COON RAPIDS - Citing an explosion of increased demand for lamb and wool in the U.S., and a domestic supply that struggles to keep up, the sheep industry Monday afternoon announced an initiative to ramp up U.S. production.
Called "Let's Grow" the new initiative is encouraging existing producers to:
Increase flocks by two ewes per operation, or two ewes per 100 head.
-Messenger photo by Larry Kershner
Aged ewes of the Kolby and Mickey Burch farm, west of Coon Rapids, head for the feed trough after being allowed into a penned yard. Kolby Burch tends to the gate in the background. The Burches hosted a media event Monday to announce a new initiative within the sheep industry to increase flocks and find new producers.
Increase the average birth rate per flock to two lambs per year, or two lambs per 100 ewes.
Other endeavors include looking for pastureland owners who would consider grazing sheep on hard-to-crop acres, or encourage livestock operations looking for more diversification in their operations.
The initiative was announced to media at the Kolby and Mickey Burch farm, five miles west of Coon Rapids. Mickey Burch is executive director of the Iowa Sheep Industry Association.
Peter Orwick, president of the American Sheep Association, said the industry needs "to put the sheep industry on the national radar."
Orwick said U.S. demand for lamb and wool has literally exploded over past few years as nontraditional buyers now compete with traditional buyers for the meat supply.
"The buyers came to us," Orwick said. "They asked how we could find more meat and wool for the growing demand."
As a result, he said, the Let's Grow Initiative was formed. Monday's event was the first of six to be held throughout the nation.
Orwick said the nontraditional buyers for lamb include farmers markets, small meat processors, direct farm sales and a growing ethnic population. He said lamb is a holiday meat for the country's growing ethnic Muslim population and Latinos, especially those from northern Mexico.
Traditional buyers, he said, are those who are working to meet nationwide demand. In fact, The Kroger Co. is the nation's leading lamb retailer at 60 percent. Earlier this year Kroger launched a new American lamb product brand.
Also in 2011, Super Wal-Mart announced a two-year program to purchase and process only American lamb. "All these (buyers) are getting lamb into areas that it's never been before," he said.
Orwick said the nontraditional and traditional buyers have created a demand that is hard for U.S. producers to meet.
"We're not trying to play buyers off against each other," Orwick said, "but to meet all the demand.
"We must supply our traditional markets, while supply demand for nontraditional markets."
Plan of action
Orwick outlined the industry's strategy for increasing the nation's flocks. For existing producers, it's expanding the number of ewes and number of births, while lowering mortality rate, sending more pounds of lamb to the markets.
It also includes finding and mentoring new producers, Orwick said.
Orwick and sheep producers attending the event claimed there is room for sheep expansion in Iowa. They integrate well with cattle, they said, and can help to "clean up" harvested fields, whether row crops or hay acres, through managed grazing.
In other U.S. regions, the fastest growing sheep flocks are in Kentucky and Tennessee, Orwick said. He added that tobacco farmers can turn their idled acres into profits by grazing sheep on those acreages.
Industry not dead
Gary and Sharon Erickson, of Humboldt, raise Hampshire and Columbia sheep for commercial markets.
"We are not a dead industry," Gary Erickson said. "We are active and profitable. I'm hoping people will understand there's plenty of room for more lambs.
Sharon Erickson said having sheep graze harvested row crops, clean up the grain left behind, leaving fewer voluntary plants the growing season.
"And sheep are family friendly," Gary Erickson said. "I've never worried about the daughters going out and checking on the sheep." That comfort level was not always present with swine, he said.
"Even the grandkids like coming back for shearing."
Less input costs
Kolby and Mickey Burch said they have a 150-head flock, which they intensively graze on 16 acres in six paddocks. On the same acres, they could graze just a handful of cattle.
"Sheep have less input costs than larger livestock," Kolby Burch said.
The Burches lamb from January through March and market lambs into 30 states.
Mickey Burch said she hopes the media will show "that (other producers) here care for their animals. They are humanely treated.
"We are making a product that will be consumed by others," she said, adding that that motivates them to provide quality animals for the markets.
"We have a joke that we can't go anywhere together because someone has to stay home and handle chores," Mickey Burch said, without laughing. "But we are willing to make that commitment because we love our animals."
Break even quick
Orwick said he's hoping the Let's Grow initiative will get other livestock producers to think of sheep if they have land that needs better management, or if they are looking for more diversity in their operations.
"You can break even on a new ewe in a year," Orwick said. "And that's unique. And you don't have to have a contract to market.
"The U.S. has the biggest lambs and the fastest growing lambs in the world." That's due, he said to genetics and good management.
"And," Orwick said, "with sheep, you just get more out of your grass."
For more information visit sheepusa.org, or contact Mickey Burch at (712)790-6303.
Contact Larry Kershner at 573-2141, Ext. 453 or firstname.lastname@example.org