ROSEBURG, Ore. — The price for commercial lambs in Oregon during the last month or so has been $1.60 a pound, a figure similar to or a bit higher than what it was last year.
“The price has been steady,” said Dan Dawson who has a flock of 1,500 ewes in Douglas County, Ore. “But $1.70 would sure be better.”
Dawson said he has heard of some lambs selling for a higher price in different states. With hopes for such a price, he hasn’t yet signed a contract for his lambs. His options are to sell them and let another business finish them through a feedlot process or maintain ownership while the lambs go through a feedlot.
Australia and New Zealand are the world’s leading exporters of lamb. Since the U.S. is the largest export market for Australian lamb, Dawson said the export price for lamb is a major factor in determining the price for U.S. grown lambs.
Cody Sandberg, another Douglas County rancher who has 500 ewes, said, “$1.60 is not bad. The lamb price can be a roller coaster. Everything is based off supply and demand and right now the demand for lamb is there.
“I do think people are starting to figure out West Coast and Oregon lamb is a better product compared to others throughout the nation,” Sandberg added.
Trent Pynch, a 23-year-old Douglas County rancher with 200 ewes, said the price isn’t “exceptional, but it definitely meets the bottom line. It’s holding steady and if anything, it’s climbing a bit.”
Kathy Panner, a southern Douglas County sheep rancher with 200 ewes, said the demand for lamb is increasing and “that is very encouraging. There’s a high use of lamb by certain cultures.”
Panner is a partner in Umpqua Valley Lamb. That group markets 160 lambs, averaging 130 pounds each, direct to retail outlets in Bend, Ore., Portland, Seattle and Roseburg each week. Panner said the Umpqua Valley Lamb partners consistently receive a price higher than the commercial market.
Cottage Grove, Ore., area ranchers Bill and Sharon Hoyt have been in the sheep business for 25 years with ewes and lambs in pastures on both sides of the Lane and Douglas county line in southwestern Oregon. The Hoyts market most of their lambs direct to several customers, including some restaurants.
Last winter they received $1.25 per pound for lambs in the 80-pound range, but plan to put several more pounds on this year’s crop of lambs and “hope to be in the $1.50 to $1.70 per pound range” when selling this winter.
“The price is hard to predict,” said Bill Hoyt whose ranch operation includes 300 ewes. “A lot depends on what goes on with foreign trade and other issues that affect the marketplace.
“In the last five years we’ve seen the lamb price spike from just over a $1 a pound to just over $2 a pound,” he added.
Many of the lamb producers in southwestern Oregon will have a few less animals to sell this year because a snowstorm in late February had a fatal impact. Some lambs and ewes died of cold and starvation when the storm dropped 10 to 20 inches of heavy, wet snow, depending on the elevation. Some animals were also killed by falling branches and trees.
Reports indicated losses ranged up to 110 animals for a couple ranchers.
That storm also slowed the weight gain for the lambs that survived, Dawson said. He added his lambs were 5 to 10 pounds lighter than normal going into June. Most lambs in southwestern Oregon are sold in June or early July as pastures and forage dry up with the summer heat.
A few ranchers, like Sandberg, have irrigated pastures and are able to keep their lambs through the summer and fall on green feed. Those lambs will weigh in at 140 to 160 pounds and are marketed through the winter months.
“You gain profit by the amount of pounds you’re able to get on them,” Sandberg said.
In another way to earn a bit more profit, a few more sheep owners have improved the genetics in some of their ewes and have marketed those lambs to FFA students and 4-H club members as project animals. Because of their genetics and conformation, those lambs earn more than the commercial price.
There are numerous lamb shows in Oregon so there is a demand. The recent June 1 Douglas County Lamb Show in Roseburg featured 257 lambs with their young owners. After being auctioned off, many of those project lambs ended up cut-and-wrapped on store shelves and available to shoppers.
The ranchers agree that because they’ve seen some increase in their lamb sales, more consumers are enjoying lamb in their meals.
Hoyt said there needs to be continued education to consumers that there is more ways to prepare lamb than the traditional leg of lamb.
“We have to educate folks not so much on lamb being a quality product, but the ease to make a meal for a family with a lamb cut and other ways to have a good dining experience with lamb,” he said.
“People might think preparing lamb for a meal is hard, but it can be a lot easier than they think.”