Sheep ranchers: “The best of times… the worst of times”

Dec 10, 2011

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With soaring lamb and wool prices, raising sheep has recently become more lucrative than ever for Wyoming ranchers. Even with the payoff, raising sheep is a tough job, and poses the same challenges it has for thousands of years… And the number of sheep ranchers in Wyoming has been on the decline for years. Wyoming Public Radio’s Rebecca Martinez reports.

(ambi outside shearing station)

REBECCA MARTINEZ: Every fall, Pierre Carricaburu grunts and strains as he lines up his 400 ewes to have their faces and rear ends shorn. Carricaburu is a physician in Riverton and does his own veterinary work. He inspects each of his ewes as they wait to walk up the chute that leads into the shearing wagon.

CARRICABURU: See this hard stuff? No milk on that side.

MARTINEZ: He finds a couple ewes whose udders have been infected and can no longer produce milk.

CARRICABURU: This one’s gonna go to PAYS Livestock in Billings. They end up going to the mutton market. Most of them go to Mexico.

MARTINEZ: Not that the mutton market is foremost in Carricaburu’s mind. He’s been raising sheep since childhood, and he says now is a better time than ever to be in the lamb and wool business. Lamb used to be a staple on the American menu, but dropped off in popularity in the last 50 years as people starting eating more beef. Hard times forced many sheep ranchers out of the business. But now, that’s changing.

CARRICABURU: we’re no longer a nation of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. We’re a nation of Hispanics and middle easterners and a whole collection of people whose major meat is lamb, and that is increasing the demand in this country.

MARTINEZ: Sheep growers associations have also worked hard to rebrand lamb, refining their genetics to be healthier and tastier. It’s seeing a comeback in fancy restaurants on the Coasts. Lamb prices have doubled in the last 15 years. Now a lamb sells for about $300 on the hoof, and wool’s not doing too badly itself.

CARRICABURU: I remember selling wool for $.33. The 80s and 90s, the wool market and sheep market was terrible. This year I got, $3.20, something like that.

MARTINEZ: So, supply-and-demand is in the favor of the sheep growers, but as usual, they can’t depend on Nature to help them out. They’ve never been able to do that. One reason: Predators.

(Regan Smith, Freddie Reyes speak in Spanish.)

Powell sheep rancher Regan Smith is visiting with Freddie Reyes, a Peruvian shepherd he’s hired to guard his thousand-head flock in the Big Horn Mountains, day and night. The flock is calm around Reyes, and quiet.

Smith says the guard dogs keep coyotes away, but the shepherd’s got a gun, just in case.

REGAN SMITH: Sheep are kind of susceptible to those kind of things. They’re smaller. They’ll bunch up when something happens and it’s easy for a good predator to get one. And it doesn’t have to be a big bear or a wolf. I mean, a  badger, a fox, an eagle.

MARTINEZ: But predation isn’t even the worst threat to flocks. Steve Gunn of the U-S Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service says 41,000 Wyoming sheep were lost in 2010, and only 40-percent were due to predation. More sheep die because of bad weather.

GUNN: That seems to be the biggest killer of sheep in the state of Wyoming. A lot of herds, even though they may be brought down closer to the home ranch or whatever, they still are out in the elements over the winter.

MARTINEZ: Sheep rancher Pierre Carricaburu says sheep are a struggle, but they have an edge over cattle.

CARRICABURU:  Sheep take more work to raise than cows do. They’re a real delicate animal. They need more care an attention. They’re not quite as hardy as a cow. But in spite of that they have the advantage of giving you two crops, both wool and meat, rather than just meat. That’s kind of the payoff.

MARTINEZ: Despite the harsh realities, sheep ranching is a way of life for many. Bryce Reece of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association says sheep ranchers’ reputations put salt in the wound.

REECE: You have to wanna be in the sheep business to be in it. First off Just withstand the sheep jokes are pretty tough, because there’s a lot of them out there.

MARTINEZ: But they’re protective of their flocks, and their honor. It costs less to raise sheep than cattle, and they’re safer to handle. Reece says it drives him nuts when people assume sheep are dim-witted because of their instinct to flock together.

REECE: And because of that people associate that they’re stupid and they’re not. You know, I defy people to go find an animal that you can bring to Wyoming that can live out there 365 days a year to thrive with temperature extremes like we see in Wyoming... They don’t just survive they thrive.

MARTINEZ: But breeding stock is as expensive as ever, and the age of the average American farmer is climbing into the upper 50s. Reece says he’s concerned for the future of sheep ranching and is brainstorming for ways to get aspiring young farmers on board.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Rebecca Martinez.