Too much demand, and not enough supply. That’s not often a problem in the livestock business, and if you’re a sheep producer right now, it’s a nice problem to have.
However, it has thrown a wrench into efforts to organize a value chain connecting producers, slaughterhouses and retailers, says the treasurer of the Manitoba Sheep Association.
“We’re experiencing record prices right now, so it has been very difficult to get commitments from producers, abattoirs and retailers at the current price levels,” said Lucien Lesage, who raises sheep near Notre Dame.
Data collected from meetings of stakeholders has been accumulated and analyzed, but the process that ends March 31 has been put on hold for the time being.
Some of the money for the research provided by MRAC is left over, but continued efforts will be supported by the association’s own coffers.
High prices in Ontario, currently around $1.70-$2 per pound live weight for 90-to 110- pound market lambs, and 85 cents for cull ewes, mean that most sheep grown on Manitoba pastures are going to feed that voracious market. Local consumers are left with no choice but to buy imported product, which many consider inferior.
Brian Greaves, a sheep producer from Miniota, said that while the current marketing focus has shifted towards assembling larger-size loads to Ontario, a core group of committed producers is still working towards serving the Manitoba market.
“It’s lack of numbers that’s the problem,” he said. “For a value chain, to have someone employed to manage it, there’s not the numbers there to warrant it. But it still can go ahead on a smaller basis.”
The latest Statistics Canada numbers peg the Manitoba sheep herd at around 25,000 breeding ewes on about 500 farms.
Abattoirs expressed a willingness to increase their capacity, but it “all comes back to supply,” said Lesage.
Unlike Saskatchewan, Manitoba producers cannot legally sell on-farm slaughtered products. Some producers are rumoured to be navigating a grey area of the law by selling live lambs to on-farm customers, then providing slaughter facilities on site.
Clandestine slaughter operators who buy lambs at auction are also said to exist near Winnipeg, but the association and provincial officials are trying to discourage the practice.
Many immigrants prefer fresh slaughtered lamb, and buying live chickens and other livestock at so-called “wet” markets is common around the world.
“If one lamb were to be killed illegally and then cause a health issue, I think the whole industry would suffer,” said Lesage.
“But it’s a tough one. On the other hand, they do support our market. It’s also cultural and traditional. When I was young, we always used to slaughter our own meat on the farm, not for resale but for our own use.”
Discussions are underway to remove interprovincial trade barriers, and by January 2012, all sheep must be RFID tagged.
In a presentation at Ag Days, provincial sheep and goat specialist Mamoon Rashid said that more than 57 per cent of the lamb consumed in Canada is imported.
“Are there opportunities there or not?” said Rashid, adding that since 2006, lamb has held steady at about $1.70 per pound on average.
Pointing to a chart of immigration to Canada since 1978, he showed that while other red meats have stagnated, lamb and chevon have doubled in line with new arrivals from South Asia, the Philippines, Arab nations and Africa.
That’s unlikely to change in the near future, he added, because future economic development is “totally dependent” on immigration to replace slumping birth rates.
Global demand is growing, and even the traditional sheep-powerhouse nations New Zealand and Australia are having trouble satisfying their export markets. That means there is less product from those countries available to hit Canadian shelves, he added.
Cost of production for lamb is low compared to cattle, with current costs estimated at 90 cents per pound, depending on the operation.
Rashid said that over the past decade, the price of lamb has never dipped below the cost of production, making lamb production consistently profitable.
“Definitely, we need a consistent supply the whole year round if we want to really make some bucks and keep the industry going,” he said.
There are challenges, too. Some 80 per cent of Manitoba’s production is shipped to Calgary and Ontario. Also, top-quality breeding stock is hard to come by, and importation from the United States is a lengthy, paperwork-heavy process. Veterinary drugs registered for use in Canada are often not available, and support from experienced small ruminant practitioners can also be hard to find in some rural areas.
Predators are an ongoing problem, as well.
“Coyotes are the biggest lamb consumers in Manitoba,” joked Lesage.
daniel. [email protected]
“We’reexperiencing recordpricesright now,soithasbeen verydifficulttoget commitmentsfrom producers,abattoirs andretailersatthe currentpricelevels.”
– LUCIEN LESAGE