By Roxana Hegeman

The Associated Press

MAIZE, KS (AP)--Chuck Woodard used to run a flock of 1,000 ewes, carrying on a family tradition that began when he was a boy helping his grandfather on the farm.

But three years ago, an aging Woodard decided he and his wife could no longer handle the hard physical labor that goes along with raising sheep--and it was too difficult to find farm workers anymore, much less anyone who knew how to handle sheep.

"We had to make a choice. We still enjoyed sheep so we got out of having high intensity (labor) mother sheep and now we buy feeder lambs," Woodard said.

Today, the Woodards fatten 2,000 lambs each year on their winter wheat, alfalfa and milo acres. Their lambs are brought in from Texas and Wyoming because so few Kansas flocks remain that they cannot supply the large lamb numbers needed by feeders.

Back in 1943, during the industry's heyday, more than 1.61 million sheep grazed pastures across Kansas. The most recent government count put the number of all sheep and lambs in Kansas at 100,000 head on Jan. 1, unchanged from last year after decades of dwindling numbers.

People like Woodard are among the few operators who have found a way to hang on in a business buffeted in recent years by the collapse of the world wool market, volatile lamb prices and falling consumer demand.

Many Kansas sheep producers are deciding to quit sheep altogether.

Last year another 100 Kansas sheep growers sold off their entire flocks and got out of the business. As of Jan. 1, just 1,500 sheep operations remained in Kansas, according to Kansas Agricultural Statistics.

That compares to 1992, when 2,400 Kansas farmers were still raising sheep.

Unlike the state's swine industry--where huge megafarms have kept hog numbers up even as independent producers bailed out--the number of sheep in Kansas has plummeted.

Even the small respite in this year's total sheep inventory was a welcome relief to some in the industry who hope it signals the plunge has leveled out.

"That is the first encouraging sign," said Clifford Spaeth, Kansas State University Extension sheep specialist. "Now, hopefully, our producers are going to be fairly stable from now on, and possibly increase."

By 1993, Kansas farmers had been running about 200,000 head of sheep, with the numbers falling off sharply again since then.

"What it is that drives that, for the most part, is the demand in the store for lamb--and there just isn't the demand," said Ron Sitzman, agricultural statistician with KAS.

One of the better times for Kansas sheep producers was between 1984 and 1990, when a major sheep packing plant was operating in Harper, Spaeth said. That plant has since closed.

"Anytime you have a processing facility in such close proximity that has a positive effect for the overall sheep industry," he said.

Another more recent factor forcing many producers out has been erratic lamb prices during the past five years, Spaeth said. Prices have fluctuated as much as 50% in a given year, he said.

Also hurting is the end of the federal wool incentive program in 1995, which paid U.S. producers a stipend from competing wool imports, he said.

Making matters worse is the glut of wool on the world market.

"At this time we have absolutely terrible wool prices--the lowest wool prices we have probably ever experienced," Spaeth said.

Most producers now make as much as 98% of their income from the sale of lambs, with the rest coming from wool sales. But that is just for wool from breeds known for quality wool. Producers of sheep breeds with lesser quality wool often cannot even recoup the cost of shearing from their wool sales, he said.

Just a few years ago--when wool prices were better and producers still got wool incentive payments--sheep producers could make as much as 25 to 30% of their income from wool, Spaeth said.

"Last year was a losing proposition," said Tom Pope, who raises about 140 ewes outside McLouth in northeast Kansas. "I sheared them myself because I couldn't afford to have anyone else come in."

He got just 7 cents a pound for his wool. He figured he might have gotten 3 to 7 cents more if an experienced shearer had done a better job. But even that does not pay when it costs as much as $3 a head for shearing.

The Pope farm is too small to diversify into other crops, and he has to buy all his feed. So he tries to squeeze as much money as he can from his animals by selling freezer lambs directly to consumers.

Pope is lucky to get 80 cents a pound for a lamb at the auction, but he can sell it directly to consumers for $1 a pound live weight, plus processing costs.

His farm operation, he said, is not making the family a living. His wife, Kathy Ewert, keeps the family going from the money she makes in her job as a veterinarian.

"I'm trying. It is not really working. My wife working full-time is the only thing that saved us," he said.

What is happening in Kansas is a reflection of a struggling sheep industry nationwide. The nation's total sheep inventory of 7.03 million head on Jan. 1 was down 3% from a year ago, and down 10% from two years ago.

The number of sheep has been on a downward spiral since 1942 when it peaked in the United States at 56.2 million head.

"If there was an exceptionally good price, the producers would continue to move in there and produce more," Sitzman said. "We fill consumer's needs by bringing it from outside the country. They can produce pretty cheap down in Australia and New Zealand."

But U.S. sheep producers hope that the recent settlement in their dispute filed with the international trade commission will help mitigate those effects.

Among them is Bob Mertz, a lamb feeder near Manhattan. He said the temporary stricter restrictions on imports are only a short-term solution.

Each year, Mertz fattens 4,000 head of lambs, which he brings in from the Dakotas, New Mexico and Texas because Kansas producers do not produce the semi-loads of lambs he needs at one time.

"We look at agriculture as somewhat cyclical and in one sense we prepared for this when times were good, we went into the situation with a lower debt load," he said. "We are being real conservative right now in our expenses and trying to stretch everything out."

Mertz said his operation is looking at lower returns and less income.

"With the combination of our size and experience and by keeping total costs low, we are planning on being part of the farmers that farm in the future," he said.

His family started in the sheep industry in 1905, making him the fourth generation to raise sheep. He works so as not to bring his worries home to his children, now ages 10 and 12.

"In one sense our young children are oblivious of what we are going through--but I don't think they should have to worry about it," he said. "They hear enough complaints about the weather anyway."

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