The Montana State University sheep and wool program is multi-faceted, including several entities that work together for sheep and wool growers and breeders in Montana and throughout the region.

“Montana has a long legacy in the sheep and wool industry,” said Brent Roeder, MSU Extension sheep and wool specialist, who has a Targhee sheep operation of his own. “We want to continue to honor that with keeping a wool lab at the university, a teaching professorship at MSU, an Extension program and wool and sheep research with a sheep flock.”

The Montana Wool Lab at MSU, part of MSU’s Agricultural Experiment Station, is one of only two in the nation.

“Technology in the sheep industry is constantly changing, and we need to update our lab to handle that changing technology,” Roeder said.

Currently at the lab, they focus on grower services.

“We evaluate wool samples, mostly for breeders, and receive some 12,000 samples every year,” he said.

Samples come from all over the U.S., in particular from Montana, the Dakotas and Wyoming.

With the recent closure of the Denver wool lab, wool core testing must now be sent to New Zealand for analysis.

“It can be quite expensive for wool growers to send their core samples to New Zealand,” he said.

While their plans for updating the wool lab at MSU have been set back a bit due to COVID-19, MSU Sheep Extension and the university continue to solidify plans.

“It would be a major help to sheep producers and breeders in Montana to have an updated wool lab,” Roeder said.

The lab was built in 1947, so it has a layout not conducive to new technologies.

“It is difficult to do the kind of research we would like to do with the floor layout it has,” he said. In addition, with a new lab, they could do much of the testing on wool that currently needs to be sent out of the state.

Roeder says wool prices were high in 2018-19, and optimism was high.

“There was a new interest in wool as a natural sustainable fiber,” he said. More research was focused on using wool for various purposes, including clothing, and a lot of U.S. wool was exported overseas to India or China for manufacturing.

Research with using wool, along with other fibers, such as hemp, is being conducted at small mills in Montana.

“With hemp acreage high in Montana, research is looking into combining hemp/wool/cotton fibers into sustainable fabrics,” he said.

They are finding new uses for these fibers in various products, such as landscaping, mulch for gardens, wool balls for dryers, and more, as well as clothing.

In time, this will help sheep and wool producers and breeders have local markets to sell to.

Roeder said research has shown that fabrics made out of plastic are not biodegradable and when washed, microfibers are released into the water system. Those fibers eventually end up in oceans, endangering marine life.

With COVID-19, overseas markets and wool prices dropped off as people stopped buying wool business attire. Many business people stayed home, operating business meetings over Zoom. As a result, manufacturing stopped for office attire.

“We are trying to come up with ways to help the sheep and wool industry all over the U.S.,” Roeder said.

On the market lamb side, Roeder said the Northern Plains has recently lost an important lamb co-op.

The co-op, in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, had purchased a processing facility for market lambs from JBS in Colorado. Another group wanted to buy the facility, and tried to get the processing facility removed from the proceedings, but was unable to.

“The loss of a harvest facility has affected sheep producers who are trying to find markets for their market lambs,” Roeder said. “While the retail demand for home consumption of lamb remains high, as an industry, we have two major problems. Half of the lamb we consume are imported from Australia and New Zealand, and half of the lamb consumed in restaurants have been shuttered due to COVID-19.”

Long-term, Roeder remains optimistic about the industry.

Australia and New Zealand have lost sheep numbers, about half of all their sheep.

“Those reductions in flock numbers and flock compositions have created huge implications for the world sheep and wool trade,” Roeder said.

As domestic growers struggle with a “severely impacted lamb and wool market,” there are several government programs that can help sheep and wool producers get through the next year.

A buyback program purchases lamb products and there are low-interest loans available because of COVID-19. Several wool programs are available, as well.

“We are trying to help sheep producers with risk management,” Roeder said, adding he and others are helping sheep producers figure out how to market their market lambs.

“Right now, the market wants market lambs that are 80-90 pounds – no heavier. Buyers are running out of options for heavier lambs,” he said.

Roeder said with the high heat over the last couple of weeks, and the dry weather, pastures are browning up.

“It is a good time to cull older ewes while the market is still strong and to hang on to ewe lambs,” Roeder said, cautioning that it may be time to keep a younger ewe flock.

“Four to five years down the road, numbers could be off and you may miss a whole age group. Cull a little deeper into older ewes while you can,” he said.

In Montana, wool pools, co-operatives that help smaller sheep producers market their wool as one lot, are still going strong.

“This year, our Eastern Consolidated Wool Pool gathered 60,000-65,000 pounds, off from our normal of 80,000 pounds. But we trucked that wool collected from our wool pools to Big Timber, and it was a nice amount,” he said.

Roeder said it was a vital market for smaller producers to have a wool pool, because the co-op gives producers the power of one large amount of wool to sell to wool buyers.

“They can market their wool as if it were one large producer, and buyers take them seriously,” he said. “Producers also save a lot on shipping and trucking through the wool pool. It is a nice deal for the smaller grower.”