Lead Shepherd Program

Demand for lamb in North Carolina far exceeds current supply. Truckloads of lambs are brought into the state from other regions of the country weekly to meet processor and consumer demands. In 2020, the North Carolina state government awarded $26 million dollars to small and medium-sized processors for the purpose of expanding processing capacity (halal capacity doubled) further escalating the need for slaughter lambs. Despite strong demand, North Carolina has the lowest lambing percentage of any state reported east of the Mississippi River (89%). Thus, there are immense opportunities to increase productivity of North Carolina’s sheep flock to meet slaughter lamb demand. In order to take advantage of this opportunity, current production practices and ewe numbers need improvement. North Carolina lacks the intensive production systems found in Midwestern states. However, opportunities to use retired poultry facilities do exist. Additionally, there are no coordinated marketing systems to allow for efficient movement of lambs to harvest facilities. Therefore, opportunities exist for North Carolina producers to learn from sheep producers in other regions of the country and apply production principles to raising sheep in North Carolina while forming networking groups to improve industry communication, ewe productivity, and supply chain efficiency.


Objectives of the North Carolina Lead Shepherd Program:

1. Provide sheep producers, extension personnel, and North Carolina Department of Agriculture (NCDA) staff with opportunities to experience high throughput, efficient sheep production systems.

2. Provide training in management skills and tools that can be applied to North Carolina production systems to advance production efficiency and enhance supply in market channels.


3. Develop producer networking groups to improve information exchange, encourage dissemination of ideas, address current challenges, improve industry productivity, and strengthen the supply chain.


The Lead Shepherd Program will be developed to address the production and marketing challenges discussed above. The 2020 North Carolina Food Animal Initiative Feasibility Study indicated sheep production is an area of emerging opportunity. This program will provide leadership training and experience for sheep industry stakeholders in North Carolina with the intention of increasing lamb production and supply chain efficiency. Knowledge and skills will be disseminated through the sheep industry by program participants through multiple outlets.

Participants will be selected through an application process. The application process will open spring 2022 and close in late May. The application will consist of background information related to their sheep industry experience, current role in the sheep industry, and their vision for the sheep industry moving forward. This program will be available to North Carolina sheep producers, North Carolina Cooperative Extension personnel, and NCDA staff. Applications will be reviewed by Dr. Andrew Weaver, NC State Small Ruminant Specialist; Dr. Emily Cope, Stokes County Extension Director; and 3 other selected individuals representing industry and academic roles. Ten applicants will be chosen to participate in the program. Final preparations will be made for the program during June and early July 2022.

Pertaining to Objectives 1 and 2, a tour will be organized for participants to visit sheep operations in the Pipestone system located in Iowa, South Dakota, and Minnesota. This will provide an opportunity for participants to experience high throughput lamb production systems and visit with producers operating those systems. Participants will learn how these producers use genetic selection, nutritional and reproductive management, and housing/feeding systems to improve their flock productivity and market lamb quality. Participants will also be able to learn about communication and collaboration efforts within the Pipestone system. This trip will conclude with attendance at the Center of the Nation National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP) Sale in Spencer, IA to provide networking and educational opportunities for participants.

Participants will fly from Raleigh, NC (RDU) to Sioux Falls, SD (FSD) on Wednesday, July 27, 2022 and return to Raleigh, NC on Sunday, July 31, 2022. Rental vans will be used to transport attendees between tour stops. Participants will tour sheep operations Thursday, July 28 and Friday, July 29, 2022. Dr. Kelly Froehlich, SDSU Sheep Extension Specialist, will assist with tour organization. Tour stops will include producers in the Pipestone system, as well as the sheep program at South Dakota State University. Participants will then attend the Center of the Nation NSIP Sale and meet with industry leaders on Saturday, July 30, 2022.

Following the tour, participants will be required to provide a 10 minute presentation at the Annual North Carolina Small Ruminant Conference in fall 2022. The presentations will highlight producer experiences and lessons learned. This will be an opportunity for producers to share and discuss innovative ideas that can be implemented in North Carolina to advance the sheep industry. Participants’ presentations will be recorded and posted for later viewing and made available in conference proceedings.

Related to Objective 3, producer networking groups will be established. Networking groups will consist of Lead Shepherd Program participants as well as non-participants. Lead Shepherd Program participants will be tasked with serving as leaders of the networking groups. Groups will meet at least four times annually to exchange information, collaborate, and learn from peers. The groups will work together to solve problems and develop innovative solutions to the challenges faced by sheep producers in North Carolina. Extension personnel will be available to assist these groups regularly. Additionally, networking groups will work with NCDA marketing staff to coordinate marketing efforts to improve lot size and consistency to better meet the needs of North Carolina lamb processors. Long-term, networking groups will be coordinated through the North Carolina Small Ruminant Improvement Program (NCSRIP).

Long-term outcomes include improving lambing percentage and increasing numbers of lambs raised, marketed, and harvested within North Carolina. These outcomes will result from greater knowledge of genetic, nutrition, and reproductive management systems, implementation of performance-based production practices, and improved industry communication.

Improvements in knowledge and skills will be short-term outcomes resulting from tour participation. Tour participants will learn about production practices in other regions of the country and how these production practices can be applied to North Carolina production systems. For example, there are a growing number of poultry houses no longer used for broiler production. Interest has been expressed among producers to utilize these houses for sheep production. Historically, southeast sheep production has been pasture-based. However, with opportunities in poultry houses, confinement systems may increase in popularity and experience from Midwestern confinement systems will become even more beneficial.

Program participants will disseminate their new knowledge and improved skills to non-participants through multiple outlets. Participants will share experiences and knowledge with non-participants at the Annual Small Ruminant Conference, Cooperative Extension, small ruminant programs, and networking groups. Five networking groups will be established to assist in equipping producers with the knowledge and skills needed to meet long-term goals. Networking groups will allow for exchange of information, troubleshooting of challenges, identification of solutions, and discussion of innovative ideas to advance the sheep industry. Not only will these networking groups address production challenges, but they will also provide a communication channel for cooperative marketing opportunities.

The Lead Shepherd Program will address current challenges and opportunities for the North Carolina sheep industry through the educational tour and subsequent networking program. Implementation of improved management practices, better utilization of existing resources, and enhanced communication networks will allow the North Carolina sheep industry to grow in animal numbers, productivity, and efficiency of production. As a result, the supply chain will be strengthened, creating a sustainable industry for producers and processors.