“If you’re getting as good of productivity as you should, your lambs in the first year can pay back the cost of the ewes.”
– MARGARET COOK
Cattle producers are routinely told that the reason they face such dismal prices for their beef is Canadians can’t eat all the beef they produce.
With anywhere from 30 to 50 per cent of annual production in excess of domestic demand, the profitability of the industry therefore depends on the vagaries of the export market, which is affected by animal health issues, currency exchange rates, and politics – as the story goes.
Dyed-in-the-wool cowboys may find it hard to accept, but putting sheep out on their pastures instead of cows might make more sense in the current economic climate – provided they can keep the predators at bay. (see related story page17)
A new campaign launched by the Alberta Lamb Producers hopes to convince producers to make the switch to what is arguably the most profitable livestock industry, given the current problems faced by both beef and pork.
With domestic production of lamb amounting to only 41 per cent of what Canadians consume, there is plenty of room to grow both in terms of expansion on the part of existing sheep producers, as well as new entrants from the beef and cattle sectors, according to ALP executive director Margaret Cook.
“If we could double our production overnight, we would still have a market,” she said. “Of course, we wouldn’t be able to get it all processed right away – but we’d still have a market.”
There is “huge” room for growth in lamb production, she added. What’s more, if present demographic trends continue, by 2020 demand in the domestic market is forecast to increase by 40 per cent, partly because of the baby boomers’ growing taste for lamb, but also immigration from Middle Eastern countries where lamb is a popular meat.
“So, yes, there is a huge opportunity,” she said.
Cattle producers may be reluctant to make the switch, but in Alberta at least, the ALP is seeing signs that a shift from cattle to sheep is underway, she said.
The ALP campaign is aimed at encouraging a “mind shift” that might attract more ranchers to either add sheep to their existing operation, or new producers to make the necessary investments to get in the business.
Either way, the economics are attractive, said Cook. For one thing, the cost of getting started is “way” less at $150 to $200 per ewe, compared to about $800 for a heifer.
“You’ve also got way quicker cash flow because there’s less time to market,” she said. “If you’re getting as good of productivity as you should, your lambs in the first year can pay back the cost of the ewes.”
A good lamb sells for $2.50 per pound on the rail, she added.
Mamoon Rashid, a MAFRI sheep and goat specialist, said that of the lamb and goat meat being consumed in both Canada and the United States, more than 50 per cent is imported.
“So, there is room to grow, and I’m not seeing this being filled up anytime soon,” he said.
The typical buyer doesn’t particularly like the taste of grass-fed New Zealand lamb, Rashid added, and would much prefer fresher, more local flavours if they were available in the stores where they shop.
In Manitoba, the biggest obstacle to expanding the herd is the lack of available, top-quality genetics. That means that if someone wanted to buy a bunch of ewes and get into the sheep business, they would have trouble finding the breeds they want or the quantity of animals to get started.
“If you had 300 ewes and you wanted to breed them to a particular ram, it might be very hard to find the ram that you want,” he said, adding that there are only about 50 purebred sheep producers in the province.
“It’s kind of scary in a way because we don’t have local product, even though the demand is huge,” he said.
Rashid recently undertook a project aimed at trying to join up all parts of the supply chain, from the producers, to the processors to the end retailers.
In the course of the six-month experiment, he found that it was possible to put local lamb on local store shelves, even though the prevailing belief was that provincial slaughter facilities weren’t keen on slaughtering lambs or were charging too much for the service.
Processing costs seem sky high, he noted. At $35 per head, the cost per pound just for slaughtering amounts to 90 cents on a 45-pound carcass.
“There’s not much we can do about that,” he said. “But the consumer is willing to pay.”
He noted that the high cost of slaughter has led to a rise in illicit killing operations in the Winnipeg area, where consumers travel out to farms that are willing to accommodate their specific cultural or ritual slaughter requirements on site.
“It’s not just for cheaper product, they want a better product,” he said. “In other parts of the world, things are not done supermarket style.”
In Manitoba, farm-slaughtered meat can’t be sold nor given away. However, in Saskatchewan, farm-slaughtered meat can be sold direct to the customer, but not for retail, he noted. [email protected]