South Dakota Sheep Producers Raise High Quality Wool & Improve Rangeland

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South Dakota Sheep Producers Raise High Quality Wool & Improve Rangeland

By Lura Roti for South Dakota Farmers Union

"There is nothing cuter than a baby lamb," Tammy Basel says as she tears down the last of her lambing pens and walks through a cloud of newly shorn ewes surrounded by their babies.

Following in the footsteps of her grandmother, homesteader, Carrie Wilcox Funell, the fourth-generation South Dakota sheep producer, grew up caring for the flock, which, along with quality meat, has been bred to produce superior wool. "The wool from my sheep is the finest quality and is used for military uniforms - I guess that's one way I give back to my country is through the wool I produce for uniforms."

Basel's flock is not unique, South Dakota's flocks are known for producing high quality, fine wool, says Rita Samuelson, Director of Wool Marketing for the American Sheep Industry Association. "Much of the wool from South Dakota and Montana is fine and used to make dress military uniforms," Samuelson says.

She explains that all wool and textiles used to manufacture military clothing is required by law to come from the U.S.

If the mention of wool clothing makes your skin itch, Samuelson is quick to specify that wool used in clothing is fine and soft. "This isn't your grandmother's wool sweater. This wool is fine, not coarse," she says, further explaining: "Fine wool is like baby's hair; not whiskers."

In addition to dress uniforms, demand for other wool military garments has increased because of the fiber's fire and bacteria resistance. "Wool will help protect a soldier from fire hazards; it will char and not melt on the war-fighter," Samuelson says. "And because it is resistant to bacteria and wicks moisture away, wool keeps soldiers comfortable and reduces odor in the fabric."

Back on Basel's Union Center Ranch, Tammy explains that producing fine wool goes beyond breeding. "Sheep producers have to keep their pastures clean and free of cockleburs and other contaminants, like baling twine."

Basel helps sort the fleeces based on cleanliness each spring as they are sheared. It takes the professional team of shearers only 2 minutes to gently remove the 8 pounds of wool from each ewe.

Like shedding a winter jacket, David Ollila, SDSU Extension Sheep Field Specialist, explains that the wool protects the sheep from South Dakota's extreme winter weather. "During a winter storm, I see sheep grazing while the cows are huddled up to stay warm."

However, Samuelson points out that the wool needs to be shorn off before summer's warm temperatures arrive. "Shearing is for the sheep's well being. It's not healthy for them to have 10 to 15 pounds of wool on their back when it's 80 degrees outside."

Once her flock is shorn, Basel loads up the bales of wool and takes them to Center of the Nation Wool, Inc. in Belle Fourche. There, Larry Prager and his team take core samples from each bale of wool and send them off to be analyzed for quality. Based on fiber diameter and cleanliness, Basel is paid a premium for her efforts. "We talk a lot about value-added agriculture. Wool is a great example of adding value to a ranching operation," says Prager, who has served as General Manager of the producer-owned wool cooperative since 1992.

Prager oversees the sale of about 5 million pounds of wool each year which is produced by about 1,500 ranchers from across South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming.

Basel agrees with Prager. "We sell our lambs and calves in the fall, so we look forward to the wool check each spring."

She adds that it's a natural fit to raise the 550-head flock alongside the cattle she raises with her husband, Dallis, and their son, Ryan LaMont. "Sheep are a dual-grazing species - meaning we can graze them alongside our cattle because they prefer to eat different grass species than the cattle," Basel says.

Recent research shows that South Dakota ranchers, like Basel, raise sheep alongside their cattle to balance the grazing pressure among the plant community. "Not only do sheep provide an opportunity to add an enterprise to the existing land resource, but experience shows that when sheep graze with cattle they mimic how the native grassland was utilized in the days of buffalo, encouraging species diversity and improving soil health," says Ollila, who also helps coordinate SheepSD, an SDSU Extension program designed to assist new sheep producers.

To become involved in South Dakota Sheep Grower's Association, contact Basel at 605-985-5205, the organization's President, Max Matthews, 605-490-0726 or visit South Dakota Sheep Grower's Association on Facebook. To learn more about SheepSD, contact Ollila at ~

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