By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer
Ever tried lamb for supper? Did you like it? Can you find it on your local grocery store’s shelves? These are basic questions on the surface, but to the Alberta lamb industry they are of critical importance. You see, not a lot of Canadians are eating lamb, and so not a lot of lambs are being produced in Canada.
According to Statistics Canada in 2014 Canadians consumed on average 1.13 kilograms of lamb per person. In 2014 chicken, by comparison, averaged about 30.94 kilograms consumed per person, beef about 26.48 per person and pork about 20.63. The positive side of these somewhat disappointing numbers is lamb, unlike pork and beef, has held its market over the past 20 years, and even increased it a little, while beef and pork consumption numbers have free-falled from their historic highs. (Beef had a consumption rate of 39.86 kilograms per person in 1981 and pork 32.16 kilograms per person in 1980).
So what is behind the lamb market’s resiliency? Steadily increasing market demand for one. Dwayne Beaton, CEO of Canada Gold Beef Inc., explains.
“Lamb is the only protein (meat) with increasing per capita consumption in Canada,” confirms Beaton. “This increase is supported by our growing ethnic population that has lamb as a staple in their diet. As well we are finding that younger generations are picking up lamb as an additional protein for their diet. This seems particularly true of millennials who seem to seek out new eating experiences.
“The lamb industry has the opportunity to not only produce lambs to meet this growth, but also to displace offshore, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. too, production that currently supplies over 50 per cent of the lamb consumed in Canada.”
Canada Gold Beef Inc. started getting into lamb in a bigger way about six years ago, and currently operates the SunGold Specialty Meats Ltd. processing plant in Innisfail which focuses exclusively on lamb. Beaton says it is a measure of Canada Gold Beef’s confidence in the industry.
“Our shareholders are mostly cattle producers, mainly feedlot operators, and they saw an opportunity for a lamb feedlot in Southern Alberta where livestock production infrastructure and services exist, in a climate that is conducive to livestock production. The feedlot also supports our vertically integrated lamb value chain through assisting in providing quality finished lambs on a year round basis to our processing plant.”
Beaton says his feedlot sees about 30,000-40,000 lambs per year, and this number is increasing as more producers come into the industry.
“We have been contacted numerous times by both those looking to start lamb operations as well as existing operations looking to grow,” confirms Beaton. “We offer them new production and marketing options through the flexibility of selling their lambs as feeders to our lamb feedlot operation or as finished lambs to our processing plant. We also offer our feedlot as a collection point, where producers can drop off lambs for shipment to our plant in Innisfail.”
Erin Yaremko, Chair of the Alberta Lamb Producers, says her organization has also been fielding more inquiries from cattle producers and other farming start-ups looking to add more lambs into their own operations.
“We have seen a lot of growth,” states Yaremko, “with new farmers and young farmers getting into it. That is key too; there is a lot of young people starting to come into the sheep industry. They can get a few ewes just to start with, and from there it develops to the point where you’ve 20, 30, 50 or 100 in a short time.
“Some of it, too, is the cost of lambs and land size availability. So people who don’t have a whole lot of land base can still run a good number of sheep in a small area. That’s one of the attractions; how many lambs you can run per acre is also encouraging people who don’t have large land bases to get started. You can basically feed five sheep for the same amount you would feed for one cow.”
Yaremko says there are about 1,800 registered lamb producers in Alberta, but the size of those farms vary wildly from just a few ewes to several hundred.
“There is definitely room to grow— many of our producers are quite small. Right now, if you have two sheep you are considered a producer. So we don’t even really know the full extent of the numbers we do have out there.”
But there are numbers associated with the Canadian lamb industry the Alberta Lamb Producers do have a good bead on, says Yaremko; and they are not pretty.
“In 2014 we imported 18,000 tonnes of lamb meat,” she states. “That’s about $155 million worth. Over 53 per cent of lamb consumed in Canada is imported. So we are only meeting half of what our local demand is.”
Yaremko says that’s something the Alberta Lamb Producers and other industry partners like Canada Gold Beef are working hard to change, but she acknowledges it will still take time to get the industry to where it wants to be.
“The biggest challenge in our sheep industry is having continuous supply year-round, because our sheep people are seasonal breeders and a lot of them aren’t set up to lamb in the winter. We definitely have a peak supply time and a no supply time.”
Another challenge is getting governments in Canada to change inspection policies when it comes to the export of lamb meat in Canada from one province to another, and thereby helping producers to move product from where demand is lower to where it is greater to fully capitalize on Canadian markets.
“Right now, we have only got one (processing) facility that can export and interprovincially ship,” explains Yaremko. “So our retailers, if they have stores in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan, they can’t ship and sell products from Alberta into B.C. or Saskatchewan without having to have it re-inspected.
“So that is the next step for us. Getting it to where it can be inspected and approved in Alberta so that is good to sell into other provinces in Canada without having to have another inspection on it.”
Overall, while there are challenges facing her industry, says Yaremko, there are also abundant opportunities.
“I think our industry has a huge future. The sky is really the limit on our growth.”