Rule Adds Processing Facility to Brush, Colo., to their lamb operation
As a new generation of foodies seek out dishes to tantalize their adventurous taste buds, American lamb is poised for a renaissance.
With that new market on the horizon, lamb feeder Spence Rule, who feeds lambs between Brush and Akron, Colo., said it was time to integrate processing into their operation to carve a niche for the next generation. Along with the Harpers from Eaton, the two longtime lamb producers and feeders hope to have Colorado Lamb Processors, LLC, operating in the coming year.
Rule Feeders has a one-time capacity of about 38,000 lambs and the ability to manage rations and endpoints to suit seasonality in the marketplace.
Currently, Rule ships lambs to Greeley’s Mountain States Rosen, Denver Lamb, and also to Detroit, Mich. Rule’s facility will be the area’s first built in about 30 years.
“The main thing is to protect the opportunity for our family,” he said. “To stay in this thing you have to have the ability to get lambs harvested when they need to be harvested and we haven’t had that for the past several years.
Rule’s feeding strategy has helped him navigate harvest availability in previous years, feeding two different styles in the yard. One part of the yard is finishing while he likens the other to cattle back grounding, keeping lambs on feed to ensure their readiness when supply elsewhere is low.
“We try to have them on hard feed for at least 30 days,” he said. “Then we use the backgrounding to change the marketing and the timing of them so we can take them when there is a very narrow supply and lengthen that out so we can be more of a 52-week supplier.”
Rule’s lambs are ideally harvested from 7-10 months of age but Rule’s supply is steadied through close attention to rations and endpoint timing, allowing him to make product available when supply is low and prices are higher.
While the Rules feed many of their own lambs, they also purchase a large number from producers across the western states. He typically begins purchasing lambs in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah in October, then moves to Montana and the Dakotas. In February and March, he purchases lambs out of California and Texas, and then the midwestern states. This, he said, is primarily driven by feed availability and timing when producers bring sheep off forest permitted grazing land.
Seasonality isn’t a new challenge to lamb producers and processors and is, according to the United States Lamb Resource Center, a major factor behind the inefficiency and market volatility of the American Lamb industry. As 80 percent of the lamb crop is born in the first five months of the year, it takes nutritional and reproductive management to combat the supply challenges.
According to Travis Hoffman, North Dakota State University assistant professor, sheep Extension specialist, the lamb industry stands to benefit from additional harvesting outlets.
“The supply chain of the sheep and lamb industry currently goes through a small number of large-capacity plants,” he said. “Potentially there is a growing focus for the non-traditional or ethnic marketing of lamb. The efficiencies of large plants are spread throughout the country. A very large challenge for the lamb industry is seasonality of supply and the competition of an additional player in the market could and should prove beneficial for sheep producers.”
Lamb processing itself is a marriage between tradition and high tech, depending upon lead animals to lead lambs through the facility, and utilizing camera grading to determine quality grade. Although camera grading is currently only approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to augment the grader for use at California’s Dixon processing plant, Rule said his new facility will incorporate water saving technologies, utilize steam, and will potentially see robotics use in the coming years. Mountain States Lamb’s Greeley, Colo., plant utilizes the same camera grading system to pay owner premiums based on yield and quality grade.
Of the recent opening of the Japanese lamb market, Rule said the industry is marketing to Japan though he’s personally not seen a significant increase in demand. He does, however, see promise.
“We’re less than 1 pound of consumption per person here,” he said. “Especially how the younger generation is getting back into cooking and food being a more important part of their lifestyle, I see a big opportunity for lamb.”
When the carcasses leave the facility, they will be shipped to different breakers around the country, primarily on the East Coast, to be packaged for retail outlets and food service.
The special use permit was granted recently allowing construction to begin on the lot in Brush that was previously an English feedlot. Rule anticipates bringing 50 new jobs to the community. It is his hope that the facility will be functioning in a year. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at email@example.com or (970) 392-4410.