Roger High, OSU Ohio State Extension Sheep Specialist
As a long time sheep producer, and one that loves the sheep industry and the people involved in it, it was a fabulous, once in a lifetime experience for me. I have never been to “sheep country” so to speak in all of my years of raising and producing sheep, but this area of the United States is just really part of “sheep country”, but it was so great to be in it. The State of Idaho has approximately 100,000 more sheep than Ohio has or around 240,000 head of sheep on far fewer sheep operations than Ohio. Utah is also a large producer of sheep, being rated as one of the Top ten sheep producing states. It was interesting to us that these sheep (and cattle) producers deal with so many governmental agencies; we think we have government bad, go out west. One sheep and rancher that we had the opportunity to visit with said that they deal with 22 different governmental agencies in order to produce sheep and cattle, this governmental involvement ranges anywhere from the grazing on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land and U.S. Forest Land, to the immigration department. This is an industry that cannot survive without dealing with all of these governmental agencies. They must utilize the BLM and forest land to be able to produce and graze the number of sheep and cattle that they do. They must utilize the immigration program (H2A) in order to have herdsman with their sheep flocks all of the time, as there are not many Americans that would be interested in the type of work these immigrants do.
In my opinion, the sheep industry is a fragile industry, not only in the west, but looking here in the east as well. I cannot begin to tell you how scary it is for me, a lifelong sheep producer and a leader in the Ohio Sheep Industry. Why is it a fragile industry, you ask? For many of these sheep operations, they are in the second and maybe third generation of producing sheep. Yes, there are some sheep ranches that have been in it longer, but a great deal of them are in the second generation. Why is that scary for me? It is scary because the next generation, or the third generation, is not planning on being “sheep ranchers”. They plan on doing something else, raising cattle on these lands and on these ranches, becoming lawyers, and doctors and such. We are seeing many of these same things happening in the east, the offspring did it because past generation did it, but the next generation will not likely do it. What does this mean to all of us? It potentially means that the infrastructure of our industry will become weaker, we will have less and less producers that produce lamb for our population to consume, there will be less producers paying into organizations and less check-off dollars being generated to promote our product. Does this mean we should go out and sell our sheep flock? No, of course not, just know that the current industry will undergo significant changes in the next few years. We need to support our sheep organizations that work day to day for the survival of our industry. We need to get new people involved in our industry, and those people need to get involved in our industry to make things happen. We need every segment of our industry to be strong to carry the weight of the industry. In Ohio, those groups are new and young producers with great hopes of becoming sheep producers, aggressive producers that care about the quality of the product that they produce, those that want to make some extra money on their livestock operations, those that are producing “ethnic lambs” to a growing market place and clientele, We need those that are involved in club lamb and seed stock production of any breed to come out and join our state sheep associations to make them stronger, so that we can do more activities to build the industry. We need people to support our state and our national check-off program so that we have dollars for promotion, education, and research.
We can survive, we have for many years, but every segment of the industry needs to support every segment of the industry, we are too small to pull ourselves apart.
Now back to the trip, and off of the philosophy. While in Idaho, and even in Utah, we saw progressive breeders that really love this industry. Many of these producers were doing such modern management practices as moving there entire sheep flocks from the dry, cold, unforgiving lands of Idaho and Utah by truck many miles and lambing them out in the alfalfa fields of Central California. These sheep producers have learned over time that they can feed and lamb ewes and completely feed out lambs on these lush, green, nutritious alfalfa fields with no grain and make more money. In, Ohio, we do not do that, why? As we discussed doing this management on the trip, it is because we have taken down so many of our fences, we can no longer utilize harvested corn fields and other grains and grasses like we used to without a great deal of work. Most of these western producers know exactly how much their lamb weighed on the average when they took them off of the alfalfa fields, or put them into a feedlot, even to the tenth of a pound. Most of the these producers know what their ewes weighed, it was important to them to have a larger, over 200 lb. ewe so that she could raise lambs in rough conditions and produce a large enough lamb for the market. Many of these producers were using ultrasonography to determine whether their ewes were pregnant or not, even the producer with 20,000 ewes. They knew their market, they knew the governmental agencies that they had to deal with, and they know what their national and state organizations were doing for them. These are businessmen and businesswomen who want to survive, but in many cases because of the choices of the next generation, there ranches will eventually be doing something else. And that is sad, because you can tell that they have put their heart and soul into making their operation the best it can be.
We can learn a lot about what makes an industry tick by going and seeing it in the west, and we saw several examples of what makes our sheep industry tick. In Ohio and in the east, it is lots of producers with lots of small flocks with a lot of different breeds and sizes, nutritional programs, carcass weights and wool qualities, it is a diverse industry with lots of thoughts on how to do it best, and it is lots of people working together for the success of the industry. In the west, they pretty much all do it the same, want a consistent product, get a bunch of big white faced ewes and breed them to a bunch of big black faced rams, graze them all on the same type of land, feed them all a similar nutritional program, manage them all the same way, take the lambs off the ewes at the same time, and feed the lambs the same nutritional programs until they go to the same packing plant. You can hardly afford to be different, because if you are doing it different, there may not be a lot of places to sell your product!
I truly enjoyed my trip to this part of “sheep country”, I am not sure that I could live in that part of the sheep world, but would like to try it sometime. It would be a dream of mine to start out in the lower foothills of Idaho, move a band of 2,500 ewes up to an 11,000 foot elevation, graze those ewes on some of the roughest, driest, coldest vast acreage in the United States and then graze them back down the mountains to the rickety old lambing sheds to lamb them out, the entire 20,000 ewe flock. But for now, that dream must wait, as I have to take care of my family and my flock here in Ohio. So, I will wake up from my dream and by working together, we can make the Ohio sheep industry the best it can be.