Sheep Industry Crippled by COVID-19

Local News

2020 has been a rough year on us all.

For those who rely on profits from sheep, 2020 was humming along great — until the coronavirus pandemic flipped our lives upside down and everything came to a screeching halt.

“It happened right at that Easter, Passover and there’s another Muslim holiday that was right at the end of April there that are huge marketing opportunities for lamb,” said North Dakota Lamb and Wool Association President Curt Stanley.

Demand for meat went into a free fall, as did demand for wool from high-end businesses like the cruise ship industry.

And sooner, rather than later, those who supply you with meat or soft fabric started to feel the financial pinch.

Burdell Johnson has several hundred head of sheep on his farm just north of Tuttle.

“When the COVID hit, lambs became worthless. They just fell apart and the wool had started before that even, and there was just no market for wool and there still isn’t any market for wool. There’s a few grades of wool that will bring something but the majority of the wool there’s not much value to it,” said Johnson.

“I don’t ever recall there not being a market at all. I mean you couldn’t take them to– if you wanted to get out of the sheep business at the next sheep sale you couldn’t have done it,” said Stanley.

He adds the problems were compacted when a major sheep processing plant in Colorado went belly up in late spring before being bought out by a Brazilian company.

Meaning producers were only getting insurance payments and nothing else.

“I had a call from one producer, he said the LRP, lamb insurance that he’d purchased from me was the only sheep income he’d had this year yet,” said Johnson.

Johnson adds since no one is buying sheep right now, other costs are going up — like having to buy more feed — and even that has consequences.

“When lambs get too heavy or too old their value decreases and that’s what you got to be careful on not to get ’em too heavy and out of condition, and then they go to the U-market rather than the lamb market, and that is a substantial loss,” said Johnson.

There is some good news as meat prices are beginning to rise again and wool demand is increasing, but it will be some time before things return to pre-pandemic levels.

One piece of good news for wool producers is the U.S. military recently commissioned an all-new line of wool uniforms.

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