Steamboat Springs The sale of my lambs the past two seasons has awakened me to the changing nature of agricultural markets. It also has reminded me that the buyer has specific traits in mind that affect the desirability of the livestock offered for sale. This is, of course, reflected in the purchase price. This relationship between producer, product and purchaser is at the heart of some of the new niche marketing.
I have been using only Polypay rams as my sires for more than 20 years. The lambs from this breeding have done very well at auction over the years, and I was essentially producing for a non-specific or generic market at the auctions. The Polypay breed is a medium-sized, medium-wool sheep with a high lambing percentage. I find this breed to be easily managed and to perform well on moderate feed input. The high percentage of multiple births yields a relatively large number of lambs in proportion to the ewes carried on pasture and hay throughout the year. The downside is that the size of the lambs at weaning time is smaller than those of some other breeds.
Polpays are less common than many other breeds in Colorado. Most of the larger producers running on rangeland raise a larger framed sheep. These breeds include Ramboulliet and Columbia (white-faced breeds) and Suffolk (black-faced). Often times, these white-faced and black-faced breeds are crossed to produce a "broclele-faced" lamb that yields excellent weight gains before and after weaning. This program works well with low-cost feed inputs even though the rigors of range environments, and lower expected lambing percentages result in fewer lambs to market relative to the numbers of ewes carried through the year. The lambs are bigger. These operations rely on large ewe numbers and low input for economic success. Often times, the large producers do not have to rely on the auction yard for marketing because the large number of lambs offered of uniform size and quality allows direct marketing to a feeder or packer.
Smaller producers often have had to rely on the auction, because lesser numbers of lambs for sale did not entice feeders for direct sales. But no matter which type of sheep operation a producer is engaged in, there are markets available for their product. The sheep-feeding industry, concentrated along Colorado's Front Range, relies on good-quality feeder lambs coming from pasture and range to be fattened on alfalfa and grain to marketable size.
For 20 years I have produced good quality lambs, but with the size limitations inherent in the breed as well as having most ewes raising two lambs, I knew that very large lambs were not to be achieved. Now I have found the buyer who is looking for exactly the lambs I raise. He markets lambs that produce a smaller carcass on pasture alone. And the low cost of his pasture, contracted for weed management, fire break and brush control, allows him the time to bring them to market size. He sought my lambs because they were of a breed useful to his management style, serving his intermediate goal and his end goal of providing a compact-framed, mild-flavored meat in demand by specific chefs and meat suppliers. He knows his market and the sheep he needs to meet it. I now know that the sheep I have raised all these years do not have to enter a generic market. They have a specific set of desirable characteristics to fill a particular niche in the evolving markets for today's agricultural products.