Keeping the industry alive: Lamb co-op continues to stabilize marketsWritten by Saige Albert
With the first meeting of the Mountain State Lamb Cooperative (MSLC) in September 1999, a group of sheep producers gathered to attempt to turn the sinking industry around.
“There was a group of producers who were to a point where they’d been working with the sheep industry for 10 or 15 years, trying to turn the ship around with limited to no success,” says Brad Boner, a sheep producer from Glenrock. “A core group got together and decided to do something about it.”
“We all felt strongly that if we didn’t do something drastic, our kids wouldn’t have the same opportunities to be in the sheep business if they wanted to,” continues Boner.
Because the co-op was a new idea for many of the producers involved in its establishment, it was a learning experience, says Boner.
“We spent a lot of time putting it together,” says Moore. “By the time we got it up and running, it’s a complicated cooperative.”
The first MSLC lambs were slaughtered in December 2001 on a contract basis.
In the following years, MSLC bought 50 percent interest in a meat company in the Bronx, N.Y.
“Initially our goal was to buy 80 percent, and in hindsight it was good that we didn’t,” says Boner of the 50 percent the co-op initially bought. “The owners stayed involved and managed the business and helped us out. If we had owned 80 percent right off the bat, it would have been a mistake, looking back.”
“The co-op cuts out the middle man in the lamb industry,” explains sheep producer Tom Reed. “We sell our lambs on the rail and have a meat company that takes them.”
“Since the co-op started, lamb prices have gone up and it’s been good for the people in the co-op,” says Reed. “We’ve done well in the co-op, and the co-op is doing well, too.”
“It’s good that everyone can make some money is the sheep industry and we can keep it going,” adds Reed.
In September 2008 MSLC bought the remaining 50 percent of the meat company and now owns Mountain States Rosen, the fabrication, distribution and marketing arm of MSLC.
JBS in Greeley, Colo. processes nearly all the lambs for MSLC and Moore says that Superior is their largest competitors.
“If the co-op decided to build its own packing plant, I think that would be a risky venture,” says Moore. “If we left JBS, they’d be competition. JBS could start a price war, and we’d be in trouble in a hurry.”
Originally, Moore notes that they had plans to branch into wool, as well, but says he doesn’t anticipate that happening in the near future.
“We do some things with wool companies and Mountain Meadow Wool in Buffalo. Whether we build or buy a packing plant or expand in that way – I don’t know,” adds Moore. “It certainly would be the next logical step, but right now we don’t need to.”
Today, MSLC has expanded to about 147 members in 12 western states. The five board members include chair Frank Moore, vice chair Brad Boner, secretary treasurer Mark Wahl, Robert Oxarango and Jay Hasbrouck.
“Through just last year, it took a tremendous amount of my time, but now we have a great CEO in New York who runs the meat company,” says Moore. “I’m still president of the board and the meat company in New York, but I’d hope we’ve got this to the point where we have other people who feel like they can do it.”
Ultimately MSLC was successful and helped the industry.
“It did a lot to stabilize the sheep industry, and certainly the lamb side of it,” says Moore. “We accomplished what we set out to – to stabilize our markets.”
Boner adds, “With the markets the way they are, it is easy to forget why we formed the co-op in the first place. No one really needs the co-op right now, but this too shall pass.”
“We’d like to think and talk ourselves into the fact that good prices will be here forever, but that’s not the case,” says Boner.
Moore adds, “In the last two years, the supply of lambs was so short that a person didn’t have to be part of the co-op to sell their product. What we see right now is the oversupply of lambs in the feedlots of Colorado.”
Moore explains the lamb supply is at its highest level in 20 years and the additional supply will affect the marketplace, noting, “The co-op will again become very attractive, because we have a home for our lambs.”
“The idea was to have a market for our products so we aren’t at the mercy of what is going on,” comments Moore. “It helped the entire industry stabilize prices and smooth out the ups and downs.”
The lamb product offered by MSLC is attractive to consumers, and the co-op is an opportunity for producers, as well.
“Producer involvement is very attractive to our meat company customers,” says Moore. “When we go on sales calls, that resonates very well.”
Not only does MSLC raise high quality lambs, the product is natural and follows strict criteria, including a ban on the use of hormones and antibiotics, as well as vegetarian diet.
With a recent trend toward natural products, raised humanely, MSLC fits into a desirable market for many Americans. The emphasis on sound animal husbandry and sustainable practice only serve to further promote Western lamb products.
“We used to be number one in the lamb marketing companies in the U.S.,” says Moore. “And we’re still the second largest lamb company in the United States.”