when city contracts offer so much land that he needs extra sheep to handle it all. Fall and winter, however, are a different story.
“All of the crop ground around here is going into trees,” he says. “The alfalfa fields are getting pulled out and orchards are going in. Our growth has been limited because we just don’t have a lot of places to stick the sheep in the winter. I could probably double my flock and my business in the summer, but what do I do with them in the winter? That’s why I’m working with Ryan and his feeder lambs.”
One thing’s for sure, Rob didn’t let such concerns stop him from growing the flock in the past. There’s a good chance it won’t stop him in the future either.
As much a celebration of normalcy as it was a sheep sale, the California Ram Sale on April 10 in Tulare, Calif., sold 372 rams from nearly 30 consignors and allowed the states’s producers to celebrate the way they’d planned before COVID-19 pushed the 100th annual sale to an online-only event in April 2020.
With that in mind, many of the promotional materials that were printed or created for the 100th sale in 2020 were repurposed for use at the 2021 sale. For instance, the wine bottle in the photo on the opposite page had a +1 sticker added to its label. Even a year later, everyone was ready to celebrate 100 years of the California Ram Sale.
“The sale for us is all about coming here and supporting the California Wool Growers Association,” said producer Ben Elgorriaga of Madera, Calif. “We’re a small, but vocal group. We’re a strong group. One of the pluses of coming to this sale is that we know we’re around like-minded people. It’s good to be back at the sale this year after having it online last year. It’s just such a great feeling to be here with all of these people that support our industry. All of these people sitting and standing around me are here because they love the sheep industry.”
The ram sale found a new home this year in the International Agri-Center in Tulare, and the facility setup nicely for consignors and buyers alike.
“It worked really well for us,” said Ram Sale Committee Co-Chair Wes Patton. “We were able to funnel the rams into the sale ring from all parts of the barn. We had a really quick load out that worked well and everyone was out of there by 5 p.m. John Olagaray’s three kids headed up the load-out crew and had it humming back there.”
The California sale offers potential buyers a ram index that is calculated using loin eye area, loin depth, fat thickness and ram weight. Measurements for each of these areas was taken on site in the days before the sale. These characteristics are given numerical values to measure the ram’s genetic merit value relative to other rams in the sale. The ram index has a base value of 100, so rams with an index of more than 100 exhibit more desirable carcass characteristics relative to all of the rams in the sale. The index listed in the sale catalog was an average of all rams in each pen.
“It’s kind of fun to be back in person,” said Ryan Mahoney of Emigh Livestock. “We buy most of our terminal sires through this sale. We’re pretty excited because we picked up some NSIP-registered rams with some pretty solid numbers. The more data we can get, the better. I think we bought some of the higher-selling ones, but they have numbers to back that up. I can take those sheep and their numbers and translate that into dollars and profit.”
The NSIP-registered sheep Mahoney was excited about came from Kurt and Carol Heupel of Weldona, Colo. The couple picked up the award for the Top Suffolk Consignment at the sale. Other award winners included:
• Overall Best Consignment: John and Anita Phillips of Idaho;
• Largest Loin Eye: Brian Olsen of Utah;
• Best Overall Index Pen of Rams: Matt Olsen of Utah;
• Highest Indexing Black Face Ram: David Hansen of Utah;
• Highest Indexing White Face Ram: John & Anita Phillips of Idaho.
The 372 rams sold averaged $668 per ram and included: 256 Suffolks, 85 crossbreds, 28 white face; 2 Hampshires and 1 Rambouillet. The top sellers included: David Hansen of Utah, high selling crossbred pen at $900 per ram; Mike and Kandi Duff of Idaho, high selling Suffolk pen at $975 per ram; Blair and Gina Summey of California, high selling white face pen at $750 per ram; John and Anita Phillips of Idaho, high selling Suffolk individual ram at $1,500; and John and Anita Phillips of Idaho, high selling white face individual at $900.
“We were very happy with the sale,” said Anita Phillips. “It was a good sale for the most part. We took 72 head to California and I think only 10 of them were white face rams.”
She said she and her husband continue to run both black and white face rams because they have buyers for both. The couple has invested in quality rams, she said, and that plays a major role in their ability to produce good rams of their own.
Nevada producer Cole Estill wouldn’t have minded if the prices had been a little higher on his white face rams, but admitted his rams didn’t feed quite as well this year thanks to some trouble with one of his herders.
“Honestly, I thought the prices would have been a little higher,” he said. “I thought the prices on the wool lambs were a little low. This is my fourth California Ram Sale as a consignor and I’ve been at the top of this sale in the past. But my sheep weren’t as fat and healthy as they should have been.”
Elgorriaga went into the sale with crossbreds at the top of his wish list.
“We’ve been buying Suffolks over the years, but our Suffolk provider in Oregon quit the business last year. So, we’re making some changes this year and going back to the crossbreds. They worked for us years ago, and now they’ve gotten even better, so we’ll be looking at those.
“The reality here in California is that the black face bucks last anywhere from two to three years. In going back to the crossbreds, we can try something a little different and see if those bloodlines have improved enough to where we can keep them working for us a little longer.”
Prices at the sale were somewhat tempered by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its affect on the industry, as well as by changes in labor regulations within the state that will have a drastic economic affect on sheep producers.
“We look forward to all of the buyers having the best of luck with the sheep they bought,” Patton said. “And, we look forward to another good sale next year. We hope the industry can continue on a high note and that we get through some of the issues we’re facing – particularly the labor issue here in California – so that we can all continue to operate in the industry that we love.”
Texas A&M AgriLife
Dawn Brown, M.D., has joined the Texas A&M AgriLife Research Bill Sims Wool and Mohair Laboratory in San Angelo, Texas. Brown started April 5 as manager of the commercial lab, which is in the process of expanding to become the nation’s largest commercial wool testing lab.
“This lab is an opportunity for our nation’s wool and mohair producers to have increased global marketability of their fiber,” Brown said. “The lab’s enhanced testing capability and capacity will aid in creating better revenue for a very deserving group of growers. I’m excited and honored to be joining the team at this dynamic time in our industry.”
The Bill Sims Wool and Mohair Research Laboratory has been analyzing wool, cashmere, mohair and alpaca fiber samples of sheep, goats and alpaca for quality and yield since 1985.
Already one of just two academic wool labs in the country, the lab at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in San Angelo is now transitioning to also accommodate the testing needs of the domestic commercial wool trade.
“We are excited to have Dr. Dawn Brown join our center and head up the development and implementation of the commercial wool testing lab for the U.S. sheep and wool industry,” said Ronald Pope, Ph.D., AgriLife Research animal fiber scientist. “Dr. Brown brings experience from the medical field and has in the past decade been involved in production, marketing and processing areas of the wool industry. In addition, she has exhibited a strong passion, boundless energy and sound knowledge to take on this challenge.”
Winding road to wool
After a neck and shoulder injury, Brown started to knit and spin wool as part of her healing process. What started as a way to help her rehab damaged nerves ultimately led Brown to a new career in fiber.
“I tell everyone knitting is a great form of physical therapy, but it can also be a ‘gateway’ to sheep and goat ranching,” Brown said.
Although she didn’t grow up in the fiber industry, it is in her roots. Both sides of Brown’s family were sheep producers as far back as the 1870s. She feels that her passion for wool and mohair are in her DNA.
Brown, who was an OB-GYN, had to step back from the surgical side of her practice after her injury. She ultimately entered nonprofit medicine, providing rural women’s healthcare in an underserved area of northeast Arkansas. This opportunity fulfilled another passion – advocacy for healthcare services in rural communities.
While living in Arkansas, Brown and her husband, Paul, started their own sheep and goat farm, and befriended fellow transplanted Texans who ran a wool mill. When those friends retired in 2014, it coincided with the Browns’ move back to Texas.
The Browns purchased the mill equipment and brought it along with the sheep and goats to the rural community of Independence, Texas – near Brenham, Texas. Independence Wool, their artisan, small-batch yarn spinning mill, has provided more than six years of experience operating wool processing equipment.
Friend of Texas A&M AgriLife
After moving back to Texas, the Browns took advantage of the resources offered by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and AgriLife Research to help grow and improve their business.
“In 2016, I came to the center for a wool classing course with Dr. Pope and toured the wool lab,” she said.
The next year, Paul Brown became a certified classer, as well. This training became the foundation for sourcing wool for their milling operation and was the start of Dawn Brown’s path as a determined domestic wool ambassador.
A tour of Independence Wool was featured as part of the 2020 Texas Sheep and Goat Expo, which was held virtually.
“At my stage in life, I consider this a true ‘bucket list’ career opportunity,” Brown said. “I’m proud to be a part of such an impactful and goal-oriented organization.”
ASI worked with the wool and sheep industry in recent years to determine the future of testing for American wool. After many efforts to carry on the Yocom-McColl lab, the industry looked at feasible options and whether the preference was to continue to have a lab in the United States or go overseas.
In 2019, the wool industry, ASI and its for-profit subsidiary Sheep Venture Company, and primary users of the wool testing lab met to take a detailed look at all options. The wool industry chose to move forward with one lab in the United States with the understanding that with lower number of tests annually a new lab would need a long-term commitment to remain financially viable.
ASI and SVC have committed $384,000 to manufacture and setup commercial wool testing equipment at the Bill Sims Wool and Mohair Research Laboratory in San Angelo, Texas. SVC has implemented a usage agreement with the university-owned lab to utilize the equipment during a 10-year period and commercial testing should begin with the 2022 wool clip.
I’ve met a few celebrities in my day, but Bodie was as down to earth as any. You don’t know Bodie? He appeared on the cover of the October 2019 issue of the Sheep Industry News in a photo submitted for that year’s ASI Photo Contest by California’s Dan Macon.
On a recent trip to the state, I had the opportunity to meet up with Dan and we headed to a hillside that I’ve seen in several of his photos through the years. Immediately after stepping over the electric fence, we were greeted by Bodie. The term gentle giant comes to mind. Bodie was anxious to meet the stranger in his pasture and was as friendly as any guard dog I’ve met. His pal, Elko, fit that description, as well.
“With people around as much as they are, our guard dogs have to be friendly,” Dan said as Bodie nudged my hand in an effort to get a little more attention than he was already receiving. When he wasn’t being petted by one of us, he was angling his way into half the photos I took that day of Dan’s “mule” sheep – North Country Cheviot ewes bred to Bluefaced Leicester rams with the resulting crosses then bred to Shropshire rams.
Eventually Bodie finds a spot to lay in the middle of a group of ewes and month-old lambs I’ve been photographing. Elko, however, is constantly by my side looking for a little attention himself. Everyone wants to meet Bodie thanks to Dan’s incredible photo. Elko, however, hasn’t yet achieved celebrity status. But trust me, you’ll want to meet them both if Dan ever invites you see the flock.
Eventually, we leave the dogs (and sheep) behind and settle against the tailgate of Dan’s Chevy truck to talk all things sheep and California.
“It’s been really encouraging the amount of interest there is again in sheep research in California,” said Dan, adding that it’s occurring at all levels from the county and state to the universities. His own operation is part of a study by a Ph.D. student at the University of California-Davis who is studying maternal behavior in his ewes.
“She’s been looking at some ways that we can help train producers to observe particular traits that will translate into good maternal traits at lambing time,” Dan said. “It’s been interesting to see some of what I take for granted as a producer through the eyes of a researcher. And I think it’s been helpful for the researchers to get some practical exposure to real-world ranching conditions. She’s hoping to have her dissertation done in the next year. So far, the finding in her observations is that the white-faced ewes are considerably better mothers (than a subset of Shropshire ewes). I think that’s interesting because in my own observations, I would concur that we have much fewer problems with the white-faced or smut-faced ewes than we do with the black-faced ones.”
Other projects in the state are looking at the use of electronic identification, as well as the use (or non-use) of antibiotics in relation to a state law that requires a veterinarian’s prescription for such drugs in sheep.
Dan asks about the top issues at the national level and isn’t surprised to hear the same old rundown: labor, predators, government regulations. It leads to a discussion of California’s two official wolf packs and a literal lone wolf who came in from Oregon and has since made his way south through two-thirds of the massive state and is now all the way down in San Luis Obispo County. Oddly, the state has yet to record an official wolf depredation on sheep. Cattle have been hit, but sheep have remained safe to this point.
“Sheep guys are used to dealing with predators,” Dan said. “They hear there’s a wolf pack in the area and they just add another dog or two with the flock.”