Sheep industry could be poised for comeback

Farm Forum

JOHNSON COUNTY, Wyo. — Veterinarian Eric Barlow sat on a dirty, white bucket and rubbed a probe over an ewe’s belly, waiting for the shadowy outline of a lamb to appear on the screen before him.

“She had two last year,” said rancher Peter Camino.

“One,” Barlow said, as the sheep jumped out of the box and into a corral.

“That’s not what we want,” Camino responded. “We want to hear two.”

Barlow started giving Camino’s sheep ultrasounds about 15 years ago. They work long hours through blizzards and blazing sun. The end result, Camino says, is worth it.

He knows exactly how many lambs he may have in the spring, allowing him to plan.

“It all comes down to the bottom dollar,” Camino said. “If you can’t do it efficiently dollar-wise, you can’t stay in the business.”

And Camino knows. He’s watched friends and family drop out of the sheep ranching business across Wyoming. The nation’s sheep industry has been plagued for decades by drought, predators, high fuel and feed costs, volatile lamb prices and dwindling labor.

In 1940, more than 3.78 million sheep and lambs grazed Wyoming’s mountains and prairies, according to the Wyoming Agricultural Statistics Service. In January, Wyoming ranchers reported owning 355,000 of the animals.

But sheep ranchers hope the industry is poised for a comeback, buoyed by strong lamb prices and a resurgent market for domestic wool.

“We’ve weathered storms, droughts and blizzards,” he said. “We’ve been in the sheep business the whole time.”

In 2013, Wyoming ranchers lost 36,000 sheep and lambs. Predators, mainly coyotes, eagles and bears, killed 17,300 of them, said Rhonda Brandt, the Wyoming State Statistician.

Weather killed 6,500 sheep and lambs, 3,000 died from lambing complications and disease killed another 1,100. Nine hundred head died of old age, 800 were poisoned and 400 were stolen.

A local brand

Not every sign points to despair for Wyoming’s sheep industry.

Even with low numbers, the Cowboy State produced 2.45 million pounds of wool in 2013, second in the nation only to California, Brandt said. It also receives the second most money — $2.13 per pound — for its wool.

Wool prices look like they may be the third highest this year than they have been in 10 years, said Larry Prager, general manager of Center of the Nation Wool, a wool marketing firm based out of South Dakota.

Most of Wyoming’s wool goes to dress military uniforms. With the advent of soft, washable wool, the product is making a national comeback in socks.

Point of origin has also become a trend in products, something Wyoming wool growers are trying to market.

The Wyoming Wool Growers Association announced in January a special edition blanket. The wool comes from Wyoming ranchers and is cleaned and made into yarn by Mountain Meadow Wool Mill in Buffalo.

“Consumers want to know where their items come from,” he said. “No question there will be a market for wool. With a return to natural fibers, environmentally friendly textiles, wool fits that bill well.”

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, thinks the sheep industry is stabilizing. Lamb prices are back up from their crash in 2011. Ranchers have incentives to increase their sheep numbers.

“As much as I would love to see it, I don’t see major growth in the industry,” he said. “But I do think I can look on the horizon and see why the decline would reverse itself and maybe stabilize and see slight growth.”