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Research helps producers tap into growing consumer demand for sustainable wool products grown in the U.S.  

The Montana Wool Lab is helping producers tap into growing consumer demand for natural fibers and wool products produced in the U.S. It’s one of only two research and service laboratories in the nation designed to help producers improve the traits of their wool through genetics, ultimately boosting their incomes sustainably. 

Students listening to instructor

In 2021, the Montana legislature provided $5 million to replace the aging wool lab on Montana State University’s campus in Bozeman. With an additional $1 million needed, MSU and the Montana sheep industry turned to their partners for help, including their friends at Northwest Farm Credit.  

The Northern Great Plains, including Montana, is the center of fine wool production in the United States. Montana currently ranks eighth in the nation with 250,000 head of sheep and lambs, producing 1.5 million pounds of wool. This quality wool is sought after by members of the military and outdoor enthusiasts alike. 

man throwing a wool coat

It’s fire retardant, naturally odor-resistant and absorbs 40% of its weight in water. Thanks to growing demand for sustainable products, consumers also appreciate the concept of using sheep to manage Montana’s 68 million acres of rangeland – grazing invasive weeds and wildfire prone areas – while producing renewable, high-quality products. 

Improving flock productivity and quality 

The Montana Wool Lab has supported sheep producers for 75 years. In 2021, the lab analyzed more than 15,000 fiber samples for wool producers across the country. Specific, individual samples are used to determine the fineness of the wool by measuring its length and diameter. This analysis helps producers determine how specific samples will process into yarns and other fabrics.  

Man feeling sheeps wool

With analytical testing, producers can access a proven genetic selection system to improve flock productivity and quality. In turn, they are able to earn higher prices by selling wool with certain characteristics to specific markets. Recently a producer shared that his company increased their wool return forty-fold by targeting specific markets versus selling through traditional, commercial channels. Some Montana producers are also bucking the system and reaping the benefits of high-quality wool through sheep-to-shelf businesses that manage every step of the process, from raw fiber to finished garments. 

Supporting producers of all sizes  

In commercial production, producers typically harvest their wool, package and sell it to buyers. Over 70% of all U.S. wool is hauled to port, loaded on ships and sent overseas, mainly to China for processing. 

To help small and mid-size producers compete in this market, the Montana Wool Lab also supports wool pool cooperatives for producers who market their wool together in one lot. Since 2002 the lab has helped the Eastern Montana Consolidated Wool Pool organize delivery, sorting, shipping and marketing of more than 4.7 million pounds of wool. 

Sheep in a field

The Montana Wool Lab continues to champion the wool industry in Montana and surrounding regions by running a higher number of testing samples every year. However, production is severely limited without significant expansions and upgrades. A modern, well-equipped teaching and research facility will increase testing services and act as a backup testing facility for the commercial industry across the United States. 

Northwest FCS is proud to stand with others in support of this ongoing research to ensure that Montana continues to be a world leader in quality wool production for generations to come.