Alberta lamb can be scarce, but there is a growing demand for this local product.
While beef will likely always be the king of ranchland in Alberta, another smaller and woolier livestock animal is becoming increasingly popular, especially with young upstart farmers. Thanks to their more manageable size and a growing demand for their meat, lamb are making their mark on the Canadian prairies.
For example, lamb has turned out to be an ideal choice for Janna and Ryan Greir, the couple behind Whispering Cedars Ranch, a relatively young 100-acre farm near Strathmore. While neither Greir grew up on a commercial farm, they both grew up on Vancouver Island, dreaming of a career in farming, thanks to the influence of Ryan’s rancher uncle and Janna’s time spent on her family’s hobby farm.
Non-farming work brought the Greirs to Alberta and in 2014 they started raising lambs under the Whispering Cedars banner. Even though neither Ryan nor Janna had any experience with sheep, as young newbie ranchers, they quickly decided that a flock of lamb would be a much better match for them than a herd of cattle.
“We’d originally talked about cattle,” Janna says. “But we picked sheep because we knew we also wanted to start a family and wanted something smaller and a little easier to work with. Lamb are much easier to handle.”
The Greirs now have 250 breeding ewes. The learning curve wasn’t too difficult and the couple learned the ropes from other local farmers who were willing to provide mentorship, some educational help from Alberta Lamb Producers, and good old trial and error. Ryan says that other sheep ranchers have been willing to provide guidance and that he’s found a lot of camaraderie in the industry.
“Most of the sheep producers around here also have to work off farm to make a full living, so there are some long days involved,” Ryan says. “ So, often it’s hard to meet up with other sheep producers because they’re doing their chores or you’re doing yours. But I’ve found that they’ve always been one call away when you’re having a hard time or need to talk.”
Even though lamb is not nearly as well celebrated as beef, when it comes to terrain and weather conditions, sheep do very well in Alberta. All Whispering Cedars’ sheep are the Rideau Arcott breed. Developed in the ‘80s Rideau Arcott are the result of a Canadian cross-breeding program that aimed to create a breed with improved mothering characteristics and a longer lambing season and larger litters. This particular breed also works well on smaller farms, making them ideal for start-up ranchers.
Being small also means that distribution is less complicated. For the most part, Whispering Cedars is selling its product directly off the farm after processing their animals at a local abattoir. They have worked with distributors in the past, but have found that direct distribution has been easier and, thanks to the Internet, customers can find them fairly easily to buy either whole or half lambs or a wide variety of cuts.
In this respect it’s also helped that more and more Albertans are not just embracing lamb, but also clueing into the fact that we don’t need to import lamb from New Zealand when there is plenty of local lamb being produced right here in the province.
While Alberta lamb can be somewhat scarce depending on the season, there definitely is a growing demand, both for local product and for lamb in general. Older generations are getting over the trauma of childhoods spent eating overcooked mutton and younger diners are embracing all the different ways in which lamb can be prepared.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in demand from restaurants and have had some direct sales to restaurants, but I’d love to see it on even more menus for sure,” Ryan says. “The other big factor is the diverse population in Alberta. Sheep is a major source of protein in many parts of the word and people whose backgrounds are in those countries are wanting more and more lamb.”
For now, the Greirs are looking forward to raising their young family on the farm and continuing to learn more about how to best raise their lambs. With other off-farm jobs still supplementing what they make from the sheep to keep everything afloat, the goal is to find some balance and get the farm to the point where it’s enough to sustain them as a family.
“We’re always learning and growing,” Ryan says. “Every year we change something to try to match efficiency with animal health. You’re always learning and growing to try to make it a healthy lifestyle for both of you and the animals.”