Sheep ranchers fulfill year-round lamb market

Issue Date: March 14, 2018
By Ching Lee
Fresno County sheep rancher Ryan Indart provides drinking water for his lambs. Lack of rain this winter and dwindling feed supply on pastures forced him to market some of his lambs much earlier than usual. His remaining lambs benefited from recent rains, allowing them to stay on pasture longer.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons
Because of recent rains, these lambs will be able to stay on this Fresno County pasture longer.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons

Easter may still be the biggest time of year for American lamb consumption, but for many of the state's sheep ranchers, the holiday doesn't have much influence into when and how they market their lambs.

Most of the state's producers lamb in the fall, and those lambs typically don't go to market until after Easter. That is especially true this year, with Easter coming early on April 1. However, some producers were forced to market their lambs much earlier than usual due to the lack of rain this winter and dwindling feed supply on pastures.

"This has been the single most stressful, most difficult winter I've ever experienced—and I'm talking about in comparison to even those last five years of drought," Fresno County sheep rancher Ryan Indart said.

His difficulties started in the fall, when his lambs were still on alfalfa fields. Ranchers depend on autumn rains to produce enough grasses in the hills for when their lambs must leave alfalfa fields. But Indart said no appreciable moisture came until the second week of January, when his region finally received about an inch of rain, which he said "changed our entire year."

"None of us knew where we were going to take our sheep and whether we had to sell our herds or not," he said.

Noting that it takes at least two weeks for grasses to grow after a rainfall, Indart said the mid-January storm ultimately wasn't enough to produce enough grass. Soon, he said, "the feed started to dry up."

He sold more than half his flock in February, the first time he had ever done that. Those lambs went to feedlots, where they will be ready by May or June. In wetter years, Indart said, his lambs have stayed on pasture as late as July.

The one silver lining, he said, is the strong market for California lambs, allowing him to sell his herd at a good price. With cheap corn in the Midwest, he said feedlots there could put 30 to 40 pounds on those light lambs in three to four months and "still make some money."

As for the Easter market, Indart said the lamb business for California producers has "evolved so much that Easter doesn't even enter my mind when it comes to marketing my product," noting the year-round market he now has and the multiple outlets for selling his lambs, such as directly to consumers.

"The typical, traditional way of selling lambs is changing because of a growing ethnic population and also the growth of the local food movement," he said. "People are always wanting good, local food and they're willing to pay for it. That is allowing us to have a lot more options."

As someone who markets her lambs year-round, San Joaquin County sheep rancher Florence Cubiburu said preparing for the Easter market is still a big part of her business.

"Easter is a big push," she said. "Then we have Greek Easter, and then we have the Middle Eastern holidays. Those are all big pushes. It's like primo for the sheep industry."

She describes her operation as "atypical" compared to other commercial sheep ranches in California, because she does not market to packers but rather to high-end retailers and restaurants in the Bay Area.

"We market 52 weeks out of the year because when you develop these accounts, you need to make sure that you can supply them 52 weeks out of the year, so our lambing is staggered," she said.

What's also different about her operation, she said, is that her lambs are on permanent pasture in the San Joaquin and Sacramento delta, where "there's always green grass available because it's all sub-irrigated, even when there's no rain." Because she's not far from the processing facility in Dixon and to the markets in the Bay Area, it's more feasible for her to ship lambs year-round, she added.

Easter remains the busiest time of year for the packing business, with ramp-up in production starting six weeks before the holiday, said Greg Ahart, vice president of sales for Superior Farms, the state's sole lamb processor. Planning and lining up supplies happen way in advance, with talk about Easter starting in the fall.

"Easter is like Macy's at Christmas," he said. "It's the biggest lamb holiday."

Brian Phelan, lamb buyer for Superior Farms, said the earlier Easter will help the packer clear out some of the heavier lambs that need to be processed, adding that there is currently "more than adequate supply with plenty of weight." The reason for the huge supply, he noted, is 75 percent of U.S. lambs are born between February and May, and those lambs are ready for processing between mid-November and February. California, which lambs in the fall, is the exception.

"Our customers need a 52-week supply of fresh American lamb and our supply is very inconsistent, because the bulk of the animals are born in a four-month time frame," he said. "We need more guys to lamb in the fall to produce lambs that ship in early spring to be harvested in the June-July time frame."

He said California producers who had to market their lambs early received a high price, because those lambs will be ready for processing in June and July, when much of the old-crop lambs will be gone and supplies become tight.

Though the majority of California lambs won't be harvested until June and July, Phelan noted Superior Farms does buy a small volume of lightweight California springers for the Easter market. Most of those lambs end up in the Midwest, East Coast and Northeast, where there's a large ethnic market, he said.

With consumer demand for lamb continuing to be strong, especially going into the Easter holiday, Ahart said he expects "a very bright and promising future for all segments of the lamb industry," though producers likely won't see prices reach the extreme highs of last summer, when a supply shortage in the U.S. "sent the markets to all-time record highs very quickly." The impact of those rising prices led to less demand and a correction in the market, he noted.

"As we look toward the future, we're seeing a fairly strong market fairly early this year," he said. "I certainly hope we don't repeat the path of last summer. Consumers like consistency in their pricing and if it gets either too high or too volatile, either one scares away consumer demand."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.