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Sheep industry grows through initiative

By MITCH LIES

For the Capital Press

The sheep industry is growing through workshops and mentors that help new producers learn the best practices.

GRAND RONDE, Ore. — The U.S. sheep industry is looking for new blood.

The American Sheep Industry Association in 2011 launched its Let’s Grow initiative in an effort to put a steady supply of U.S. lamb meat in front of consumers.

Gaps in supply in the past have forced meat buyers to purchase lower grade foreign lamb meat to meet their demand, according to John Fine, president of the Oregon Sheep Growers Association. That, in turn, he said, has cost the industry customers.

“If people eat something and it is poor quality, we never get them back,” Fine said.

“We believe the quality of our product is superior,” he said.

The Let’s Grow initiative, which the industry launched on Easter of 2011, has yet to increase production, according to Peter Orwick, executive director of the American Sheep Industry Association, but hopes are that in time, it will.

Orwick said the industry is easier to get into than say, cattle production, where initial investments are high both for infrastructure, and to purchase the animals.

“Instead of $1,500 or $2,000 for a heifer or a bred cow, $150 would buy a breeding ewe,” he said.

“You can add sheep without a huge investment in buildings and commitment,” Orwick said. “You can add them with minimal effort.”

The Let’s Grow initiative includes a mentoring program that Oregon producers are involved with. The idea behind the program is to get experienced producers working with new producers.

The program operates through webinars and workshops that involve multiple parties, and through one-on-one mentoring, where experienced producers share their knowledge one-on-one with new producers.

The American Sheep Industry Association provides what Orwick describes as a tool kit for participants, including a handbook on sheep production, with chapters on lambing, breeding and shearing.

But Orwick said the national association tends to leave the particulars of the program up to the organization’s 45 state associations, given the variables between climate and other factors that affect sheep production.

New Oregon lamb producer Lewis Brown said he signed up for the program after he decided he wanted to expand his farm operation.

Since December, he has been learning about sheep production from Bob Klinger, a Grand Ronde, Ore., sheep rancher, who ran the Oregon State University sheep unit for 23 years before retiring several years back.

“I’ve learned a lot from Bob about managing pasture, setting up fencing, all the infrastructure needed for sheep production,” Brown said.

“I couldn’t have done it any other way,” he said.

Klinger said he participates in the program because he believes it is vital to share information that can help the next generation of sheep producers.

Klinger hosted a pasture workshop on his farm for Brown and several other new producers on Oct. 3. He explained the intricacies of pasture management, including forage production and grazing management techniques.

Gene Pirelli, regional livestock and forage specialist for extension, helped coordinate the workshop.

“I think this is a great program,” Pirelli said. “That transfer of knowledge from the experienced producer to the new producer is vital if we’re going to keep the industry alive.”

Also, Pirelli said, experienced producers sometimes learn from new producers.

“It is really a two-way street of exchange,” Pirelli said, “because new producers tend to think of things differently than experienced producers, and sometimes that fresh perspective can be valuable.”



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