Celebrate the sheep industry with National Lamb Month

Wool, meat and milk are celebrated in February for National Lamb Month.

Photo by Sara Bronkema

Photo by Sara Bronkema

“Baa, baa, black sheep, Have you any wool?” This popular children’s rhyme attributed to Mother Goose recognizes the long standing importance of sheep to humans. These animals have become an important part of our culture for youth and adults based on their versatility and multiple valuable products.

Passed on for generations, the rhyme speaks of the wool that is produced by these small ruminants that are efficient converters of renewable forage to meat, milk and fiber. Throughout the U.S., sheep are utilized to tackle noxious weeds, promote healthy forests and prevent wildfires. February serves as a reminder of the great versatility and value of sheep as it is National Lamb Lovers Month.

Sheep are diverse in that they have many purposes depending on the breed and desired traits.  Numerous products and byproducts come from sheep, including Lanolin, a natural moisturizer that is often used this time of year. This article will look specifically at three of the main products we obtain from sheep.

  1. Wool: Cold winter days remind us why we enjoy wool so much. Wool has many benefits, including it can be worn year round, is machine washable and resists flaming, just to name a few. Sheep are usually sheared during the spring, before lambing. Although the figures change each year, in 2010, US sheep breeders produced 30.6 million pounds of greasy wool. That wool is then cleaned, and resulted in more than 16 million pounds of clean wool. The U.S. uses much of its wool, but exported 9 million pounds of clean wool in 2011.
  2. Meat: Sheep produce a meat product called lamb or mutton. Lamb is used to define meat from an animal that is less than one year old whereas mutton is used to define meat from an animal over one year of age. Meat from sheep is an excellent source of protein, zinc, selenium and B-complex vitamins. Additionally, it is also a good source of iron and riboflavin.  To learn more about the nutritional benefits of meat from sheep, visit the Michigan State University Extension lamb nutrition article.
  3. Milk: Sometimes forgotten about, sheep have an added value in that they also produce milk. A few sheep breeds have been selectively bred for milk production and organizations like the Dairy Sheep Association of North America help promote their product and producers. In 2010, the US produced 3.375 million pounds of sheep milk and approximately 2.5 million pounds of sheep milk cheese. These cheese products added $18,675,000 to the U.S. sheep industry. Sheep milk is highly nutritious with higher level proteins than most other milks.

Help celebrate the sheep industry with the more than 80,000 family farmers and ranchers caring for over 5 million sheep throughout the U.S. Michigan ranks 20th for the sheep inventory being home to approximately 76,000 sheep. Learn more about the benefits of consuming lamb in the Help Celebrate Lamb Month by trying a great American lamb product article. To connect with a local lamb producer visit the Michigan Sheep Breeders Association website.