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U.S. sheep industry bounces back

BROCKET, N.D. — The early summer afternoon is warm and windy, though not oppressively so, and contented "baas" ring out in the sheep barn. Luke Lillehaugen looks over the flock with an experienced eye and says, "Well, we like sheep. And we like some of the things happening in the sheep industry."

Lillehaugen and his father, Maynard Lillehaugen, operate Lillehaugen Farms near Brocket, N.D. They raise small grains, cattle and sheep; about 180 sheep lambed this spring.

As Luke alludes to, the U.S. sheep industry, which had been declining for decades, is on the upswing, reflecting major and seemingly permanent demographic changes. The growing willingness of many Americans to try new and different foods also bodes well for sheep producers.

Though it's unlikely the glory days of the mid 1940s will ever be fully regained — U.S. sheep numbers now stand at 5.2 million, down from the 1945 peak of 56 million — the Lillehaugens are optimistic the millenia-old sheep industry still has a modern-day role, albeit a more modest one.

Once, sheep were in demand for both their wool and meat, with meat seen primarily as a byproduct of the wool. But the growing popularity of synthetic fibers cut sharply into wool demand, causing the industry's emphasis to switch from wool production to meat production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

Producing high-end wool still can be profitable, though wool of lower quality typically is not, says Travis Hoffman, North Dakota State University Extension sheep specialist.

His advice to sheep producers: Identify whether focusing on meat or wool or a combination can be most profitable to your operation, then manage accordingly.

The Lillehaugens have done that. They raise Katahdin sheep, a breed of hair sheep — named after Mount Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine — that sheds wool naturally over time without shearing. So the Lillehaugens receive no payment or compensation for the wool, which they don't even collect.

"It keeps getting harder to find people to shear, and the value of the wool (that the Lillehaugens would receive from wool) just isn't worth the expense and effort of shearing," Luke says.

The Lillehaugens rely entirely on sales of their sheep for both slaughter and breeding stock. It speaks well for their operation that they've sold breeding stock to sheep producers in a number of states, including Texas, the nation's leading sheep producer.

"We're pretty particular (about the quality of breeding stock sold). If we wouldn't keep it here on our own farm, we won't sell it as breeding stock," Luke says.

The Lillehaugen family has raised sheep on and off since 1895. Sheep prices, as well as labor and pasture availability, have influenced whether they're in or out out of sheep.

Both Luke and Maynard enjoy working with sheep, and are especially pleased with Katahdin. Luke become familiar with the breed when he was working at the NDSU Sheep Unit in Fargo, and the Lillehaugens brought them on the farm in 2005.

Brocket, N.D. rancher Luke Lillehaugen stands in a pen full of Katahdin sheep.Katahdin sheep are relatively easy to keep in pastures with electric wire and also require less feed than wool sheep, says Luke, who returned to the farm in 2007.

Other benefits of the breed include being less prone to parasites, being relatively docile and easy to handle and possessing strong maternal instincts, Maynard says.

Sheep often, though not always, have multiple births. Twins are most common, though triplets aren't unusual.

The sheep industry, stressing the need for greater efficiency, has pushed for higher lambing rates — or having more live multiples. That's happened at Lillehaugen Farms, which typically averages about 1.9 lambs per ewe. Maynard estimates the farms' rate was about 1.4 to 1.6 lambs per ewe in the 1960s.

A long decline

Declining demand for wool and greater competition from other meats, especially chicken, have hurt the U.S. sheep industry for decades.

Wool production, in particular, took a hit in 1995, when longstanding federal payments to U.S. wool producers, funded by tariffs on imported wool and wool textile products, were eliminated.

Lambs at Lillehaugen Farms in Brocket, N.D., walk around a pen on a rainy spring afternoon.Weakening consumer demand for lamb meat also has worked against sheep producers. Once, lamb and mutton were an important part of some Americans' diet. In 1945 Americans ate 7.3 pounds of lamb and mutton.

As Luke and Maynard point out, lamb and mutton are quite different. Lamb meat comes from sheep less than a year old and that typically are slaughtered between the ages of 4 and 12 months. Meat from older sheep is called mutton; it is tougher meat and has a much stronger flavor than lamb meat. Today, mutton is sold primarily in speciality shops.

Blame World War II, at least in part, for declining popularity of lamb and mutton.

Americans who served in Europe during the war were fed canned mutton, which they disliked because of its strong musky flavor. Returning home after the war, many of the soldiers eliminated lamb meat from their dinner tables. One result was that their children rarely, if ever, were exposed to lamb meat.

"The big problem was the military feeding mutton to the soldiers and trying to pass it off as lamb. That turned off a lot of people from eating lamb," Luke says. Maynard is no fan of mutton.

"I wouldn't butcher a 10-year-old cow to eat, and I wouldn't butcher a 10-year-old ewe (female sheep) to eat," he says.

In any case, American lamb and mutton consumption fell steadily to 1.4 pounds per capita in 1990 and then to 0.85 pounds per capita in 2011. But the rebound that began in 2012 pushed 2017 per-capita consumption to 1.1 pounds.

Luke notes that lamb meat is popular with some religious and ethnic groups, whose numbers are rising in the United States.

Katahdin sheep mill around a barn at Lillehaugen Farms in Brocket, N.D.And sheep industry advocates say more Americans are interested in eating new and different foods, with lamb one of the candidates. A 2011 study by the American Lamb Board found that one in two Americans had never tried lamb.

"Demand is growing. I don't think it's going to grow very fast, but it's growing," Maynard says.

Challenges remain

But major challenges remain for the sheep industry, despite the recent rebound. As sheep numbers dropped, the industry infrastructure weakened: there are fewer sales barns handling sheep, less public research funds for sheep, less medicine labeled for sheep and fewer veterinarians knowledgeable about sheep, among other things.

"It's pretty simple. There are fewer sheep, and that affects these other things," Luke says.

Lillehaugen Farms sells its slaughter lambs and sheep at Central Livestock in West Fargo, N.D., about 140 miles to the south and east. It also sells a few to neighbors.

He and Maynard stress they're fortunate to have the services of Charlotte Klose, with Dakota Animal Care in Edinburg, N.D.

"We're lucky. She's a very good sheep vet who even has her own flock of sheep," Luke says.

The Lillehaugens, like others in the sheep industry, hope the infrastructure will strengthen as sheep numbers stabilize and even begin to rise.

Maynard and Luke don't think their own sheep operation will grow much. Their pastures and barn already are stretched pretty tight, they say.

They're cautiously optimistic about turning a profit this year, assuming current lamb prices don't fall much.

And they think there's opportunity for new sheep producers. Luke's suggestion to people interested in raising sheep: "Buy from a reputable producer." Maynard's advice: "Start out with a few. Don't start with 100. See if you like it first."

The Lillehaugens, for their part, enjoy carrying on the family tradition, especially with rising consumer demand for lamb.

"More people are eating what we raise. We sure like that," Luke says.

Growing the flock

In 2011 the American Sheep Industry Association launched its Let's Grow campaign to grow the long-declining U.S. sheep industry and keep it competitive globally.

The campaign focused initially on boosting sheep numbers by increasing herd size and the average birth rate per ewe. Sheep usually, but not always, have multiple births.

Now, the campaign focuses on helping sheep producers become more sustainable, in part through becoming more efficient. One example: This spring, the program funded a workshop at North Dakota State University to help sheep producers win a premium for their lamb crop.

More information on Let's Grow, go to www.sheepusa.org/Resources_LetsGrowResources.