Sheep are raised for both meat (lamb or mutton) and wool. The
U.S. sheep and wool industries have seen significant change since
the mid-1970s, marked by smaller inventories, declining production,
shrinking revenues, and fewer operations. Historically, lamb and
mutton were viewed as byproducts of wool production, even though
wool receipts accounted for a smaller share of revenue. As wool
revenues have declined, producers have turned their attention to
lamb and mutton production and the possibility of other byproducts
such as sheep leather.
Inventory data on U.S. sheep began in 1867, when there were
approximately 45 million sheep in the United States. Sheep numbers
peaked in 1884 at 51 million head. Since then, numbers have
declined to almost 6.0 million head. The number of sheep operations
has declined as well. Since the 1990s, sheep operations have
dropped from more than 105,000 to over 80,000, as producers
experienced shrinking revenues and low rates of return.
During the two decades between 1987 and 2007, sheep operations
saw double digit declines throughout the Mountain States, Northern
Plains, Lake States, and Corn Belt. These were mainly larger
operations. Significant increases were seen in the Pacific States
and the Southeast, but these were mainly smaller operations.
Between 2003 and 2007, the number of operations increased in all
regions except the Northern Plains and Corn Belt. However, these
are mainly small-farm flocks that do not offset the loss of large
operations in the West. As a result, sheep inventory continues its
Sheep producers range in size from those with small flocks to
large western operations. Two types of enterprises exist:
stock-sheep production and lamb feeding. Stock-sheep producers
manage grazing flocks on pasture and range forage, often on arid
western lands with few alternative uses. Stock-sheep producers sell
lambs that are either slaughtered or placed in feedlots. Feeder
lambs are raised on forage until they are around 60-80 pounds, then
placed in feedlots to be fattened and finished for slaughter.
Although the sheep industry accounts for less than 1 percent of
U.S. livestock industry receipts, sheep operations are important to
the economies of several States. More than two-thirds of U.S.
operations are located in the Southern Plains, Mountain, and
Pacific regions, and the regional distribution has remained fairly
constant since the early 1900s. Texas is the largest sheep
producing State, followed by California.
Attempts to diversify sheep production have sparked increased
interest in hair sheep production. Hair sheep have high parasite
resistance and low heat stress and are known to provide multiple
lambing possibilities. Apart from the ability of hair sheep to
produce lamb and mutton, their leather is a viable source of
The U.S. market for lamb and mutton has weakened throughout the
decades. Since the 1960s, per capita consumption has dropped from
nearly 5 pounds to just about 1 pound. This drop is due in part to
declining acceptance of lamb from a growing segment of the
population, as well as competition from other meats, such as
poultry, pork, and beef. Most meat is sold as lamb and comes from
animals under 14 months old. Mutton comes from older animals and is
often less expensive but less desirable to consumers. U.S. lamb
consumers prefer high-quality cuts such as legs and loins. Some of
the lower quality, less desirable cuts go to the pet-food industry
or are exported.
The Northeast, with its high concentrations of Middle Eastern,
Caribbean, and African consumers, is a major market for lamb
products. The typical lamb consumer is an older, relatively
well-established ethnic individual who lives in a metropolitan area
such as New York, Boston, or Philadelphia; in the Northeast; or San
Francisco or Los Angeles on the West Coast, and who prefers to eat
only certain lamb cuts. In contrast, beef, pork, and poultry buyers
tend to be geographically dispersed, younger, and less ethnically
oriented and tend to buy a wider variety of cuts.