Benny Cox, sheep sales manager for Producers Livestock Auction in San Angelo, said he sold 41,000 more sheep last year than the year previous. They were good sheep, too. "Many of them were breeding stock," he said. "They were useful aged and would never have been sold if not for the drought because these were animals that would have produced offspring."
As is the case with the cattle market, sheep and goat raisers are further frustrated by the fact that the market is expanding and prices are good. Without rain, and with much of the state plagued by wildfires, there was little or no forage last year and not much water to wash it down; to the market they went.
Frank Craddock, a sheep and goat specialist for Texas AgriLife Extension in San Angelo, estimates that the numbers are down 25 to 50 percent while producers wait for the land to recover from the drought.
"We had a nice spring, and it's been real green and lush, but we've had a few hundred degree days already and the wind's been blowing 20 or 30 miles per hour," Craddock said." It sucks the moisture out of the ground pretty fast. Don't get me wrong -- we're proud of what we got. But, if we don't get the rains in May and on into early June, people who think they got a lot of rain are going to find out they didn't get that much after all."
Craddock said he thinks the losses are a little higher than what the USDA National Agriculture Statistics Service reported in its annual sheep and goats report in January. The NASS showed sheep and lamb number down 24 percent in Texas on Jan. 1, 2012, compared to a year previous. With Texas being the largest sheep producer in the country, the drop in Texas more than accounted for a 2 percent drop nationally. Meat and other goat inventories were down 11 percent in the state, from 950,000 head to 850,000.
Cox, who also serves as President of the Texas Sheep and Goat Raisers Association, said that goats generally did better than sheep, especially south of San Angelo where the country is marginal for cattle, but where sheep and goats fare much better.
"Everybody's situation is different, but in general, the country south of here has a lot of beneficial browse, including larger browse like shin oaks, which the goats can get to," he said. "It's not like grass with roots five or six inches deep; these are deep-rooted trees."
Meat goats have done well in the marketplace, too. Cox has worked in the sheep and goat business since the 1960s. He said the big jump in the meat goat market came in the mid-90s.
"I thought I sold a lot of goats in 1995 when I sold 86,589. The next year I sold 165, 272," he said. "By 1998, we were selling 200,000 goats here."
The rise in demand has paralleled and increase in the ethnic market.
"The meat goat market is the ethnic market," Cox said.
Large portions of the ethnic market are centered around the automobile manufacturing areas of Michigan and in the Northeast. Cox said the buyers load up their trucks to the legal limit of 48,000 pounds and drive for as long as 35 hours to get the goats to market as soon as possible. "They load up the trucks and get them gone," he said.
On the sheep side, hair sheep -- so called because grow hair instead of wool -- have grown increasingly popular in recent years. There are two pure hair sheep breeds, St. Croix and Barbados. Composite breeds include Katahdin, Dorper White and Royal White.
"There's been a much higher percentage of hair sheep in the past 10 years, especially the past five," Cox said. "They're heat tolerant and prolific. It's harder to find shearers than it used to be, and some people are just skipping it by raising the hair sheep."
Some cattle raisers have switched to meat goats and/or hair sheep, at least in the short term, as the returns can be good on a lot less grass than it takes to raise cattle. Irrigation, good fences, and a good guard animal -- usually dogs or guard donkeys -- are keys to a successful operation, Cox said.
Craddock said that becoming familiar with various ethnic holidays in order to anticipate demand is not a bad idea either. He added that, while the drought and the subsequent selling of livestock have been hard on the state and on individuals, it might actually present an opportunity for young people looking to get into the ranching business.
"It's been hard for young people to into ranching," he said. "The ranching population keeps getting older and older, and some of the people who sold out last year aren't going to get back into it. There have always been young people looking to get into ranching but a lot of times when land would become available these old codgers would get it. The young people never had a chance. This might be a good opportunity for some young people to get into it.
"Of course, the biggest hurdle, if they can get the land, is having the capital to buy stock."