Over the last 20 years, the number of sheep in this country has plummeted by one half. The sheep industry has actually been declining since the late 1940s, when it hit its peak.
The sharp drop in production has left ranchers to wonder, “When are we going to hit the bottom?”
Some sheep are raised for their wool, others primarily for food. Both products – lamb meat and wool – have seen declining consumption in the U.S.
If you look at the tags on clothes in your closet, chances are quite a few pieces will be blended with synthetic fibers: nylon, rayon and polyester. As these human-made fibers have become more prevalent and inexpensive, people are wearing less and less wool.
The same goes for lamb. In the early 1960s, the average person in the U.S. ate about 4.5 pounds of lamb in a year. That has dropped to less than a pound in 2011.
At the same time as the American sheep industry’s decline, Australian and New Zealand wool and lamb imports are way up, squeezing into niche markets that America’s sheep producers are having a hard time filling.
Ranchers are feeling the industry contraction, whether it’s caused by epic drought, scarce feed supplies, harsh winters or wild price volatility.
“The numbers are just way down – and less sheep ranchers, just in general,” says Albert Villard, a sheep rancher in Craig, Colo.
Blizzard and drought the past three years have culled Villard’s herd to its lowest point in a long time. Building it back up hasn’t been easy.
“The industry as a whole, I think, is trying to get the numbers up, but there’s so many factors as to why,” Villard says. “I don’t think you can blame any one thing.”
Double J Feeders outside Ault, Colo., which is one of just a handful of lamb feeding operations in the country, feels the decline too. The feedlot can hold up to 50,000 sheep at any given time and fattens them up before slaughter.
One part of the decline could be the changing agricultural landscape across the country. Farms have grown larger and more technologically advanced, and there are fewer small family farms today than ever before.
“Thirty or 40 years ago, every farmer in the winter time would buy 1,000 lambs, run them out on the beet tops, corn – whatever – and then they’d market those lambs in the spring. Well, all that has changed,” says Jeff Hasbrouck, the owner of Double J Feeders.
Most farms aren’t fenced in any more, Hasbrouck says, and have grown so large that maintaining a sheep herd makes no economic sense. It’s more trouble than it’s worth for a large crop grower.
Another problem that has plagued the industry is lamb’s perception by the average consumer. Longtime sheep producers put the blame on the meat fed to soldiers all the way back in World War II.
“Those troops were fed canned mutton and when they came home they said, ‘No more lamb, no more sheep. Don’t eat any of it.’ And that’s where we saw the steady decline,” says Brad Anderson, livestock supply manager for Mountain States Rosen, a large co-op that markets lamb to meatpacking companies and locks in prices.
Sheep numbers tanked even faster 20 years ago when Congress ended subsidies for sheep ranchers with the repeal of the National Wool Act in 1993. The removal of those subsidies sent the sheep industry into wild market swings and stayed volatile for years. The increased risk, Anderson says, pushed many ranchers out of business.
Today, ranchers who are left face new problems like wolf attacks. Peter Orwick, director of the American Sheep Industry Association, says an attack this year in Idaho left more than a hundred sheep dead.
“In spite of having herders out there, the wolves still come right in, the horses scream, the dogs lay down and whine and they ran sheep over a cliff,” Orwick says.
But there is hope for sheep producers. Because many sheep and lamb operations tend to be small, the growth in farmers markets and local food has benefited sheep ranchers. One-third of all lamb sold in the U.S. now is direct sale from producer to consumer, according to the American Sheep Industry Association. There’s plenty of room for growth in big cities, too.
“It’s ethnic communities. Every major metropolitan city in the U.S. has a large immigrant neighborhood,” Orwick says. “Where are the people coming from? Where they prefer lamb. It’s their meat.”
As the face of America changes, ranchers will be watching those new markets to see whether or not they grow fast enough to keep their industry from shrinking even further.
Luke Runyon reports from Colorado for KUNC and Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production issues. A version of this story originally appeared on Harvest Public Media’s site.