Shear bliss for sheep farmers
Tony Theos of Meeker grew up in the sheep business, and at age 32, he’s never seen lamb and wool prices as high as they are now.
“You’re in it because you love what you do, but you’re in it to make money. With what’s going on right now, you can do that,” he said.
The U.S. sheep industry is enjoying prices buoyed by rising domestic and international demand for lamb meat and wool. It’s enough to provide reason for optimism this lambing season for Colorado sheep growers — to the degree anyone who raises livestock ever can feel optimistic.
“Being a rancher, of course, you always wait for the other shoe to drop, but it sure seems like an exciting time as long as things go well as far as the weather,” Theos said.
Calvin Roberts, a sheep farmer outside New Castle, said winter lamb prices have reached in some cases $2 per pound. While there should be something of a seasonal drop by the time the bulk of lambs come on the market this fall, he welcomes the upturn in prices, after struggling not so many years ago with prices as low as 90 cents per pound.
“It’s not been great,” he said, thinking back to those low-yield years.
Peter Orwick, executive director of the Denver-based American Sheep Industry Association, said the drop in the dollar’s value is one reason for higher prices. No longer can New Zealand and Australian growers take advantage of a strong U.S. dollar to sell to American markets cheaply and drive down the price.
But rising domestic demand is occurring as well, in several ways, Orwick said. He said Kroger — the largest American lamb retailer, and owner of King Soopers and City Market in Colorado — recently came out with its own branded American lamb product. Meanwhile, Wal-Mart Supercenters recently announced they will be selling exclusively American lamb for 2011–12.
“I think people not only like to know where their food comes from, but they prefer for it to be American,” he said.
Orwick said that rather than going to big packing plants, 30 percent of all domestic lamb now is marketed through smaller, nontraditional channels, such as local meat shops and individuals buying direct from farmers.
The growth of ethnic communities in metropolitan areas has been one driver in the emerging nontraditional market, as Africans, Middle-Easterners, Latinos and others bring their taste for lamb with them when they come to the United States. Roberts said he probably sells a couple dozen lambs a season directly to area residents from Mexico.
A WHOLE FOODS COUP
Consumer demand for healthier, locally produced food has directly benefited the Theos family operation, run by Tony and his dad, Butch. They have about 4,000 sheep, including about 3,100 breeding ewes. Several years ago, Whole Foods Market approached them about buying Colorado-grown, antibiotic- and hormone-free lambs.
“The first year was kind of a pilot year. Last year they took all of our supply,” Theos said.
Dave Ruedlinger, meat coordinator for the 27 stores in Whole Foods’ Rocky Mountain region, said consumer sentiment drove the deal.
“We were starting to get a lot of questions at the store level, saying, ‘Hey, we see a lot of Colorado lamb. Why don’t you guys have it?’ ” he said.
He said customers are glad when they hear the lamb is raised in pristine country in Meeker and Steamboat Springs, where another local supplier operates, and they appreciate Colorado lamb’s flavor.
Theos said Colorado lamb meat has a mild, natural taste that comes from grazing in local forests.
“It’s really starting to make a name from itself. You have your Maine lobster and your Florida oranges, and now you have your Colorado lamb,” he said.
Colorado ranks third-highest in the nation in total sheep and lamb inventory, at 370,000.
While the bulk of sheep-raising revenues come from lamb sales, near-record wool prices are providing welcome side income that might total $15 or $20 per ewe. Orwick said the biggest reason for wool price growth last year was the American military, which buys 100 percent domestic wool for uniforms, blankets, socks and base layers.
Meanwhile, burgeoning markets, such as in China, are helping boost global demand for lamb meat and wool.
Orwick said even sheepskin prices are approaching record levels, because of demand for uses such as footwear, and that can add another $10 or $15 to a lamb’s value.
FIGHTING INDUSTRY DECLINE
While business is looking up for the sheep growers, they still face plenty of challenges. With demand rising, the industry is looking for ways to boost wool and sheep numbers and lamb and wool production through means such as encouraging growers to gradually increase ewe numbers.
Theos said domestic sheep numbers today are one-tenth of the more than 50 million that were being raised back in the 1950s.
In addition to issues such as prices and imports, Roberts said predation has been a big problem over the decades, and that has been made more difficult in Colorado by trapping restrictions and banning of spring bear hunts.
Last year, he estimates, he lost about $12,000 worth of lamb to coyotes alone.
While industry prices are up, so are costs for things such as fuel, Roberts said. Bad weather can hurt, such as the cold temperatures last spring that caused lamb losses for Theos and others. And Roberts and Theos continue to worry about pushes to restrict grazing on public lands.
“If people want to see farms and ranches, we need to continue to have public-lands grazing,” Roberts said.
Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop in Carbondale, said grazing isn’t as big a concern in Colorado as elsewhere because it tends to occur at higher elevations where the range gets more moisture and is more resilient. A key is keeping animals from overgrazing a spot before being moved, and protecting riparian areas, he said.
“It can happen well, and you get the ecological benefits of keeping the ranches open,” versus seeing ranchlands developed, he said.
He said his big concern right now is the loss of bighorn sheep in the Crystal River Valley near Carbondale because of a lungworm disease contracted through contact with domestic sheep.
Orwick’s organization has a task force that is trying to work with public agencies and other interests to see how to protect bighorn sheep and the domestic sheep industry.
For sheep ranchers such as Theos, such challenges loom large, but he can be optimistic because of things such as the interest being shown in his product by Whole Foods customers.
“People are really accepting, wanting to hear about what we’re doing, about our ranches and how long we’ve been around. People want to be educated about where their food is coming from,” he said.