Leading lambs to slaughter in western Manitoba will soon be more challenging.
After three decades in business, the Roy Leitch Livestock Company is shutting the doors of the country’s largest lamb feedlot.
“I’m not going to retire all together, but I’m going to retire from the livestock industry and do some other things,” Leitch said from his home near Brandon.
Last winter, the 65-year-old began warning his longtime customers he might be winding up his operation this summer. No new stock has been received since the beginning of August.
Although he’s enjoyed the work — and thanks his clients for their many years of loyalty — Leitch said recent fluctuations in the sheep market have made generating a profit a challenge, given the size of his operation.
“In the good old days… we were feeding 90,000 a year. Last year we fed about 30,000,” he said.
Prices as high as $2.40 per pound drew new producers into the industry two years ago, but have since plummeted to the $1.20 mark, leaving doubts about the viability of some startup lamb operations.
For the sake of producers, Leitch hopes lamb prices stay steady this winter, but he is worried high retail prices will push consumers away from the meat.
“I love lamb, but even I wouldn’t pay the price they’re asking for it, and that’s only one or two times a year,” Leitch said, adding he believes grocers are hesitant to lower prices once they’ve established a new higher retail price.
He estimates consumption of lamb fell by about 25 per cent when retail prices jumped last year. At the same time, drought in the U.S., coupled with a strong dollar, brought exports to a standstill.
“It’s hard to stay in business, when your business is cut in half,” he said.
Now the former lamb buyer is directing producers to Tony Atkinson, who has been buying and shipping sheep for 15 years.
Atkinson has also seen his share of ups and downs, but hopes new producers stick it out.
“It was really booming ahead a couple years ago and then the price took a huge dive last year, so there is a bit of uncertainty out there now — there are already a few people out there looking to liquidate,” he said.
But he’s grateful Leitch has passed many customers his way, noting, “It’s probably going to double my business.”
Last year Atkinson purchased about 20,000 lambs, this year he expects that number to be closer to 40,000.
More buyers will emerge as Manitoba’s industry adjusts to Leitch’s departure, predicted Herman Bouw, president of the Manitoba Sheep Association.
“There is a transition happening within the sheep-buying industry,” he said. “There is a bit of a void there now, and a new pecking order will have to be sorted out.”
Leitch isn’t planning on selling his operation just yet, but may in the next year or so.
“I’ve got a good operation here, so if someone wanted to get it up and running again, they could,” he said.