American Lamb Summit wrestles with industry’s future

Rusty Burgett, director of the National Sheep Improvement Program, discusses the value of using data to increase flock productivity at the inaugural American Lamb Summit, Aug. 26-27, in Fort Collins, Colo. (Rebecca Miller photo)

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — When I first looked around the inaugural American Lamb Summit, I saw the same people I see at other national sheep events. Our industry is small, after all. It’s not hard to keep track of everyone.

As the conference began, I looked again — and new faces began to emerge. With them, I could see how the topics covered — advances in technology, emerging trends in traceability, ability to adapt and improve by using genetic data and increased understanding of what people want to eat — paired with American sheep industry newcomers could be the catalyst for change.

How it started

The event, which ran Aug. 27-28, was the brainchild of Stan Potratz, founder of Iowa’s Premier1 Supplies, and other industry leaders.

The goal was to provide the ingredients for innovation, much like Australia’s LambEx convention, which runs every other year and draws 1,000 attendees. Organizers hope the summit can begin to run every other year opposite LambEx. This time around, around 200 people attended. Registration reportedly sold out in 24 hours.

Fresh faces

So, about those new faces. Take Paul Hackett, for instance. A surgeon from Texas, he started a small flock of American Blackbelly hair sheep two years ago. The son of a preacher, the imagery of sheep resonates with him. And he loves working with the six acres of pasture he owns, rotating his flock once a week.

He is self-taught, having watched a lot of YouTube videos on forage-based farming. That method of learning suits him — he works odd hours and doesn’t have time to attend many workshops.

When I first approached him, I asked him why he was at the summit. He responded that he wanted to take care of his sheep as best he can, and take care of himself.

I spoke with other newcomers. A woman who is building a supply chain network across the Midwest and into the West. Her current dilemma: finding good fabricators who can consistently produce attractive, package-ready cuts for the grocery store shelf.

A Utah husband and wife who are doing intensive, daily rotational grazing on cover crops. They don’t have predator problems, because they don’t graze in the mountains, and their lambing percentage is high because their ewes are getting high-quality forage. While their model might not be unique here in the East, it is in Utah.

A woman from California working to build a large-scale intensive commercial sheep farm, to cut down on predators and parasites. Her inspiration? Sandi Brock, a sheep farmer from Ontario, Canada, with a popular “Sheepishly Me” video series about life on an accelerated commercial sheep farm.

Common themes

Henry Zerby, former chair of the Ohio State University animal sciences department and current vice president of protein procurement and innovation for Wendy’s, told those gathered at the inaugural American Lamb Summit, Aug. 26-27, in Fort Collins, Colo., that traceability is transparency. “Transparency is the currency of trust with the consumer these days. We need to get serious about traceability.” (Rebecca Miller photo)

Yes, there were many familiar people. But those people, combined with the fresh faces, spurred a lot of discussion. The mantra was consistent: we need to know how we’re doing what we do, get better at it and be able to share that with those around us.

Henry Zerby is the former chair of Ohio State University’s animal sciences department. He works for the restaurant company, Wendy’s, now, as vice president of protein procurement and innovation.

Traceability is transparency, he said. “Transparency is the currency of trust with the consumer these days,” he added. “We need to get serious about traceability.” This is true of every industry, not just sheep. (We just published a story about new RFID requirements for dairy cattle.)


The American sheep industry is at a crossroads. Those who grow lamb, in particular, have to adapt to changing times or be left behind. My mother and I are still talking about it. What can we do on our own farm to meet changing demands?

It’s a conundrum that should resonate with anyone in agriculture. What people want is not a mystery these days, thanks to social media and increasing scrutiny. People want to know where food comes from and how it came to be.

That’s not going anywhere. We should care anyway, because we are stewards of one of the most important things on the planet: our food.


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Farm and Dairy Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Miller was tapped to lead the newsroom in 2019. A veteran journalist, dog wrangler and traveler, she lives on a 220-acre, 325-ewe commercial sheep farm in Lisbon, Ohio, which she runs in partnership with her mother. She can be reached at 330-817-6179 or


  1. To expect ANY farmer to accept so-called ‘traceability’ for ANY farm product-be it animal or plant-is not only ANTI-CONSTITUTIONAL but ANTI-AMERICAN!!!! It is sickening to see people encourage others to give up their rights and freedoms to better their selves financially. It is literally a COMMUNISTIC ploy to destroy America and the foundation it was built upon!!!! Let the people who expect farmers to cater to their wicked beliefs literally starve to death. Food has become so cheap and plentiful people have the audacity to think they can tell others how to raise it and how to live. Past time for them to face starvation to realize just how fortunate they have had things!!!!!!!


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