Shear numbers

Sheep industry rebounds after decline in 1990s

More sheep are in the United States than at any time since 1990.

The growth is good news for an industry that has been declining for the past decade.

Drought and international competition have hampered the industry, Colorado Wool-growers Association President John Bartmann said. But those factors relented in 2004, and the industry likely will stay strong in 2005.

"Everything in the industry looks positive for the market to hold steady through the fall," Bartmann said. "Predicting any longer than that is like trying to forecast the weather a month from now."

Historically, the sheep market in the United States fluctuates drastically, Bartmann said. It's all highs and lows.

But the lamb market has seen a steady increase in prices since it last crashed, he said. That is one incentive for ranchers to increase the size of their flocks.

In Colorado, the 2002 drought didn't hurt sheep ranchers as much as it did cattle ranchers, Bartmann said.

The majority of the state's sheep live in Northwest Colorado, and though the region struggled in 2002, conditions were not as bad as Southwest Colorado or the Eastern Plains, where the majority of the state's cattle are produced. The lack of water forced cattlemen to cut back their herds more than sheep producers had to do.

Colorado's sheep industry grew by 5,000 head in 2004, for a total of 365,000 head, according to a report by the National Agri-culture Statistics Service.

But increasing numbers don't mean it's getting any easier to make money on sheep.

"I get out in maybe one more year," Jim Kourlis said. He owns a small flock of sheep on Thompson Hill. But he's had fights with his neighbors about the smell of the sheep, and with the price of grain and hay increasing, he can't earn a profit.

"In two years, I earn nothing, so it's not worth it," Kourlis said.

Other sheep producers in Colo-rado are thinking the same thing. In 2004, the state had 200 fewer sheep producers than the previous year. Sheep operations dropped from 1,900 to 1,700.

The state and nation have fewer wool mills than before, too, Bartmann said.

The United States used to primarily import wool, he said, but now most wool is shipped to mills in China. But the good news is that wool prices today are at the same point they were five years ago, about 85 cents a pound.

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