By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Ian and Rhonda McCarron’s house sits on the highest point, and at the centre, of their 200-acre farm. The view is extensive; you can see four different counties from here. Ian and Rhonda bought the farm, which is about five miles from downtown Antigonish, in 1996 and moved onto it two years later.
The Brook Ridge flock began, as many do, as a 4-H project. Ian and Rhonda went out to look for a 4-H goat and came home with five Border Leicester ewes and their lambs, from the late Ralph Downey of Glengarry, in Pictou County. That was in 1998, and that same fall they acquired 12 more Border Leicesters, also with lambs, from David Hughes of Canning, in Kings County.
In the early years of the farm, Rhonda was working full time as a radio announcer for the local Antigonish station and Ian was flying back and forth to work in Alberta. Rhonda left the radio station in 2013 and worked three more years for a not-for-profit literacy network, before giving it up in 2016. Ian came home in April of 2014, after a dozen years of work in the west. In addition to the farm, the McCarrons have a 600-acre woodlot, which keeps Ian busy in the winter.
Today the flock numbers 210 ewes, including 35-40 Border Leicesters, 15 Romanovs, 50 Border Leicester x Romanov crosses and 20 Rideau Arcotts. The rest of the flock has Southdown, North Country Cheviot and Polypay breeding. Much of the expansion is relatively recent; the Romanovs arrived in 2014 and the Rideaus and North Country Cheviots in 2015.
The ram pen houses Border Leicester and Southdown rams, and one Ile de France. The first lambs out of the Ile de France ram were born in December to the Romanov ewes, and Ian and Rhonda like what they see so far. They will be adding another terminal sire in 2017 but haven’t decided yet what it will be.
The Border Leicesters are registered, and in the past Rhonda enjoyed going to shows and being involved in the Purebred Sheep Breeders’ Association of Nova Scotia, and the 2006 and 2012 All Canada Classics. But with the expansion of the flock and the move to full-time farming, these activities have had to be cut back.
As the flock has grown, so have the facilities. Ian and Rhonda’s first building project was a steel barn for the horses, which they moved from a property they were selling. Rhonda has had horses most of her life, and she and her daughter Jaime (now living in PEI with her own family) each still keep a horse on the farm.
The farm has 75 acres of cleared land, which was fenced with page wire when they bought it. Ian and Rhonda removed the page wire and replaced it with a six-strand electric fence (nine strands in the wooded areas) that, with the help of two guardian dogs, keeps the sheep safe from predators.
A lean-to on the horse barn was home to the whole flock in the early years, but now houses claiming pens and space for ewes with lambs. A plastic dome was added to the north end of the steel barn in 2004, and a new wooden sheep barn and machinery shed built in 2015. Cement pads at the north end of the two sheep barns keep animals out of the mud and make it easier to feed round bales.
Ian puts up most of the forage for the sheep, making two cuts of round bale haylage each year. The rest of the feed and all of the bedding (straw) are purchased. Lambs get weaned and grown out on concentrate; only the ewes are pastured, from June till the end of September. Young lambs get a medicated lamb grower, and then whole barley and soybean meal as they get older. Ewes are supplemented with whole barley and soybean meal through late pregnancy and lactation. Salt and minerals are fed free choice.
As in the rest of Canada, Nova Scotia producers struggle with the barber pole worm. By not pasturing lambs, and by weaning ewes before they are pastured, Ian and Rhonda have been able to limit the effect of the parasite on the flock. Because the lambs never go to pasture, they do not have to be wormed, but a close eye is kept on the ewes. Starting when they are still inside raising their lambs, Ian and Rhonda check mucous membranes around the eyes for signs of anemia, and worm any ewes that require it. Over the summer, they bring the ewes in to a holding pen in the main pasture and repeat the process every few weeks.
With 210 ewes in the flock, the barns are now at capacity. The Romanovs are fed and managed separately from the rest of the flock, to support their higher lambing percentages. They lambed to the Ile de France ram in December and produced mostly triplets, with the odd set of twins or quadruplets. The Rideaus lambed to Border Leicester rams in September and October last year, producing mostly twins. The Border Leicester x Romanov crosses will lamb for the first time this year, and Ian and Rhonda expect them to outperform their other crossbred ewes, which average about 170%.
Ian and Rhonda are also looking to the Romanovs to help them achieve their objective of producing lamb year-round. Rhonda is on the board of the Northumberland Lamb Marketing Co-operative, Ltd., known as Northumberlamb. The co-op is now in its 35th year and, since acquiring federal inspection status two years ago, has been able to increase the number of lambs it buys and markets. Out-of-season lambs are particularly sought after, and premiums paid for them. Producers who sell lambs out of season also get priority when shipping lambs in late summer and fall. Members of the co-op are required to offer all of their lambs to the co-op first, with the exception of lambs sold to private freezer customers.
In 2016, the McCarrons had four lambings. The biggest group, including the Border Leicesters, lambed in February and March. A smaller group lambed in May and June, followed by the Rideaus in September and October and the Romanovs in November and December. So far, they have relied on the natural ability of the Rideaus and Romanovs to breed out of season, rather than using CIDRs or light control.
All of their lambs go to the Northumberlamb, which is about an hour away. Even the freezer lambs go to the co-op’s plant for processing, after which they are repurchased for sale to private customers. Rhonda sells both whole and half lambs, but is currently servicing only repeat customers, as the co-op takes all the lambs they produce at a good price. But marketing freezer lambs allows the McCarrons to hedge their bets in case of a drop in the price of lamb, as well as offering an outlet for lambs that get too heavy or which the co-op may not be able to take in late summer or early fall.
For the week ending February 24th, the base price at Northumberlamb was 9.80/kg, dressed. This is for a lamb with an index of 100, based on its carcass weight and GR measurement (see the Shippers page at northumberlamb.ca) and with three conformation scores (shoulder, loin and leg) of 3. Each conformation score of 4 earns an additional 11 cents/kg. Rhonda tells me that in 2016 they shipped 154 lambs to Northumberlamb, which averaged $10.07/kg.
Ian and Rhonda manage their feeding and marketing carefully to hit the right combination of carcass weight and fat cover. They usually ship ram lambs up to 54 kg live weight and ewe lambs up to 49 kg, depending on the breed, sex and time of year. None of the male lambs are castrated, which allows them to push their live weights a little higher.
Rhonda enjoys sharing their experience of sheep farming with the public, and the farm has taken part in Open Farm Days in the past. The Antigonish Farmers’ Market offers another venue to tell the purchasing public about farm life and what it entails, and Rhonda has used the market to add value by marketing lamb direct to consumers for the past 15 years. The market is open every Saturday from the first of May until the week before Christmas and Rhonda attends each week, selling individual cuts as well as taking orders and delivering freezer lambs. To make the time spent at the market more worthwhile, she also offers a variety of wool and sheepskin products. All of Brook Ridge Farm’s non-Romanov wool goes to McAusland’s in PEI, and the mill’s yarn and blankets are a big seller at the market. Rhonda’s website (brookridgefarm.ca) gives buyers a chance to learn more about the farm and the sheep, and to place orders from as far away as France. Christmas is an especially busy time for orders from the website.
New products are continually being added. The lamb product line was expanded in 2016, to include frozen lamb potpies. Rhonda rents a commercial kitchen two days a week during the market season, where she and a helper make 82 five-inch pies per week. With a delicious homemade piecrust, meticulously-trimmed lamb shoulder, vegetables and gravy, the pies are sold frozen for $7.95 each or 2/$15. I had a chance to sample one at lunchtime and it was excellent. Rhonda is also working with an area wool processor to convert some of their less-desirable wool (from the Border Leicester x Romanovs) into a new product, a felted wool insole.
Nearly 20 years after acquiring their first sheep, Rhonda looks back and muses that there is a lot more labour involved in raising sheep than people think. She finds it takes years for most people to evolve into a workable feeding, handling, weighing, sorting and marketing system, and feels they now have the facilities, numbers and genetics (Romanovs) they need. Nearly 20 years of experience has given them the confidence to stay home full-time on the farm, and know that they can continue to adapt and evolve as necessary in the coming years.