What is Wool?

Wool is the textile fiber obtained from sheep and certain other animals, including cashmere from goats, mohair from goats, qiviut from muskoxen, angora from rabbits, and other types of wool from camelids.

Primary Uses

Virginia Status

What Farmers Need to Know:

As with other agricultural enterprises, sheep farming is not a "get-rich-quick" scheme. The profit margins are narrow. To make money raising sheep, you would need at least several hundred ewes, probably more than 500. While there are some farmers who make a majority of their income from sheep farming, sheep raising is more often a part-time or secondary enterprise of a farm. For some, it is a hobby, retirement activity, or 4-H project.

Sheep farmers derive their income from the sales of lambs and wool and related products. Though it varies by state and farm, most income comes from the sale of lambs. Dairy sheep farmers have three sources of income: lambs, wool, and milk (or dairy products). Some farmers receive income by leasing their sheep out for grazing. Some sheep are raised for biomedical purposes (research, blood, etc.).

Industries that will Benefit the Most.

- Clothing
- Upholstery
- Insulation
- Equine
- Agriculture

Near & Longterm Outlook:

The United States is not a major sheep-producing country. Lamb and mutton imports account for nearly half of U.S. lamb consumption. With a sheep population of over 89,000 and a goat population of over 111,000 that stretches to all regions of the state, Virginia is the ideal place for new and experienced farmers.

The area’s abundant forage resources, moderate climate, and close proximity to markets make Virginia the perfect place to move if you’re interested in becoming a part of the area’s well-established vibrant and diverse sheep and goat industry.

Raising sheep is also good for the environment as sheep manure makes a great alternative to harmful, chemically-based fertilizers.

National Status

Primary Regions?

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, there are 84,338 sheep farms in the United States. Large sheep operations, which own 80 percent of the sheep, are located primarily in the Western United States. Texas and California have the most sheep. Small producers, those owning less than 100 sheep, comprise the majority of sheep operations, but own only 17 percent of the sheep.

Sheep in the Western United States are often raised under traditional range conditions, where flocks graze unfenced pastures under the watchful eye of shepherds or sheepherders. Some range flocks graze public lands (for a fee), while others graze privately owned land. A range "band" consists of 1,000 ewes and their lambs. Wool production is still important in the range sheep industry. Fine wool breeding predominates. Most range ewes have Rambouillet blood.

Colorado is the most concentrated lamb feeding area in the United States. Other states that feed a lot of lambs include Texas, California, Iowa, and Oregon.

Crop History?

Over the past 200 years, the U.S. sheep population has come full circle. From 7 million head in the early 1800's, sheep numbers peaked at 56 million in 1945, then declined to less than 7 million head on January 1, 2003. 

At the same time, industry emphasis has changed from wool to meat. Sheep numbers increased slightly in 2005 and 2006, the first time since 1990. They also increased by 1 percent in 2015 and 2016. The number of sheep operations increased from the 2007 to the 2012 census.

Current Economics?

Compared to other animal and agricultural industries, the sheep industry is very small, accounting for less than 1% of total U.S. livestock receipts.

The American Sheep Industry Association is currently encouraging sheep producers to increase the size and productivity of their flocks.

While the U.S. sheep industry is still dominated by small numbers of large operations, these operations continue to decline for various reasons. At the same time, small flocks are increasing, especially in the eastern half of the United States, where the majority of lamb is consumed. To be profitable, small flocks must be productive and have access to excellent markets. Sheep are especially popular on small farms where sustainable farming practices are favored, such as pasture-finishing of lambs.

Worldwide Status

Primary Regions

According to the Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, there are more than one billion sheep worldwide. Sheep production is increasing in some countries; declining in others. While China has the most sheep, Australia and New Zealand the dominate world markets for lamb and wool.

Eight countries account for around two-thirds of the total world consumption of wool at retail, led by China (with a 23% share), the US (11%) and Japan (9%). One of the key drivers of demand throughout the wool textile industry back to the farm gate is how much disposable income consumers in these major retail markets have to spend.

Crop History

Wild sheep were more hairy than woolly. Although sheep were domesticated some 9,000 to 11,000 years ago, archaeological evidence from statuary found at sites in Iran suggests selection for woolly sheep may have begun around 6000 BC, with the earliest woven wool garments having only been dated to two to three thousand years later. Woolly-sheep were introduced into Europe from the Near East in the early part of the 4th millennium BC. The oldest known European wool textile, ca. 1500 BC, was preserved in a Danish bog. Prior to invention of shears—probably in the Iron Age—the wool was plucked out by hand or by bronze combs. In Roman times, wool, linen, and leather clothed the European population; cotton from India was a curiosity of which only naturalists had heard, and silks, imported along the Silk Road from China, were extravagant luxury goods. Pliny the Elder records in his Natural History that the reputation for producing the finest wool was enjoyed by Tarentum, where selective breeding has produced sheep with superior fleeces, but which required special care.

Even before 10,000 BC wool cloth was being spun and woven by the tribes of northern Europe. To spin it they took the wool in one hand and drew it out, twisting it into a thread with the fingers of the other hand. The result was a thick uneven yarn. Later, a crude spindle was developed by fitting a stone or clay ring to the end of a short wooden stick. The ring acted as a flywheel and enabled the drawn-out yarn to be wound on to the spindle. This method of spinning was used for thousands of years and is still used by peasant communities in various parts of the world.

Current Economics

The International Wool Textile Organisation (IWTO), touted as the global authority on standards for the wool industry, has agreed to review its sheep welfare guidelines to consider making pain relief a must, instead of "recommended".

Shearers now earn at least $2.80 per sheep and the average price of wool is about $11 per kilogram.

Australian wool prices lifted again in April to reach the highest month average level in US$ terms since June 2015. The recent rise continued the see-saw recovery from the low point in February 2015. Wool prices in South Africa followed a similar pattern to prices in Australia, increasing in April. Prices in both countries were 8% to 10% higher than a year earlier. In contrast, prices for broader wool in New Zealand and the United Kingdom were flat to slightly down. Prices for this broad wool (which is used in interior textiles) remain 8% to 10% below year earlier levels.

Australia and New Zealand are the world’s largest exporters of sheep meat, accounting for around 70% of the world’s exports each year. For both countries, the US has been an important export market for many years. For Australia, the US has accounted for between 20% and 25% of Australian lamb exports, while the US’ share of New Zealand exports has been between 5% and 7%.

It seems likely that Australia’s exports to the US may stabilise in future given the rising importance of and growth potential in both China and the Middle East. New Zealand’s exports to the US are also likely to remain relatively steady.

Important Fiber Terms