Although considered a niche industry when compared to beef, the sale of U.S. lamb meat nationwide brought in $433 million last year. This was an increase over the previous year.
In July, the nation’s largest lamb processing plant, Mountain States Rosen in Greeley, Colo., went bankrupt and was bought by JBS USA, whose Brazilian-based parent company is JBS S.A. The company plans to turn the processing plant into a beef facility.
Once the transition occurred, two entities decided action was needed to help sustain the lamb industry. The Hasbrouck family, which owns Colorado-based Double J Lamb Feeders, a lamb feed yard, and Double J Meat, a small meat processing plant and store, decided to buy and refurbish an offline lamb processing plant in San Angelo, Texas — calling the location Double J Lamb, Inc. — Texas. In addition, three families who own independent lamb feed lots and a ranch, got together to start another plant, Colorado Lamb Processors, in Brush, Colo. The company’s harvest superintendent, Mike Weis, is from northwest Kansas.
The Colorado plant hopes to be up and running in two weeks, while the Texas plant expects to open in two months. Both plants believe there is enough demand for their services.
Where meat is raised is different from where it is sold
According to the American Sheep Industry Association, although 30% of lamb meat is sold in the Northeast, while the Plains Region makes up just 7% of sales, most lambs are raised west of the Mississippi. In 2019, there were more than 1,200 Kansas sheep ranchers.
As of Jan. 1, 2020, according to ASI, there were 5 million sheep in the U.S. The largest sheep-producing states are, in descending order, Texas, California, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. Kansas is No. 22, with 73,000 head. The Sunflower State’s neighbors, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma, like Kansas, have 100,000 head or less.
Loss of ground
With 60% of lamb meat already coming into the U.S. from Australia and New Zealand, ranchers, ASI and the new processing plants are fearful of losing ground in the industry. By purchasing U.S. lambs at grocery stores and restaurants, consumers are supporting U.S. farmers.
Lon James, of James Brothers in Clay Center, Kan., sells his lamb meat, which he gets butchered at a smaller processing facility in Kansas, to a local grocery store. He was told that because of the plant closure in Colorado, the price of his meat would probably go down. Along with selling to the supermarket, James sells from his ranch and at the farmer’s market. He, like other ranchers, is anxious about Mountain States’ closing.
"We base our prices on what’s going on in the industry," James said. "There will be an onslaught of lambs needing to be processed with nowhere to go (if the plants don’t open)."
Both Double J Lamb — Texas and Colorado Lamb Processors know they can fill in the gaps left behind from Mountain States’ closing. Both companies are rushing to open their facilities, which will serve Kansas, as well as Montana, Utah and Oregon, as quickly as possible.
"I’ve had some phone calls come across from Kansas already," said MaryAnn Harper, a co-owner of Colorado Lamb Processors.
Both Double J and Colorado Processing wanted to begin processing as soon as possible so no rancher would be left in the lurch.
"It was a spur-of-the-moment decision," Jeff Hasbrouck said. "Once we lost Mountain States Rosen, we had to make a decision quickly."
According to Hasbrouck, Mountain States Rosen processed approximately 8,000 carcasses a week. Double J Lamb – Texas will be able to process from 1,700 to 1,800 animals each day. But they will not be able to cut the meat into ribs, loin and chop meat until about a month or so after opening.
Colorado Lamb Processors is set up to process 1,800 carcasses each day, with the ability to grow to 2,400, if the need arises. As of now, they are not planning on fabricating — cutting the carcass up into consumer-ready pieces. But if they need to, they can expand into fabrication.
COVID-19 has shifted the lamb market considerably. Before the pandemic, more than half the lamb meat was sold to restaurants.
"There has not been an increase in the number of lambs, but there’s definitely tremendous growth in the direct market," said Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board. "The way consumers are supporting local farmers is resonating more and more."
Harper said more than half the lamb processed went to restaurants before COVID-19 hit. Because of this, the industry is suffering. Yet, Harper, along with Hasbrouck and Wortman, see a rebound for the animal. They are also grateful to the grocery chains like Kroger Foods who carry American lamb.
"I think this industry has a bright future," Harper said. "There’s a lot of hope out there."