Sheep farming has always been a tough grind. Sheep are not the heartiest of beasts, lambing is a thankless and tiring job and the market has been fickle.
But several years of decent lamb prices in Ontario have created optimism I haven’t seen for a long time.
The Large Flock Operators group (made up of about 40 producers with more than 400 ewes), recently held a field day near Norwood. More than 200 people registered. Judging from conversations and posts on social media around the event, it wasn’t just current producers who attended, but also people who are investigating sheep farming.
Ontario Sheep Farmers General Manager Jennifer MacTavish told me that she’s seeing interest from new producers, but is seeing larger growth potential from current sheep farmers looking to expand their flocks. Ewes are in short supply for those looking to expand.
Lamb prices in Ontario still follow North American and world price trends, but they have at times detached from those prices based on local demand. Ontario is home to the third largest sheep sector on the continent, based on processing volume and market size, so local market effects on price make sense.
Much has been written about the untapped demand in Canada for lamb produced here. We produce half of what is consumed, ceding the rest of the market to imports. There’s nothing wrong with a few imports here and there, but half the market is kind of amazing. New Zealand producers operate a cutting plant in the Toronto area to process the carcasses moved into this market.
I’m enough of a student of economics to know that there are some good fundamental reasons for why Canadian farmers are not supplying our market. If it were highly profitable for Canadian farmers, then the demand would be filled. Land is expensive here and there are other farming and employment opportunities that are more profitable. Sheep farming can be a lot of work. You have to birth many more sheep than cattle to get the same amount of meat.
I am seeing some signs that shepherds are finding more profitability than they did before. There are more larger flocks and the people involved in those farms are innovating, borrowing from other sectors and looking to technology like never before.
John and Eadie Steele’s farm, which hosted the Large Flock Operators field day is a good example. The Steeles have long been shining stars in the sheep industry. (See a story, P. 8). They have 2,000 ewes, have had their own equipment fabricated to meet their needs and have focused on improving their financial management through more education. They were the first sheep winners of the Ontario Outstanding Young Farmer award in 2002.
The Steeles are an unfortunately rare large-scale sheep farm success story. Other larger producers have come and gone. Some have become discouraged by the lack of progress and decision-making in the sector due to the number of farmers who produce lamb small scale and part time.
However, organizations like the 18-year-old Large Flock Operators bring larger producers together to solve issues relevant to them.
There’s also increased use of technology in sheep farming. My father-in-law, Ian Clarke, was a sheep farmer who at times ran 200 to 300 ewes on his farm, until a heart attack took him too early. I wonder what he’d think of the scannable RFID tags, driving data into intelligent management systems. He was a progressive record keeper 20 years ago. I think he’d be happy to see the progress being made.
What are the next steps?
- More data collection: The Ontario Sheep Farmers is working to generate farm-level data that is missing for the sector and which gives other jurisdictions, especially New Zealand and Europe competitive advantage.
- Farmer-driven processing: There have been attempts at creating supply chains in the sheep sector for the past 20 years. Most have failed. Trillium Lamb is working hard to provide year-round lamb for domestic markets, and is the most promising producer-marketing group out there right now. Something larger is needed. The Progressive Pork Producers group took many years and fits and starts before it finally obtained Conestoga Packers. The tenacity of those farmers paid off as the company drives significant value back to its co-op members and markets pork around the world. It could be a successful model for the sheep sector.
I’m glad to see some stability in sheep farming, but there are small and big steps to take to make Ontario lamb the choice of a high percentage of Ontario consumers.