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New ideas for the sheep industry

These lamb producers are finding new markets.

For many consumers, lamb is a premium product to show off at holidays or on the grill. However, younger consumers are ready and willing to try a new, unique eating experience. The ethnic market is growing, with recent immigrants often coming from lamb-eating parts of the world. 

Meeting market demand depends on a steady, high quality supply. That has been hard for the sheep industry to deliver. Packers often have broad quality standards, allowing for significant product variation on the retail end. 

With around 85% of lambs in the U.S. born in the first five months of the year, that leaves two options to smooth out the market – holding lambs in feedlots until they are often undesirably large and fat, or adjusting the sheep’s’ breeding schedule. 

This has led to the industry’s focus on “the seasonality of lamb,” as producers work to meet consumer expectations, keep packing plants operating at capacity, and adhering to a market calendar that, among other factors, includes peak holiday seasons from a variety of cultures.

Here are three producers meeting the challenges of today’s sheep industry. 

Dale Thorne, Thorne Farms, Hanover, Michigan

Dale Thorne, pictured above, is one of those breeders catering to the ethnic market. He’s located just an hour from Detroit, home of the largest Muslim population in the U.S., where he runs around 800 ewes. Around 80% of his sales are through the sale barn, the other 20% of customers purchase direct from the farm.

Demand peaks around the holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha with a preference for an 80- to 90-pound lamb. Thorne receives a premium of $45 to $50 per head in the ethnic holiday market.

“That’s enough premium to offset the extra effort,” says Thorne. “Without it, it just wouldn’t be profitable.”

That effort includes breeding out of season when the timeline dictates. Based on the Islamic calendar, which is based on the lunar calendar, the Muslim holidays occur 10-12 days earlier each year. Lambs born the first part of the year now meet market demands, but in a few years it will take a fall-born lamb.

Thorne was breeding three rotating lambing groups, each bred every eight months, to produce three groups of lambs every two years. He found the ewes lambing in February and October easily bred back, but the May group was more difficult.

He didn’t like the margins, or the percentage of ewes that didn’t breed, so he now manages a spring lambing group and a fall lambing group. 

“The premium for out-of-season lamb is not always high enough to offset the lower production numbers,” says Thorne. “We know how to do it. We know which breeds are easiest to breed out of season, and which ones produce the most lambs. We know through genetic data which ewes are most productive. But the rubber meets the road when you interject the dollar.”

One of the issues that affects aseaonal breeding’s profitability is a decreased lambing rate. Producers like Thorne depend on multiple births for their bottom line. “You feed a ewe regardless of how many lambs she has,” explains Thorne. “And that’s a big part of your production costs. That cost stays constant whether she has one lamb or three.” 

So, he depends on genetic data to identify the ewes most likely to produce multiple lambs. The number of lambs a ewe produces per breeding, or lambing rate, is one of the many traits measured by the National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP) system of estimated breeding values (EBV). Similar to estimated progeny differences (EPD) in beef, EBVs measure and track heritable traits. The program’s popularity has grown exponentially in recent years.

Off the farm, Thorne serves as immediate past president of the American Lamb Board (ALB), the industry’s checkoff-funded support organization charged with product promotion and consumer education. ALB works alongside the American Wool Council and the American Sheep Industry Association. The National Lamb Feeders Association focuses on the feedlot segment. The National Sheep Industry Improvement Center is a segment of the USDA.

Great effort has gone into making these various groups work in concert. They frequently partner on projects like the Let’s Grow Initiative, a grant program for advancement of production practices and consumer outreach, and the 2014 Lamb Industry Roadmap. Work continues behind the scenes to streamline funding for NSIP and other industry improvements.

Getting the U.S. consumer to eat more lamb is a top priority.

“It’s all about knowing your customers and what type of product they want,” says Thorne.

Mark Van Roekel, Orange City, Iowa

In western Iowa, Mark Van Roekel has used accelerated lambing to produce three lamb crops every two years to meet his Superior Livestock Auction contracts. He works with the Pipestone Lamb and Wool Management Program Member Producer program, tapping its education opportunities and marketing expertise.

He explains there are three ways to accelerate breeding in sheep. Producers can insert a CIDR insert into the ewe that releases progesterone at a controlled rate to induce estrus. Or a feed additive can be given for the same purpose. Ewes can also be “tricked” into cycling by adjusting facility lighting. Keeping the building well lit for 60 days, then turning sheep out into natural light will make the ewe believe summer is ending and the natural fall breeding season is approaching. Certain breeds take to aseasonal breeding easier than others.

Van Roekel’s ewes are primarily Polypay, a breed known for its prolificacy and adaptability to aseasonal breeding and Midwest weather. His rams are Suffolk and Dorset for added growth and hybrid vigor. 

Nutrition plays a part in successful aseasonal breeding programs. Van Roekel feeds his ewes a corn silage base ration supplemented with DDGS. His lambs, pushed to market in 5 to 6 months, also benefit from the Grain Belt’s ample feed sources. He also feeds cattle on his diversified crop and livestock farm.

“There are a lot of opportunities for sheep production here in the Midwest,” says Van Roekel. “We can fill that supply void.” 

Born and raised a swine producer, Van Roekel switched to sheep when it became no longer cost-effective to maintain the needed facilities. Like many in Iowa, abandoned farrowing houses now make good sheep barns. Minnesota dairy barns serve the same purpose, and Van Roekel refers to hoop barns as a “godsend to sheep producers.” 

Van Roekel uses NSIP for breeding and production decisions, using the program’s data to focus on muscle, growth and maternal traits. He also uses EID tags, enabling him to track each animal from birth to plate, a preference of the current consumer.

Van Roekel considers producing a consumer-friendly product a partnership between the producer, packer and retailer, and sees more convenient, frozen, ready-to-prepare products in the grocery store as a way to hopefully entice consumers ready for a different eating experience.

“A person working a 10- to 12-hour day doesn’t want to come home and cook,” he says. “They want something in a bag from the freezer they can prepare in half an hour.” 

Van Roekel is doing what he can to hold up his end – producing the right size lamb at the right time of year to meet market demand.

“I’ve made the investment and I’m here to stay. I’m determined to make it work,” he says. “That means giving the consumer what they want.”

Joel and Tammy Sudduth, Skyland Farms, Greer, South Carolina

Joel and Tammy Sudduth are making Skyland Farms work by selling direct to their customers at the Farmers Market and their on-farm store. That requires a steady, year-round supply of 125-pound lambs.

The Sudduths split their 78 ewes into small groups in an intensive rotational pasture grazing scheme. The 10 groups are bred on a rotating schedule. Most of the breeding takes place from August through February. Lambs are selected for market by size, generally at around 7 months of age. They need around 10 lambs going to slaughter each month to meet demand.


“It took about a year and a half to get the rotation set,” says Joel. “But now it’s easy to follow.” 

They use Katahdin sheep, a breed of hair sheep, or sheep without wool. That saves shearing cost, and makes the sheep more adaptable to the hot, humid South Carolina climate. Katahdins are known for their parasite resistance, an issue especially important in the Southeast, and for their carcass quality. Lambs are finished on fescue and orchard grass pasture interseeded with rye, winter wheat and turnips.

Joel says racks of lamb are their biggest sellers. Skyland Farms sells both whole and half racks. Steaks from the rear leg are Joel’s favorite cut to sell. “I want them to get a good piece with good meat to bone ratio,” says Joel. Tammy favors the loin chop. They also sell whole lambs, especially at Easter and Christmas.

Selling direct means maintaining an ardent customer education effort. Joel and Tammy talk to people at the Farmers Market, offering them free samples on site, and even sending samples home with them. 

“It’s amazing how many people have never tried lamb,” says Joel, who adds they rely on ALB handouts and recipes to help encourage new eaters. “Most of our customers are ‘converted Southerners’ used to eating pork and beef in a heavy beef production area. But once they try lamb, they’re hooked.”

Customers at the on-farm store come for the experience, as well as the meat. 

“They like to see how we raise the animals, and that the farm is clean and organized,” says Joel. “We thought about moving the store off site, but 90% of the customers we polled wanted it left where it was.” He adds the store, by providing income year-round, has enabled them to expand and stay profitable.

Along with the sheep, Sudduths raise beef, pork and chicken. All sold at the farm and the market. “We tell people at the Farmers Market we’re the protein booth,” says Joel. “If you come to us you’re going to get meat.”

Joel and Tammy did not set out to be in the sheep business. After years in an office, Joel, now age 52, finally found a way to get back to his farm roots, his lifelong dream. They started with seven ewes five years ago. Business has tripled in the last year alone. 

“We very much enjoy doing this,” says Joel. “There’s great potential in it.”

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