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
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, firstname.lastname@example.org . The author
is a columnist, transportation consultant and third-generation
farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.