Industry leader sees unlimited potential for growth
By STEVE BROWN
The U.S. sheep industry rides a welcome wave of increased demand lately, and it aims to keep that wave rolling.
Clint Krebs described the situation in three words: "What a year!"
Krebs, vice president of the American Sheep Industry, spoke to his fellow sheep ranchers at the recent Washington State Sheep Producers convention.
Feeder lamb prices have reached as high as $250 per hundredweight the past year, he said. He attributes it the industry's promotion, especially the checkoff.
The American Lamb Board's checkoff -- a 30 cents-per-head first-handler assessment -- goes to promoting the freshness, flavor, nutritional benefits and culinary versatility of American lamb to consumers, retailers, chefs and the media.
A Texas A&M University study in 2010 concluded the lamb checkoff generated an additional $44.14 in lamb sales for every checkoff dollar invested.
Retailers have responded to rising consumer demand, Krebs said. Kroger's grocery chain, which includes Fred Meyer stores in the West, has committed to 100 percent U.S.-raised lamb, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. will do so within two years. Surveys found that shoppers who buy lamb average $70 baskets at checkout, compared with $50 otherwise. When retailers see numbers like that, he said, "They want it in their cases."
To meet demand, the American Sheep Industry has challenged lamb operations to increase production. ASI calls its initiative "Let's Grow with Two Plus:"
* Add two more ewes per operation -- or two per 100 -- by 2014.
* Strive for an average birthrate of two lambs per year.
* Increase the lamb harvest by 2 percent. Krebs said managing disease and predation can add 67,500 lambs per year.
The initiative can add 315,000 more lambs, $71 million in lamb sales and 2 million more pounds of wool, creating or saving 5,700 jobs.
The development of "Superwash" equipment has spurred increased competition among U.S. textile companies, Krebs said.
Technology was developed in the 1960s to make wool machine-washable and allow it to be tumble-dried, retain its shape and last longer. The process treats fibers with a chlorine solution, then a polymer resin.
The Sheep Venture Co., a for-profit company wholly owned by the ASI, now operates such equipment in Jamestown, S.C.
"Not only is this process key in developing wool clothing for our military, but domestic commercial companies will no longer have to ship their wool overseas for processing," said Margaret Soulen Hinson, president of Sheep Venture.
The military is American wool's largest domestic customer.
Dairy makes up a relatively small segment of the U.S. sheep industry, but it has the potential to grow.
In 2008 the U.S. produced about 2 million pounds of sheep milk cheese and imported 70 million pounds, according to the ASI. About half of the world trade comes to the U.S.
The growth of the domestic industry is the result of production in high-quality cheeses, and promotion of sheep cheeses by national and state organizations. Sheep milk has a higher solids content than goat or cow milk. As a result, more cheese can be produced from a gallon of sheep milk than a gallon of goat or cow milk.
The U.S. has about 100 dairy sheep farms, and many of them make cheese in small batches for direct marketing to individuals, food stores and restaurants.
Sheep milk itself is also profitable, selling for 75 to 85 cents a pound, about four times more than the price of cow milk.
Economic impact in 2010
Retail lamb sales $298.4 million
Food services sales $245.3 million
Retail wool (military purchases) $172.3 million
Wholesale meat and rendered products $19.3 million
Retail sheep cheese $18.7 million
Wholesale pelts $18.4 million
Value-added wool exports $11 million
Wholesale lanolin $2.2 million
Total $785.6 million
Source: American Sheep Industry Association