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Cattle prices have captured most of the economic headlines, with calves in some instances selling for more than double what they were just two years ago. lamb, as well as global surge in wool clothing products.
“Two things are happening,” said Rodney Kott, at the Montana State University Sheep Institute. “Production worldwide is down. We’ve had drought in Australia and other areas,” which makes lamb hard to come by and therefore more expensive.
“The second thing is an extreme resurgence in the ethnic lamb market in the United States. If you look at immigration trends, where people are coming from, they come from countries that eat a lot of lamb. Muslim countries, Philippines and Pacific Rim countries, Hispanic countries, all eat a lot of lamb.”
Lamb isn’t the cheapest meat in the refrigerator case. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see a boneless lamb leg priced the same as prime New York steak. Its tenderness is comparable with beef tenderloin.
There was a time when Americans ate a lot of lamb, but World War II changed that. Young American soldiers stationed in Europe were fed steady rations of mutton, the tougher, strong flavored flesh of mature sheep. The experience soured the World War II generation on lamb and kept it off the dinner plates of their baby boomer children, too.
Sheep ranchers like the Lehfeldts have fought hard to get lamb back on American dinner tables, by offering samples of tender lamb at trade shows or wherever the opportunity arises. But many bystanders need a little persuading before trying the sample skewered with a toothpick.
Older people need to be assured that the lamb they’re sampling isn’t the mutton they may remember, said Ben’s mother, Marie Lehfeldt. Young people wantto know that the lamb they’re eating isn’t the fleecy newborn from the petting zoo.
A lamb going to market is probably somewhere between six months to just under a year old, depending on its joint development. A calf, by comparison, might be 18 months old by the time it’s butchered.
On a Montana ranch like the Lehfeldts’, sheep pay the bills in several ways. In March, a crew will arrive and shear the sheep. The best fleece is worth as much as $40, said Bob Lehfeldt, Ben’s father. The Rambouillets the family raises are prized for their fine fibered white wool. The whiteness means the wool can be dyed into any color, which makes it much more valuable to the garment industry. The fine fibers means the wool doesn’t cause itching.
“You’ll hear someone say they’re allergic to wool, but they’re not,” Ben Lehfeldt said. They’re just sensitive to the coarse fibers of the some fleece.
Before wool fiber is spun into yarn, its diameter is measured in microns. The larger the measurement, the coarser the yarn and the more likely it is to scratch when exposed to bare skin. A 24.5 micron wool is the used in suits. As a general rule, one fleece will produce one suit. A sweater might be 21 microns. A comfortable base layer wool garment resting on the skin all day without irritation is 18.5 microns on less. Lehfeldts’ Rambouillets produce wool in the 18.5 micron range.
In April, a little less than a month after the sheep are sheared, the Lehfeldts’ ewes will drop their lambs. Twins are common, said Ben Lehfeldt, who expects 11 lambs for every seven ewes.
If market prices remain high, the Lehfeldts might sell their lambs for about $200 to $240, plus whatever they get for their fleece, plus whatever they receive for each shearling, that chamois quality leather with a tight wool knap used in products like Uggs boots.
The rule of thumb for sheep was that it took five to equal the market value of one calf, but with prices as high was they’ve been lately, the market price for the smaller livestock is much more advantageous pound for pound, Kott said.
There’s now a push to get more young ranchers in to the sheep business. The American Sheep Industry would like to expand the national flock by 315,000 lambs by 2014. The money is good, Kott said, a lucrative opportunity for the right rancher.