LEESPORT, Pa. — More than 30 sheep farmers who attended a Penn State Extension seminar on Profitable Lamb and Wool Marketing learned more than just basic marketing techniques. During this two-hour workshop, held April 11 at the Berks County Agricultural Center in Leesport, growers were introduced to tips for raising premium meat, the specifics of marketing during ethnic holidays, and particular needs for increasing wool quality.
The presenter, Melanie Barkley, a Bedford County Extension educator, has raised sheep for more than 30 years and has extensive knowledge about growing and marketing these animals.
Marketing for Meat Sales
With the New Holland Sales Stables in such close proximity, nearby in Lancaster County, area sheep farmers have a sales advantage that is coveted across the country, Barkley said.
“We are blessed to be in this area,” she said.
However, Barkley said, there also are many opportunities for direct sales, value-added production, and premium pricing of lamb and goats, if sheep farmers familiarize themselves with other marketing avenues. Raising specific sizes and styles of animal to coincide with a number of ethnic holidays can fill a niche market, particularly outside of the traditional lambing season.
When building a marketing plan, Barkley emphasized the farmer narrative.
“What do you tell people about your product?” she asked the crowd. “Why is it better, and what makes it unique? If raising and selling for breeding stock, what does your ram bring to the genetics of a flock? What changes in the genetics are you making to focus on different characteristics?”
Some growers, once they’ve considered these inputs, may want to tweak their flocks to diversify, or to maximize sales. Record-keeping is hugely important in monitoring these factors, she said.
Considering value-added products, such as processed meat sticks or jerky, can add value to a yearling ewe, with the right market. Working out a CSA program (weekly meat pickups) can help predetermine the farm’s financial figures. And, working with small, custom butchers can help with direct-to-customer sales.
Barkley warned against unacceptable claims such as “hormone-free” and “antibiotic-free” when marketing, but emphasized the “locally grown” consumer movement.
“Locally produced is a big deal right now,” she said, stating that the American Lamb Board’s advertising includes the fact that local lamb can be “10,000 miles fresher” than lamb brought in from Australia and other countries.
Barkley also discussed carcass merit at great length, urging growers to aim for prime grade over the typical choice grade, working on fat streaking in the flank and marbling throughout the cuts.
Allowing the carcass of older animals to age in the cooler for 5-7 days can pull out some of the stronger flavors that get into the meat when an animal is older than a year in age. With smaller carcasses, growers may need to use a two-stage process if using the same cooling temperatures for older animals, to prevent making the younger meat tougher.
Raising specific sizes of lambs or kids for various Islamic, Jewish and Christian holidays can maximize meat prices, but it is important to plan ahead for these holidays. During Ramadan, a month-long fasting holiday, and Eid al-Fitr, the breaking of the Ramadan fast, heavier lambs or kids of 60-80 pounds are preferred for sharing. Animals should be unblemished (tails and testicles intact), or well-healed if castrated, with their milk teeth. Older animals may be acceptable during this time if blemish-free — no broken horns, torn ears or open wounds.
Smaller lambs between 30-55 pounds are preferred for the Jewish holiday of Passover. Lamb shank dishes are often a staple of Seder dinners, whereas forequarters between 60-100 pounds are preferred for September’s Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
Animals may need to be prepared through Kosher or halal slaughtering for some of these holidays, and building customer relationships through these sales will help determine the ideal characteristics for these animals.
Christian holidays also call for lamb. Western or Roman Easter opts for milk-fed lambs between 30-45 pounds, while Easter or Greek (Orthodox) Easter, one to two weeks later, calls for lambs between 40-55 pounds. Other holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and even Mother’s Day can be high-market times for lambs and specific portions of animals, and raising for off-season markets can offer premium pricing.
If lambs aren’t going to make it to breeding stock, Barkley leaves the tails on for customers looking for unblemished lambs, which is a common call during these holidays.
If raising November lambs, Barkley also recommended raising them to heavier weights for January, when the supplies are low.
For more details about marketing lambs and goats for specific holidays, including a several-year calendar of dates, visit https://extension.psu.edu/marketing-lamb-and-goat-for-holidays.
Anyone interested in learning more about marketing lambs or goats through a contract can contact Barkley at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 814-623-4800.
Marketing for Wool and Wool Products
While Pennsylvania raises more meat-based sheep due to the region’s humidity, there is still substantial wool production across the state.
According to overseas customers, Barkley said, American wool quality tends to be lacking. Contamination from colored fibers, kemp fibers, unscourable paint, and even polypropylene are specific areas of concern.
When preparing for shearing, Barkley emphasized making sure that the facility and pens are cleaned, and continuing to sweep up while shearing. Don’t shear wet sheep, she said, as the wool can mold once it’s packed down into bags. Pen up the sheep at least four hours ahead of time, to avoid dusty pens. Sort the sheep prior to shearing, separating them by breeds; black and spotted sheep; different grades of wool; lambs and weanlings; yearlings and new sheep; and sick sheep. Package different grades and types of wool separately.
Impure fibers, colored fibers, medullated fibers, kemp (hairy) fibers all need to be separated as does wool with urine and manure, yolk pigment and canary stains.
Barkley suggested culling sheep that have systemic yolk and canary stain issues.
Fiber diameter can determine sheep nutrition, and weak fibers can also be an area of concern. Barkley performed the “snap” test with some wool as a demonstration.
“If you snap it and it breaks,” she said, “you’ve got issues,” she said.
She talked about shearing right before lambing or right after so weak points are on the end and not in the middle of the fibers.
Acquired contamination can also affect wool quality. Plant detritus from pastures, bedding, mineral matter, polypropylene (from everything from tarps to feed bags to twine, string and cigarette filters), other animal hair and paint are all contaminants that need to be cleaned from wool to produce maximum quality.
“The best way to get the best fleece is to skirt it,” Barkley said. Throw wool onto something as basic as a slatted table and remove inferior wool — stains, skin pieces, second cuts, shanks, and portions with heavy vegetable matter and other contaminants. Tags and bellies, top knots and leg wool that is hairy must also go, she said.
Wool bags need to be properly labeled with the name, class and number of bags. Barkley said to contact the American Sheep Industry and the American Wool Council for listings of the different classes for wool.
Two companies — Mid States Wool Growers in Ohio and Groenewold Fur and Wool Co. in Illinois — buy all types of sheep wool based on grade and yield, Barkley said. Fiber shows are another sales outlet where wool can be classed, evaluated and placed. Some shows allow prices to be set during the competition and are followed by an auction.
Value-added products like raw fleeces, washed fleeces, wool batting, roving, top and yarn can be created and sold as well. Bucks County Fur Products in Quakertown specializes in hide tanning, and Barkley said growers can search online for “wool processing Pennsylvania,” for contacts for area wool processors.
“If we as producers can produce high quality wools, then we can have buyers from other countries more interested in buying our wool,” Barkley said. “For the average person, it’s about improving quality.”
She also suggested looking for direct-sale markets, and working with community spinning groups or yarn stores for premium pricing. In the right direct-sales market, wool that goes for $1 or more a pound could sell for as high as $15 a pound. Fiber arts festivals and programs are other avenues for unique wools, particularly with rare or specialty breeds.
Roger Bowman, president of Berks County Sheep and Wool Growers, was pleased with the event turnout for Barkley’s seminar, saying it’s the highest it’s been in years.
“Even though I’ve been in the sheep business for 45 years, I marked “yes” (on the survey) when asked if I learned something,” he said.
“It was very helpful for me,” said Glendon High, a grower from Pitman. He raises Katahdins, and he is often looking for resources about raising sheep outside of the internet. “I’m looking for people to be around, to learn from.”
Liz Wagner is a freelance writer in eastern Pennsylvania.