Manitoba’s lamb producers aren’t feeling much holiday spirit this year thanks to COVID-19.
Social distancing has put a chill on a market normally bolstered by the Easter season, as well as Jewish Passover celebrations and the start of Ramadan on the Islamic calendar later in April.
The Manitoba government declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19 March 20. The province limited the number of people able to gather at one time, as well as closing dining rooms in restaurants and bars as of April 1 and suspending non-essential businesses.
On March 27, the Manitoba government further restricted social gatherings. The province announced that gatherings, including weddings, funerals and other family events, would now be limited to 10 people or less, down from 50.
Why it matters: Spring holidays such as Easter, Passover and Ramadan typically draw big demand for lamb, but this year the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing has put a chill on celebrations.
Morgan Moore, chair of the Manitoba Sheep Association, says the pandemic has sparked uncertainty in the market.
Demand has shifted away from the lightweight lambs normally popular at this time of year, he said, largely because families are not able to gather.
“It seems like there’s maybe a little more demand for the larger, finished lamb so that they can have a lamb roast or have cuts that would allow for smaller family gatherings,” he said.
In Manitoba, lamb prices at the Grunthal Auction Mart April 8 ranged from $1.50-$2 per pound for lambs under 60 pounds to $1.70-$2.02 per pound for lambs 80 to 100 pounds. At Winnipeg Livestock Sales, prices as of April 3 ranged from $150-$175 for lambs under 60 pounds to $180-$220 for lambs 60 to 80 pounds.
Moore added that market prices after Easter may give a better indication of where the market is going.
“We really don’t feel like we have a clear sense of direction,” he said. “The Easter market started out very strong, but then it softened a lot in the last couple of weeks. It remains to be seen where this is headed.”
The Ontario sheep market has reported a sharp downturn after a promising start to the spring.
According to data from the Ontario Sheep Farmers, lambs across the board broke well above the five-year average in the first half of March, before diving. The average price for lambs between 95 and 109 pounds March 11-March 17 came in $71.94 per hundredweight higher than the same week last year and $50.12 per hundredweight higher than the average price during the four weeks before. Two weeks later, however, the market had dropped almost $100 per hundredweight before starting to recover in the first week of April.
Lambs under 50 pounds, likewise, started strong before falling well below the five-year average. Prices in the first week of April had fallen $94.99 per hundredweight below the four-week average, and $109.97 per hundredweight below the price in the same week last year.
Some producers direct marketing their lambs, however, say they have seen a beneficial impact.
Natalie Degerness of HomeGrown Acres near Wawanesa says she has been sold out of lamb since early March.
The farm typically slaughters in fall. Some of that meat sells immediately, Degerness said, or it is otherwise sold frozen.
The farm downsized its herd last year and last butchered in December.
“Those sold very, very quickly,” Degerness said, although she added that the farm has also seen similar increase in demand for its beef.
“There’s definitely more demand than usual right now to buy locally,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s because there isn’t as much in store or if it’s just people wanting to support local.”
Empty grocery shelves made headlines in mid-March after the COVID-19 pandemic heated up and social distancing measures were announced in Manitoba.
The pandemic has also raised anxiety about processing capacity.
Temporary plant closures have hit headlines throughout the meat sector. In late March, Olymel announced that it would be shutting down its 1,000-staff pork-processing plant in Yamachiche, Que., for two weeks due to increasing cases of COVID-19. That news was followed by the temporary closure of an Alberta beef-packing plant.
In the U.S., a growing number of packers have likewise suspended operations. The pork sector was rocked by news that Tyson Foods would be shutting down a major packing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, following more than two dozen cases of COVID-19. The company later said that hogs bound for the plant would be diverted to other facilities, Reuters reported April 6.
Other companies include JBS, which shuttered operations at a beef plant in Pennsylvania until April 16, according to Reuters, and Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Local media reported April 8 that over 80 employees of the meat-packing plant had got sick and that the plant was closing for three days.
The rash of closures has done little to reassure the Manitoba sheep sector.
“We have such a bottleneck currently because we’ve got such limited processing options that one or two disruptions in our fragile process, I think, would be pretty devastating to our industry and especially in the short term,” Moore said.
There are currently two options for federally inspected sheep slaughter plants in Canada, he said. Animals slated for slaughter are shipped either to Sungold Specialty Meats in Innisfail, Alta., or to Newmarket Meat Packers in southern Ontario.
“Some are going direct for slaughter,” Moore said. “Most of the lambs that go east from Manitoba though are going either to a feedlot for further finishing or else to the auction mart to be further marketed from there.”
The Manitoba Sheep Association has long pushed for increased processing capacity.