Lambs at the Mountain View Lamb Feeders feedlot in Eaton, Colorado. Many ranchers are cutting their flocks and selling at a loss, due to the ongoing, ruinous drought and anti-competitive prive manipulation. Matthew Staver for The New York Times

By JACK HEALY
10 December 2012

SEVERANCE, Colorado (The New York Times) – Since he was a boy in western Colorado, John Bartmann seemed destined to become a sheep man. He raised lambs with the local 4-H club and sheared them for elderly German farmers. His office is lined with paintings of sheep and a plaque honoring him for “promoting culinary excellence” in lambs.

But over the last few years, skyrocketing costs, a brutal drought, and plunging lamb prices have battered Mr. Bartmann and the 80,000 ranchers across the country who raise sheep — from a few to several thousand. It is the latest threat to shadow a Western way of life that still relies on the whims of summer rains, lonely immigrant sheep herders and old grazing trails into the mountains.

“For the sheep industry, it’s the perfect storm,” Mr. Bartmann said, glancing out his office window here at a bleating sea of wool. “The money is just not there.”

Many ranchers are laying off employees, cutting their flocks and selling at a loss, and industry groups said a handful had abandoned the business entirely. Mr. Bartmann has trimmed his flock of 2,000 by one-third. With prices down more than half since last year and higher costs for gasoline and corn, Mr. Bartmann said he expected to lose about $100 for every lamb he sold.

“Even in the good years, you don’t make that much money,” he said. “We can’t take that kind of hit.”

Weather and economics take big shares of the blame. The drought withered grazing grounds, killed off young lambs and dried up irrigation ditches, and a glut of meat and imported lambs from New Zealand helped send prices plummeting.

But some ranchers and officials in Washington believe that the deck was stacked against the sheep ranchers by the small number of powerful feedlots that buy lambs, slaughter them and sell them to grocery stores and restaurants. Even as prices farmers received fell to 85 cents a pound, consumers at supermarkets were paying $7 or more a pound for the same meat. […]

It is the latest twist in a brutal year for thousands of farmers and ranchers across the country. In a slow-motion disaster, a drought covering more than 60 percent of the country scorched corn stalks into parchment, dried up irrigation ponds, and turned farm fields into brittle crust. Farmers begged local governments to let them tap aquifers. Scores of ranchers dumped their livestock at drought auctions.

Farmers say they are still paying near-record prices for corn and hay to feed their livestock through the winter. And if abundant snows do not come to replenish streams and coax new grass from the ground, they worry that next summer could be even worse than last.

“The drought plays into everything,” said Fred Roberts, a sheep rancher in Rock Springs, Wyo. “We have absolutely no feed. We’re feeding as much corn to the sheep as they can eat, and you can imagine how expensive that is. Nothing grew here last year.” […]

Drought and Economy Plague Sheep Farmers

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