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UW Extension Sheep Specialist Says New Zealand Trip Galvanizes Focus

April 30, 2019
three people standing outside
University of Wyoming Extension sheep specialist Whit Stewart, center, poses with fellow U.S. sheep industry ambassadors Laurie Johnson, of Minnesota, and Reid Redden, of Texas, during their New Zealand lamb industry tour last month. (UW Extension Photo)

University of Wyoming Extension sheep specialist Whit Stewart says he found inspiration to help U.S. producers and growers deal with challenges they face in the lamb industry after his recent visit to New Zealand.

Last month, Stewart was selected to represent the United States at the 2019 Sheep Industry Ambassadors Program to collaborate with lamb industry leaders. The program was hosted by Beef and Lamb New Zealand, New Zealand’s extension service. Beef and Lamb New Zealand assesses industry needs, conducts research and creates targeted programs to help producers, according to Stewart.

The five-day program exposed the U.S. and Australia to New Zealand production systems, Stewart says. The group visited university research programs, extension farms that displayed the use of new technology, and lamb packing plants.

“This three-country program (New Zealand, U.S. and Australia) was designed to develop leaders in the lamb industry and foster collaboration across countries to increase lamb consumption,” says Stewart, a UW assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science.

The other ambassadors selected by the American Lamb Board to represent the U.S. were Reid Redden, a sheep and goat specialist from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension; and Laurie Johnson, an instructor in the Pipestone Lamb and Wool Program at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, based in Worthington, Minn.

“It was an honor for us,” Stewart says.

One of the first stops was a tour of Otitahi Farm, leased by Katey Craig, who shears sheep and has 1,000 ewes of her own on the farm.

Stewart describes Craig as being a young producer who is extremely knowledgeable and one of the hardest-working individuals he’s met. Craig managed her grandfather’s farm and worked as a part-time shearer to build enough capital to lease her own farm. She provided her outlook on the future of the industry with the group.

“She clawed her way into the industry; nothing was given to her,” Stewart says.

Stewart says he was overwhelmed, initially, to see how the U.S. would be able to compete with such a large, innovative industry like New Zealand’s.  

“If we are going to be competitive as an animal protein, we need to tell our story a lot better,” Stewart says. “I think we let fear-driven agendas drive our talking points in the industry. But, really, we need to be at the forefront and teaching people about sustainability.”

Australia and New Zealand are grass-based programs, explains Stewart. Just because the U.S. uses feedlots does not mean animals are inhumanely treated or that it’s unsanitary, he says.

“Sustainability is really about adapting to your resources,” Stewart says. “Our resources in the U.S. are dependent on that we have good grass production for a certain part of the year, and then we have to rely on harvested feeds.”

Stewart also was inspired by the meat-processing facilities the group visited. He describes the plants as visionary because the operators are forward-thinking when it comes to changes in the industry. As the industry in New Zealand is export-driven, producers are very response-driven because their national economy is at stake.

Stewart says the global perspective this program provided him was important.

“Sometimes, we fall in the rut of saying ‘We have it figured out’ without taking a look at how other countries are dealing with problems,” Stewart says.

Stewart says he made many connections and created lifelong friendships during his New Zealand visit.

“If we all sat down at the table and talked about our struggles and our opportunities, we could find very little difference, whether we are Australian, New Zealand or American,” Stewart says.

This program is of great value for Wyoming because the U.S. is the fourth-largest sheep state, third- largest breeding inventory state and a national leader in the sheep industry, according to Stewart.

“Moving forward to develop those collaborations and have that global perspective is going to keep our state at the forefront to be one of the best in the country,” Stewart says.

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