COVID challenges sheep/lamb industry; farmer focuses on quality

The inventory of all sheep and lambs in Illinois totaled 53,000 head as of Jan. 1, down 4% from the previous year. The inventory of meat and other goats increased 4% to 25,000 head, although the milk goat inventory (9,500 head) dipped 5% across the state in 2020. (Photo by Catrina Rawson)

Illinois sheep and lamb numbers declined 4% in the past year to 53,000 head, as of Jan. 1.

And much of that reduction can be attributed to marketing challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent mitigation efforts, according to Terry Becherer, a member of the Clinton County Farm Bureau and Illinois Lamb and Wool Producers (ILWP).

“Our normal markets weren’t there,” said Becherer, past president of ILWP, who, along with his wife, Angela, runs about 350 ewes on 40 acres near Trenton. “We usually sold lambs for gatherings. But with everything restricted and the inability to have family get-togethers, all that changed.”

COVID mitigation efforts began last March and disrupted the traditional Easter market for a number of farmers who raise lambs. It also ceased a lot of show activity and sales.

The inventory of market sheep and lambs in the state totaled 8,000 head as of Jan. 1, down 11% from the previous year, the National Agricultural Statistics Service Illinois field office reported. The wool market also unraveled in 2020, dropping 9% to 155,000 pounds.

“The wool market is terrible,” Becherer said. “We got no money for our wool. We were lucky to get rid of it.”

The Becherers responded by culling about 35 ewes and continue to focus on quality and pasture management as they rebuild numbers.

“My plan is to cull some this year and simplify the workload, with replacements ready right away,” said Becherer, who sells lambs to a buyer in Pennsylvania. “I’m not planning on downsizing. I’m just rebuilding with better quality. Quality sells, even in a bad market.”

The breeding sheep inventory in Illinois totaled 45,000 as of Jan. 1, down just 2%.

Along with an emphasis on quality, Becherer also said a key to success for sheep and lamb farmers revolves around managing feed costs.

“You’ve just got to watch costs,” he said. “Look for alternative feed sources to help keep your production costs down. We use pasture management.”

The Becherers, who operate Rocky Ford Ranch, which has had sheep since 1987, plant everything from oats, turnips, rye and cereal rye grass to millets.

“We use cover crop mixtures in our pasture,” Becherer said. “We’ve done it a long time. There’s hardly any time something’s not green on our farm.”

The Becherers, currently in the midst of lambing season, also stagger lambing out to additional sets in late April, late May and in the fall.

“A lot of it has to do with marketing,” he said of the staggered lambing seasons. “It spreads the risk out.”

Looking ahead, Becherer sees a better year ahead for sheep and lamb farmers as demand continues to increase.

“Right now, the market is strong,” he added. “The market is rebounding.”

The latest inventory estimates also show 25,000 head of meat and other goats in Illinois as of Jan. 1, up 4% from the previous year. The milk goat inventory, 9,500 head, slipped 5%.