The world over, no meat is more popular than that of sheep and goats. This stands in stark contrast to the declining size and quantity of sheep and goat farms in the United States. Potential explanations of this decline range from the introduction of synthetic fibers made from oil, used as a substitute for wool in much modern clothing, to a loss of familiarity by American consumers as to how to prepare lamb. Regardless, a reintroduction of small ruminants such as sheep and goats is necessary to developing environmentally sustainable grazing practices.
Sheep were the first livestock animal to be domesticated over 10,000 years ago in southwest Asia and southeast Europe. As smaller animals, they require less food and sheltered space. This, combined with the multiple uses of sheep for wool, meat, and (for those with the taste for it) milk, made and continues to make sheep an ideal livestock for many people.
Though consumer preferences in America have shifted away from lamb in favor of beef, pork, and poultry, they are still necessary for environmentally sustainable livestock practices. Unlike cattle, sheep clip grass very near the ground as they graze, and are willing to eat a much wider variety of brush. Having sheep follow cattle over pasture allows both species to graze plentifully, and reduces the chances of fire and the spread of invasive weeds by more thoroughly clearing brush and other plant matter.
Sheep numbers peaked in the U.S. at 56.2 million head in 1942, declining quickly following World War II. As of 2011, there were less than 6 million sheep in the U.S. But, as an optimist, I think this downward trend could be reversing! Due to the low cost of raising sheep compared to other herd animals, and the rising price of lamb, raising sheep should become an increasingly attractive option to farmers. However, farmers will only raise lamb if they’re confident enough people will consume it. As a business, a farm is primarily motivated by what consumers will buy, not by the hazards associated with large monocultures. It’s up to consumers to encourage diversified agriculture by being willing to consume meat products other than beef, pork, and poultry.
USDA. Overview of the United States Sheep and Goat Industry. August 2011. retrieved from http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/current/ShpGtInd/ShpGtInd-08-09-2011.pdf
University of Missouri Extension. History of the Animal Science Industry. retrieved from http://extension.missouri.edu/adair/documents/Livestock/History%20of%20the%20Animal%20Science%20Industry.pdf
NPR. Lamb Boom has Sheep Farmers Flocking Together. January 2012. retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/01/31/145707773/lamb-boom-has-sheep-farmers-flocking-together