Taking a picture of the sheep industry

SMITHVILLE, Ohio – As the sheep industry moves into the 21st century, the question is what the picture will look like, according to Dr. Charles Parker, executive director of the National Seed Stock Alliance.

Parker told members of the Ohio Heartland Sheep Improvement Association that he sees the industry as a landscape painting.

“It isn’t going to be a Rembrandt landscape because it isn’t exact,” he said. “But it is not a Picasso painting where you look at it and you don’t know what you are seeing. I think it will give an Impressionist approach.”

By comparing the sheep industry to a painting, Parker told the group he hoped the image would incite a positive feeling about the industry or at least give it some direction.

He told the group there are currently about 800 million sheep in the world, representing over 900 different breeds.

Numbers have decreased.

“At one time, Ohio had more sheep in the state than there are in the entire U.S. today,” he said. “There were almost eight million sheep in the state. In 1942, there were 56.7 million sheep in this country, today we have about 10 percent of that.”

Parker said the darker side of the story is the fact that wool prices are averaging about 35 cents per pound, which doesn’t even cover the cost of the shearing.

“If we are going to raise sheep for wool, we need to raise the best sheep that we can raise,” he said. “In the early 1900s, the return from wool to meat was nine to one, he said.

Parker said lamb was not marketed as a (meat) commodity until 1906. By 1945, consumption reached about 7.3 pounds per person. Today, the demand for lamb is weak, it has dropped to about one pound per person.

“We used to blame the World War II veterans for the decline in lamb consumption,” he said. “It might of worked then, but it doesn’t work any more.

“Red meat sales have gone up in all other areas. Demand is not whether we are eating what we are producing, demand is whether we are spending money on lamb at the meat counter.”

Registered sheep.

As a result, the industry became more reactive than proactive, and it cost them dearly. One of the big changes that has occurred over the years is the change in the number of sheep registered by the breed associations.

Parker said that during the 1920′s, 464,000 sheep were registered, compared to around 100,000 today.

Of that 464,000 sheep, more than half were medium wool breeds such as Merino and Shropshire and only about .18 percent were Suffolk. Today, the number of Suffolk sheep being registered has jumped to about half of the number of sheep being registered.

“Our carcasses are about 40 percent heavier than Australian and New Zealand carcasses,” he said. “The sad story is the pounds of lamb we market per ewe per year. It took us 50 years to double the weight of lambs we are producing.”

Use the resources.

Parker added that producers need to take advantage of research conducted in 1850, where researchers identified the trait that would result in ewes consistently producing twins.

“‘We can talk about all types of things, but if we don’t use them, it is going to cost us in terms of production,” he said. “Right now, 40 percent of the lambs being marketed are too fat.

“We don’t have a structure in place that rewards producers for producing the type of lamb consumers want.”

Imported lamb had a major impact on the U.S. sheep industry, according to Parker. By 1996, imported lamb was underselling U.S. lamb and knocked the sheep industry in this country further off center.

“If we hadn’t had imports where would we be,” he said. “Would you rather have people not eat lamb at all or have them eat imported lamb until we can get organized and meet the demand for lamb.”

Parker said many people make the argument for increasing the supply of lamb in this country.

“No one is going to raise sheep if they aren’t going to make money,” he said. “It needs to be profitable and prices need to be stable. Price volatility impacts producers.

“We tend to be price takers rather than price makers. We need to form alliances that put a value on the product and pays producers a premium for producing their product.”

Optimistic.

Still, Parker is optimistic about the future of the industry.

“The sheep industry has what we want,” he said. “Our breeding technology is the best in the world; we need to use it. Sheep can deliver, the question is whether we have the ability to allow them to do it.”

During the meeting, the association presented the Meritorious Service Award to Connie King of Sterling and the Friend of Sheep Award to Doug Clevinger.

King began her involvement in the sheep industry when she and her husband purchased Suffolk sheep for their son’s 4-H project. Today, they have 150 Merinos and she been active in all facets of the industry.

Clevinger is the manager of the sheep operation at the OARDC in Wooster. He has assisted with lambing schools, Sheep Day activities and research projects.

Serving as officers for 2001 will be Robert Hostetler, president; Duane Scheibe, vice president; and Don and Linda Reichert, secretary/treasurer.

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