When it comes to livestock, Montana is cattle country. Beef makes up the overwhelming majority of ranching activity in the state. And beef prices are very high right now.
Yet even some cattle ranchers are starting to take a second look at raising sheep. That industry is booming too.
The Montana Aerie Sheep ranch stands at the very top of a high, dusty bluff overlooking the Missouri River South of Great Falls.
“Except for the wind it’s a great place to be,” said ranch owner Tom Key. He has been bringing in his whole flock over the last few months. Some ewes are still waddling around very pregnant. But many little lambs have been stretching their new legs for weeks now.
Key has seen this cycle for almost 20 years at the Aerie Ranch, not like this though.
“Sheep now are commanding prices that are unheard of. We’ve never seen prices in the sheep industry…as we’re seeing today,” he said.
American ranchers are raising just a fraction of the sheep they did in the early 1900s, Key says. More recently, sheep export giants Australia and New Zealand have slowed their production.
“And the demand has remained very stable if not increased,” he said.
It is a global sheep market. Key is getting record prices for his wool from China.
“All of of our wool, every pound of our wool has gone to China for the last five years.”
And Key’s seeing renewed interest back here in the US for lamb.
“Lamb, I think has enjoyed a resurgence and interest at the gourmet level,” he said.
Executive Secretary of the Montana Wool Growers Association Brent Roeder says sheep ranchers are making a lot of money right now.
But before folks start chasing after wool’s gold, Roeder says even with the increased prices sheep are bringing in, “We have a huge increase in price of our inputs in terms of fencing supplies, fertilizer, feed costs, have all gone up remarkably as well.”
Back on the Aerie Ranch, Tom Key feels lucky he got into this business when he did. He says obtaining the land, the equipment–it’s prohibitively expensive today.
“It’s very difficult for a new person, irrespective of how enthusiastic they might be to really get a ground start in this industry,” he said.
The new lambs growing up on his windy hilltop ranch are fetching top dollar right now.And Key says the U.S. is still not producing enough to meet demand.
But like any experienced agriculturalist, Key is using these boom times to prepare for the next bust.