Manitoba’s sheep flock is growing faster than anywhere else in Canada.
The latest Census of Agriculture figures show flock expansion of 43.2 per cent between 2011 and 2016, to 90,423 animals in 2016. Elsewhere in Canada the sheep flock declined in that same time period by 4.9 per cent.
Jonathon Nichol isn’t surprised to hear those numbers.
Much of that growth is due to significant expansion on one particular farm, Canada Sheep and Lamb, located in eastern Manitoba, said Nichol, chairperson of the Manitoba Sheep Association and a sheep producer near Manitou.
“They’re a large percentage of the sheep flock in Manitoba,” he said. “We do have other producers growing as well, but at the rate it’s growing overshadows the rest of the growth within the province.”
Their association is encouraging others among its 500 membership to keep expanding flocks as well, he said.
Manitoba’s advantage for sheep is affordable land suitable for these animals. As production grows, local demand for fresh lamb within the province is also increasing.
But it’s consistent profitability and a growing market as demand for lamb rises in urban Canada contributing to the flock growth, Nichol said.
“Prices have stayed consistent over the last five years which goes a long way to helping encourage growth as well.”
Canada continues to import almost 60 per cent of lamb consumed here.
“It’s an import market unlike most commodities where we’re trying to export,” Nichol said.
“If we can create larger production we can get more of that market for ourselves.”
The attraction to sheep is they’re easier to handle and a relatively less expensive investment compared to the costs associated with other livestock, Nichol said.
“I can buy 10 ewes for basically the price of one cow,” he said, adding he currently has about 70 ewes with a long-term plan of expanding his flock to about 250.
What most find is that a flock of about 30 is easy to handle, whereas any larger places more management challenges on producers, he added. The association is there to help educate producers through seminars and farm tours to take on those challenges.
“It’s when people get bigger and get bigger quick that they quite often get discouraged and get out. We’re looking to mitigate those problems,” he said. “The typical sheep producer is in the industry for about five years.”
Nichol said the majority of sheep producers are raising the animals for meat but some have developed niche market opportunities for wool too. Value added “makes a big difference” for those producers because wool isn’t worth much, he said.
“I shouldn’t say wool isn’t worth anything. It’s just a low-priced commodity,” he said.
“It’s worth it to ship, but not worth enough to specifically grow unless you’re into a niche market.”
Nichol said if producers can sustain flock growth it ultimately helps make a case for federal kill facilities in Manitoba for sheep. Right now the majority raised here are shipped to slaughter plants in Ontario and in Alberta.