This year’s drought has had an unprecedented impact on Montana family farms and ranches. Even with this challenge, Montana sheep ranchers are experiencing a strong lamb market that is a cause for optimism in the countryside.
Montana Woolgrowers Association President Ken McKamey said it’s been a difficult year for producers.
“It's been a real tough, especially in eastern Montana,” said McKamey. “On top of a drought, the grasshoppers and no grass to graze is tough. With a lack of feed, everybody is looking for hay and the price of hay has gone way up.”
Even with these factors, McKamey shared that sheep are a hardy breed.
“Sheep generally do a lot better on dry conditions,” McKamey explained. “They take less water and they can graze on some pretty rough ground. So that works usually a little better in those dry years. We run both cattle and sheep. If things get tough, we usually end up selling down on the cattle to keep the sheep.”
So, what exactly is driving the price of lamb higher? A key factor for stronger lamb prices is the demand from the ethnic market within the U.S. consumer base.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies U.S. consumers of “Middle Eastern, Eastern European, Caribbean, and African consumers located in the Northeastern U.S., is a major market for lamb products. The typical lamb consumer is an older, relatively well-established ethnic individual who lives in a metropolitan area such as New York, Boston, or Philadelphia in the Northeast or in San Francisco or Los Angeles on the West Coast, and who prefers to eat only certain lamb cuts.”
These consumers continue to drive demand for U.S. lamb.
“A lot of that is due to the increased ethnic demand that buy lighter lambs,” McKamey said. “In turn, it's forced lamb processors to raise their prices in order to keep their supplies current.”
As a result, retail sales of lamb have increased 27% this year. The last sheep sale at the Public Auction Yards in Billings had 60–90-pound feeder lambs average $282.04/cwt. In 2020, the price was around $150-160.00/cwt.
As for wool prices, McKamey said the market is steady but could be better.
“At the beginning of the year we were seeing an increase in wool prices and some of them got up over $2 a pound,” said McKamey. "It's kind of held steady there. One of the issues was we weren't able to export wool because of COVID-19 and different trade disruptions that had shut down the market. I think we will see here in the future that that's going to pick up again as well.”