Farmers and experts working in the sheep industry gathered in Burns Lake on March 9 to share ideas at the first ever Sheep Fest.
The educational event, held inside Lakes District Secondary School featured three keynote speakers and 40 participants who explored issues related to nutrition, wool, cheese and herd health.
Most of the sheep herders in this area live on the Southside and they wanted such an event to be held following last summer’s wildfires, when many of their sheep suffered stress and respiratory problems from the smoke, organizer Debbie Evans told Lakes District News.
“The producers are excited and engaged. Some of them say their heads are swelling with all the new ideas they’ve learned… There’s huge potential for huge growth here,” said Evans, who is also the agriculture coordinator with the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako.
Sheep expert and senior member of the South Dakota Sheep Growers Association, Dr. Lisa Surber, spoke about how many consumers are separated from the production system and don’t understand how lamb meat and wool are produced. That becomes a challenge for producers when some animal rights activists groups target the sheep industry, creating an unsympathetic image for a relatively uninformed public.
“We are losing our ‘right to farm’ in the public’s eye,” Surber explained. “But we need to be transparent with our production practices.”
One avenue for informing the public of how the industry operates is the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) that certifies wool supply chains from the farmers and how they treat their animals, up to the garment manufacturers.
“Accountability programs increases dialogue between consumers and farmers and preserves the reputation of wool,” Surber said.
Glenna McGregor, a veterinary pathologist at the Animal Health Centre of the provincial Ministry of Agriculture spoke about sheep health and nutrition.
With sheep, McGregor explained, producers must be wary of both excessive and insufficient mineral intake. Leaving sheep to roam in pastures offers them the vitamins from the grass as well as from sunlight. But letting them feed too much on hay limits their vitamin intake and supplements might be needed.
Hani Gasser was the third speaker and he discussed sheep milk and cheese production. Gasser and his Swiss family moved to British Columbia in the 1980s and for several years ran a dairy near Chase and produced sheep milk, cheese and yogurt.
They now live in McBride and raise organic, grass-fed lamb.
Another aim of the event was for herders to exchange business information as many consumers in Burns Lake might not know where to buy locally-raised lamb meat.
“That’s the problem – people don’t market their lamb so where can you buy it?” Evans said.
Sheep Fest is a lead-up event to a planned sheep sale in Vanderhoof in September.