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Sheep producers at the South Dakota Sheep Growers Convention hear about the various marketing opportunities available. (Michelle Rook/AgweekTV Anchor)

Market opportunities abound for sheep producers in Midwest

BROOKINGS, S.D. — The Midwest and Interstate 29 corridor provide some of the best marketing opportunities in the United States for finished lambs, feeder lambs and cull ewes. That was the theme of the South Dakota Sheep Growers Association annual convention in Brookings, September 28-29. South Dakota State University Extension Sheep Specialist Jeff Held says various speakers addressed the market options available for producers.

"We have buying stations; public markets and we also have some contract opportunities that occur in this region," Held says.

Sheep producers in other areas of the country may be 400 to 500 miles from a market that provides good price discovery. However, in this region, producers can market to Sioux Falls Regional Livestock in Worthing, S.D. The auction market started marketing sheep and goats in 2010 and since then has grown the volume to about 69,000 head of sheep in 2017.

Held says Sioux Falls Regional Livestock has the best contacts in the industry. "They get the most for the lambs that the growers desire, it's price discovery," he says. Plus, major packers have buying stations in the region which helps facilitate a healthy market.

The region, which includes eastern South Dakota, southern Minnesota and northwest Iowa, also has a reputation for high quality lambs, which keeps packers in the market.

"The major packers come here to buy lambs, the major packers have buying stations and sometimes even some contracts," Held says.

There also are lamb marketing groups that are assisting producers in finding contracts and selling their animals. "Dakota Lamb Growers Cooperative and producers involved in the Pipestone Lamb and Wool Program have very tight specifications for similar production systems to produce lambs that the packer has a target audience destined for," he says.

That is leading to profitability in sheep production, which is helping the industry to grow. Held says there are new flocks, as well existing operations that are expanding to bring in the next generation.

To continue to gain market share in the United States with consumers, the American Lamb Board has engaged in various research and promotion programs. Board Chairman Jim Percival told producers about specific research being conducted by Colorado State University designed to make sure consumers have a good eating experience by promoting a consistent product. "What we're doing is using some of the most modern technology to be able to find elements and things that create a flavor profile and identify the ones that create a bad flavor profile and get those carcasses out before they could possibly get into a retail setting." He says there is no common link to off flavors in lamb meat, but they are trying to identify markers through research to determine if genetics or environment play a role.

The trend for lamb meat consumption in the U.S. is up, according to Percival. He says, traditionally, the biggest markets have been the ethnic markets, but they are finding other consumers want that premium product, especially millennials. "They want that bold adventurous taste that lamb provides." So, with that information in hand they are hoping to increase consumption. "Our goal as the American Lamb Board is to increase consumption 2 percent per year for the next five years.

Right now, Americans consume less than a pound of lamb per year per person." He says that leaves a tremendous amount of growth potential. The American Lamb Board promotions are targeting the east and west coast and other big population centers.

On the international marketing front, American Sheep Industry Association Executive Director Peter Orwick says the trade war hasn't impacted the sheep industry as negatively as other sectors, at least not yet. However, it may if the battle drags into the new wool season next spring.

Plus, the U.S. exports a majority of the sheep skin supply and prices have already dropped due to the tariff situation. "We export a majority of them and China is the number one market for our sheep skin trade and that is also on the tariff list. So, we're going to be talking to the USDA about what we can do to help," he says.

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