Charles Bair was a famous member of the Montana Wool Growers Association. Around 1910, Bair’s ranch was estimated to have roughly 300,000 head of sheep and produce nearly 1.5 million pounds of wool a year. Bair’s accomplishments as a sheep producer are almost unrivaled; and his production numbers are made even more impressive when one compares his ranch’s production to total sheep production in Montana in 2010.
According to the United States National Agriculture Statistics Service, Montana’s total sheep and lamb inventory in 2010 was 230,000 head and wool production was roughly 2 million pounds. These numbers were down from 2009 production by 6 percent and 7 percent respectively. Looking at these numbers, it is clear that Montana’s sheep and wool industry has shrunk since Charles Bair ranched in the Treasure State.
Yet, despite the drop over the years in overall production by our sheep producers, the members of the Wool Growers Association find themselves in an encouraging position. Lamb prices are presently at an all-time high, the wool market is booming and the cull ewe and pelt markets are very profitable. Further, Montana’s sheep producers are tapping into the growing ethnic purchasing and nontraditional markets, such as local food markets. Further, sheep producers are experiencing an unprecedented demand for wool products. The increased demand for wool is coming, in part, from our nation’s military, which many readers may not realize is the largest domestic consumer of U.S. produced wool. In fact, most readers probably don’t know that Montana’s sheep industry is on the forefront of producing advanced next-to-skin wool and washable products for use by our soldiers and sailors.
To meet this increased demand for our industry’s products, and to increase sheep numbers and wool production, the Association has joined with the American Sheep Industry to promote the build-up of Montana’s and America’s sheep inventory. This effort, “Let’s Grow with TwoPLUS,” calls on sheep producers to enlarge their flocks by two ewes per operation or by two ewes per 100 by the year 2014, to increase the average birthrate per ewe to two lambs per year, and to increase the harvested lamb crop from 108 percent to 110 percent.
While the TwoPLUS effort won’t turn any Montana sheep producer into the new Charles Bair, if successfully implemented, this initiative is expected to result nationwide in the production of 315,000 more lambs and 2 million more pounds of wool for the industry to meet the growing demands being placed upon it. To learn more about this campaign, to increase the size of the national sheep flock I encourage the reader to visit growourflock.org, which is the website created by ASI to promote the Let’s Grow effort. The webpage has excellent, informative content on how to incorporate the TwoPlus goals into existing sheep operations and how to make existing sheep operations more efficient.
In addition to benefiting the financial health of Montana’s sheep industry, this ‘grow the flock’ effort will have several other positive impacts. It is estimated that a half of a billion dollars in lamb, wool, sheep milk and breed stock sales at the ranch level supports an additional $1.3 billion in other forms of business activity, thereby providing a net contribution to America’s economy of $1.8 billion and providing the income source for many associated rural business to survive and thrive. Also, by working to increase the nation’s sheep inventory, our membership will continue to meet their obligation to feed and clothe the world. A recent study estimates that the expected increase in world population during the next 50 years will require the world’s farmers and ranchers to produce 100 percent more food than they produce today. The reality is that if the number of agriculture producers and/or their level productivity stays constant or decreases over the next half century, hundreds of millions of people will suffer starvation.
The Wool Growers Association is Montana’s oldest agriculture organization. We are proud to follow in the foot steps of great sheep men like Charles Bair. And we are hopeful that our efforts to build up Montana’s sheep inventory will prove successful on a number of levels, including helping our industry replace retiring sheep producers, attracting new producers, and maintaining the health of our industry that for nearly 120 years has put food on your table and clothes on your backs.
Dave Hinnaland, president of the Montana Wool Growers Association, operates on a family-owned sheep ranch in McCone County.