By Doug Graves
COLUMBUS, Ohio – While much of the country is seeing sheep and wool numbers on the decline, raising sheep in the Buckeye state is on the rise.
Sheep production is increasingly popular as growers enjoy expanding (and profitable) markets for meat and wool. There are roughly 3,400 sheep farms in Ohio raising 126,000 sheep. According to Cheryl Turner, state statistician of the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service Ohio field office, the number of sheep in the state has increased 4 percent over the past year.
“The next time you don your cozy wool sweater, thank Ohio’s sheep farmers,” said Janelle Mead, deputy director at the Ohio Department of Agriculture. “Ohio is home to the largest sheep market east of the Mississippi River and ranks No. 13 nationally in sheep production with an estimated annual economic impact of $25 million. We are the fourth-largest state in the number of sheep producers. This means we have a number of farmers engaged in the industry with small flocks bringing agricultural value to many communities.”
According to Mead, the state’s industry is made up mostly of hobby sheep farmers with small flocks, but Mead says many people don’t realize sheep production is a great way to enter into livestock farming.
“Unlike most forms of livestock production, it doesn’t require a vast amount of land or large housing unit,” Mead said. “We continue to see the club lamb industry grow, and it’s a great way for youth to get involved, again with minimal expense.”
According to Turner, there is a sheep operation in every Ohio county, with the average flock size of 36 head. There are more than 3,000 full- and part-time jobs created associated with sheep in the state. More than 490,000 pounds of wool are produced per year in the state, with a total value of $363,000.
And Ohio sheep improvement just continues. The Ohio Sheep and Wool Program (OSWP), which is Ohio’s sheep and wool check-off program, invested more than $49,000 into sheep and wool promotion, education, research, and producer and youth programs for fiscal year 2020-21. OSWP received 13 requests for proposals with 11 of these proposals approved for full or partial funding by the board during its October meeting.
“These programs are primarily collaborative efforts that will increase visibility of the Ohio sheep and wool industry to the consumer as well as improve the knowledge and research base of our sheep, lamb and wool producers,” said Roger High, OSWP executive director. “The OSWP Board of Directors is committed to assuring every segment of the industry is represented in the funding since every segment of the sheep, lamb and wool industry contributes to the program.”
High is also executive director of the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association (OSIA), which is the primary sheep commodity organization in the Buckeye State, working to promote the infrastructure and general welfare of the sheep industry in Ohio. OSIA oversees educational programs, industry leadership, any legislative issues related to the sheep and lamb industry, and more. The organization has nearly 500 members, making it the third-largest state membership in the United States.
According to High, OSWP approved programs will benefit every segment of the Ohio sheep industry. Major educational programs funded include the Buckeye Shepherd’s Symposium, Ohio Sheep Day, the Young Shepherd’s Assembly and other educational related programs and activities.
Working closely with OSIA, the Mid-States Wool Growers (in Canal Winchester, Ohio) also works to promote the sheep industry, focusing mainly on producer needs.
“We’re a farmer-owned co-op that tries to provide services sheep producers need to be successful and keep wool at a constant, fair market price,” said Dave Rowe, general manager of Mid-States Wool Growers. “The biggest advantage for Ohio is its location. There is a lot of lamb consumption on the East Coast, and various ethnic groups that have lamb as part of their diet. They’re becoming more prominent. The nontraditional market is a plus for Ohio.”
To further bolster sheep in the state even further, the OSWP is looking for more extension and research support, and is willing to put money behind this effort with a proposal of reinstating the small ruminant specialist position with Ohio State University extension. The announcement was made in December at the OSIA annual meeting. The check off program also offered $25,000 in funding to help pay for the position.
OSU Extension used to have a sheep specialist, but that position has been vacant the past four years. The proposed position would cover both sheep and goats. It will be a combined extension and research position with the university. The specialist will serve as an adviser on the OSWP and as an ex-officio member of the OSIA Board of Trustees.