When Albertans think of feedlots, lamb is generally not the first thing that comes to mind. But as Alberta’s lamb industry expands, those feedlots, and the farms that raise the sheep to supply them, have become an integral part of the developing lamb supply chain.
“After the border was closed in 2003 because of BSE, we focused on increasing domestic demand,” says Margaret Cook, executive director of the Alberta Lamb Producers (ALP). “It was a very successful strategy aided by a healthy economy and a growing ethnic population who traditionally eat lamb. Because of high demand, today producers have numerous options for how they run their operation and who they sell their product to.”
Over the past year ALP led an expansion campaign to entice new and existing producers to consider expanding their lamb production. The feedback they received is that producers are encouraged by the different options for breeding and finishing their animals, as the markets for lamb are so diverse.
“Some producers lamb out a ewe flock and take the lambs right through to market; selling to a processor, a buyer or direct marketing to consumers,” says Cook. “For others, especially small producers, they choose to sell the lambs as feeders, and let a feedlot finish and market them — there is also opportunity to retain ownership and custom finish them.”
The Albers family owns the largest lamb feedlots in Alberta, one in Acme with 15,000 head and one in Stony Plain, with 5,000 head. They also have a 1,500-head ewe flock. Together their operation is considered large in an industry where there are many small producers.
Roger Albers says he has trouble finding enough animals to meet the demands of his business, and is sometimes forced to look to the U.S. and Saskatchewan to find lambs to finish. “There are only a few feedlots in this province and we are all competing for the same animals,” he says. “There are not a lot of big producers, and there is plenty of room for more breeding operations.”
For Albers, who has been in the business for 20 years, the number of people who eat lamb in the province seems to grow every year. He feels the province needs more mid-size flocks that can meet his feedlot’s growing demands. However he cautions new producers to start small.
“With the market this good it is tempting to start big,” he says. “But the customers are there and they are expected to be there for the foreseeable future. I’d advise learning the business slowly, taking the time needed to become skilled at raising lamb.”
He says that lamb producers should consider the services of a feedlot to simplify their production, and to take advantage of the expertise available to them. “We can do a better job of fattening them up, and we know what the market wants,” he says. “It’s a skill to feed lamb right.”
Many producers still retain ownership of their lambs, even though they may send them to a custom feedlot for finishing. This saves on inputs of feed and labour, but allows the producer the freedom to select a market. The price for feeder lambs has been strong in recent years, so by selling feeders producers receive money earlier, purchase less feed and the feedlot carries the last part of the risk.
“Ultimately lamb will be sold to consumers so it is vital that producers provide the products that the consumer wants to make them come back to the same source and buy more,” says Cook. “Every producer has different circumstances, skill sets and interests, so it is important to decide what type of operation will best meet those criteria.”
If close to an urban centre and processing facility, producers may well choose direct marketing through farmers markets or their own network. This is the case with Norine Moore, who runs a flock of 300 purebred ewes and sells about 90 yearling rams as breeding stock every year. They sell carcass lambs to retail outlets, where the consumer contact and feedback is immediate, so they can provide details about their production practices and also hear what that customer wants.
“Direct marketers can create niche markets which command a higher price for the service and attributes provided, although there is more work involved,” says Moore. “Good reliable relationships together with quality lambs will result in easier and more consistent marketing year by year and maybe even better returns.”
Moore’s operation is primarily what’s considered to be extensive production. While her flock lambs inside, they spend most of their life outside, grazing on grass. In a purely extensive operation, lambing and grazing takes place entirely on pastureland. Most Alberta lamb operations are a combination of intensive and extensive production; for example lambs may be born in a building or home pasture and put out to grass for the summer, then finished in pens.
“There is more opportunity for different types of lamb production in Alberta than there ever has been before,” says Moore, who is also the chair of ALP. “There are many more buyers in this province than we have the lamb to supply.”
Alberta uses the majority of the supply produced in the province, but Alberta’s genetics are also high in demand, with the province gaining international recognition for export of quality semen and embryos.
Moore says the ethnic market is growing steadily, and is the biggest sector she markets carcass lambs into. She also sells to specialty meat stores as baby boomers are showing increasing appreciation for lamb. “Essentially there’s a lot more choice,” she says. “More choice in how the lambs are being produced, where to buy or where to sell.”
As the lamb industry continues to grow and develop, Ryan Albers says he sees opportunities over the next five years. “We need more lamb,” he says. “There’s not enough available but producers will fill the gap if they know the market and the infrastructure to support that market is there.”