U.S. sheep farmers maintain numbers through 2012 drought

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) released its annual “Sheep and Goats” inventory report on Feb. 1. According to the report, all sheep and lamb inventories in the U.S. on Jan. 1, 2013, totalled 5.34 million head, down just 0.6 per cent, or 30,000 head, from a year ago. Some sheep industry analysts expected a larger decline in numbers due to the severe drought that impacted the southern Plains in 2011 and expanded into much of the country, including the Corn Belt, in 2012.

However, sheep producers exhibited their commitment to the industry and ability to persevere despite challenging weather conditions and lower lamb prices. The U.S. breeding sheep inventory decreased a slight 0.5 per cent to 3.98 million head on Jan. 1. At 3.14 million head, ewes one year and older declined by 25,000 head. The number of replacement lambs under one year of age, at 660,000 head, was identical to one year ago.

Texas is by far the leading lamb-producing state, with 440,000 ewes on Jan. 1. Compare that with second-place California, with 265,000 ewes, and Utah and Wyoming, which tied for third place with 225,000 head.

Severe drought in 2011 caused Texas producers to reduce the ewe flock from 515,000 on Jan. 1, 2011, to 425,000 (an upward revision from last year’s estimate of 415,000) in 2012. Improved moisture conditions in some parts of Texas during 2012 encouraged producers to add 15,000 ewes and 5,000 replacement lambs back into the flock.

Of the 32 states where NASS reports numbers, 10 states increased total breeding sheep and lamb numbers, 15 states recorded decreases and seven stayed the same. These numbers likely reflect the variations in moisture conditions that exist around the country.

In North Dakota, the sheep and lamb flock, at 74,000 head, increased by 1,000 head on Jan. 1. Breeding animals declined by 2,000 head and market lambs increased by 3,000 head.

At 1.285 million head, the number of market lambs in the U.S. was very close to last year’s 1.286 million head. From a price standpoint, an encouraging sign was that market lambs weighing more than 105 pounds on Jan. 1 were down about 3.5 per cent from the previous year. Last year, a backlog of heavyweight lambs was developing. It led to overfinished lambs and sharply declining prices in the second half of 2012.

An increase in dressed weights of lambs in 2012 led to a five per cent increase in commercial lamb production and about a 30 per cent decline in the average annual lamb prices from 2011. So far in 2013, lamb dressed weights have returned to normal but are averaging about 4.5 pounds less.

Fed-lamb prices in 2013 have recovered seasonally from the very disappointing fall 2012 seasonal lows. Expectations are for prices to continue to improve into the spring ethnic religious holiday season, which is usually a strong consumer demand time for lamb.

Wholesale lamb prices are lower than last year, which should spur interest in featuring lamb for the holidays by supermarkets and restaurants. Wholesale boxed leg prices, which would be a typical cut served at home-holiday meals, are about 29 per cent below last year. Wholesale boxed medium rack prices, a popular white tablecloth restaurant menu item, are down about 35 per cent. Wholesale boxed loin prices, with lamb chops being popular at home and restaurants, are about 13 per cent lower than last year.

Last year, feeder lamb prices were hit with a double whammy of declining fed-lamb prices and increasing corn prices due to the severe drought in much of the Corn Belt. Improving fed-lamb prices and moderating corn prices have been supportive for feeder lamb prices, which also have increased nicely since last fall’s seasonal lows.

Weather will continue to be a wild card in sheep and lamb numbers and prices. Much of the central U.S., including a number of important lamb-producing states, is very dry. Dry pastures and ranges in the U.S. will need sufficient rain to maintain or increase the sheep flock.

Corn supplies are historically tight, so a good corn crop with lower corn prices will be necessary to support feeder lamb prices this fall.

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