Drought, imports worry sheep ranchers


Issue Date: March 25, 2015
By Ching Lee
Placer County sheep ranchers Bob Wiswell, left, and his son Dan say limited rainfall so far this spring has provided green, but very short grasses on their ranch in Lincoln. If conditions don’t improve, they say they may need to sell some lambs early and move the flock to irrigated pasture early.
Photo/Ching Lee
Easter is peak time for lamb sales, but California ranchers say they are losing market share to imports because the stronger dollar has made offshore lamb products cheaper.
Photo/Ching Lee

A boost in lamb prices before the Easter holiday has helped California sheep ranchers, many of whom are struggling with higher production costs as the ongoing drought has hurt pastures, forcing them to sell animals and feed expensive hay.

But a stronger dollar has also allowed cheaper lamb imports to flood the U.S. market, taking market share from U.S. producers, said Ryan Indart, a Fresno County sheep rancher.

While increased demand for lamb around Easter does help to move more product, he noted "a lot of that product is imported."

"The retailer, the restaurant owner and the food service people are going for imported product because it's cheaper, because they could sell more of it," Indart said.

Last month, Superior Farms, California's largest lamb processor, tried to entice retailers that typically buy imports to switch to American lamb by extending its special Easter pricing. The promotion came in reaction to slowdowns at West Coast ports due to a prolonged labor dispute that left shipments in limbo. Though the slowdowns ended late last month, the backlog at affected ports may take months to clear.

Indart said he thinks the Superior promotion was a good idea, but it won't "solve the dollar problem just because products are backlogged at the port."

Meanwhile, he said he's trying to adapt to the drought by finding new grazing ground, noting that with more farmland being fallowed due to water shortages, sheep ranchers are left with fewer options to graze postharvest crop residue. Lack of feed forced him to reduce 15 percent of his flock last year.

"The bright side is that there is a growing ethnic population in the country that buys lamb directly from the producer, and there's also a growing demand for locally produced lamb in general," he said, noting he has begun to market more of his lamb through these nontraditional channels, which pay a higher price and have strong demand year-round.

Lack of rain so far this spring has led to dismal grass growth, according to Placer County rancher Bob Wiswell, who said that may force him and others to sell their lambs early. The rush to sell will drive market prices down, he said.

Because grasses are so short, some fields are already drying out, he noted, adding that any late spring rains may not do much to help pasture conditions. With not enough feed on his winter range, Wiswell said he will need to move his animals a month early to irrigated pasture in Sutter County.

"With no rain, our concern is there would be no dry grass to come back to in the fall," he said. "Consequently, we would have to feed a lot more hay."

Vic Ciardi, who runs his sheep on nonirrigated pasture in the mountains of Tehama County, is also dealing with a lack of grass growth, but his other worry is that he will need to haul water to his animals in another month, as creeks are running dry.

"It's almost impossible to find a place to move (the sheep) because everybody else has got the same problem," he said.

While hay supplies are plentiful now, they may not be in the fall, when ranchers won't have much late-season grass and will need to feed more hay, he added.

Unlike the robust beef market that has helped cattle ranchers weather higher production costs related to the drought, Ciardi noted the lamb market has been generally stagnant and prices typically fall after Easter.

"Fortunately, the wool market has been pretty good these last three or four years, which helps with some of the feed and the shearing," he said.

To cut down on his feed bill, Ciardi said he's been grazing more small parcels—any property where his sheep can eat down weeds—though he acknowledged this type of grazing is limited and not always feasible, because it requires more labor and fuel to constantly move sheep to different locations.

Siskiyou County rancher Jim Morris, who runs his sheep on irrigated pasture, said he has not had to decrease his flock yet but may have to this year if drought conditions do not improve and his water allotment is curtailed again. He noted the State Water Resources Control Board curtailed his use of surface water from the Scott River last year, which affected how much he could feed on pasture.

"It was a pretty heavy impact as far as what it cost me to keep the sheep," he said. "When I have to purchase feed and feed hay that I otherwise would sell, it gets pretty expensive."

Morris said it helps that local markets to which he sells his lambs remain strong. He markets half his lambs to a buyer who sells through a community-supported agriculture program and at farmers markets; what he can't sell locally goes to a broker.

Placer County sheep rancher Karin Sinclair also markets her lambs via a CSA and farmers markets. She said while these niche markets do bring a higher price, her costs to sell directly to the public also are higher, noting that her insurance is double what ranchers who sell to more traditional markets would pay.

What's uncertain is whether she will receive her full water allotment this year, and she won't know until April 15, when irrigation season and deliveries start. She had already reduced her flock by half last year and wants to maintain her current numbers, she noted.

"We have plenty of grass, but it's dwindling just as fast as they're eating it," she said. "Unless it rains pretty soon, we're going to have to start feeding (hay) again."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor at Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

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