KETR

Lamb Boom Has Sheep Farmers Flocking Together

Jan 30, 2012
Originally published on January 31, 2012 7:17 pm

When city folk think of lamb, they may think of very young sheep — perhaps 6 weeks old. But 6 months is the average age of spring lamb going to market these days.

Don Van Nostran has one in a holding pen in his barn at Will-O-Wood Farm in southeastern Ohio. It soon will be butchered and sold in a local Kroger store.

Van Nostran's spring lamb is very much in demand these days as an alternative to beef, chicken and pork, even though the cost is generally higher. Many immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, especially Muslims, favor lamb or goat over beef.

But even though the popularity of lamb is up, American sheep farmers like Van Nostran are worried. They say they need more farmers to raise sheep. And they want existing sheep farmers to increase the size of their flocks to meet growing demand.

That's surprising, because lamb farmers are making good money, with prices at an all-time high. Van Nostran says chops can go for about $15 a pound. Compare that to some chicken cuts in the $2 range and beef at about $5 a pound.

Still, the future of the industry is uncertain.

Curt Cline is another southeast Ohio sheep farmer who worries about producing enough.

"There needs to be a certain level of numbers of head of sheep to support infrastructure," Cline says, referring to infrastructure like processing plants and veterinary support. "If the infrastructure falls apart, you're kind of left hanging."

But he doesn't actually view other lamb producers as competition; he says he sees them as partners.

The American Sheep Industry Association is calling on existing sheep producers to expand and on new farmers to start production. This national initiative, launched last year, aims to get farmers to produce 315,000 additional lambs by 2014.

Both Cline and Van Nostran have signed on to be part of that effort.

Van Nostran says there's a lot of room for growth in the East and the Midwest, but not so much out West, where ranchers don't have access to additional grazing land.

Many of the new farmers are young, and agriculture officials agree that sheep raising should be attractive to them because it's relatively low-cost compared with other herds.

Sheep need fewer acres for grazing than cattle, for example, and sheep are significantly cheaper to feed. But they do come with a host of disease issues and, unlike cattle, have a number of predators.

Sheep farming also can be labor intensive, especially when ewes are giving birth. But for today's sheep farmers, this intense labor seems to be paying off.

Fred Kight is a reporter for member station WOUB.

Copyright 2017 WOUB Public Media. To see more, visit WOUB Public Media.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Lamb is more popular than ever, and prices for the meat are at an all-time high, but American sheep farmers are worried. They're afraid too much demand will hurt them in the long run. They say they need more farmers to raise sheep, and that existing sheep farmers need to increase the size of their flocks.

Fred Kight of member station WOUB in Athens, Ohio, has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHEEP BLEATING)

FRED KIGHT, BYLINE: This young sheep is in a holding pen in Don Van Ostran's barn in Southeast Ohio. It soon will be butchered and sold as lamb in a local Kroger store. This sheep is about 6 months old, not 6 weeks old. When city folks think of lamb, they tend to think of very young lamb, but 6 months is the average age of spring lamb going to market. But don't confuse this with the meat of older sheep that can be tough and less tasty. It's spring lamb that's very much in demand these days as an alternative to beef, chicken and pork.

While the cost is generally higher, consumers still demand high-quality American lamb. Large numbers of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, especially Muslims, often favor lamb or goat over beef.

DON VAN OSTRAN: Lamb is a popular meat among other cultures.

KIGHT: Don Van Ostran and other sheep farmers are happy that consumers are putting more lamb on their dinner tables, and farmers are making good money with lamb prices at an all-time high. Chops can go for about $15 a pound. Compare that to some chicken cuts in the $2 range, and comparable beef at about $5 a pound. Still, there's concern about the future.

Curt Cline is another Southeast Ohio sheep farmer, who worries about producing enough.

CURT CLINE: There needs to be a certain level of numbers of head of sheep to support infrastructure.

KIGHT: Infrastructure like processing plants and veterinary support. Cline says the long-term sustainability of the industry is at stake.

CLINE: So if the infrastructure falls apart, you're kind of left hanging. I don't view somebody else getting a flock of sheep as competition. I view them as partners.

KIGHT: The American Sheep Industry Association is calling on existing sheep producers to expand, and on new farmers to start production. This national initiative, launched last year, has a goal of producing 315,000 additional lambs by 2014. Both Cline and Van Ostran have signed on to be part of that effort. Van Ostran says there's a lot of room for growth in this region but not so much out West, where ranchers don't have access to additional grazing land.

VAN OSTRAN: It's new farmers that are interested but I think that also, the expansion's coming primarily through the Midwest and the East.

KIGHT: Agriculture officials think young farmers should be attracted to raising sheep because it's relatively low-cost compared to other herds. Sheep need fewer acres for grazing than cattle, for example, and sheep are significantly cheaper to feed. But sheep do come with a host of disease issues and unlike cattle, have a number of predators. Sheep farming also can be labor-intensive, especially when ewes are giving birth. But for today's sheep farmers, this intense labor seems to be paying off.

For NPR News, I'm Fred Kight in Athens, Ohio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.