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Helping sheep farmers plan for problems

Helping sheep farmers plan for problems

Sheep producers can learn from other industries and have strategies in place to deal with processing or market disruptions 

By Jackie Clark
Staff Writer

Though the sheep industry in Ontario has mostly dodged disaster in the face of COVID-19 challenges thus far, OMAFRA specialists say producers should have a strategy in mind to deal with potential disruptions.

“Sheep has gotten off fairly lightly so far,” said Christoph Wand in a webinar presented by Ontario Sheep Farmers on planning for the unknown. He’s a livestock sustainability specialist at OMAFRA, and believes a second wave of coronavirus could present processing and marketing challenges for sheep.

Sheep producers can learn from the challenges the beef and pork industries faced and be prepared, he explained.

“I want you to think about what it might look like if you find yourself in a situation where you cannot ship lambs for a period of time,” Wand said. “I hope I’m wrong and we don’t see disruption but, if we do, I want everyone to be in a good headspace.”

In the case of a processing disruption caused by COVID-19, “you are going to see animals back up, you are going to see prices drop in a short-term period very quickly … we could see animals coming east in large numbers,” he explained. In that scenario “we need to do things to keep those animals healthy and comfortable. We want to retain their market value because we’re going to see the market rebound.”

If more animals are packed into the same pens, problems could snowball.

“We need to make sure we stay ahead of things like respiratory issues. We need to stay ahead of things like sexual maturity,” Wand said. Producers may need to adjust social structure within pens.

“This is not the time to start skimping on animal health measures or having diets that are deficient in nutrients,” he added. “You want to keep your health protocols in place. … This is not the time to start thinking that the animal’s market value is eroded.”

Producers should form a strategy to preserve the value of their lambs as an asset. They may be able to alter nutrition to limit growth by adding fibre to the diet with hay, corn silage, oats, or beet pulp, ideally in a total-mixed ration.

“If you don’t have the ability to do that, you can limit feeding grains,” Wand explained. That involves “dialing back the amount of grain (the sheep) get and feeding hay on the side, which is a popular strategy. Just know that you’re increasing the acidosis risk.”

Also, “you can look at removing high-quality proteins,” he added.

Producers should have confidence in their skill set.

“If you’ve ever taken a feedlot ewe lamb or a feedlot ram lamb and pulled them into your breeding flock … you already know how to do this,” Wand said.

Aside from processing shut-downs or slow-downs, the fallout of COVID-19 could have an impact on international markets.

“If lamb as a prime meat suddenly has reduced demand internationally because of a predicted recession ... I want you to think about what happens if lamb demand is reduced,” Wand said.

Though there is demand for lamb in Ontario most market signals and trends are from the international market, explained Anita O’Brien, on-farm programs lead at for Ontario Sheep Farmers. 

When facing market challenges “we have to recognize the (risks) that we can control or manage,” she said. “There are risks that impact the prices we receive for our lambs and prices that we have to pay for inputs that we have absolutely no control over. We still have to know about those, but we have to focus on the ones that we can influence.”

Producers can control the management and marketing of their flock. They should ask themselves “How can we manage things that will allow us to maintain that profitability margin on farm?” O’Brien said. Sheep farmers should consider how they might change how they market lambs if there are disruptions in the market.

“Those are the things we have control over,” she said.

For now, lamb prices are still relatively strong.  

If disruptions are to transpire “we could be in a situation where those lamb prices drop significantly, and cull ewe prices may maintain themselves, making it a situation where it might be worth looking at moving older ewes, lower producing ewes … into the market,” as a voluntary cull, O’Brien explained.

The decision about if and when to do so will depend on the specific context of your individual farm.

“You, as an individual producer, need to be looking at … when (it) makes sense to hold back more ewe lambs and sell off older ewes or lower producing ewes because of the actual true dollar value on a cash flow basis versus long-term enterprise economics,” she said.

During stressful times, it’s easy to make rash decisions. Avoid doing so by having a plan in place and communicating with the folks you have business relationships with, Wand said.

“Be ready to have those conversations with people, be ready to call them up and say ‘I need to reduce my feed costs.’ That’s a good conversation to have,” he said.

For more details on the webinar, click here to access the Ontario Sheep Farmers webinar library.

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