Michelle Wilfong has been getting calls lately from people who want sheep. She and her husband, Charles Wilfong II, run about 1,150 ewes on their farm in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. They’ve grown the flock together from a couple hundred ewes when they got married in 2014.
They don’t typically sell to just anyone. They keep their best ewe lambs back as replacements and have set buyers for their market lambs. But still, people are calling. “Even the local people here, they’re wanting to buy our ewe lambs,” Michelle Wilfong said.
The sheep industry is going through a revival of sorts. Prices for lambs and ewes hit record highs in 2021, following a year of solid growth in 2020. People consumed more lamb last year than they have in two decades.
While numbers nationally are down, there are pockets of growth in West Virginia and Ohio. West Virginia reported a 7% increase in its sheep flock in 2021, the largest percentage increase in the nation.
Industry leaders expect the good times to keep rolling, at least through the rest of the year.
“We thought it was a covid up,” said Susan Schultz, president of the American Sheep Industry Association, and an Ohio sheep farmer. “Now we’re in the second year of it being up. Everyone is feeling very positive.”
The total number of sheep in the U.S. dropped by 2% last year, from 5.17 million head to 5.06 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service.
The top 10 sheep states by inventory — all west of the Mississippi River — saw a decrease in numbers in 2021. Drought and predation are big challenges for producers out West.
There’s growth in the East, though. West Virginia went from 30,000 to 32,000 head. Ohio, which has the largest inventory of sheep east of the Mississippi River, added 1,000 head in 2021, bringing it up to 127,000. New York and New England also saw an increase in sheep.
Some of the drop in numbers can be attributed to people cashing in on the strong prices. That in turn kept prices strong, as supply dropped and demand for lamb and replacement ewes remained up.
Slaughter lamb prices hit record levels, averaging $217.25 per hundredweight in 2021, according to ASI’s 2021 Sheep Industry Review report, released in March. That’s a 44% increase over 2020 and 46% higher than the 2015-2019 average price.
The traditional lamb market calls for fat lambs finished between 125 and 140 pounds. That’s what’s used for restaurants and retail to get individual cuts of meat, like the rack or chops.
Prices were even high for nontraditional market lambs or light-weight slaughter lambs, those weighing 100 pounds or less. These lambs cater to the ethnic population that traditionally harvest lambs whole for religious or cultural feasts.
The average price for lambs weighing between 60-90 pounds at New Holland Auction in south central Pennsylvania, one of the largest auction markets for light-weight in the country, was $346.20 per hundredweight in 2021. That’s a 30% increase from the prior year.
Yearling, young, middle age and aged ewe prices all set new record levels in 2021. Ewe lambs brought in an average of $284.38 per hundredweight, compared with $185.26 the year before and $164.97 in 2019, before the pandemic began. Aged ewes averaged $192.77 per hundredweight in 2021, $127.13 in 2020 and $95.83 in 2019.
“We are expecting prices for live lambs to remain strong this year,” Schultz said.
The increased demand for lamb can be, in part, attributed to the pandemic. Before the pandemic, 50% of lamb was sold through the restaurant sector, Schultz said. That shifted toward retail and direct-to-consumer sales after covid closed restaurants and forced people to stay home.
“We thought our industry was going to be white tablecloth and cruise ships — and we want that to come back — but to have such a bump with our direct marketing and farmers markets and people trying lamb for the first time and coming back and trying it again, it’s exciting,” Schultz said.
More people had the chance to try lamb at home, and they’re hooked. That’s a big part of why the amount of lamb consumed per capita increased to 1.36 pounds in 2021, the highest level since the early 90’s. Schultz credits younger people, millennials namely, being adventurous in the kitchen.
The U.S. Quarterly Lamb Retail Sales Report for Q4 2021, released in March, found the volume of lamb sales was up 19% in 2021 compared with 2019, the year before the pandemic.
The bubble could burst. Schultz said there is a price point at which consumers will step away from retail lamb cuts, as they will with all proteins. Market reports showed that happening in late 2021, with the price shooting up to just over $10/pound in November then falling below $9.60/pound by December.
While the number of sheep in West Virginia grew, it still has one of the smallest sheep flocks in the country. But the growth it’s seen is notable.
The Wilfongs aren’t the only ones who have seen the opportunity in sheep. Aaron and Tara Helmick, in Monroe County, transitioned their organic, grassfed dairy to a sheep operation.They bought their first 50 bred ewes in the winter of 2019. Now they have more than 700 ewes.
“We loved the dairy,” Tara Helmick said. “But for our business and what our family goals are, the sheep fit well for the stage of life that we’re at.”
Read more about the Helmicks’ transition from dairy to sheep
West Virginia is well-suited for certain types of sheep production, said Scott Bowdridge, associate professor of food animal production at West Virginia University Extension. Its mountainous terrain doesn’t lend itself to row crops, but it’s fine for growing grass particularly along the Virginia and Maryland border, where the Wilfongs and Helmicks farm.
“We can fit our systems to grass,” Bowdridge said. “We can’t do the feedlot stuff they can do out West, but they’d kill to have our grass.”
The Wilfongs do a bit of both. The bottomland is for crops and barns. Lambs are finished indoors. Ewes lamb indoors and then go out on pasture and stay there for most of the grazing season. Most of the Wilfongs’ pasture is rolling hills or mountains.
“Where they do well is on the mountain, but we can’t take them there with lambs because of the predators,” Charles Wilfong said.
The versatility and adaptability of sheep is what has drawn Ohioans to them. Brady Campbell, small ruminant specialist with Ohio State University, calls them a triple threat for their ability to provide meat, wool and milk.
“There’s so much variation,” he said. “You have your traditional market, non-traditional, 4-H FFA show-type animals, specialty breeds to conserve genetics, wool breeds, sheep for controlled grazing.”
Farmers in hilly eastern and southeastern Ohio tend to be more focused on grazing, Campbell. Those in central or western Ohio tend to look more at intensively housed scenarios due to the availability of grains and forages for feed.
There are people who are transitioning out of other livestock production who are interested in sheep, as well as beginning farmers who are buying their first stock. Small ruminants are the gateway into raising other livestock, Campbell said.
There is room for improvement, Schultz said. One is lambing percentages. The 2021 lambing percentage was 1.07%, meaning 107 lambs were born to 100 ewes.
“We have pockets that are raising 1.33 lambs per ewe,” she said. “That’s where we really want to put some emphasis. We can make these ewes produce more lambs than they are doing right now.”
It won’t take a scientific breakthrough to increase lambing percentages. It’s mostly by using best practices, Schultz said, like improving management systems, animal health and genetics. Being more efficient is imperative if the industry is to be viewed as being a climate-friendly commodity, she said.
The American Lamb Board is working with Michigan State University to evaluate the environmental footprint of the U.S. sheep industry. The study will focus on greenhouse gas emissions for various sheep production systems such as range, farm flock, pasture, intensive and feedlot.
There’s growing interest in using sheep to combat the impacts of climate change. Schultz said sheep are being used in targeted grazing to reduce the vegetative fuel load in the West, possibly reducing wildfire risk.
Sheep are the preferred livestock for vegetation management under solar panels, called solar grazing. This could become a bigger factor in Ohio’s sheep industry as thousands of acres are slated to be turned into solar farms.
“We’re seeing growth for different purposes,” Schultz said. “It’s really reenergized the industry.”
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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