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Premiere Date: July 5, 2011

Sweetgrass in Context

Sheep and Cattle Wars & Sheep Production Today

Due to increasing tensions between cattle and sheep herders, as well as the declining importance of sheepherding to the U.S. economy, sheep production has slowly diminished since the beginning of the 20th century.

Sheep and Cattle Wars

The establishment of public lands limited open grazing and led to conflict between cattle ranchers and sheepherders whose sheep were said to be depleting the grasses. Ethnic and religious prejudice added to the tension. In the Southwest, sheepherders were predominantly Mexican or Indian, while in the Northwest they were often Mormon or Basque immigrants from the Pyrenees region of Spain and France. (Today, most sheepherders are from Peru and Chile, while the herd owners are Basque.) Eventually, legal agreements were reached and sheepherders took their herds to marginal and high altitude ranges that were unsuitable for cattle, but suitable for sheep.

Basque immigrants’ cultural background became significant in the battle over land-grazing rights. Some Americans complained that the sheepherders were not U.S. citizens and were sending their profits abroad rather than investing in the United States. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, together with the Great Depression and the Immigration Act of 1924 (which limited the number of Spanish nationals who could enter the United States annually) slowed the influx of Basques.

That trend reversed after World War II, when a shortage of men available for agricultural labor led Congress to pass so-called “Sheepherder Bills” that allowed skilled laborers to enter the country to fill vacant positions temporarily. Eventually, they were allowed to apply for permanent residency.

Sheep Production Today

The number of sheep in the United States today is roughly the same as it was in 1800, about 7 million, following a spike up to 56 million in 1945. Given the dramatic population increase in the same time period, 7 million marks a sharp decline in sheep production in the United States. Several factors have contributed to the decline, including a reduced market for lamb, mutton and wool; increasing production costs; and a decrease in ranch size.

In the United States, the markets for lamb (and mutton — the meat of animals older than 14 months) and wool are linked; one’s price affects the other. Wool demand spiked during World War II, when wool was heavily used by the military, but plummeted thereafter as a result of reduced need and the increased popularity of more inexpensive synthetic fibers. Before World War II, animals were allowed to produce more wool before they were slaughtered and their meat was sold as mutton. Today, the value of the meat relative to the value of wool has increased, so animals are slaughtered earlier to be sold as lamb, meaning they also produce less wool over their lifetimes.

As wool use declined, so did lamb and mutton consumption. While the U.S. consumption of most kinds of meat has increased or at least held steady in the past several decades, lamb and mutton (the least popular meat in the United States) account for a much smaller fraction of the market than beef. In the 1960s, the average American ate 4.5 pounds annually; by 2002, that had decreased to 1.1 pound. Consumption is predominant within certain ethnic minorities, including Middle Eastern, African, Latin American and Caribbean populations, which are focused in urban areas on the coasts, while more than two thirds of Americans eat no lamb or mutton at all. The highest quality cuts are most frequently consumed, meaning that the remainder of the animal is hard to sell. Some of the excess meat ends up in pet food, while some is exported to Mexico.

When there have been slight increases in consumption of lamb and mutton in the interim years, the additional needed meat has often come from imports. Australia and New Zealand, in particular, have succeeded in restructuring their sheep and wool industries to meet the new demands, and both countries now provide significant imports to the United States. The United States, meanwhile, has never been a significant exporter.

As the wool and sheep industries decline, research and development are being conducted in hopes of reviving the industry. The Montana Sheep Institute at Montana State University, for example, is looking into ways to increase local producers’ role in world markets, as well as to initiate local action, such as increasing cooperation among small wool producers in order to increase sales, and using sheep in weed management programs by allowing them to graze on noxious weeds that threaten native grasses.

Further suggestions for reviving the industry include improving marketing of lamb meat both at home and abroad, finding new outlets for lower-end cuts, developing worldwide export markets and reevaluating the joint wool-and-meat production model.

» Jones, Keithly G. “Agriculture Information Bulletin Number 787: Trends in the U.S. Sheep Industry.” United States Department of Agriculture, January 2004.
» Montana Sheep Institute.
» The Oregon History Project
» Russ, Anne Marie. “Sheepherding Remains A Lonely Life.” NPR, July 10, 2005.
» Totoricagüena Egurrola, Gloria. “Ethnic Industries for Migrants: Basque Sheepherding in the American West.” Eusko News.

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