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Counting Sheep In Manitoba A Murky Business

It’s nothing to be sheepish about, Manitoba’s flock has been increasing over the last year.

“It’s not as much as we’d like to see, but for sure our flocks are expanding,” said Lucien Lesage, chairman of the Manitoba Sheep Association.

According to Statistics Canada, Manitoba’s sheep inventory increased by 7.7 per cent between July 2010 and July 2011, more than in any other province. Atlantic Canada was a close second at 7.3 per cent, while the national rate of increase over the same period was only 2.2 per cent.

“I’m happy to hear we’re out of the decrease that we’ve been seeing for the last few years, but to get back to where we need to be it will take a long-term increase,” Lesage added.

LAMB PRICES IMPROVING

He said lamb prices in Manitoba have been improving along with wool revenues, making expansion more profitable. Less than a decade ago lamb was selling for $1 a pound, today it’s at $1.80.

“We’re not dependent on the global scale and the markets are willing to pay more for what we produce,” he noted.

According to Lesage, farmers who previously just keep a few sheep, or saw it as a side income are moving towards focusing primarily on sheep production. The number of sheep farmers in the province has remained fairly steady at about 500, although Lesage anticipates that number will rise slightly over the next few years. Currently, the average farm has approximately 55 to 60 ewes, although some have as few as two or three, and others as many as 2,000.

The owner of Canada’s largest lamb feedlot, Roy Leitch Livestock Co. Ltd. in Brandon, says demand for lamb is increasing right across the country.

IMPORTING STOCK

He anticipates more than 60,000 lambs will pass through his feedlot this year, but noted Manitoba doesn’t produce enough sheep to keep the business going; the feedlot takes in stock from across the Prairies.

“We’ve got an ethnic market that is growing, I don’t think we had that 10 years ago, but the demand is there now,” said Roy Leitch. “We’ve never got these prices before, not in my lifetime.”

Mamoon Rashid, sheep and goat specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives agrees with that assessment.

However, he said numbers from Statistics Canada paint a more complex picture than a simple increase in flock numbers.

“At this time I would say the situation is a little bit murky … we’re in a bit of a transition period,” he said noting although market stocks are up, breed stocks are down, with the number of ewes actually decreasing.

“Overall, the feeling is that stocks are increasing, people say that, but either Stats Canada is wrong, or the people are wrong.”

Rashid pointed out ewe numbers dropped by more than 2,000 between Jan. 1, 2010 and Jan. 1, 2011, but added market stock entering Manitoba from other provinces can also affect numbers.

But producers aren’t deterred.

CONSIDERING EXPANSION

Kim Streker and her husband Joe Streker own Sheeples Fine Fibres near Inwood, an operation that takes the wool all the way from the sheep’s back to people’s. They’re considering expanding their operation, and said many of their neighbours have already increased their flocks.

“Our take on the market right now, is that it’s a good time to be getting into it. We’re considering getting into the meat side of it as well,” said Kim. “There is great potential for growth and the land around here in the Interlake is ideal for sheep, so long as you take the right precautions against wolves and coyotes.”

Currently, Sheeples Fine Fibres has 150 sheep, medium long-wool breeds (Romney, Leicester, Corriedale, Cotswold) crossed with fine-wool breeds (Finn, Tunis, Merino) to produce a soft fleece from animals suited to Manitoba’s harsh climate. Making the move to meat products would require a new flock, and examination of some logistical issues.

“Lambing at -40 C is particularly challenging,” she said.

Currently Manitoba imports 55 per cent of its lamb, primarily from Australia and New Zealand, leaving room for domestic production to grow.

“Those countries are really very well organized, it’s what they are known for,” said Kim. “I believe they also have some assistance offered to producers to get the stuff to market.” [email protected]

———

Thereisgreat potentialforgrowth andthelandaround hereintheInterlake

isidealforsheep.”

– KIM STREKER

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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