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JACK'S INSIGHTS: Looking at the Sheep and Wool Industry in Western Nebraska

JACK'S INSIGHTS: Looking at the Sheep and Wool Industry in Western Nebraska

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During the recent afternoon of Memorial Day at our son’s home in Colorado, I stole away, after helping wrangle five ambitious grandchildren, for a short nap and cuddled under a warm, all-wool blanket on the couch. When we returned to Scottsbluff, later that evening, I picked up a weekly newspaper from my home state of Utah (Deseret News Weekly, Agricultural Section, May 8, 2021) and to my surprise saw a half-page photo of a sheep-shearing crew working through a band of ewes from my home county of Morgan, Utah. The title of the newspaper article was, “Here’s how America’s only wool testing lab is helping save the planet”. This newspaper article had some new and recent insights for me into sheep and wool segment of the livestock industry. These events also brought back a flood of memories of my own encounters with the range sheep and wool industries of the Western United States.

There are several memories, but for purposes of brevity for this column, I’ll share just one memory that stands out. During my boyhood I helped “Uncle Dutch”, my great-uncle who was a sheepman in northeastern Utah, at several springtime “docking days”. My job as a young teenager was to grab lambs out of the crowding pen and, while holding them by all four legs, to set them on their rump on a platform so that “Cousin Rex”, or one of the older guys, could affix an elastic “green cheerio” appropriately on the lamb’s tail for docking. A cheerio was placed on each lamb’s tail and the male lambs also got one on their appropriate anatomy to convert the ram lambs to wether lambs. After the elastic was properly placed, a dab of warm pine tar was painted on the respective areas of the lamb to reduce the chance that blow flies would lay eggs on that site as the tissue necrosis took place over the coming weeks and would not result in an infestation of maggots while the tail and scrotum areas healed from the docking.

I have many other memories of working with sheep and wool, including learning to shear sheep during a weeklong shearing school while I was a student at Utah State University. It was during this shearing school that I learned more about wool-grading systems based on staple length and fiber diameter of the fleece. These systems classify a shorn fleece by the number of hanks of yarn, each 560 yards in length, that it is possible to spin from one pound of clean wool. The finer the wool fiber, the more hanks (greater length, thinner yarn) that can be obtained from one pound. Finer wool is softer and less apt to be scratchy and thus has higher value – for example, coarser wool for outer layers of clothing and fine wool for luxury goods.

This brings me back to one of the key points of the newspaper article mentioned above – the importance of having a wool testing lab in the United States. During 2020, the wool testing lab in Colorado closed and U.S. producers had to ship their wool samples oversees – typically to New Zealand – to get wool quality tested. However, Utah recently established a wool testing lab near Salt Lake City. Montana and Texas are in the process of establishing wool labs, but according to the article, Utah currently has the only certified wool lab in the U.S.

So, what about the range sheep industry in Nebraska? An article in Farm Progress magazine in February 2017 by Curt Arens quoted Kelly Hammond, then president of the Nebraska Sheep and Goat Producers Association, as follows: “Nebraska actually has a long history of sheep production,” Hammond says. “At one time there were five sheep packers in Omaha. Farmers in the state used to feed a lot of lambs, purchasing them from growers in the Dakotas and bringing them here to finish out.” The Farm Progress adds: “Historic agriculture statistics back Hammond’s claim, with USDA reporting 689,376 head of total sheep and lamb inventory in 1935, for instance.” While the sheep industry in Nebraska continues as a viable segment of the state’s agriculture, sheep numbers are considerably less than in the 1930s and ‘40s. All sheep and lamb inventory in Nebraska on January 1, 2021, totaled 74,000 head, down 4,000 from last year, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).

Soon after Robynn and I relocated to Scottsbluff from Colorado in 2014, I became acquainted with Vern and Brock Terrell, who ranch near Hay Springs. Historically the Terrells’ primary enterprise was cattle, but due to an interesting set of circumstances precipitated by the 2012 drought in Colorado, and some available grazing on their ranch in the northern Nebraska Panhandle, Vern and Brock first leased pasture to a sheepman from Colorado, then eventually became default owners of a large band of range ewes. The Terrells’ ability to make lemonade from lemons has allowed Vern and Brock to develop an effective range sheep enterprise to complement their other ranching endeavors.

An administrative and promotion segment of the sheep industry in Nebraska is the Nebraska Sheep and Goat Association (NSGA). The NSGA Board of Directors is composed of nine members, three representatives from each of the three districts. These board members serve as the voice of Nebraska’s 1,600 sheep and goat producers. Two well-known people in the Nebraska Panhandle serve on the Education Committee of this association: Ivan Rush, retired Nebraska Extension Livestock Specialist from Scottsbluff, and Jack Arterburn, Nebraska Extension Educator located in Rushville.

Even though the sheep industry in Nebraska and across the United States has undergone many changes and adjustments over the decades, it remains a viable segment of agriculture for producing both food and fiber. So next time you put on your favorite wool sweater or see a 4-H youth exhibiting a show lamb at the county fair, I encourage you to reflect on the “ewes” that made this possible for “you”. Enjoy the summer, see you next month.

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