As Canada shows off its sheep, visitors introduce supersheep

In Canada there are about 33 people for every sheep. In New Zealand there are about 25 sheep for every person. Sheep farmers in both eastern and western Canada are fighting a seemingly losing battle against competition from down under. Lamb from Australia, and especially New Zealand, is so cheap that Canadian sheep farmers can't compete.

The supermarkets in large Canadian cities sell almost exclusively frozen New Zealand lamb. A government agriculture survey done in Toronto shows New Zealand lamb selling at half the price of fresh, local lamb.

Nevertheless, Edmonton was host to the World Sheep and Wool Congress this summer, the first time this sheep show has been held outside Australia or New Zealand. Sheep farmers from Wanganui, Australia, mixed with shepherds from Decatur, Ill. The biggest sheep farms in Canada have a thousand breeding ewes, while New Zealand farmers with 5,000 or 6,000 ewes are considered a mid-size operation.

There was much good-natured looking down the nose from the New Zealanders at the show. ``Looks more like a dog show than a sheep show,'' joked Michael Coupe, operator of Farming Press New Zealand. He also farms 4,000 sheep on the side. The reference to the dog show was a dig at the smaller Canadian and American operators who neatly clip their sheep, keeping them as trim as show dogs. In New Zealand, this is a no-no. Show sheep there should look as rough as if they'd just been brought in from the field.

It was billed as the Sheep and Wool Congress, but most of the interest was in sheep, not wool. Canadian farmers -- and many Americans -- care little about wool.

``Wool is of very little importance,'' says John Knapp, a sheep specialist with the Alberta government. ``Out of a total score of 25, I give 19 points for the quality of the lamb, 5 points for growth, and 1 point for wool.''

The reason wool is of little importance is that Australians and New Zealanders produce it better and cheaper. Canadian sheep have winter to deal with, and their fleeces get dirty inside the barn. New Zealand sheep almost never see snow and are on pasture all year long. Their wool is clean and inexpensively processed.

The New Zealanders even brought along a champion shearer, a man who claims to have clipped a million sheep in his life. He clipped one sheep in about three minutes, and the fleece came off in one piece.

The New Zealanders also brought some high-tech sheep along. The Boorola, a woolly ball of genetic splendor, has been bred to have twins, triplets, or even six lambs at a time. The Boorola has what is called the ``F- gene,'' which means the ability to have multiple lambs is passed on to the next generation.

James Innes, who farms 14,000 sheep in New Zealand's South Island, sold a Boorola ram to an American farmer for $6,500. ``These sheep are going to revolutionize the sheep industry,'' Mr. Innes says. ``Once they catch on in Canada and the United States, it will mean the F-gene can be passed on to any breed of sheep.''

Still, despite all the attention given to cheap sheep, high-tech sheep, and pricey sheep from elsewhere, Canadian sheep farmers have never been better off.

``The price for lamb in Toronto is the highest in the world,'' says Peter Levine, a sheep dealer from southern Ontario. ``The reason is the ethnic market. They buy fresh Canadian lamb, and they won't accept the frozen stuff.''

Greeks, Italians, East Indians, and other ethnic groups now resident in Canada like fresh lamb and are willing to pay more for it.

``It's more than just the ethnics,'' says Mr. Knapp. ``Younger people, so-called yuppies, eat lamb because they feel it's . . . lower in cholesterol than beef.''

Still, 70 percent of lamb sold in Canada comes from Australia and New Zealand. At present, sheep farming seems likely to remain an unimportant part of North American agriculture, in many cases a part-time job for people who like to keep their sheep trimmed and take them to a show.

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