While driving along highway 212 in southeast Montana, the tiny berg of Hammond, just three buildings, is easy to miss. But there is more to this community than meets the eye. One of those structures is a large warehouse that is home to the Tri-State Wool Marketing Association. They market around 300,000 pounds of wool a year to domestic and foreign markets, selling clean, classed wool for a premium price through an auction system. Most of their members are from the tri-state region but more distant states are represented as well.
The association started in 1981 when three sheep producers in southeast Montana got together and took their wool to Pendleton, Oregon. That trip paid off and they continued to do that for a number of years, growing their members and cutting out the middle man. In 1990 they formed the Tri-State Wool Marketing Association and has been growing and making money for sheep producers ever since. The Association has a reputation for marketing high quality skirted and classed wool. The wool is no longer sold in Pendleton; it is auctioned off and has been shipped around the world. “We are making producers money by doing what we are doing,” said Danny Lanning, founder and all around one-man show. “We have a very low overhead. Our members have a contract and we wait to sell when the market is the highest.”
“In around 1995, a sheep producer from Utah sent us a semi load of wool, about 45,000 pounds. We made him $20,000 more than he could get in Utah. He has been sending us his wool ever since. If you have a thousand ewes, in ten years you will have made enough to buy a new pickup,” Lanning said. “Our history speaks for itself. Even coarser wool, if it’s prepared right, will bring a premium. The advantage of a cooperative is it benefits the little guy.”
The Association is open to anyone who is willing to skirt and class their wool for the opportunity to get a better price, regardless of the flock size. Little to big producers, everyone is treated fairly. The wool is sold based on its merits, not who you are. The same classes of wool are grouped together for the core test, 6,000 to 7,000 pounds in a group, which helps lower that expense and allows for larger volumes to be marketed. A core sample is taken and sent to Denver to be certified according to weight, microns and yield. The wool is sold when the market is highest, sometimes even before all the sheep are sheared. All the wool is required to be in the warehouse by May first. The association charges about ten cents a pound to do it all. Bidding is done over the phone or through fax. Paid on yield factor, the cleaner you keep your wool the more money you make. Super fine wool up to the coarser wool, just keep it clean.
The Association was one of the first to sell wool to France. The bales had to have a veterinarian health inspection just like live sheep before being shipped. They have also sold to China, and interest is growing in India as well. Some has also been used for military contracts in the United States. This year the Association is still watching the markets and waiting to see the outcome of the Chinese tariff issues.
The wool is skirted on the shearing floor, a process which removes the dirty, stained wool, second cuts and vegetable matter from the fleece. It’s then classed according to the Micron system, which separates wool into grades according to the average fiber diameter as measured by a micrometer, which is one millionth of a meter. Fine wool has a low micron value. The fiber diameter is the most important characteristic of wool in determining its value.
The wool is packed into square wool bags or bales, each one weighing around 470 to 500 pounds. Lanning was one of the first to start the use of square bags in the US. He built his bagger after seeing a photo of one from Australia. He went on to build ten of them. More wool can be packed into a square bag compared to a round one and they are easier to transport. When selling overseas, all the paperwork, weights and inspections have to match. The wool is placed in shipping containers, 100 bales to a container, delivered to a port and loaded on the boat.
“The sheep industry is shrinking, there is less profit in them and predators are the biggest problem. There are a lot of little bunches, but not the volume of sheep there use to be. Ranchers are getting old, and it’s hard to find help.” Lanning said.
“We help the producer make more money if they are willing to keep their wool clean, skirt it and class it. Pay is based on yield, so keep it clean. Everyone is treated like family.” Lanning said. “If you want to make money with the sheep project, you need to look at alternatives.”