Accidental sheep producers have no regrets

ON THE FARM Raising three breeds of sheep allows the Bieganskis to lamb out of season and spread out their income

CARBERRY, Man. — Paw Patrol and Play-doh.

For an average three-year-old, a cartoon about rescue dogs and a container of Play-doh is enough to keep them occupied. At least for 35 minutes, while mom sits down for tea with a visitor.

Alayna Bieganski isn’t a typical three-year-old.

During an early November visit to Alayna’s farm, west of Carberry, Man., she ignored Paw Patrol and joined the adults at the dining room table. She politely played — rolling worms and making other creatures.

“Look what I made,” Alayna said, holding up a rope of Play-doh. “It’s a nice snake.”

Sheri Bieganski played with her daughter and looked at Alayna’s Play-doh animals while explaining how she became a sheep producer.

It turns out Sheri and her husband, Jeff, never planned to run a sheep operation.

They also never planned to become sheep breeders.

It just happened.

Near their farmhouse there’s a patch of pasture with bushes, trees and roots that’s difficult to mow and nearly impossible to spray for weeds.

The Bieganskis already had a herd of cattle but that piece of land wasn’t right for cows.

So, about eight years ago, they bought sheep.

“We thought there must be something else we can do, as far as grazing goes,” Sheri said. “The logic was we were only going to have 20 to 25 (sheep) … just to move around various areas of the yard and close to home for some brush management.”

Having raised cattle, the Bieganskis knew that breed is important. After phoning experienced sheep breeders and gaining knowledge, Sheri decided to buy purebred sheep.

“We just wanted to start with a good, clean flock.”

They initially bought four, then another 20 from Ontario, then another 20 and another 40.

Sheri Bieganski, who farms near Carberry, Man., wanted to get 25 sheep for brush control and now has more than 300. | Robert Arnason photo

“This whole thing has really mushroomed. Originally, it was going to be 20 to 25. We are now at 300,” Sheri said as Alayna showed off a Play-doh rabbit.

“We’ve got a small flock of Suffolks (but) the majority of them are polled Dorsets.”

Earlier this year they added Rideau Arcott’s, a purebred sheep developed at the Agriculture Canada research centre near Ottawa.

The idea of having sheep for brush control has evolved into something much bigger.

Sheri is now fully committed to sheep.

She was president of the Manitoba Sheep Association and became past-president in November.

Having sheep isn’t out of character because Sheri has always loved animals. She grew up near Carberry on a mixed farm run by her parents, Gary and Barb Witherspoon, and her grandparents.

“Along with the cattle and hogs, there were always a couple of horses at my grandparents,” Sheri said. “I used to spend quite a bit of time in the hog barn doing chores with my grandmother.”

After a year at Brandon University, Sheri returned to Carberry and took a job at the potato processing plant and continued to help out on the family farm.

“What was supposed to be a summer job ended up being eight years.”

Eventually, she grew tired of the potato plant and went back to school to get her agri-business diploma.

“In the meantime, I had purchased a farm … and purchased my own herd (of cattle),” she said.

After graduation she continued to work off-farm at jobs with Manitoba crop insurance and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Brandon. She met Jeff in the early 2000s while she was working at the CFIA.

At the time, he was employed in the cattle department at the Agriculture Canada Research Centre in Brandon.

“We were the animal herd-persons,” he said. “We were the cowboys.”

Jeff grew up close to Brandon in the village of Justice.

His family had a small acreage on the edge of Justice, where they raised livestock.

“I started out bottle-feeding calves, really young, at six years old,” Jeff said. “Then I went through 4-H the whole way, with calves. And I kept a few pigs and chickens.”

After meeting in Brandon, the Bieganskis raised cattle at Sheri’s farm near Carberry. They moved into their current house, two kilometres north of the Trans-Canada Highway, in about 2010.

They now have two children, Lucas, 9, and Alayna — who after 35 minutes became bored of listening and began bouncing a ball of Play-doh around the kitchen.

The adults were also getting restless, so it was time to take a walk around the farm.

Four minutes into the walk, it became obvious that Alayna has no fear of animals.

On a 30-minute tour of the family farm, three-year-old Alayna Bieganski picked up every animal she could lift, including five lambs and one cat. | Robert Arnason photo

In one of the sheep barns, she climbed over a steel gate and picked up a lamb to hold it up for a photo. In another sheep barn, Alayna grabbed an orange cat and held it up for a photo.

As Alayna climbed a fence around an outdoor sheep pen, Sheri entered the pen and began describing their farm.

In addition to the 300 sheep, they have a cattle herd with about 100 cows. They run different breeds of sheep because certain breeds lamb at certain times of the year.

“We wanted to have the ability to lamb out of season,” she said. “That way you can spread your income out. Like right now, we’re seeing low (prices) in the lamb market … because so many people lamb in the spring and now your lambs are ready for sale.”

They do sell their lambs for meat, but the Bieganskis’ main business is raising purebred animals.

“We do sell a lot of breeding females … and people will buy a ram or two with them for starter flocks.”

Like Sheri, Jeff never had sheep as a kid. But he’s grown to like them, especially the breeding part.

“The knowledge from the cows kind of crosses over,” said Jeff, who works on the farm and also has a full-time job with the government.

“You breed two different bloodlines together to try and produce something better. I like waiting to see what you’re going to get.”

The Bieganskis became sheep breeders at the right time because Manitoba’s sheep industry is booming. In the last couple of years, the number of sheep producers in the province has increased to more than 500 from about 300.

“We’re over 200 new members (in the Manitoba Sheep Association) in the last two years,” Sheri said. “Manitoba has seen incredible growth.”

Sheep are an appealing option for new farmers who own a quarter-section or a half-section of land, Sheri said.

“They are kind of a good gateway animal…. For someone who’s never been involved in livestock before, you’re better to start with something that’s a little smaller and more manageable.”

Manitoba cattle ranchers, looking to diversify their income, have also got into sheep.

“We’re seeing a lot of people who were hog farmers sitting with an empty barn. What can you do with an empty barn? You can fill it full of sheep,” Sheri said.

Most of the lambs raised in Manitoba are shipped to Alberta or Ontario for slaughter. While demand is strong and more Canadians are eating lamb, Bieganski can’t convince one person to try lamb — her father.

He ate mutton when he was younger and still has a distaste for it.

“We are seeing the younger generation coming back to eating it,” she said. “But my dad’s generation, my dad won’t eat it. I will barbecue the most beautiful lamb chops on the barbecue and my dad (refuses)…. I’m like, ‘Dad, this stuff melts in your mouth.’ ”

Following the tour of sheep pens, Alayna wanted to show off the chicken coop. She probably would have continued with animal show-and-tell for another 30 minutes, but it was getting dark and nearly time for supper.

Since she’s three, Alayna probably hasn’t decided on a career. But given her enthusiasm and surroundings, a farmer, veterinarian or tour guide are safe bets.

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