Specialty livestock are on the rise, and the Kansas Department of Agriculture wants to know how they can help.

KDA is currently hosting its first-ever online survey for sheep and goat owners in order to glean vital unknowns about the industry. Once compiled, the survey data will give KDA experts a chance to share the success of Kansas specialty livestock production, and build upon the momentum.

“These producers are all over the state, and they are very diverse and passionate about their product,” said Peter Oppelt, a KDA economist and specialty livestock representative on the 2020 Kansas Ag Growth team. “If we can begin to show there’s good participation in this (industry), that there’s more producers than people realize, and target growth opportunities, we’ll give them more of a foothold and voice in the state.”

Oppelt said KDA struggles to get a clear snapshot of the specialty livestock industry in Kansas from the U.S. Census of Agriculture, which doesn’t survey smaller markets comprehensively. They know specialty livestock are becoming increasingly popular in Kansas, but their data is largely defined by the annual revenue — which amounts to $11.5 million in sales, according to the 2017 census.

With pinpointed data on Kansas’ specialty livestock through the KDA survey, Oppelt said they can begin to access producers’ needs in a much more tangible way.

The survey includes a wide array of standard questions to help paint the specialty livestock picture in Kansas — type and number of animals, size of operation, slaughter weight, total weight produced annually, average growth in sales, number of employees, producers’ knowledge level and involvement with their animals, and participation in industry organizations.

Location is one particularly vital demographic included in the survey. Not only do KDA experts seek to locate where specialty livestock producers are raising their animals in the state, but also where producers market their products. The answers to those questions could mean significant benefits for both sides of the production chain.

“If there are a lot of producers in one region of the state, but they’re taking their animals several miles away to a sale barn, but there may be a closer sale barn, they might have an opportunity there,” Oppelt explained. “Or, with processing: There’s not a lot of processors — if there’s a concentration (of specialty livestock in one region) but not a local processor, that would be a good opportunity for new business.”

The list of benefits doesn’t stop at the sale barn, though.

Oppelt said just as important for specialty livestock producers is veterinary care, which is a particular challenge for the niche industry. If KDA can identify areas of the state where unique livestock are centralized, it could help bring new veterinary talent to the area, or even “spark a bit of interest” at Kansas State University, where many of the nation’s veterinarians get their start.

KDA representatives also foresee the survey helping at the front end of specialty livestock ownership — specifically with financing.

“One of the challenges is access to capital,” Oppelt said. “Lenders aren’t as knowledgeable in the area of specialty livestock, and so they might not be as willing to give someone a loan for starting or updating their specialty livestock operation.”

However, he said, when the survey results are compiled, they’ll be drafted into a “state of the industry” report that will be made public and available to all Kansas producers — a document that they can have in their portfolio when approaching a lender.

“By having more information for this market, especially on its growth potential, (this report) will be really helpful for these folks” to acquire loans, he added. 

Though this first survey centers on the specialty livestock industry’s heavy hitters, Oppelt said there’s potential for performing surveys on the other animals down the line. He stressed the importance of this and any future surveys’ success on participation by Kansas producers — the more responses, the clearer and more accurate the picture. It’s entirely anonymous, and includes a section near the end for comments.

The survey is ongoing through Monday, Aug. 17 at www.tinyurl.com/sheepgoat2020. For producers who can’t access it online, contact Peter at 785-564/6726, peter.oppelt@ks.gov for a written or over-the-phone survey.

Survey results are expected to be released in mid-September.

“With the right climate — the right attitude and marketing — a lot of these (producers) are very successful,” Oppelt said. “There’s certainly a market for these kinds of things. It just takes thinking outside the box to get into it.”

Katy Moore can be reached at editorial@midwestmessenger.com.  

A Kansas native, Katy is the daughter of a farmer and a cowgirl. She has been a professional journalist since 2008 and is the Editor of Midwest Messenger. She can be reached at katy.moore@lee.net.