LAMB & WOOL COMPANY
? Why should we care about the American
Sheep Industry ?
Sheep thrive on grass.
In an era when agriculture is evolving toward an increasingly
chemically intensive, geographically and economically concentrated,
and aesthetically unfulfilling assemblage of specialized industries,
sheep husbandry has the potential to offer much that foreign imports
and other land uses cannot:
- Poultry and hog industries are increasingly, perhaps irreversibly,
headed toward factory farming concentrated in midwestern and
southern confinement facilities. Sheep husbandry offers a way
to raise meat in the U.S. in a decentralized, genetically diverse
population while caring for open landscapes. Increasing concern
about susceptibility to disease and resistance to antibiotics
in confinement operations underscores the importance of viable
- Sheep husbandry can be a viable way to raise food and fiber
on lands that are susceptible to erosion or other watershed damage
if subjected to crop agriculture. The prospect of allowing all
such land to revert to open lands with no domestic livestock
is appealing to many people. However that option does nothing
to address the growing noxious weed populations invading millions
of acres of American landscape, nor the economic impact to communities
that benefit from grazing on that acreage. The prairie grasses
evolved in the presence of hooved, grazing animals; if managed
properly, the animals improve the sod.
- Replacement of sheep by cattle has already occurred to a
substantial degree, but recent overproduction and price slumps
in the cattle industry do not favor that trend. Furthermore,
when managed properly, sheep grazing can be less stressful to
riparian and arid ecosystems than cattle operations. Both the
cattle and sheep industries would benefit from a focus on synergy
rather than competition; sheep eat species that are undesirable
to cattle graziers, and cattle can function as guard animals
in joint herding systems.
- Although the domestic sheep industry has declined, it is
far from dead, and acceptance of its total demise would mean
the loss of thousands of jobs on farms and in supporting services.
- Although reliance on Australian and New Zealand supplies
seems numerically plausible, it leaves American wool users completely
at the mercy of Australian drought, fluctuations of Chinese wool
supply and consumption, and the vicissitudes of global transport
and storage procedures. These are all proven disruptive factors
in the global wool and lamb markets. Furthermore, foreign wool
suppliers are not immune to predator and related land use controversies.
Consider the 3000-mile long fence in Australia for example, and
it becomes clear that the Australian dogie has inspired taxpayer
expenditure, slaughter and ecological interference that may well
exceed the coyote's influence on American policies. (National
Geographic, April, 1997).
- Sheep husbandry offers an entry into agriculture for American
youth unmatched by other domestic livestock and crop farming.
Our increasingly urban culture needs to cultivate connections
to the land, and sheep are accessible to very young children
in ways that cattle, factory hogs, and cropland agriculture cannot
- A domestic, regionally diverse sheep industry offers opportunities
for consumers to experience a range of extraordinary and diverse
natural fibers. Do we want to go the way of the industrial apple
growers, reducing ourselves to granny smith and red delicious,
and then scramble desperately to revive diversity when consumers
- Many people love wool, related exotic fibers and the animals
that grow them, and Americans will continue to explore sheep
products whether or not there is a large-scale domestic industry.
Why not foster such creative energies to nourish a vigorous industry,
providing access to unique food and fiber for more than just
an affluent few?
Sheep husbandry, like any form of agriculture, can improve
or degrade the land. Like any industry, it can be well managed
or mismanaged. As consumers, we have the power to influence the
direction of sheep management in America. Whether we select lamb
and wool, and the way we choose our suppliers, will ultimately
dictate the viability and methods of sheep ranching.
As sheep ranchers, we must in turn, examine our own choices.
Sheep numbers have declined from about 40 million to about 8 million
since the 1940s. The diminished quantities have begun to cripple
the processing infrastructure, further exacerbating the price
discrepancies between lamb and the other meats (pork, beef, poultry).
Until recently, lamb marketers ignored consumer demand for lean
meats and convenient cuts. Change is underway.
We have allowed an entire industry of petroleum-based synthetic
fibers to induce cultural amnesia about wool's superior qualities--its
natural beauty, its durability, its non-slimy comfort over a huge
temperature range. Competent growers of appropriate sheep breeds
are now producing non-scratchy, clean, lustrous wool fibers. Rejuvenation
of the Wool Sweater in international fashion indicates that we
are waking up, but American manufacturers are playing catch-up.
There is undoubtedly some truth to the notion that much of
the clamor for preserving ranches is a nostalgic cry for hanging
onto a bygone lifestyle. But we recognize that this country was
not built by people who emulated their grandfathers. We believe
that the sheep industry can and must adapt its traditional techniques
in the interest of preserving the best of its traditional values.
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13000 Springhill Road
Belgrade, Montana 59714