Sheep among highlights at Ag Ex

For the first time in its 49-year existence, the Manitoba Ag Ex is hosting sheep and lamb at its annual show at the Keystone Centre in Brandon.

The Provincial Exhibition of Manitoba partnered with members of the Manitoba Sheep Association to include a Jackpot Market Lamb Show on the event’s final day, Saturday, from 2 to 3 p.m.

The sheep and lambs have made a “good addition” to the lineup of events, said Ag Ex co-chairperson Dallas Johnston. He said he especially enjoyed seeing the children take part in EweMania.

“It’s just another way to educate the public on where their meat sources come from,” Johnston said. “Kids are enjoying it.”

Yesterday’s EweMania gave local students a chance to learn more about the sheep industry. Events will continue with a moderated sheep producer panel today from 2 to 4 p.m., followed by a roast lamb banquet from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

On Saturday, the fan-favourite lamb selection will take place from 9 a.m. to noon, with sheep-shearing demonstrations at 10 a.m. From 1 to 2 p.m., the Canadian Sheep Federation will unveil and test its new sheep facial identification technology, and everything wraps up with the Jackpot Market Lamb Show.

Sarah Lewis, a sheep producer who farms near the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border, echoed Johnston’s sentiments.

“It’s exciting to have sheep at an event in Brandon,” she said. “The sheep industry is growing, not only in Manitoba but Saskatchewan.

“It seems to be strong.”

Manitoba is the fifth-largest sheep and lamb producing province, with eight per cent of the total ewes in Canada, according to the province’s website. There are approximately 490 sheep producers throughout Manitoba, and in 2020 there were around 88,000 head of sheep and lamb, a decrease of 7.3 per cent over the previous year.

Lewis is among the sheep producers eagerly awaiting the Canadian Sheep Federation’s new technology that scans individual sheep’s faces to improve autonomous traceability in data collection — something the federation has been working on for some time, said executive director Corlena Patterson.

The tracing tool that will be on display tomorrow features cameras on devices such as smartphones and tablets and artificial intelligence that can identify animals via facial recognition technology, Patterson said.

“For us, it was really important that the technology was accessible, was easy to use in real settings and can be done on the go so that you mitigate the need to sit down at the end of the day and start inputting all these pieces [of data] you’ve collected,” she said.

Up until Thursday, the technology had only been tested on a computer with pictures. Patterson started trying it on live sheep yesterday afternoon and reported positive results.

“So far, so good. It can pick up the animals that we put in. We just need to refine the output, which are the reports that you look for to be able to use the data. It’s there, but popping it up on the phone while you’re using it is exactly what we want to complete.”

This is the first time across the entire agriculture industry in Canada that this type of technology has been used in “livestream” fashion, rather than scanning saved videos and pictures, Patterson said. She expects the new tracing system and facial recognition technology will be available for producers in roughly six months.

Until the Canadian Food Inspection Agency approves the sole use of that kind of technology, however, producers will still have to cross-reference their official data using identification tags.

Pam Heath, with Heritage Livestock Canada, came to Ag Ex with a sobering message to share with producers and attendees. Heath said it’s getting “close to the wire” when it comes to the number of heritage livestock animals that are close to extinction, including Kerry cattle, Lacombe swine, Hungarian Yellow poultry and more.

“We have animals on our conservation list that are so close to extinction, it’s not even funny,” Heath said.

Getting producers in Manitoba to buy in to endangered breeds is the key to ensuring genetic diversity in Canada’s agriculture industry, she noted.

The Manitoba Sheep Association didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.

Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun