In the lamb of plenty

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— More sheep graze on the National Forest surrounding Steamboat Springs than any other forest in the United States. Yet, building a local market for lamb chops is a puzzle.

More than 80,000 sheep and lambs spend their summers grazing on the lush alpine meadows of the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, CSU Extension Agent C.J. Mucklow said. Of that total, only about 9,000 spend the entire year on farms and ranches in Routt County. The balance are trucked here for summer pasture by large wool-growing operations in Moffat County, Utah and southern Wyoming, he said.

Mucklow believes if he could solve the puzzle of creating a wholesale market for local lamb, he could increase the viability of small ag operators in Routt County.

"Couldn't we take some of those lambs, hold them a little in the fall and sell them locally?" Mucklow asked rhetorically. He believes if he and others could create a local market for 600 to 700 lambs at the holidays, local sheep ranchers could improve their profit by 30 to 50 percent.

Mucklow's idea isn't a new one he tried once before and did not succeed.

"Seven to eight years ago we started Steamboat Lamb. We flopped miserably," Mucklow said. "We know more about it now."

Lou Dequine of south Routt County is urging Mucklow to keep trying. Dequine, a veterinarian, is also one of the small sheep ranchers in the area eager to find a better market for the lambs produced by his 100 black-faced ewes. The black-faced sheep, often a cross between the Suffolk and Hampshire breeds, have bigger frames than white-faced sheep and thus are regarded more highly for meat production.

Dequine and Mucklow initiated a lamb marketing test last fall, but sold all 25 of his lambs to local individuals before they could really test the wholesale market. They hope to try again this fall with even more lambs.

Mucklow and the local ag community have learned from more successful programs like Routt County woolens, which produces blankets from locally grown wool, and Yampa valley Beef, which sells local beef both through restaurants and groceries. Both of those programs benefited from a $5,000 federal grant that helped them develop their marketing strategy. Mucklow intends to pursue another similar round of grants by March 1.

"By far the majority of lambs born in the region are destined for the dinner table rather than for wool production," Mucklow said. Virtually all of the male lambs are processed for their meat and only one-third of the female lambs are raised to maturity to replace herd ewes. Almost all of the locally raised lambs are shipped to Centennial Livestock in Fort Collins for processing. Last week a lamb weighing 125 pounds was bringing between 70 cents and 75 cents a pound, or about $93.75 a head.

Dequine's 100 ewes provide him with 150 lambs in a good year. He believes small Routt County ranchers will need to commit to producing the biggest, fattest lambs possible, in order to gain a reputation that will translate to a higher-paying market in local restaurants. He is experimenting with breeding to try and produce consistently bigger lambs.

One of the reasons a local wholesale market is so tempting is that one-quarter to one-third of the lambs that spend their summers on the mountain pastures of Northwest Colorado come off the range fattened to the point they are ready for market.

"About one-quarter to one-third of the lambs in Northwest Colorado are finished right off of grass," Mucklow said. That means the rancher doesn't need to sell the lambs to a feed lot to get their weight up to 125 pounds. A local market would would offer a better alternative if the ranchers were willing to feed out the balance of their lambs.

Still, Mucklow estimates local wholesale buyers would have to be willing to pay a premium for the lamb as much as $1.10 to $1.20 per pound for the local lamb program to work.

That extra amount would be made up by a higher-quality animal yielding bigger lamb chops and a meatier leg of lamb, Mucklow said.

He was quick to acknowledge that the ultimate customer must be willing to pay more for the lamb at the grocery or restaurant table in exchange for the cachet of lamb raised in the Yampa Valley.

Marketing is the key to creating demand for higher quality lamb at a higher price, Mucklow said. And it's likely to be an uphill fight because Americans don't consume much lamb. The average person consumes 70 pounds of beef annually and just three pounds of lamb, Mucklow said. Even in Colorado, which feeds more lambs than any other state except perhaps Texas, lamb is sometimes hard to find at the grocery store, Mucklow acknowledged.

While lamb production is concentrated in Colorado, Mucklow observed, most of the consumption is on the coasts where there are larger ethnic populations more inclined to consume lamb.

The real challenge in getting a Routt County lamb program up and self-sustaining, Mucklow said, is not convincing more people to eat lamb, but in finding ways to sell the entire lamb to the wholesale market, instead of just the prime cuts.

He believes restaurants in the Yampa Valley should be selling Yampa Valley Lamb.

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