28 July 2008

Another Farm First: the Livestock Auction

Today was another first for a former city girl: I went to my first livestock auction! Well, okay, I've been to the 4-H auctions, but this was the regular sheep auction, and the only one in Northern Alberta, as near as I can tell.

We loaded up the auctionees and I headed out around 8 am for the two hour drive to auction. When I arrived, some courteous kids (who appeared to be even younger than The Boy) helped me get into the unloading zone, which is a cleverly arranged set of gates that allows a vehicle and trailer to pull straight through, no backing up required! The sheep were unloaded and herded into a pen, and then the stock yard manager pointed out that I had absolutely no tire left on one of the trailer wheels. Huh! I had felt something go bump but it really felt like we'd driven over a piece of lumber on the road ... I hadn't even noticed the change in driveability. There was nothing but a rim and a few shreds of rubber.

Some nice gentlemen farmers assisted me with removing the wheel and replacing it with the spare, and then it was time for the auction to begin. I chose to stay for the whole thing, as I've never been to one and figured it would be educational.

It was certainly educational. I discovered that the primary buyers at the auction are feed lot owners who pick up lambs (and sometimes older animals) that are ready for finishing, take them back to their farm and feed them grain until they are ready for the market. There's a big commercial lamb processor here in the province that buys most of the market lamb, so I imagine they are working to meet that particular demand.

I saw a llama sell for $10 at the end of the auction, too. Nobody seems to want llamas much anymore, I'm not sure why. I think they can be challenging to manage as they are very big and don't like being handled, so if you haven't got the equipment to restrain them, trimming them and dealing with routine things like foot trimmings and such can be more trouble than it's worth. They do chase coyotes, though, so lots of people keep them for guardians.

Anyway, why was I there? Well, we were selling some of the sheep from our flock who don't fit with our breeding plans: we have a limited number of animals we can keep here on just 6 acres, and we want to keep those who lead us towards the kind of flock we most want. I've been informed that the sheep we most want have horns, as they don't tend to push their heads through the fences as much as the little polled lambs ... and heads through fences lead to weak fences and that means repairs! The Reluctant Farmer's input has been duly added to the breeding plans. :)

So, today we said goodbye to Bruce, the ram who has served us well for a couple of years. However, we had to choose just one ram to keep and Clarence (a ram born last year) won the draw: he throws lambs with better fleece (although slightly slower to grow, perhaps), and we did select two of Bruce's daughters for replacement ewes, and it is best not to breed too closely. Three ewes also went today, ewes who don't have the best fleece nor the best mothering skill: Split, who rejected one of her twins this spring (The Reluctant Farmer adamantly refuses to forgive her for this lapse in parenting), Mama (who temporarily forgot one lamb a year ago, but was convinced to take it back ... and only delivered a single this year, sparing herself any further lectures from The Reluctant Farmer), and Crumb (one of Mama's lambs from last year who is just too different from the direction we would like to go).

At the auction, I was surprised to see Bruce weigh in at 190 lbs, although when I told The Reluctant Farmer, he thought that seemed light after having wrestled Bruce into the trailer this morning in the rain. The ewes averaged 122 lbs, and we got 40 cents a pound for the ram and 30 cents a pound for the ewes ... nothing much, that's about the going rate, but it was enough to leave $125 in our pockets after paying the fuel and the auctioneer's fee.

All in all, I think it's a good way to deal with our excess animals, but it's not the market we'll be targeting. We sent in our application for a food processing permit last week, and hope to sell grass fed lamb directly to customers: there's no premium for grass fed at the auction (lambs that have had grain already sell for a higher price, in fact), but there are plenty of people who'd prefer to eat grass fed lamb ... we just have to find them.

I hear lamb sausage is amazing ... we'll be getting some made up in a couple of weeks! Any other suggestions for the butcher?

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