There are fewer sheep in America today than there were 200 years ago and one tenth the number of sheep seen at the apex during the 1940s. The wool and mutton industry is not so much in decline as bottomed out, and prospects for a resurgence are slim. Americans don’t eat much mutton and don’t like wool anymore and what little we consume of both is easily provided by better quality and cheaper imports from Australia and New Zealand. Other than Dairy, the sheep industry is the only animal product that has an extensive history of government support (read: welfare) and there is little to show for it.
The American sheep industry is distinguished neither by quality nor quantity nor price nor innovation nor tradition. If you believe the romantic story that the Border Collie’s fate in this country is chained to working on sheep ranches and farms, and that Border Collies and their shepherds–styled after a bucolic vision of 17th century Britain–are an integral part of what little of that industry is left, then how can the breed survive going forward when its raison d’être is on life-support?
- Over the past 200 years, the U.S. sheep population has come full circle: from 7 million head in the early 1800s, sheep numbers peaked at 56 million head in 1945, then declined to less than 7 million head in 2003. As of January 1, 2013 there are 5.34 million head of sheep in the U.S.
- The countries with the most sheep (in millions) are: China (138), India (74), Australia (73), Iran (49), Nigeria (38), United Kingdom (31), New Zealand (31), Pakistan (28).
- In 1800, there were 5.3 million people in the United States meaning there were more than 1.3 sheep for every person. Today there are over 316 million humans in the USA making for almost 60 people for every sheep. The sheep to human ratio has declined to just better than 1/80th what it was.
- The rapid decline since WWII can be seen across the board in the gross U.S. production of sheep meat and wool, sheep industry revenues, and number of sheep farms. Domestic wool use has dropped from an average of 650 million clean pounds per year following the war, to 55 million pounds during the 1970s to less than 22 million pounds during the 2000s.
- The wool industry has suffered from increased use of synthetic fibers, which are less expensive than wool and more attractive to consumers when blended with natural fibers. The depressed wool market appears to be a direct cause of the liquidation of the U.S. sheep industry. Wool demand and wool prices have sunk so low for the past few decades that the cost of adding value to wool (shearing, cleaning, storing) sometimes exceeds the value of producing the wool.
- Other than dairy, sheep is the only animal product that is directly supported by government programs. Wool price support (read: incentive checks a.k.a industry welfare) and other policy programs have long been a part of the sheep industry. Wool price support programs date back to 1938. Productivity gains in wool production have been negligible and the use of wool has dropped significantly. Real prices for wool have trended downward, declining at a much faster rate since the mid-1990s.
- Despite government support for wool, prices have been unable to sustain the sheep industry and lamb prices have been unable to support industry recovery.
- Lamb consumption is very low compared to other meats. U.S. per capita consumption dropped from 4.5 pounds per capita (retail weight) in the early 1960s to around 1.1 pounds per year over the past two decades. More than 2 in 3 people don’t consume lamb at all. Americans eat about 60 times the pork and 90-100 times more beef and chicken each year.
- In two national cross-sectional surveys reported by the National Research Council, conducted in 1977 and 1985, 1.3 percent of U.S. women and 1.9 percent of men ate lamb. While per capita consumption of other major meats has grown or held steady since then, total lamb and mutton consumption has generally declined since 1975.
- Attempts to promote U.S. lamb have failed. The U.S. sheep industry focuses on high-value cuts for the domestic market (typically older, relatively well established immigrants living in urban areas) and has neither capitalized on market segmentation nor developed export markets. Much of the lower-value meat is rendered or goes into pet food. What little is exported is mainly to Mexico.
- Lamb consumers prefer high-value cuts such as legs and loins, while producers (farmers), or processors, and retailers struggle to sell the remaining cuts. U.S. sheep growers are less inclined to produce when the returns from the whole carcass are based primarily on a few desirable cuts.
- Lamb as a staple seems more typical of Middle Eastern, African, Latin American, and Caribbean consumers. Consumption has remained constant within these groups. The typical lamb consumer is an older, relatively well-established ethnic minority who lives in a metropolitan area like New York, Boston, or Philadelphia in the Northeast or San Francisco or Los Angeles on the West coast, and who prefers to eat only certain lamb cuts. In contrast, beef, pork, and poultry buyers tend to be geographically dispersed, younger, less ethnically oriented, and accepting of a wider variety of meat cuts.
- Lamb slaughter is highly concentrated. While there are about 500 federally inspected slaughter operations that process at least one sheep in a year, only 6 plants account for 80% of the lamb kill and 4 plants process 67%. Colorado processes more sheep and lambs than any other state, almost 40 percent. This consolidation has allowed slaughter houses to demand a greater cut, further squeezing producers.
- States with the most sheep: Texas (700k), California (570k), Colorado (435k), Wyoming (375k), and Utah (295k).
- States with the most sheep operations: Texas (8.7k), Arizona (5k), California (4.1k), Pennsylvania (3.8k), Iowa (3.5k).
- The real wholesale price for lamb is half what it was in 1978 and real prices received by farmers for lamb and wool are even lower as the long term trend in farm-to-wholesale price spread has producers earning a smaller share of declining revenues.
- While the lamb meat industry has registered productivity gains (by focusing on meat breeds), domestic supply has fallen because the decline in inventory far outpaces increases in output per animal.
- Disease and predator losses raise costs and erode farm profitability.
While it’s pretty clear that sheep-as-industry in the U.S. is reeling and at risk of extinction, there’s some hope to be had with the growing backyard barnyard fad pushing growth in the sheep-as-hobby sector.
Sheep are ideal for operations with a small acreage. Most operations in the United States raise fewer than 100 head. Growth of the industry will rely on these smaller operations growing and continuing to introduce more people to the industry while at the same time tapping into local niche markets for lamb and mutton, wool, and dairy products.
Hobby sheep seem to be at the nexus of several major trends which have made the backyard barnyard lifestyle much more popular in the last few years. Aging and increasingly childless yuppies are on board with the organic, sustainable, locavore, back to nature, farmers’ market culture which is a reaction against urbanization and globalization.
Gardening is the largest hobby in America and hobby farms are a natural outgrowth of that effort and style mavens like Martha Stewart have heavily promoted farming as a hobby as an evolution of their long-time gardening promotion.
Self-sufficiency hobbies are becoming more popular with ties to Mormon food canning (they also gave us the Scrapbooking trend), doomsday prepping, and living off the grid. Historical re-enactment hobbies are also gaining popularity with recent revival trends in knitting and other needle arts and the associated promotion of natural fibers; soap making; beading; and domestic cheese, wine, and beer making.
The growth areas for hobby sheep farms in the U.S. overlap with a high degree of correlation with the google trend map for “backyard chickens,” mostly in the North East and West Coast.
This is a major shift in thinking about the sheep industry in America and now that the large scale production side has eroded so much revealing the the extant hobby and small time farmer segment, the future of the industry remains uncertain.
The decline in U.S. sheep operations calls into question the viability of the industry, which is beset by shrinking revenues and low rates of returns.
The sheep industry, like the rest of the livestock industry, is dominated by a few large operations with a majority of the animals. However, the proportion of small farmers with sheep operations is on the rise. In 1974, 77 percent of all farms owned fewer than 100 head of sheep. By 1997, 85 percent of all farms owned fewer than 100 head of sheep. This phenomenon is typical of other livestock sectors, especially beef, where a large percentage of farm operators are small farmers. The relatively low investment costs and the ability of sheep to thrive on marginal lands make sheep farming ideal for beginning and small part-time producers. Most large operations which own 80 percent of the sheep, are in Western and Plains States, while small farm flock operations are mostly in the Midwestern States and the Southern and Eastern States.
Although small producers (fewer than 100 head) make up most of the operations, they own less than 17 percent of all sheep. Since 1974, just above 55 percent of all sheep have consistently been located on farms with 1,000 head or more. Larger farms likely benefit from economies of size and are thereby more likely to be profitable than smaller producers.
More than two-thirds of U.S. sheep production are produced in the Southern Plains, Mountain, and Pacific regions. The number of farms and the number of animals on farms in all regions (except New England) have declined significantly since 1975. Still, several States have registered slight gains in recent years, mainly due to the preponderance of small hobby-type farms and the ease with which sheep can be integrated into these types of operations.
The new appreciation of the hobby side of the market resulted in a greater desire to quantify that segment and during the 2007 Census of Agriculture the number of sheep operations in the U.S. was revised upwards when the accounting method was altered to include more hobbyists who previously flew under the radar of the USDA. Sadly, the downward trend of operators leaving the business has continued in the years since.
Despite the growing popularity of historical re-enactment hobbies, it is 2013 and not 1750. Many more Border Collies live in America than on the border between England and Scotland or all of the UK. So too do many times more Border Collies chase Frisbees here than work sheep on any sort of farm, let alone a profitable venture of any size.
The unstoppable march of time has already claimed what was once the most ubiquitous and popular breed in America, the farm collie, and left it in tatters with small pockets of disparate fanciers scattered around the country with little hope of a resurgence. We moved to the city and left Old Shep behind.
Is that the same fate that awaits the Border Collie? Will they become obsolete along with the culture that created them?
USDA Trends In the U.S. Sheep Industry. K.G. Jones, 2004
USDA-NASS Livestock Slaughter 2005 Summary. 2006
USDA Slaughter and Processing Options and Issues for Locally Sourced Meat. Johnson, Marti, and Gwin, 2012.
USDA Overview of the United States Sheep and Goat Industry. 2011
USDA-NASS Farms, Land in Farms and Livestock Operations 2012 Summary. 2013
USDA-NASS Sheep and Goats. 2013
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