Photo by Hayley Young

By Hayley Young

Maybe the nursery rhyme should have gone, “Baa baa black sheep, we are glad that you have wool!”

Sheep’s wool, is used to make yarn, carpets and floor coverings, fill for mattresses, and lanolin (or wool wax), just to name a few products. The most notable use of wool is its use in military uniforms. For decades, wool has been used to make military dress uniforms, but in recent years it has been used in combat uniforms as well, due to the flame resistant and antimicrobial properties.

Wool also gives sheep growers an added source of income. Cattle growers don’t see pay day until they ship their calves. Having wool to sell is a bonus of raising sheep. Not only are sheep unique in having an extra coat that needs to be sheared off, but they often graze on a wider variety of foliage than cattle.
Sheep were brought to Montana during the mid-1800s, and over time, larger herds made their way to the Bitterroot Valley. (They did not arrive east of the Rocky Mountains until 1876.) By the 1890s, sheep had replaced cattle as Montana’s largest livestock export. Most were raised in the eastern part of the state, where they were able to maximize the grazing lands, made up of shrubby, dry foliage that withstands cold and harsh winters.

Montana continues to be one of the leading sheep producing states in the country, though sheep production has declined greatly over the years. Declining prices have made cattle the more profitable livestock, and predator numbers continue to grow, taking a toll on herds. The demand for wool has also decreased; a variety of other materials have taken the place of wool in clothing production.

Still, sheep are a staple in Montana agriculture. Numbers have declined, but farmers and ranchers have found that for a minimal investment in a small herd of sheep, they can supplement their income significantly.