Sheep Breeder Shares Expertise

hAPPY EASTER fRoM fARMLIfE Sue Armstrong

Do you have an agri-tourism article or a story about a home-based business? How about some household management tips?

Send them to FarmLife, 1666 Dublin Ave., Winnipeg, Manitoba R3H 0H1. Phone 1-800-665-0502 or e-mail [email protected]

Please remember we can no longer return photos or material.


When Colleen Sawyer lost her husband Dave in a farming accident in 1975, she was left as the sole supporter of their three young children, ages six, 10 and 13. At the time, the Sawyers were raising sheep and cattle on their farm near Pike Lake, southwest of Saskatoon.

Without a career other than farming, Sawyer was at a loss as to how she would provide for the family. She discussed with her children the possibility of selling the farm and moving to the city where she would attend SIAST or university in order to establish a career. But the children were adamant about staying on the farm. “I’d been raised on a small mixed farm north of Saskatoon and worked with livestock and machinery so I wasn’t afraid to tackle the work. Raising livestock was really my main passion.

“Thankfully the land was life insured, so I didn’t have to make payments. We owned our home. I sold the cattle after the first calving, but continued to raise sheep, and did the butchering myself. I had a number of regular clients in the city. It was a lot of work — I remember once I butchered 15 lambs in one day for a religious feast. I also rented out the grainland. Driving a local school bus kept us with some cash flow, so I was able to get by,” she says.

Sawyer says the children — Monte, Heather and Paula, had to grow up in a hurry. “They helped me a lot. Monte, who was 13, helped with haying and many of the harder farm chores. By the time they were 10, the girls were able to tube lambs and know if something was going wrong during lambing. Everyone pitched in with the chores, with housework and cooking.

In 1977 Sawyer switched over from a commercial sheep operation to raising purebred Hampshire and Suffolks. She started showing them at all the main livestock shows, which allowed her to gain the expertise to judge sheep both at a local and national level.

Over the years Sawyer’s hard work and dedication has made her an important figure in the development of the sheep industry in Saskatchewan.

In 1977 she helped start the Vanscoy Sheep and Wool Fair. “The main sheep sale in Saskatchewan used to be in Regina. When it went by the wayside I decided to start another that would be hosted by the Saskatchewan Sheep Breeders Association (SSBA). With lots of help from many volunteers, I was able to keep it going for 13-14 years. We really went all out — with dog trials, a shearing competition, trade booths, a lamb barbecue and a dance. The next move was to Lloydminster, then Assiniboia and now it’s in Drake. It’s called the Grasslands Sheep Sale. The event became a means to promote not only the commercial breeding ewes but also the province’s purebred sheep. The show part of the sale has helped to keep up the quality of the animals,” she says.

Sawyer has been involved in the Canadian Western Agribition for 30 years as a volunteer, exhibitor and sometimes a judge. She led a 4-H sheep project for four years and conducted 4-H judging workshops for many years. She’s been director of the Saskatchewan Sheep and Wool Commission, which became the Sheep Development Board. She also was a director of the SSBA for many years and also served as president for a while. She’s served as manager of the Saskatchewan Sheep Development Board (SSDB) for 10 years, and in 2000 became manager of marketing and extension.

In 1991 she received the Canadian Sheep Breeders Award for her contributions to the purebred industry, and in 2003, was inducted into the Saskatchewan Agriculture Hall of Fame.

Three years ago, Sawyer started another sheep sale under the direction of the SSDB, this time at Saskatoon Livestock Sales. This fall sale, usually held at the end of September, is for any type of sheep, including breeding stock, cull sheep, feeder lambs and fat lambs. “The sales are scheduled so they don’t all happen at the same time. Producers have to know they’ll have markets for their animals,” she says.

Although BSE hit the sheep industry hard, Sawyer notes that today there are about 1,000 flocks registered in Saskatchewan, with an estimated provincial flock of 60,000 breeding ewes. “So it’s a good industry to be in right now. Consumers and retailers would rather buy Canadian lamb, but we still do not produce enough lamb to fill the market for the meat. Retailers can get New Zealand lamb consistently but can’t get Canadian lamb consistently. That’s because we are seasonal. In New Zealand they have no winter, so they can lamb any time of year. As soon as you have winter, you’re not going

Herb-Marinated Leg of Lamb.

to have fresh lamb available all year round.”

Sawyer travelled to China in 2005 for a month working for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to develop the livestock industry in Inner Mongolia. “Our goal was to teach the local farmers how to better manage their stock and pasture land. Much of the grasslands have become subject to erosion due to overgrazing,” she said. In 2008 Sawyer was asked to be part of a team returning to China to conduct more workshops. She spent the month of October doing this across Northern China. Over the last three years she hosted many Chinese delegations at her farm.

Although she retired from her position at the sheep board, Sawyer continues to conduct workshops. She also currently manages a flock of 150 purebred Suffolk, Canadian Arcott, Dorset and Hampshire sheep.

“I’ve enjoyed the sheep industry and don’t mind putting out for it. I feel that if you’re in the industry, it’s your responsibility to help, serve and give back. It’s my passion. I enjoy the people involved, and I get a lot of satisfaction raising the animals,” she says.

For more information on the Saskatchewan Sheep Development

Board, visit



3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 tsp. dry tarragon 8 peppercorns, cracked 1 medium onion, chopped

1 tsp. dry marjoram

1 tsp. dry rosemary 1-1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 c. water

1/2 c. olive oil

1 c. dry white wine

1 tbsp. lemon juice 5-to 6-lb. leg of lamb

Combine all ingredients; pour over lamb, and marinate for several hours, turning occasionally. Pour off marinade before cooking, and reserve for basting. Roast lamb on rack, uncovered, in a shallow pan at 325F for 2-1/2 hours, basting regularly.

Edna Manning writes from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

About the author



Stories from our other publications