The revival of the small farm has created a new interest in sheep and goats. And although Canadians are not known to be big consumers of lamb, mutton or goat meat, there is a much greater demand than there is product.
Canada only produces 40 per cent of the lamb needed for consumers. As the population changes culturally, the need for lamb and goat will increase. And lamb is showing up on more menus across the nation.
Sheep once played a huge role in our history — providing lamb, mutton, lanolin, fat, and wool as well as cash for farmers.
Every soldier in the First and Second World Wars could attest to mutton stew. Many a rural home relied on the homespun wool for knitting of clothing fit for Canadian winters and to send to Canadian soldiers overseas, the lanolin for soap, the meat for food, and the bones for dog food and fertilizer.
In the 1930s when the Canadian population was 10.3 million, more than three million sheep were on Canadian farms.
- More with Brenda Schoepp: Who has benefited from the shift to heavier cattle?
The Canadian flock today is small — about 814,000 head (in 2017), which are scattered on 9,390 farms throughout the country. But there are more than a billion sheep worldwide, with China owning the largest herd (more than 146 million head) followed by Australia, India, Iran, New Zealand and what was formally Sudan (now Sudan and South Sudan).
Lamb and mutton are staples in many rural areas, and milking sheep, goats, and camels is especially important to nomadic and isolated communities. As for consumption, those who eat the most lamb and sheep live in Mongolia where folks consume over 50 kilograms per capita per year followed by Turkmenistan, New Zealand, Iceland and Greece.
Although Canadians are beginning to appreciate lamb, the flock is decreasing. However, goat meat consumption and the goat herd is growing (there were more than 230,000 goats on 5,627 Canadian farms in 2017).
Globally, the largest consumers of goat meat in terms of tonnage are China, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Sudan and South Sudan) but the largest per capita consumer is Sudan. The Sudanese goat herd exceeds 43 million.
Both lamb and young goat are delicious to eat, and the small ruminants provide valuable help when managed properly in terms of weed control and forage stimulation. As they add value to marginal land, sheep and goats can get a new farmer going even on heavier or rocky soil.
The best part though is the low cost to new entrants in agriculture as a smaller land base is required. Behind us are the days of the Canadian range wars between farmers (who had sheep and equipment) and ranchers who had the cattle. Today’s farming community is once again reflective of the cultural needs of the consumer and understands the challenges posed by the ever-present debt that can be a part of farming. Getting young folks started is important and a smaller flock on a smaller piece of land is an option.
Starting is easy — although staying sane is optional as sheep and goats get into all sorts of trouble.
It is important to do your stock shopping from a well-established farm with a similar vision or program and on similar land. Look for mentors who are experienced in husbandry, genetic selection, grazing, and infrastructure. And most importantly, do the research on the cost and access to meat processors and markets before buying a single one of the bleating beasts.
Choosing to sell lambs or kids in volume will require meeting weight targets. Selling direct will be dependent on weight and quality. As a starting farmer, having 100 ewes or nannies may seem romantic until there are 200 carcasses that need refrigeration and a buyer. Like vegetable production, when the product is perishable and the sale is direct to consumers, refrigeration is critical.
Consumers love farmers, especially ones who can tell them about the product and give it to them from their own hands. It may seem dramatically slow at the start, but getting the connections and relationships right with the consumer is critical. This holds true in the relationship with the processor as well. Inviting feedback on the carcass quality helps identify where improvements can be made and perhaps offers a point of differentiation with the product.
A farmer starting a new farm with a small flock or herd joins 500 million other small landholders around the world who make a valuable contribution to their community. Sheep and goats do not guarantee happiness (they may, however, provide immense frustration) nor are they the one path toward the fulfilment of a farming dream.
But they are worthy of consideration when starting a new farm.
Breed dependent, there are many benefits including milk, meat and wool with sheep, and milk and meat with goats.
As our Canadian culture shifts, these tasty proteins are both desired and in short supply. Reason enough to conclude that an opportunity awaits new and established farmers in Canada.