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Cheap Imports: Death Knell for the West

Billings, MT | Wasn’t long ago and you could travel throughout the western United States and one of your most common sightings would have been sheep…lots of sheep. For those of you that like data, 81 years ago, in 1942, the people population in the U.S. was about 135 million. And the sheep population was 56 million. That meant that for every 12 people, there were 5 sheep. And what that also meant was that America had lots of food.

Those sheep grazed the arid West converting grass, which is nondigestible for humans, to powerful protein while simultaneously clearing the underbrush to limit forest and prairie fires. But those sheep meant more than just an abundance of people food, and they provided more than just an ecological balance.

For starters, sheep and lambs are biblically significant and are mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible. They are traditional symbols for many religions, with God referred to as the Good Shepherd in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions.

Those protein and wool producing sheep were the economic cornerstones for western communities and were intrinsically interwoven in America’s rural fabric, providing business opportunities and jobs and supporting schools, churches, Main Street businesses, hospitals, civic organizations, and the social infrastructure comprised of people engaged in meaningful enterprises.

But during the course of just over a generation, America destroyed all of that by destroying her commercial sheep industry, resulting in job losses and the hollowing out of rural communities in the West.

Now saying that America destroyed her commercial sheep industry in just over a generation is pretty brash…it’s shocking. So now I need to prove it!

For clarification, I’m defining a commercial sheep operation as a full-time operation, and I use a flock size of at least 100 head as the smallest of the full-time commercial operations.

So, let’s start just over a generation ago, in 1980. At that time there were still 13 million sheep roaming the range with over 17,000 commercial sheep operations. But today, the U.S. sheep inventory has fallen to just over 5 million sheep and lambs and only 3.6 million of them are in the West. And there’s only about 6,800 commercial sheep operations left to shepherd them.

That’s about a 63% reduction in the sheep inventory and a loss of 60% of all our commercial sheep operations. So, when a shrinking industry declines by more than half, it’s safe to say the industry has been destroyed.

So now we need to determine if it’s true that America destroyed her own commercial sheep industry.

Well, it’s indisputable that America has exclusive authority to regulate imports. Even if she entered a free trade agreement to allow unlimited imports, that doesn’t mean that America has relinquished her ultimate authority to regulate them.

So, let’s see how well America regulated her sheep and lamb imports. In 1990, America produced over 90% of the lamb consumed in America, and imports provided just under 10%.

A decade later, in 2000, imports were beginning to skyrocket and America produced only 66% of the lamb consumed in America, with imports capturing 34% of the domestic market.

And then things went terribly wrong. A decade later, in 2010, American lamb was fast being displaced by imported lamb and America only produced 53% of the lamb consumed in America, with imports capturing 47% of the domestic market.

By the next decade, in 2020, the American sheep industry had been outsourced to foreign countries. That year America only produced 32% of the lamb consumed in America, with imports capturing a whopping 68% of the domestic market.

Sadly, last year was way worse. In 2022, America only produced 28% of the lamb consumed in America and imports captured an unbelievable 72% of the American market.

What’s clear is that America failed to regulate imports and did nothing while imports quickly displaced American sheep production, which has destroyed America’s commercial sheep industry.

So now let’s answer the “Duh” question. How did foreign imports displace American lamb production? Well, foreign imports are way, way cheaper. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that foreign lamb carcasses were $55 per carcass cheaper than domestic carcasses and today it’s worse. Over the past three years foreign racks of lamb were over $1,000 per cwt cheaper than domestic racks of lamb.

And how can foreign lamb be produced so much cheaper than domestic lamb? Here’s just two reasons: Foreign sheep producers do not have to follow the same stringent production standards established by the United States and foreign currency values are misaligned, according a huge advantage to imports over U.S. produced lamb.

So, there it is. Unregulated imports are the death knell to the U.S. sheep industry and Congress has yet to lift a finger to change it. But stay tuned, we are in the process of formulating a solution to save our American sheep industry and to restore America’s food security.


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R-CALF USA’s weekly opinion/commentary educates and informs both consumers and producers about timely issues important to the U.S. cattle industry and rural America.

Ranchers Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA) is the largest producer-only trade association in the United States. It is a national, nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring the continued profitability and viability of the U.S. cattle industry. Visit www.r-calfusa.com or call 406-252-2516 for more information.

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