Letter from Saskatchewan

Canadian sheep producers suffering
From BSE-blockade at US border

By Paul Beingessner

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Saskatchewan farmer Paul Beingessner has missed only a handful of deadlines in writing a weekly column during the past eight years. He covers Canadian agriculture from a High Plains perspective. His straight-talk style informs readers about corporate influence in national and international agriculture, national ag politics on both sides of the border, and why some farmers do the things they do. Click here for more information about Paul.

TRUAX, Saskatchewan, Canada, October 28, 2003: A few of my neighbors sent some calves to market recently, and have been relatively happy with the results. I say relatively because, though prices are down from those of recent years, they are not down as much as had been feared in the wake of the BSE crisis in Canada.

However, the drop in prices is real, and it is especially severe for smaller calves. The market is very selective, paying a fair dollar only for the biggest and best calves on offer. What remains to be seen is how long demand can be sustained. The total number of calves going to market is still quite modest as many farmers are holding on to their animals, partly in hopes the border will open and prices will spike and partly because they are toying with the idea of backgrounding these calves until spring and hoping things improve by then. Recent pronouncements by U.S. government officials makes it clear that any border opening to live animals is still many months off.

In contrast to all this, the situation facing Canada's sheep producers is dire. Lamb prices have dropped by up to 50 percent, if producers can even sell them at all. There are only a few large lamb feedlots in western Canada, and for the most part, these have virtually stopped buying lambs, since they cannot export them to the U.S. Canada typically exports about 140,000 sheep and lambs to the U.S. annually. One solution available to cattle producers is not available to the 13,000 sheep farmers in Canada. Unlike cattle, lambs cannot be backgrounded for long before they are no longer classed as lambs and lose almost all of their value.

As November nears, the situation is nearing a critical point. Many spring lambs are nearing or exceeding the 110 pound weight limit that the Canadian market desires. This market is already in oversupply due to the border closure and further marketings may cause it to collapse. If producers cannot sell their lambs, they may have no choice but to keep all their ewe lambs and breed them. The result will be an increased lamb crop next spring and in successive years. If the border remains closed, we will be awash in unwanted lambs next year.

The sad thing is that sheep and lambs are simply collateral damage in the BSE crisis. Sheep do not get BSE. Sheep are susceptible to their own brain wasting disease called scrapie, but this disease has never been shown to be transmissible to humans. All this does not matter to the American government. Nor does it appear to matter much to Canadian governments. The small number of sheep producers and the relatively small number of sheep and lambs in the country (about one million) means they get little respect in Ottawa, or even in the provincial capitals. Programs designed to aid livestock (read "cattle") producers have been of little help to those raising sheep. Much of the available money was gone before the traditional marketing season for lambs even began. Even farm leaders have had little to say about the plight of sheep farmers.

Lastly, sheep producers themselves, following the Canadian tradition of being soft spoken and unassuming, have failed to speak out loudly enough. Producer organizations have urged farmers to write to their members or parliament, but have made little public outcry. They need instead to shout their message from the rooftops. They are innocent victims in the BSE nightmare and deserve some attention from politicians. Certainly, opening the American border to sheep and lambs should not be near as difficult as opening it to cattle, since, I repeat, sheep do not get BSE. If Canadian politicians do not respond now, a diversified and successful industry will be severely damaged.

© Paul Beingessner, beingessner@sasktel.net . The author is a columnist, transportation consultant and third-generation farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.