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Guest Opinions

Sheep Industry Clears Tough Challenges, Reaches Important Goals

Written by Guest Opinion
    The sour world economy caught up to the sheep industry in 2009. However, unlike every other facet of animal agriculture, fortunately sheep producers were spared from the severe price drops on the 2008 production. As we enter the fall run of lambs, prices are off from the unprecedented averages of the 2002 through 2008 crops.  
    The $2 million section 32 lamb meat purchase program that the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) secured this year is a bright spot for lamb companies to help keep meat moving and we believe it will strengthen lamb prices at the ranch gate. To date, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has purchased eight semi loads of boneless lamb for delivery this fall. The remaining half of the funds still need to be obligated for additional lamb. This project is just one example of the benefit received when producers and feeders hold a joint annual meeting as the request for ASI to pursue this funding was noted repeatedly during the sheep industry convention last January.   
    The ASI insurance program designed to help manage the risk of lamb price fluctuations will once again be available for sale in September. The Livestock Risk Protection-Lamb has been off-line this summer as a number of changes have been approved for inclusion to the program. A different prices series under USDA’s mandatory price reporting will be employed along with a 20-week endorsement, as requested by sheep producers.
     Wool market prices are behind the 15-year highs experienced in 2008. Undoubtedly, this is because $500 to $1,500 wool suits are not selling like normal. The economy caused folks that typically buy a suit or sport coat every year to skip a season causing a struggle in the clothing retail business. The upside is that the U.S. military is buying wool in greater quantities and is working with the industry on new wool products for our service men and women. ASI hosted 12 wool firms and representatives from all branches of the military this July to further the promotion of American wool. The U.S. Army announced that it is streamlining its service uniform from the current green uniforms to one blue Army service uniform, creating an additional demand for wool. It is heartening to ranchers to see that their wool is clothing the men and women who fight for our country! I believe it is as inspiring for the military officials to meet the ranchers and to witness the animal care and natural production of American sheep and wool.  
    Also on the promotion angle, I commend the Wyoming sheepmen for stepping up with the rest of the country this year and approving the national referendum to continue the American lamb promotion program. This is the second vote since 2005 and each passed with over 80 percent approval by ranch and sheep numbers.
    On the industry’s legislative front, the Wyoming Wool Growers Association (WWGA), with the support of its senators, helped halt the USDA proposal to initiate lamb and live sheep imports from Argentina, something ASI adamantly opposes.
    ASI and the WWGA teamed up again to defend the registration of the M-44 coyote control tool which animal rights groups had petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to challenge. Hundreds of producers, state and federal officials and wildlife management rallied with the sheep industry to address the misinformation supplied by animal rightists. In January and again in March of this year, the EPA entirely rejected the challenge. USDA’s Wildlife Services (WS) did a stellar job with the documentation and demonstrated the professional practices used with this important coyote control tool. I found the same level of professionalism in their conduct of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for predator management across federal grazing allotments since its initiation in the mid 1990s. I would add that the agency has not lost a single lawsuit on those NEPA documents.
    Speaking of animal rights, I have not seen this level of activism or the responding level of concern from the livestock and meat businesses in my career as what we have seen this year. I think the federal elections and state ballot initiatives created excitement among those opposed to animal agriculture. This winter, rights activists asked the new administration to abolish the entire WS program – programs from airport safety to livestock protection to disease control. I find it pretty amazing that these groups continued their attacks on wildlife management even after geese knocked a jet airliner out of the sky and into the Hudson River in New York. In response, we found many legislative partners, beyond sheep and cattle, to support the activities of WS, including the National Rifle Association, Safari Club International and the pork industry (Wildlife damage management in some states now take more feral hogs than coyotes.). While protection of our animals is just one facet of the fight with animal rights groups, it is one that is in the forefront for sheep producers and increasingly for other livestock operators. Overall, we need to find a way for stockmen, meat companies and our partners in agriculture and food distribution to fund millions of dollars annually to seriously take on the animal rights community.
    A new project that is gathering interest nationally this year is a working group on livestock protection dogs. The Wyoming and Colorado sheep industries are leading the charge on the management, education and benefits of guard dogs to control depredation. Increasing recreation in historical grazing areas, both public and private, has meant increased conflicts. Protection dogs are critical to many sheep ranches so it is important to help ensure their continued use. Signage and educational materials are under development along with a compilation of management practices. The goal of the working group is to help sheep producers, neighboring producers and recreationalists co-exist.
    The Livestock Indemnity Program of USDA’s Farm Services Agency is a program ASI actively fought for in last year’s Farm Bill and we worked with the agency this year to implement the program to help with sheep lost to adverse weather. We didn’t imagine sheep producers would need the program straight out of the gate but, unfortunately, last winter and this spring were killer seasons in Wyoming, the Dakotas and Montana. We anticipate millions will be provided to operators in these states who lost sheep in snowstorms. Without this standing authority for the indemnity as provided to the Secretary of Agriculture by the 2008 Farm Bill, this help would be many months away, if available at all. We learned with the 2005 drought that disaster assistance for agriculture is very difficult to obtain in the increasingly urban U.S. Congress, so this stipulation in the Farm Bill was absolutely the right thing for livestock producers.
    The goal of the indemnity program is to help ranchers restock. The timing is important not solely because of the severe weather losses of the past year but because lamb and wool companies have also been visiting with ASI leaders this spring about ways to increase production. Both lamb and wool companies are lining up support to assist with new ways to increase production for the benefit of the entire industry. In fact, Mountain States Rosen Lamb has already committed joint participation with the ASI executive board. ASI programs led inventory increases in 2004 and 2005 but numbers are down slightly since then so we are interested in additional ways that all aspects of the sheep business can provide support to promote production.
    Peter Orwick is Executive Director of the American Sheep Industry Association. The organization can be found online at www.sheepusa.org.