History of Sheep Production in Saskatchewan
Sheep have been a part of Saskatchewan's economy for nearly 140 years, with the first sheep arriving on the Canadian prairies in the early 1800's. While the sheep population has shifted with changing times in agriculture, Saskatchewan's inventory has steadily risen since 1986 to a current provincial inventory which is the fourth largest in the country.
Sheep production is comprised of farm flocks, range flocks, and finishing operations with production spread throughout the province. Farm flocks range in size from 60 to 250 ewes, and generally market lambs which are fed to a finish weight of 110 pounds, the usual target weight for slaughter lamb in Canada. Range flocks are generally larger, and tend to be concentrated in the southwest where large flocks of 400 to 800 ewes can be found grazing on short-grass prairie.
Saskatchewan enjoys a relatively low cost grain for feedlot lamb, with a few larger finishing operations found in the province. Lamb makes it's way to Canadian and USA markets via order buyers, feedlots and public auctions such as the large sales in Moose Jaw, Prince Albert and Yorkton, or through the assembly service of the Saskatchewan Sheep Development board.
Prices for Saskatchewan slaughter lamb maintained a steady and strong market in 1996 and early 1997, with all indicators pointing to a continued strong market. Shrinking sheep inventories outside Canada and North America point to a strong future in lamb production. Farm cash receipts from lamb and wool production total over $4 million each year in Saskatchewan, with slight increase on an annual basis.
Sheep production remains a viable low-cost alternative within sustainable agriculture. A relatively low cost of entry, a higher biological efficiency (more than 1 offspring), and additional income opportunity areas such as wool and dairy make sheep production more attractive. In addition, sheep are a positive ecological grazing control, where they are used to manage weeds such as leafy spurge and others found in emerging reseeded forests. As far as grazing requirements go, you can graze 7 sheep for every cow pastured.
While the consumption of lamb is relatively low in Canada (1.7 pounds per year in 1995), the opportunity to increase market share in North America is two-fold. Saskatchewan and Canadian lamb is higher quality than products imported from New Zealand and Australia, and the growing population of traditional lamb-eaters provides a ready-made consumer market.
Sheep production is not without it's challenges, including predator problems and the need to reach economies of size to supply markets on a continual basis. In addition sheep are sometimes overlooked as an opportunity in agriculture, a factor which has been slowly addressed in recent years.
In addition to progressive sheep producers, the provincial industry is comprised of three associations which represent various sub-sectors, the largest of which is the Saskatchewan Sheep Development Board (SSDB). With its office in Saskatoon, has the provincial mandate for industry development and is considered the voice of the industry. With five board members elected from five regions across the province, the SSDB administers a checkoff with funds from ID tag sales which support market development, promotion, extension and producer seminars. Other activity includes liaison with government departments, prioritizing research needs, a leafy spurge grazing project, and other public relation activities.
The Southern Saskatchewan Wool Growers Association established in 1914, is comprised of sheep ranchers in the southwest portion of the province. With an original mandate to promote wool in addition to lamb production, it has undertaken extension activities such as a provincial sheep manual as well as various sheep seminars, with individual members involved in wool promotion activity. It is the second oldest livestock association in the province, the oldest being the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association which was formed one year earlier.
Purebred sheep production is represented by the Saskatchewan Sheep Breeders Association, who organize shows and sales throughout the year. Seedstock producers are also involved in the development of record keeping systems which track genetic differences in manual and computerized forms. Breeds such as Hampshire, Dorset, Columbia, Suffolk, Rambouillet, and others contribute to a genetic pool that can be carefully crossed for commercial production.
Other associations that Saskatchewan sheep producers are affiliated with include the Canadian Sheep Federation, Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers, and the Canadian Sheep Breeders Association.