Producer Profile: Red Willow Colony, Stettler, AB
Story by Peggy Johnson, Photos by Tracy Hagedorn
After months of winter gloom, it was wonderful to drive across central Alberta on a sunny morning and experience the magic of spring: soft green of new leaves emerging from tree buds, the hint of grass in the roadside ditches and pastures, new calves worrying their mothers as they ate the last of the winter hay, and geese swimming on the sloughs.
My destination was the Red Willow Hutterite Colony, northeast of the town of Stettler. The colony was established in 1948, and includes a beef feedlot, a dairy, chickens, turkeys, a sheep flock and extensive cropland. Lawrence Hofer and his wife Marie gave me the tour. The Hofers have four children, two boys and two girls. Their oldest daughter is married, but Nathan (23), Jordan (20), and Caitlyn (18), all help with the sheep. Nathan is the ‘go-to’ guy for keeping computer records.
After 60 years of lambing in the old sheep barn, the people of the colony have constructed an impressive new facility. They started in November of 2011 and finished only three months later in January of 2012. The barn is 80 feet wide by 300 feet long by 16 feet high, with a 2”x 8” wood frame, insulated with fiberglass. The interior walls are lined with plastic (Ag–Liner) and the exterior covered with metal cladding.
The barn includes an attached living quarters and storage area. This building is 23 feet wide by 50 feet long, and includes an open kitchen, dining and seating area paneled in naturally-finished birch, a bedroom/office that sleeps three people, and a three-piece bathroom. The cement floor has hot water heat, from the utility room in the barn. Although it is attached to the barn, there is no direct access. You step outside and enter the barn from a side door. This prevents barn odours from entering the living area. During lambing, the Hofers’ sons Nathan and Jordan, and their nephew Marvin, stay here and work in rotating three-hour shifts. Lawrence is at the barn from 6 am until 10 pm, but goes home to sleep.
The barn itself includes a room that houses an automatic milk replacer machine, a utility room, a storage area and a two-piece bathroom.
Lawrence calls the Lac-Tek machine a lifesaver, and wouldn’t want to be without it. It can support 60 lambs at a time, but only six were on it the day we visited. It mixes warm milk replacer on demand from the lambs, and pumps it through the wall to nipples secured on the side of the lamb pen. Lawrence says that teaching the lambs to suck by holding them up to the nipples several times the first day is relatively easy, and that they learn to access the milk replacer pretty quickly.
Lambs raised on the machine grow well, and Lawrence has weaned them in as little as three weeks. Weaning is accomplished by putting water into the milk supply system. The machine is easy to maintain, as it only needs to be cleaned every other day. The lambs also have access to a commercial creep feed that is medicated with Deccox to prevent coccidiosis.
The utility room houses the complex piping for the barn’s watering system. Lawrence is using a product called Oxyblast 50 (hydrogen peroxide) to purify the water in the barn, but the system could also be used to provide medication to animals in one or more pens. The stainless steel waterers in the barn were built on the colony, and sit on poured cement pads. Water bowls are hinged on one end and can be tipped up and emptied for easy cleaning. The utility room also houses a stationary pressure washer for washing the barn.
Air quality in the barn is maintained through a Hotraco negative pressure ventilation system. Fresh air enters the barn through the many controlled openings in the peak of the roof, and stale air is exhausted by fans in the end wall. Heat is provided by infrared heaters at one end, suspended from the ceiling above the lamb pen and lambing jugs. The temperature of the barn is maintained at 70C. When the weather is warm enough, all of the doors are opened and the system goes from powered to natural ventilation.
The barn was built to house the colony’s commercial Suffolk flock, which consists of 500 mature ewes, 200 ewe lambs and 14 purebred Suffolk rams. Lawrence is a strong supporter of buying performance-tested rams to make genetic improvement in the flock. He says this is one of the best investments a producer can make. The colony purchased eight rams in 2012, all from the Parker Stock Farm in Three Hills, Alberta.
The Red Willow flock lambs once each year, with the mature ewes going first, followed by the ewe lambs. Rams were turned out on August 15th last year. The ewes stay on pasture until shearing time, but are fed a total mixed ration (TMR) in feed troughs after the first snowfall, or when they run out of grass. They occasionally graze during the day on grain stubble or silage regrowth.
Shearing took place on December 15th, in preparation for lambing in mid-January. The setup for shearing is greatly simplified by a pipe and plywood shearing/handling system built onsite. It supports 14 hand pieces that are run by young men from Red Willow and nearby Donalda Colony. Last year, shearing got underway at 8 am and by 3 pm the entire flock was done.
After shearing, the ewes move into the barn and are fed a late pregnancy TMR. Lawrence and Nathan balance rations using the online SheepBytes program, but also get some help from a nutritionist. The ration is a mix of silage and hay, and includes .75 lb. of barley per head per day for the pregnant ewes, as well as a 32% crude protein supplement medicated with oxytetracycline to prevent abortions. Approximately 4,700 lb. of TMR is fed each morning with a mixer wagon and if it is all consumed by evening, the ewes receive a ‘top-up’ of small square bales of hay. A second TMR with barley at 1.75 lb. per head per day is fed to lactating ewes. Ewes are injected with selenium six weeks prior to lambing. Ewe lambs are housed and fed separately during the winter, and lamb after the mature ewes.
Ewes and newborn lambs are placed in (4’x4’) lambing jugs, which were built onsite from 2⅜ inch drill stem pipe frames and welded wire panels. Each bank of lambing jugs is a double row of seven pens, with a six-inch PVC pipe at the back, which supplies water to jugs on either side. The banks of jugs are moved into the barn with a front-end loader and levelled, so the water in the PVC pipe reaches all of the jugs. Ewes and lambs stay in the jugs for 12 to 24 hours. Before being moved to group pens, the lambs are docked with rubber rings and tagged with Shearwell RFID tags. They are also navel-dipped and injected with penicillin to prevent joint ill.
The colony participated in the Alberta Lamb Traceability Project, and make use of RFID technology in their data collection and record keeping. Lambing data is collected in the jugs on a Psion handheld device and downloaded into FarmWorks software on the computer in the office. Records from the most recent lambing indicate that they had 172% lambs born alive in 2013.
Lawrence was disappointed with the number of triplets born this year, and plans to breed the ewes a month later this fall. The ewe lambs and mature ewes will be placed on a field of seeded barley pasture in early fall for flushing. They will be fed one pound of barley per head per day for three weeks and then two pounds of barley per head per day for an additional three weeks, prior to breeding.
From the lambing jugs, ewes and lambs move into pens in the barn that hold 60 ewes and their offspring. The pens are filled in chronological order, but ewes nursing triplets are penned separately and given a more concentrated TMR. Pens are bedded with small square bales of straw, put up on the colony farm.
Lambs are weaned at eight weeks of age by moving the ewes out of the pens and leaving the lambs behind in their familiar environment. Lawrence used to wean the lambs at six weeks, but finds waiting two more weeks means the ewes are less likely to develop mastitis and the lambs keep right on growing after being weaned.
Weaned lambs are fed a ration of whole barley and supplement that is delivered to the pens in self-feeding carts, along with a small square bale of second-cut hay in the feed bunks in each pen every other day. The feed carts are also built onsite; they hold 3,500 pounds of feed, and are moved into the pens with a tractor. A full cart feeds a pen for about two weeks.
Lambs are weighed through a Racewell handling system, beginning at 50 days, and again as they approach the optimum market weight of 120 pounds. The best ram lamb this year showed an average daily gain of 1.88 pounds per day. Lambs are marketed through a contract to SunGold Specialty Meats and delivered to the plant at Innisfail, about an hour’s drive from Red Willow.
Two hundred ewe lamb replacements will be selected again this year. Some are chosen at birth from ewes with a history of successful lamb rearing or from a particular sire. Other selections are based on adjusted weaning weights from the FarmWorks software. All are examined for good feet and legs and other conformation traits.
Ewes that can’t or won’t nurse all their lambs, or those that have laid on a lamb, are culled. The rest of the ewes are moved after weaning to a 200-acre creek bottom pasture just behind the barn. The pasture is fenced with pagewire with two strands of barbed wire on top. Given the hilly terrain, I wondered about predators. Lawrence says that their neighbours hunt coyotes and the boys snare them in the winter. Predators have not been an issue so far, so they don’t have any guardian dogs. Dead animals are composted in the manure pile to avoid attracting predators.
Pasture management includes cutting Canada thistle with a gyro mower in mid- to late summer. Future plans include separating the large pasture into smaller ones with additional fencing, and rotating the ewes through the pastures.
When asked if he wished he could make any changes to their system, Lawrence suggests that he only wishes they had built the new barn bigger.
Editor’s Note: Many sheep producers reading this story will be thinking about the cost of building such a barn, especially relative to the current price of lamb. But if you got 60 years of service out of your last barn, and plan to get 60 years out of a new one, and you have the skills and manpower to build the new barn yourself, it’s easier to take a long-term view of the industry and have the confidence to keep investing in it.
Peggy Johnson has recently retired from teaching animal science at Olds College. She and her daughter Sarah have a flock of Est a Laine Merino cross ewes on their farm near Sundre, Alberta.