By Gary Cutrer
Clinton Hodges believes the future of the U.S. sheep industry lies primarily in raising and marketing hair sheep. As co-founder and manager of Lamb Marketing Specialties, a cooperative involving 10 West Texas lamb producers, Hodges, based in Sterling City, Texas, has developed links to retail markets for the co-op’s lambs by forging relationships with several outlets including a slaughter plant in Fort Worth--Belgian-owned Frontier Meats.
However, because of the difficulty the cooperative has had getting a foothold in retail with their relatively small but steady supply of pooled lambs, interest from other co-op members has waned considerably.
Scott McGregor of Christoval, president of LMS, said the group has not been able to get much traction with the big retailers and distributors.
“We’ve worked diligently—I know Clinton has—he’s worked really hard,” McGregor said in a recent telephone interview. “But, if you can’t kill ‘X’ amount of meat and deliver it to HEB you can’t compete.”
Though the LMS cooperative will be put in a “holding pattern,” according to McGregor, Hodges carries on. He plans to continue marketing lamb under the coop’s trade name, “Sterling Lamb,” and, provided the other members consent, will take that trade name as his own. He plans to resign as the coop’s manager and make the business part of his Hodges Ranch operation.
The Sterling brand was not chosen because of his hometown of Sterling City, Hodges says, but because the name rings with quality. He says quality is what will continue to differentiate his lamb products from competitors, especially imported lamb from Australia and New Zealand. Lamb producers down under certainly have a big supply but their lower priced lamb that floods the market and that many U.S. outlets purchase is of inferior quality, Hodges says.
Every week or so Hodges takes about 100 hair lambs to Fort Worth for processing. He has an agreement with Frontier. Most of the lamb ends up as frozen cuts that are stored and sent to small Halal shops around Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston. Some of the smaller carcasses are shipped whole. There are non-Muslim customers, too. Both Frontier Meats and Hodges sell boxed cuts to retailers.
“We’ve goat a few real faithful customers here, close,” Hodges said, referring to West Texas.
Although the long trip from Sterling City to Fort Worth for processing is inconvenient, a lot of the halal outlets are in the Metroplex. That fact and because Frontier is a USDA inspected plant and halal certified makes the slautherhouse choice a good one.
Product movement has increased. “The longer we’ve been in it, it’s steadily grown,” Hodges said.
Hodges has developed business relationships with Muslim suppliers of lamb and other meats, both in Dallas and in Houston. He and a Houston man are working on a line of ready-to-eat Halal lamb products they will market to American Muslims, including a lamb salami.
The Hodges family has ranched at Sterling City since Clinton’s grandfather, L.C. Hodges founded the ranch in 1889. They have a long history with cattle and wool sheep. Clinton’s father, L.F. Hodges, raised Delaines and Rambouillets and started a registered Rambouillet flock in 1927. Now Clinton and his son Wesley carry on the tradition. Each of them has his own ranch and they help each other out with ranch work. Both are involved in raising hair sheep. Wesley’s daughters have won many awards at stock shows with livestock developed on the ranch.
The family’s long association with wool sheep is what makes the change to hair sheep awkward. Clinton still has his flock of Rambouillets that he carefully keeps far away from his hair sheep due to the possibility of wool becoming contaminated with hair shedding from his hair sheep flock. But one of the reasons for his choosing hair sheep is their lack of wool and the advantage of not having to have them sheared.
“In my opinion if there is a future in the sheep business—I don’t know whether there is or not—if there’s a sheep industry out there in the future of the U.S., it’s going to be a sheep that doesn’t have to be sheared,” Hodges said. That opinion has cost him friendships, he added.
Hodges says he has found that hair sheep, especially the young lambs, are less delicate than his Rambouillets.
“You can take these sheep and take them off of their mothers and put them in the feedlot, and instead of going over in the corner and not eating and not drinking like your Rambouillets off these big West Texas ranches, these kind of sheep go right to the feed trough and water and drink and go right on feeding. You don’t have the death losses,” he said.
They make a living for themselves and eat just about anything in the pasture, he added.
Where do Clinton and Wesley Hodges plan to go from here with their hair sheep and lamb operations? The hair sheep we have now in the U.S. are good, but they could use improvement, Clinton says. They are small and could use some size. And there are too many with just a little too much hair cover still for his taste.
“We do not have the quality in them. We’ve got a long way to go. It would take a lifetime to get them where they need to be,” Clinton Hodges said.
He said Mexico producers are far ahead of U.S. sheep ranchers when it comes to hair sheep. “I’ve seen some of the hair sheep in Mexico, and they’re so far ahead of the U.S. right now it’s no comparison,” Hodges said.
The Mexican Pelibuey breed of hair sheep, closely related to the West African, Red African, African or Africana breed of Columbia and Venezuela, especially impresses Hodges.
As far as selling lamb cuts and carcasses, Hodges said he will continue to work with Frontier Meats and his contacts who are Muslim distributors as well as finding new retail customers for Sterling Lamb.