Sheep Pelts: Asset or Liability?
Loss of Export Market
According to the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI), “there is currently no market for American sheep skins. The highest quality, unshorn premium pelts have lost 95% of their value since March.” Currently (as of 11.08.19), sheepskin pelts have a negative value. Producers have to pay the processor to get rid of them .
In past years, it was common for the US to export more than 1 million pelt pieces worth an estimated $15 million. Over 80% of the pelts went to China. China was the biggest importer of sheep and lamb hides, receiving 74% of all skins exported worldwide in 2015 . Turkey, Russia, and Italy import smaller numbers of pelts.
The US and China are now embroiled in a “trade war.” As a result, there is a significant loss in Chinese demand for US sheepskin due to the tariffs now being imposed on lambskin exports to China .
Raw, salted pelts - ready for tanning
There are other contributing factors to the loss in value of sheep pelts. There is less demand for sheepskin products among consumers, as the demand for synthetics has increased. The value of the US dollar relative to Chinese currency has made pelts more expensive for the Chinese to purchase. Tougher environmental standards have driven many small Chinese tanneries out of business, as chemicals and gases are part of the tanning process . Lower wool prices also contribute to lower pelt prices.
In the past, it was common for some US producers to receive a “pelt credit” when they sold their lambs. This is because the pelt usually accounted for the majority of the by-product value of a lamb. It’s often been said that a meat processer breaks even on the meat and makes his profit on the by-products. As a result, pelt values could have a significant influence on slaughter lamb prices.
High quality, unshorn wool pelts were worth the most. A good quality pelt could add $5-$10 to the value of a lamb. The best Australian Merino skins are still fetching AU$20 a piece, with most bringing $4-$10 (Sept 1). The “pelt credit” was always one of the “best” arguments against hair sheep.
In the East, we’ve never received a “pelt credit” for our lambs. While some of the larger processors used to salt and sell the pelts, producers never benefited, at least not directly. Now, the processors are scurrying for markets or simply throwing away the skins with other waste products.
Niche marketing opportunity
The Utah Wool Growers are marketing lamb pelts for $100 each . Different colors are available. There is a farm in California that is selling out of its pelts, priced as high as $675 . These are from colorful Navajo Churro sheep. Many other producers are niche marketing their pelts for prices somewhere in between. Pelts are an excellent way to add value to the sheep enterprise. While it is possible to tan your own pelts, it is more common to have the pelts professionally tanned.
Bucks County Fur Products in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, is the tannery of choice for niche marketers of sheep pelts. Bucks calls themselves “the sheepskin specialists”, as they specialize in tanning sheep, goat, and deer hides . They are a family run-business that has been in operation since 1954. They receive sheepskins from all over the US. Most are shipped in and shipped out. Prices are $8-$12 per square foot, depending upon wool length and thickness. Finished pelts are washable or can be returned to the tannery for a “proper cleaning.”
Preparing pelts for tanning 
It is not difficult to prepare skins for professional tanning. What’s important to remember is that the skins are perishable. They need to be salted soon after slaughter or they will spoil. If you can’t get your pelts soon after slaughter, ask the butcher to hang the pelts, flesh side out, over something. When you get the pelts, spread them out flat and salt them generously. Be sure to rub salt into the edges so the edges do not fold over. You’ll need 2 to 5 pounds of salt per pelt, depending upon size. Don’t use coarse or rock salt; use a finely granulated salt. Be sure to trim fat, meat clumps, and body parts from the pelt. The pelts need to dry. At least two weeks is recommended. After shaking off excess salt, dried hides can be rolled for shipping.
There are many uses for sheep pelts. Sheepskin coats, vests, and boots are common in the traditional dress of peoples throughout the Old World (wherever sheep are raised). Commercially, footwear is one of the most common uses of sheepkin . Sheepskin slippers are popular. UGGS are still trendy. The use of sheepskin seat covers dates back centuries, perhaps as long ago as the Bronze Age when wagons and carriages were first used.
Research has confirmed the advantages of medical sheepskin in the prevention and treatment of pressure ulcers. Sheepskin rugs and comforters are popular for babies. According to a German study, babies who sleep on animal skins are less likely to develop asthma. Pets, especially aging ones or those with joint problems, will likely benefit from the many positive attributes of sheepskin.
The soft leather from sheep hides is used to make gloves, jackets, purses and chamois cloth.
References and further reading
 ASI Weekly News (2011). Pelt values strengthen
 ASI Market Report (2019). Trade uncertainty adds cost to industry
 Sheepskin pelts - Utah Wool Growers Association
 Skin Report - Meat & Livestock Australia. Retrieved 10.03.19
 Wall Street Journal. (2015). Sheep farmers take hit as demand for hides fall
Last updated 11.12.19 by Susan Schoenian.