FIGURE 1-1 U.S. sheep and lamb inventories (January 1), 1867–2007.

Source: USDA (2007b).

The dominant feature of the sheep industry and the focus of much producer and policy concern over the years, however, has been the steady decline in sheep and lamb inventories since the mid-1940s (Figure 1-1). From a record high of 56 million head in 1942, inventories on January 1, 2007 reached 6.2 million, the lowest level in recorded history. In turn, the decline in sheep and lamb numbers has created difficulties in the flow of sheep and lamb products through a shrinking marketing system as producers have struggled to respond to market signals while maintaining profitability.

This chapter provides some historical background to the discussion of the current status of the various segments of the U.S. sheep industry in subsequent chapters. As well, the chapter provides an overview of the linkages and interdependencies in the industry inherent in the marketing channels or value chain through which sheep and lamb products flow from producer to end user.


The first domesticated sheep were brought to the United States in 1493 with the second voyage of Columbus. These were largely Spanish Churro sheep, which were also later introduced to the southwestern United States by the Spanish conquistadores. They were small, hardy sheep with a poor-quality fleece by today’s standards. English breeds were introduced by colonists to be used primarily for wool for home-produced textiles and, to

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