It’s tough raising sheep in the Peace River country. Just ask Gerty Sorensen.
She and husband Albert raise sheep on a second-generation farm northeast of Bezanson. It’s far removed from the heart of sheep production country in southern Alberta, and the Sorensens face a host of challenges unique to their area, including the long distance to market, marketing logistics, and feed supply.
The Sorensens operate Mini Creek Farms Ltd. which is comprised of 12 quarters. Their son Murray oversees a herd of around 140 cattle, alongside Gerty’s 220 ewes. She had 400 but had to cull the flock, mostly because of feed shortages.
“It was hard to buy feed, there was no pasture, so we decided to cull back and let the pasture rejuvenate,” said Sorensen.
Drought hit most of the Peace region hard this year, for the third year in a row.
“We had only once inch of rain all summer since the heavy snowfall in May,” says Sorensen.
Securing feed for 400 ewes and 140 cows was problematic.
“We don’t have the feed to bale graze,” Sorensen says. “So we’re trying an experiment this fall to mimic a hayfield by spreading seed, covering it with straw and see if we get good results come spring.”
Sorensen was drawn into sheep production about 15 years ago when her daughter Raelyn brought home a couple of bottle babies. Sorensen had been milking dairy cows for 20 years and welcomed the change.
“We started out with Dorsets, and then just kept going. We made a bit of money, then bought a herd of 100,” she says.
The sheep were a good fit for the couple. Albert was already semiretired and the small size made sense.
“They’re a lot easier to handle than cattle if the ewe gets agitated, I learned to stand back,” says Sorensen. “At our age, lamb production makes sense, I’m past jumping or even climbing out of the corral to get away from a cow.”
Predators can be a problem, and even with the family’s three dogs Anatolian shepherds and Great Pyrenees breeds there are losses.
“I bring the flock up near the house during the day so the dogs can rest and be able to go out at night and watch over.”
Like cattle producers, distance to market is a problem for Peace sheep producers. Sunterra in Innisfail buys live animals, but they pay on dressed weight.
“That’s a long distance to travel for animals so there are shrinkage concerns, stress on animals, and you almost have to put them on with extra pounds so they’re the right weight when they get to Innisfail,” says Sorensen.
The biggest problem, she said, is having to contract a liner, which can haul up to 350 head but costs from $1,800 to $2,000.
“Pairing up with another Peace producer isn’t easy since they have to be able to sell the same sheep at the same time.”
She ships some live animals to Beaver Hill in Tofield, which is the closest auction mart.
The Sorensens prefer to sell directly to customers. Nearby Heart Valley Processors in Wanham, gets her butcher business, and Mini Creek has a provincially inspected walk-in freezer, for on-farm sales.
“I prefer to sell direct and collect on delivery,” she says.
Commercial clients are few, Sorensen said. A few years back, she approached an ethnic restaurant in Grande Prairie, but says she’d have to lamb about 25 a month to keep the supply consistent.
“There’s a lot of labour involved in that, and I’m not interested at this point in my life.”
Still, she says, if you’re young and have the facilities, sheep production is a viable livelihood. Lamb prices have been climbing steadily over the past five years, and Sorensen says current market prices are “excellent.”
But that doesn’t mean the Sorensens intend to ramp up operations.
The couple seems to enjoy things just fine the way they are now. They raised four children here on the homestead, and most help out when they can. Son Murray is building a new home in the same yardsite.
“We enjoy the lives we’ve built here,” said Sorensen. “It’s treated us pretty good.”