It's probably too early to predict the end of sheep in the US, but it may be possible to see the eventual end from where we now stand.
The number of sheep in the US peaked in the late 1940s, and has declined more than half in the last 20 years as Americans reject wool (expensive, heavy, hard to clean, and scratchy) for synthetics, and as lamb meat has been replaced by cheaper (and easier to mechanize) chicken, pig, and cattle. What lamb Americans do eat tends to come from Australia and New Zealand -- and it's less than 20 percent of the per capita lamb we consumed in 1960.
Things could go south fast if the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service decide to stop subsidizing sheep and cattle grazing by either charging market value for grazing or letting leases shrink or come off-market through attrition (and after environmental review).
In an April 2020 letter, the American Sheep Industry Association set out the grim numbers, at least partially driven by Covid:
- Current estimates show a projected direct farm level loss of $125 million due to significant declines in feeder and slaughter lamb prices as a result of the loss in consumer demand for American lamb.
- Total economic impact to the American lamb industry migh be in excess of $300 million.
- American wool exports to China – the No. 1 export market for wool and sheepskins – are down 88 percent in value and 89 percent in volume between October to January 2017-18 and 2019-20.
- American sheepskin exports to China are down 76 percent in value and 50 percent in volume during the same period.
- Globally, the wool price is 26 percent lower than it was a year ago.
- The lamb market is in a perilous situation with the loss of half of the entire market for American lamb due to closure of foodservice.
- The March bankruptcy filing of the second largest lamb company further risks market impacts, price discovery and market transparency.