The sheepherder was one of the legendas of the old West.But after World War II, it looked as if the solitary herder with his woolly flock was going to fade away.
Lack of interest on the part of the young, difficulty in getting even foreign laborers, and predatory coyotes were among the factors that reduced US sheep herds from a 1942 peak of 50 million to last year's low of 12.2 million.
In the last few years, however, there have been indications that sheepherding may be transformed rather than eliminated.
Due to sagging prices for beef, pork, and poultry, the lamb has become the most profitable commodity on four or two legs. The spread of modern management techniques, coupled with a continuing high demand, has resulted in the first increase in sheep numbers since 1960. January 1980 estimates by the US Department of Agriculture show a 2 percent increase.
"The sheep industry is at the crossroads. We have reached the turnover point we've been trying for, for the last 25 years," asserts Dick Biglin, executive director of the American Sheep Producers Council Inc.
When sheep were first introduced into the New World, it was primarily for their wool. But the advent of synthetic fabrics cut into this market, so now wool represents only 25 percent of a lamb's value. The most important use today is meat, with demand estimated 65 percent higher than domestic supply.
"People think of lamb as an extremely expensive meat because in many places only the most expensive cuts are stocked," says John Morrison of the producers' council, who claims that, for all cuts, lamb is about the same cost as beef.
Producers believe they are in a good position, because their operations are less inflation-prone than other types of agriculture.
Unlike beef, sheep can be fattened for market on grass. About 50 percent of the US herd is in the West and depends heavily on public land for grazing. And raising sheep does not require a large amount of expensive equipment. TFor these reasons, sheep-raising is also relatively easy for newcomers to get started in, Mr. Biglin maintains. He relates the story of a young california woman who came to Colorado and got a job as a shepherd. After a season she left, got married, returned, and started raising sheep.
Also, sheep farming is becoming more popular in the east and the South. Sheep farms typically have a herd of 400 to 600 ewes on a few acres of pasture. They are fed with hay and grain. Of the 118,000 sheep operations in the US, some 50,000 are extremely small.
"We are seeing a return to what is almost a cottage industry," Mr. Biglin says.
These developments, plus the continuing high price for lamb, seem to spell a brighter future for the sheepherder than for other livestock producers.