The U.S. sheep industry is experiencing a historic time. Lamb prices are at an all-time high, the wool market and wool pelt prices are setting historical records, and the cull ewe market is strong. That reality made for a happy gathering of roughly 130 sheep enthusiasts from across the state and beyond at the 2011 Ohio Sheep Day, held July 16 on a hot, clear day on the rolling hills of Blue Heron Farm in Columbiana County.
Yet despite the current prosperity within the U.S. sheep industry, there is concern that the U.S. sheep flock is not large enough to keep up with the demand for lamb and wool production. Nationally, the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) has started a campaign to encourage shepherds to expand their flocks, with information available at www.growourflock.org. And Ohio Sheep Day carried out that trend, with a number of the day’s sessions focusing on ways to increase sheep production, either through new farms or expanded flocks.
“We had a really successful day with a lot of different sessions concentrating on a lot of sheep production systems,” said Roger High, Ohio Sheep Improvement Association (OSIA) executive director and Ohio State University Extension sheep specialist. “But we’re really looking at how we can expand this industry and how we can get more people involved and raise more lambs, because with the high lamb prices there’s such a supply and demand gap. Supply is a little bit low, and demand is on the increase. There are a lot of positive things going on.”
Sessions throughout the day focused on a variety of topics, such as pasture watering systems, manure management, conservation funding for sheep farms, lamb carcass cutting and cooking, supplementing feed rations with dried distiller’s grains, and basic sheep pasture and grazing management. But a handful of sessions were geared specifically toward ways to produce more lamb.
“One of the things we’re seeing in Ohio is not the expansion of existing flocks, but a lot of new flocks, especially Amish,” High said. “They’ve got land, labor, generally know how to raise livestock, and their coming in next to where lamb markets exist, such as Barnesville and Mt. Vernon.”
That’s why one of the Sheep Day sessions focused on basic sheep management practices for the beginning or novice shepherd. For someone interested in getting into sheep production, High recommended finding a good set of young females without health problems. This will help lead to early success and hopefully prevent new shepherds from getting discouraged.
High also encouraged new producers to take advantage of the educational resources available to them through OSU Extension, OSIA and others.
“A lot of people are interested in helping, they just need people to ask,” he said.
Don Van Nostran, an Athens County shepherd and Sheep Day attendee, echoed High’s enthusiasm.
“There are a lot of opportunities for young people to get in the business. Lamb is being well received at the stores, and if we can provide domestic lamb, it’s even more well received,” Van Nostran said. “Right now, it’s very profitable in the sheep business, and new technologies, such as CIDRs that allow producers to manage when their ewes lamb, are allowing people to enhance their management. The only really limiting factor is parasite control. I wish we could use some of the products available in other countries. That’s something we need.”
Like High, Van Nostran said starting off or expanding with good sheep is important.
“Find a reliable breeder who will sell you good quality stock that is free of any genetic or physical defect — good quality sheep,” he said. “Get a good quality ram with known EPDs (expected progeny differences) that will allow you to predict what it will do for your flock. Cheap sheep are sometimes the most expensive. Buy quality sheep and they’ll always perform for you.”
Proper management is also important, Van Nostran said. Things like providing good pasture and a quality parasite management program are critical.
“Manage the sheep to perform at their maximum,” he said. “Don’t just turn them out into a field and forget about them.”
Richard Ehrhardt, Michigan State University small ruminant specialist, delivered the keynote address at Ohio Sheep Day on overcoming barriers to sheep production in the Upper Midwest. He also conducted other sessions during the day on key considerations in building a flock, and using accelerated lambing programs to increase production efficiency and create a year-round lamb supply.
“We have a real incentive to grow the U.S. flock right now,” Ehrhardt said. “Don’t be biased against a type of sheep or a production system. There are a wide range of systems and market opportunities.”
Ehrhardt discussed several accelerated lambing programs that reduce the lambing interval for producers. Rather than lambing once a year, the programs encourage finding the right breed of sheep that can lamb either three times in two years or five times in three years, depending on the system. These systems produce more lambs per ewe per year, increasing production efficiency, and they also provide a year-round supply of lambs, which can help expand potential marketing opportunities.
“It’s something a more experienced producer interested in ramping up production could consider,” he said. “Especially producers who have a good nutrition program in place. It might not be a starting point for a beginner, but accelerated lambing is something people maybe with a limited land base and highly productive ground could consider.”
For new shepherds, Ehrhardt said the key issue is for them to recognize the resources they have and try to match those resources with the right production system.
“For example, a new producer with little experience might want to pick a production system and type of sheep to match with that system that are a little bit lower input and easier care,” he said. “Maybe the sheep are a breed that is more resistant to things like parasite infections, which are a major limitation for sheep production in this area.”
Finding a good mentor also is important.
“Finding somebody with similar goals and a similar production system is really critical,” Ehrhardt said. “Anytime I discuss sheep production with new producers, I try to hook them up with a mentor to make sure they have success, because there are some really good producers out there willing to share their knowledge.”
Cynthia Koonce, who raises 300 sheep on the 230-acre farm that played host to Ohio Sheep Day, also emphasized the importance of keeping an open mind when considering the best type of sheep and production system for a farm.
“A sheep is extremely flexible. It’s us who aren’t,” Koonce said. “We need to be flexible. We’re at a profitable point in the sheep industry where if you want to change some things, you have the opportunity now to make those changes.”