Expanding Profits for Vermont Sheep Production through Intensive Pasture Management
This report describes efforts to gather information and ideas about the best way to craft a participatory research project. The research committee focused on a project that would result in practical and useful information for a range of producers throughout Vermont and the region. The committee concentrated its information gathering in the following areas:
– an in-depth investigation of the market potential of grass-finished lamb;
– gathering input from sheep producers throughout Vermont regarding their information needs, especially pertaining to managing pastures more effectively and pasture-raised lamb production issues/problems; and
– an initial collection of data from several of the sheep producers in Vermont who currently are experimenting on their own with finishing lamb on pasture.
The committee surmised that it would be helpful to gather the baseline data if the larger grant were to be funded (which it subsequently was). A supplemental grant was obtained by this committee from the American Sheep Industry Association to establish trials for the Standardized Performance Analysis (SPA) program. SPA is a computerized data collection program designed specifically for sheep producers.
As a member of the research team, Roger Clapp, animal marketing specialist with the Vermont Department of Agriculture led the research activities regarding the market potential for grass-finished lamb. The Vermont Dept. of Agriculture, in collaboration with the Vermont Lamb Promotion Board and the Center for Sustainable Agriculture, mailed out a marketing survey to 240 sheep operations in May 1994. Of these, 115 returned the completed surveys and another 15 were added through follow-up calls. The results showed a diversified flock spread throughout the state on small farms averaging 31 ewes on 41 acres. The most popular breeds are Dorset, Romney and Suffolk in that order with several marking “other” than the 13 breeds listed. Most operations are marketing finished lambs in the fall and winter, however the number of baby or hothouse lambs marketed primarily in the spring or summer amounts to about two thirds of the finished lamb market. Relatively few lambs are marketed as feeders and less as breeding stock.
In terms of developing a sustainable market for a grass-based sheep industry, we have identified four volume markets for further study. Both Yankee Shepherd Co-op and Hirsel Ultra Lamb have developed a market for relatively lean, yield grade 2 carcasses. Hirsel is just completing a covered feedlot and would like to buy in 70-80 lb. feeders off grass for $75-95/cwt. Yankee prefers to buy finished lambs but has not had great luck with grass-fed lambs meeting their specs. Processors Jeff Nichols and Bill Yates both have ethnic markets in southern New England and will pay somewhere around $55-60/cwt for grass-fed lambs. Quality seems to be less of an issue. Producers Dave McDonough, the Stowe-based Green Mountain Shephards and others have established a market for those who will pay top dollar for a completely natural grass-fed lamb. At present, marketing has not developed beyond the freezer trade and farmers’ market approaches. This is an area where more work needs to be done.
Several of the marketing structures are in place for an expanded grass-based sheep industry in Vermont and neighboring states. With the supply of Western lamb declining with the demise of the wool incentive, lamb prices have been climbing and are expected to stay high in the foreseeable future. The new opportunities have attracted some new producers to the industry, including a commercial sheep raiser just back from Florida where he marketed to the ethnic market. A Vermont dairy farmer with previous sheep experience has recently switched his dairy herd to rotational grazing and would like to add a ewe flock for additional soil health, reduced parasite load and more volume of sales from the same land base. In short, there is considerable reason for optimism that the grass-based sheep industry will continue to expand in Vermont if adequate technical and financial support structures are put in place.