Bernadette Nikkel was looking to try something a little different on her ranch near Barrhead, Alta. Two years ago the full time cattle producer decided to buy 25 ewes from a neighbour, to help train her herding dogs and to see if lamb production would be a good fit for her family farm. It was. Over the past two years that flock has grown to 100, with plans to expand to up to 600 in the next year or two.
“Right now returns in cattle are not high enough,” she says. “We didn’t want to get out of cattle, but we did want to diversify into something profitable and lamb production was a good fit.”
Alberta Lamb Producers (ALP), the industry association for lamb producers in the province, recently launched an expansion campaign in part to bring new producers into the fold to help meet the growing gap between supply and demand. Currently local lamb production meets about half the needs of the domestic market.
There are currently about 177,000 ewes in the Alberta, placing the province in third place in Canada behind Ontario in Quebec. According to Statistics Canada, the industry has not seen any overall growth over the past several years, although ALP is hoping that the success of new producers will help change that.
“We want to make sure that people looking for a new opportunity are aware of what’s available in the sheep industry,” says Margaret Cook, Executive Director for ALP. “Sheep production is a serious business with a strong future, and if they talk to people in the industry they will see how successful they can be.”
Despite a recent history of small niche farms, lamb production is considered most efficient when flock numbers exceed 100. “We quickly realized that you get better returns with sheep when you have higher numbers, and this was easy to incorporate into our ranch” says Nikkel. “We didn’t have to make many changes, we had to include a little more fencing and learn a bit about lamb nutrition, but we haven’t had to do a whole lot different.”
She says she really enjoys working with sheep and their easygoing temperament. Unlike with cattle, her young children can be actively involved in the hands on care of the flock.
She says the priority for her purebred expansion has been good genetics. She wants a healthy flock with easy lambing. “We would like to expand quicker but because of economics we’ve taken a more cautious approach. But we have a guaranteed customer so we have the incentive to grow as much as we can.
Not all new producers take the cautious approach. When Miles Driedger moved to Alberta two years ago, he worked on his father-in-law’s farm, where he quickly gained an interest in sheep production helping his wife Alyssa manage 100 ewes she owned. Within a year they started up their own flock of 500 ewes, with plans to expand to 1,000 as soon as their facilities are ready to accommodate those numbers.
“We jumped right in,” he says. “We purchased 80 acres of land east of Olds, Alta. and we’re currently constructing a lambing barn and a feedlot on the grounds of a former cattle ranch. We have our own pastureland and we’re renting more.”
He says one of the things that appealed to them about lamb production was the lifestyle flexibility over other livestock operations. He says that depending how the lambing season is structured, it is easy to manage workload throughout the year. They also decided not to diversify at this point in time.
“We decided to make sheep the main source of income for our ranch,” says Driedger. “We will be lambing and finishing on the farm and we have a contract for all of our lamb. We did our research and we saw how high the potential returns are for lamb in this province. It looks good now and into the future.”