By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Photos courtesy of the Ernewein family
Meadowbrook Farm is the home of Steve and Lisa Ernewein, and their rapidly growing flock of sheep. The Erneweins started farming in May of 1997, with the purchase of their first farm, and got their first sheep a month later. Steve grew up on a hog and beef farm. Lisa lived in town but spent summer holidays with her grandparents who had sheep, which is where the idea of raising sheep started.
In 2012, they were able to expand by purchasing the farm where Steve grew up from his parents, making their children the fourth generation of Steve’s family to farm on that land. Steve and Lisa and their family still live on the original farm purchased in 1997, and Steve’s parents remain in the house on the family farm.
L to R, back: Scott and Emily Montag, Kimberly Lippert and Jordan Ernewein, Aaron Ernewein, Lisa and Steve Ernewein; Front: Lillian Ernewein and Benjamin Ernewein. Photo by Karen Ruetz.
Steve and Lisa have five children. Emily (24) is married and lives in Pickering, and is in the final year of her training to be a chiropractor. Jordan (22) is doing an apprenticeship in carpentry but is invested in the farm and lives in a self-contained apartment in the basement of his grandparents’ home on the family farm. Aaron (19) just finished his first year studying Animal Science (remotely) at the University of Guelph, and will be working on the farm this summer. Lillian (16) and Ben (13) are still at home. Ben is a skilled videographer and uses his GoPro camera to create videos of life on the farm, which he uploads to his YouTube channel, Farming with Ben.
Lisa worked off the farm as a dental assistant until five years ago, when she was sidelined by a diagnosis of polymyositis and lupus. She runs the house and acts as what Steve calls his ‘ground rod’ for keeping everything running, but she is quite limited in what she can do on the farm, having “good days and bad weeks.” Lisa says their children have all stepped up since she became sick, and particularly notes the confidence that the two youngest have developed in the lambing barn, not hesitating to jump in and assist any ewe having trouble lambing.
About a third of the flock are straightbred Dorsets.
The flock currently consists of about 700 meat-type ewes (including 200 ewe lambs from 2020). About a third are straightbred Dorsets, and the rest are crosses of Dorset, Rideau and Ile de France. In addition to the meat ewes, there is a flock of 100 dairy ewes of British Milk Sheep and Lacaune breeding, which were acquired just last year. The meat ewes are on an accelerated lambing program, while the dairy ewes will be lambing once a year, in April and May, to allow the milk to be produced under the very specific requirements (pasture-fed, non-GMO feeds) set out by the buyer. There are also 30-35 cows that consume lower-quality feed not suitable for the sheep and follow the sheep in the grazing cycle, cleaning up some of their parasites.
One of several water wagons, this one is in use at the family farm. The coverall in the background is home to the dairy ewes.
The 7,000 sq. ft. bank barn in Steve and Lisa’s yard is the lambing headquarters for the meat ewes. With the purchase of the family farm in 2012, they added some much-needed shelter in the form of a 4,000-sq.-ft. Coverall hay shed that now houses the dairy ewes, and a 7,000-sq.-ft. feedlot building, where dry ewes are kept and bred. With the dry ewes and rams out of the lambing barn, it can accommodate up to 225 ewes at a time, making it possible for him to move from his ‘homemade’ accelerated lambing program to the more demanding, 72-day STAR system he currently uses, with ewes giving birth in January, March, June, September and November each year. Steve exposes 250 ewes to rams at a time, and ends up lambing 175-225 of them, depending on the season.
The handling system behind the bank barn.
Between the two farms, the Erneweins own 150 acres of arable land and rent a further 90 acres, all within a radius of 4-5 km. Between 80 and 100 acres is planted in a rotation of annual and perennial forage that involves breaking up 40 acres at a time and seeding it to triticale or fall rye, followed by sorghum sudangrass, before seeding it back to an 80-10-10 mix of alfalfa, timothy, and bromegrass.
Having each of these crops, with their different growing seasons and tolerance for wet or dry conditions, present on some part of the farm each year gives Steve flexibility to alternate between grazing it and harvesting it for winter feed, as conditions dictate. The hay is put up in big round bales of baleage or dry hay.
Sorghum sudangrass is part of the forage rotation.
Some of the rented land is harder to make hay on, and doesn’t get broken up but kept in a mix of alfalfa, birdsfoot trefoil, clover and grass. This land is primarily used for grazing, but Steve will make hay on it when there is a surplus.
The Erneweins don’t lamb on pasture anymore, and the meat ewes stay in confinement until their lambs are weaned. Even then, there are five or six groups of grazing sheep (rams, ewe lambs, breeding ewes, pregnant ewes, dairy ewes and/or dairy ewe lambs) in the summer, plus two groups of cattle.
By alternating between grazing and haymaking in both the annual and perennial forage fields, and grazing the cows after the sheep, Steve can provide the sheep with clean grazing that means he rarely needs to worm anything. Adding dairy sheep to the mix requires a whole new level of forward planning because they can’t be wormed while they are milking. The plan is to have the dairy ewes never graze a field where the dry (meat) ewes have already been that year, but to follow the dairy ewes with the meat ewes and/or the cattle.
All of this flexibility comes at a cost in terms of the fencing and labour required to move the sheep every few days. Steve uses up to 50 rolls of electric netting to graze the ewes, with solar and battery-operated fencers on the rented land. There is about 10,000 ft. of water line on the two farms they own, and three portable water wagons for other areas.
In addition to forage, the sheep get fed corn grain, soybean meal and DDG (distillers’ dried grains). Steve planted his last crop of soybeans in 2019, and now buys all of the concentrates he feeds to the sheep. With only 240 acres, he doesn’t have the land base to grow his own, and with three elevators visible from the two farms, he doesn’t have any trouble obtaining the 15-18 tonnes of corn he feeds each month.
Placing bales in the feeder on their ends allows ewes to break up the core of the bale.
The farm goes through 500-600 big square bales of straw each year. Steve buys 100 acres or more and puts it up himself with his crew, along with a few small bales for the hard-to-reach corners of the lambing barn. Lambs are tagged, paint-branded and injected with selenium in the claiming pens. With so many ewes, and breeding groups, Steve relies on the EweManage system to keep track of all the animals and record his lambing and production data. He finds the program very flexible and appreciates the customized service he gets from the system’s tech support.
Groups of ewes are fed grain in a common feeding yard, one group at a time.
EweManage has developed a unique system for collecting data in the barn, which came in at just under $1,000. An Allflex LPR tag reader uses Bluetooth to send tag numbers to a 4 GB iPod Touch with a mobile version of the EweManage software. Steve points out that using an iPod instead of his cellphone for this purpose means that other people can tag and record lambs even when he and his cellphone are off the farm.
The same equipment is used when lambs are weighed. The scale head they have now doesn’t have the capacity to transmit the animals’ weights electronically, so each animal’s weight gets typed into the iPod as its ID is read and transmitted by the tag reader. But not having to read the lamb’s tags as they pass over the scale saves most of the time the job would otherwise take.
Lambing and weighing data is emailed from the iPod to the farm computer in the house and then uploaded to the GenOvis genetic evaluation program, which allows Steve to obtain EPDs for individual traits of economic importance, as well as indexes for making selection decisions. Steve relies on the Maternal Higher Prolificacy index to choose both rams and ewes. Rams, whether purchased or retained, have to be in the top 90th percentile. Ewe lambs in the 75-100th percentile are eligible for retention in the flock and those in the 50- 75th percentile can be sold for breeding stock.
As he expands the meat flock, Steve has suspended his use of terminal sires for the most part, preferring to use Dorset, Rideau and Ile de France rams. He does, however, breed the lower-EPD ewes to Southdown rams to produce lambs that are part of a direct marketing effort he is involved in with some friends. None of the Southdown-sired ewe lambs are retained in the flock.
Baby lambs have access to a textured creep, consisting of rolled corn and a protein supplement pellet. The pellet contains Deccox, which Steve prefers to dosing the lambs with Baycox. At 3 to 4 weeks of age, they transition to a lamb grower pellet prior to being weaned at 40-45 days of age. Steve says he could probably save $50-$100/tonne by mixing his own lamb feed, but he prefers to leave the job to the mill.
Lambs go to the OLEX auction in Kitchener (100-120 km away). Steve will sell new crop lambs at 65-70 lb., in the first six months of the year when barn space is short, and then ships heavier (90-110 lb.) lambs for the rest of the year. He also sells directly to packers, and even direct to consumers.
The dairy part of the operation is relatively new. The sheep and the 12-head milking parlour were purchased from the same operation in October of last year. The parlour was installed in a corner of the building in April, and milking started in May of this year. A pipeline moves the milk from the Coverall to a 300-litre tank in the milk house, which is a sea can shipping container located outside the barn. The milk house is equipped with a walk-in freezer and two chest freezers, where the milk is stored prior to being transported to the buyer.
This Venostal creep feeder has adjustable sides that allow lambs, but not ewes, to put their heads in to eat. Steve also uses repurposed pig feeders and a 3-in-1 feeder.
The plan is for Steve to do the morning milking and Jordan, who lives in the yard where the dairy sheep are housed, to milk in the evenings. Although he works full-time in construction, Jordan owns 100 of the meat ewes and 50 of the dairy ewes and is buying into the farm operation with his labour. Steve sees the dairy operation as a way to capitalize on the Coverall barn they already had, as well as a way to expand the farm income to someday support two households.
Having invested in the setup to milk sheep, he also plans to try milking some of the Rideau-cross meat ewes for a month or two after their lambs are weaned. This should allow him to ship some extra milk, and also to see what the Rideau-cross ewes are capable of. Once they have had a chance to measure the milk production of both the dairy and non-dairy ewes, they will be able to make decisions about promoting meat ewes into the dairy ewe flock, and vice versa.
Like most new ventures, there have been growing pains as they have begun milking the sheep, but Steve expects they will soon be sorted out and the dairy enterprise will start to pay for itself and contribute to the farm income.
Steve keeps the ewes outside as much as possible, and rolls out round bales for them when they need it.
Grain can also be fed outside using this sheep snackwagon.
Steve has had a number of jobs in agriculture over the years, and has worked part-time and full-time in beef and hog feedlots, and most recently milking a herd of goats. But he has been full-time on the farm for a year now. Rather than continuing to split his time between off-farm work and his own operation, he chose to go big and go home, by acquiring the dairy ewes and expanding the meat flock. He plans to keep another 200-300 ewe lambs out of the meat flock this year and to build a new lambing barn on the home place next year to accommodate them.
With everything else going on in their lives, Steve and Lisa still make time to get involved in the industry, as leaders of the Ripley 4-H Sheep Club, and active members of the Western Ontario Lamb Producers Association. They also participate in a number of Facebook groups for sheep farmers where established producers answer questions for less experienced shepherds. Steve says it is a way of giving back or paying forward, for all the help they received when they were starting out nearly 25 years ago.
“The eye of the shepherd fattens the lambs”
By Dale Engstrom, MSc, Pag
I think I do a pretty good job interpreting feed and water reports, developing specifications for commercial feeds and balancing rations for my clients. During my farm visits, I look the feed and flock over closely and make recommendations for possible improvements. However, I am only on the farm 2–4 times per year, so I rely on feedback from the shepherd to put the feeding program into practice, and make it work and be profitable. Successful shepherds have good powers of observation and keep good records. The combination provides me with the information I need to evaluate the feeding program I have put together.
Here are the production records that relate to sound nutrition of the flock:
- Body condition score (BCS). BCS is a direct result of the energy levels of your rations. Protein and other nutrient deficiencies can negatively impact the amount of energy extracted from the feed. Learn and use the BCS system and record the results of at least a representative sample (10–20%) of the flock every time they are run through the handling system.
- Birth weight of lambs. Singles will be heavier than twins or triplets, Suffolk lambs will weigh more than Dorset lambs, but you should develop an average weight for your biological type that tells you if everything has gone well in the last 6 weeks of pregnancy. If the average birth weight drops noticeably one year, look at the energy and protein levels in your late pregnancy ration and the body condition score of your ewes. Some prolific flock owners have a minimum threshold birth weight they use to cull lambs that are not likely to thrive or survive.
- Abortions and stillborn lambs. These losses are most likely related to disease, but severe vitamin and trace mineral deficiencies may be involved.
- Pre-weaning mortality. Pre-weaning deaths can be caused by a variety of disease and management factors, but when trying to determine the problem and the actions to be taken, don’t ignore nutrition, especially those nutrients related to a healthy immune system.
- Weaning weight. Weaning weight is largely a function of milk production in the ewe, which is heavily impacted by nutrition before and after lambing. Ewes need to be in a BCS of 3–3.5 at lambing to have the potential to milk well. They can access some needed energy from body fat to support lactation, but they need adequate dietary protein and other nutrients to maximize milk yield.
- Days to market or average daily gain. Post-weaning growth rate in lambs is obviously impacted by nutrition, but genetics is also a large component.
- Pregnancy rate. Fertility is a function of body condition, ram power and length of breeding season. Nutrition impacts the rate through both the ewe and the ram.
- Prolificacy. The number of lambs born per ewe is a function of biological type and nutrition. Aim for a BCS of 3- 3.5 at breeding to maximize the number lambs born. Ewes below 3.0 will benefit from flushing for 2 to 4 weeks prior to breeding.
Two final points:
Did you notice how many times body condition score was mentioned? This is one of the best indicators of a good nutrition program and one of the easiest to do. Learn this technique and practice it often. Here are the annual targets for BCS:
- Breeding Ewes: 3–3.5
- Breeding Rams: 3.5
- Lambing Ewes: 3–3.5
- Ewes at end of Lactation: 2.5
I have avoided providing hard numbers for the indicators listed above because there are large differences between breeds and individual operations. You need to develop meaningful targets that are suitable to your sheep and farm resources with maximum profitability as the goal. But where do you start? The GenOvis genetic evaluation program provides annual reports based on the information they get from participants. This data is from purebred flocks that are typically smaller in size than many commercial flocks, but it provides valuable data nonetheless. The table on the opposite page will give you some indication of what is normal for some of the measures.
The ‘eye’ of the shepherd, also known as good stockmanship, has long been recognized as a valuable tool in the profitable production of lambs. Today we know the eye is really a variety of tools and measurements that can be used to provide an objective analysis of the production program, and several of them are very specific to the nutrition part of the management system.
Dale Engstrom is a consulting ruminant nutritionist who lives in Lake Isle, Alberta.
By Randy Eros
There is a bit of a time lag between when I sit down to write this column and you sit down to read it. With any luck, you will be watching pastures grow and listening to robins by the time you get this. But right now, I’m looking out of my frost-covered office window and hoping it will warm up to -30 degrees C before I have to go out to feed the sheep. They say Canadians don’t really have average weather, just the mid-point of two extremes. This was certainly the case here on the prairies this winter. A record warm January followed by a record cold February, let’s take -20 degrees C and call that average.
Hauling livestock in the winter months can be a real challenge as we try to ensure the comfort of our animals. This means finding a balance between protecting the sheep from extreme cold while still giving them adequate ventilation. Several years ago, I was able to find the Canadian average by giving a load of market lambs a bit of both extremes.
I have a homemade stock-rack for the back of my pickup that is perfect for hauling 10 lambs. Made from 1”x1” steel tubing, it weighs a fair bit but is pinned together so it is easy enough to get on and off the truck. For winter use, I screw plywood on the sides and top and it’s good to go. Or so I thought.
I was up early on the morning in question, well before daylight, to load my lambs for an hour-long trip to the abattoir. The lambs scooted up the ramp onto the truck just like they knew what they were doing. It was a bitterly cold morning, and the small vent on the top of the stock-rack seemed like a bit too much ventilation for the weather. A quick look around the farmyard yielded a nice-sized piece of plywood to cover the opening. It stuck out a foot and a half on either side of the box, and gave the whole outfit a bit of an aerodynamic look. I kind of liked this, and I put in a bunch of extra screws so as not to lose the new piece of plywood on the highway.
So there I was, scooting along the highway, the sun rising behind me, enjoying the drive. I was only about 10 minutes from the abattoir when two tractor-trailers went by in the opposite direction, one right behind the other. I didn’t think much of it at the time, just held firmly onto the steering wheel to hold my truck straight against their slipstream and carried on.
A few minutes later I caught sight of movement in my side-view mirror and looked over to find a lamb staring at me. My first thought was, “How did that lamb get its head out of the box?” A moment of confusion on my part, and then I looked over my shoulder to see all 10 lambs looking at me from the box of the pickup! No stock-rack; it was just gone, a victim of great aerodynamics and too many screws.
Somehow, I curbed the instinct to slam on my brakes. I put on my flashers and slowly reduced my speed. It was early enough that there was not much traffic. So there I was, crawling along the highway at 20 kph with a load of lambs standing in my open truck box. I had to decide what to do next. If I pulled over, what was I going to do?
On I went, holding my breath. Maintaining a speed slow enough that the wind chill wouldn’t be any worse than a normal prairie winter, but fast enough that the lambs wouldn’t take my slowing down as an invitation to leave the security of the truck box.
There is only one stoplight in the town that is home to our abattoir. I figured that a full stop was out of the question, so I was going to take it as a slow right turn, no matter what colour the light was, and hope the traffic would allow for this. As I approached the intersection, the light turned red and I adjusted my speed to allow one vehicle to pass just ahead of me. As I did what can best be described as a fast, rolling stop through the intersection, I realized the car I had let go ahead of me was the local RCMP. Still holding my breath, but now for another reason, I carried on.
Luckily there were no flashing lights, and the lambs got to enjoy an uneventful drive through town. As I pulled into the abattoir’s fenced compound, I finally took a breath. A truck with a stock trailer full of cattle pulled in behind me and the driver watched while I backed up to the unloading ramp. I opened the tailgate and the sheep jumped off and ran right into the holding area, no worse for wear. Just like they knew what they were doing.
The cattleman must have mistaken my relief for relaxation; he rolled down his window as we crossed paths and said, “Boy, sheep sure are a lot easier to haul than cattle.” I just nodded, smiled and waved.
As expected, I found my stock-rack sitting, upright and undamaged, in the ditch right where the two trucks had gone by. I figure the gust from the first one lifted the rack because of the extra plywood and the second one added just enough lift to get the whole thing airborne. A few lessons learned: first, always strap down your stock-rack, and second, leave the aerodynamics to the engineers and pilots.
It’s been long enough now since this happened that I am comfortable talking about it, but I still think of that cattleman who watched me unload. I wonder if he ever gave up on cattle and became a shepherd. You know, because they’re so easy to haul and unload!
Randy Eros and his wife, Solange Dusablon, and their son, Michel, own and operate Seine River Shepherds near Ste. Anne, Manitoba.
By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Photos by Phil Smith
Breezy Ridge Farm was established in 1983, when Phil and Liz Smith bought a 32-acre parcel of land and established a small flock of 40 mixed breed ewes. In 1990, they acquired their first purebred Rideau Arcotts, shortly after the release of the breed from the Agricultural Research Centre near Ottawa. The flock has since grown to 550 head, with seven different genetic lines. As the flock has expanded, so has the land base; in 1999, the Smiths were able to purchase 65 acres on the other side of the road, which had at one time been part of the same farm. They also rent a further 155 acres of hay land.
Like many Rideau flocks, the Breezy Ridge ewes are managed to lamb more often than once per year. Phil describes the size of each lambing group as fluid, because it evolves with conception rates and changes in the management system.
Breezy Ridge ewes grazing alfalfa pastures. Lasolocid is added to the free-choice salt and mineral mix to reduce bloat.
All of the ewes lamb in the first half of the year, either in March/April or May/June/July. The March/April group is exposed to rams again in June. Those that conceive and lamb in November are weaned and rebred (along with the ewe lambs) starting at the end of December to become the late lambing group the following year. The May/June/July group gets rebred starting November 1, to become the early lambing group the following year.
The June breeding season takes place on pasture, with all of the early-lambing ewes being exposed together in a single group to multiple rams. Some of these ewes are treated with CIDRs, but a number of the ones that do not receive CIDRs also conceive and go on to lamb in November. Ewes exposed in June get scanned in October to determine if they are pregnant or not, but the operator doesn’t attempt to count lambs, as Phil feeds all pregnant ewes as if they are carrying triplets. Ewes that are not pregnant at scanning get rebred in November and lamb in March and April again the following year.
Round bales of hay and silage are fed in a bale feeder designed by the Smiths to reduce lamb losses.
Phil limits the June and November breeding seasons to a single, 21-day cycle to allow for time off between winter lambing groups so that barn spaces can clear out between groups of lambing ewes and the family can recharge their own batteries (and go curling).
Above, and below: Corn and pellets are hand fed in a grain-feeding yard in lightweight feeders made from lengths of 18” plastic culvert. Some of the feeders are mounted in frames to keep the sheep out and permit panels to be attached on either side.
The original barn on the home farm was torn down in 1986 and replaced with a metal-clad, pole barn measuring 40×80’ that is now used primarily as the lamb feedlot. A 30×100’, greenhouse-type structure and a second metal-clad pole barn (104×44’) provide housing for ewes and space for lambing. There are two hoop buildings for hay storage (100×30’ and 68×30’) in the yard, and a further 50×104’ of hay storage on the 65 acres across the road.
Ewes that lamb in the fall and winter do so in the barn. Lambs are tagged and recorded while in the lambing jugs, and given Baycox® to prevent coccidiosis at 24 hours of age. Mature ewes get to keep three or four of the lambs they give birth to, depending on their past performance and milk supply. Additional lambs are reared on Serval Lamb-O milk replacer on a Förster-Technik milk replacer machine in the insulated, 11×30’ nursery barn. All lambs (except those raised on pasture) are creep fed on Distiller’s Dried Grains with Solubles (DDGs). Lambs raised on ewes are weaned at 60 days; lambs on milk replacer are weaned at 28 days or 25-30 pounds.
Ewe lambs are housed and fed separately from the mature ewes until they are a few weeks away from lambing, when they join the May/June lambing ewes. Weather permitting, the whole group goes out on pasture in mid to late April, where they give birth. After a couple of days in a lambing jug in an emptied hay shed, ewe lambs with one lamb, and mature ewes with one or two, stay outside and raise their lambs on pasture. Ewe lambs with twins, and mature ewes with three or more, go from the jugs into group pens inside the barn.
When I spoke with the Smiths in late August, all of the ewes had been weaned and were being pastured in a single group, and Phil was looking forward to his third cut of hay being harvested in the next two weeks. With 550 ewes to feed, the entire land base is devoted to grazing and forage production, with grain and supplements all being purchased.
The 32 acres of the home place is almost always in pasture, unless it is being renovated. The Smiths have been strip-grazing silage corn since 2006. They plant it the year before the alfalfa is reseeded, and graze it or bale it as silage. This year they have about five acres in corn, although they have had as many as 15 after a bad winter kill on the alfalfa. A 36-acre parcel of rented land right next door is also used for pasture in late summer and fall; the ewes run down the road every morning and back every evening. Previously used as hay land, this piece is a bit worn out, but Phil is waiting to ensure he will have ongoing access to it before reseeding it.
Extra lambs are raised on a milk replacer machine in an insulated, heated lamb nursery building. Sons David (left) and Nicholas are both home and working on the farm right now.
The Smiths’ own land is fenced with five strands of electric wire on the perimeter and three strands inside, most of which is Gallagher. The 36-acre piece next door is grazed with portable reels of electric fence with two wires and step-in posts, another Gallagher product, which is powered from the permanent fence at the boundary with their own land. The reel/wire combination is also used to subdivide pastures for rotational grazing.
The remaining 65 acres of owned land, and 119 acres of rented land, are used for hay production. All of the hay fields are at least 80% alfalfa, with the balance of the mix in orchardgrass and timothy. Hay fields are replanted with brown midrib sorghum sudangrass as a nurse crop. The sudangrass produces a good volume of forage, but the bales have to be wrapped in plastic. A custom operator puts up the hay, with the Smiths doing the raking and bringing the bales in from the field.
After the frost in the fall, the ewes graze the 65 acres of hay land across the road from the home place, where some of them also get bred. Last fall, the snow came on November 1 and they missed out on that late fall grazing.
The ewes are supplemented with purchased corn grain and a 34% crude protein supplement pellet, with the amounts fed depending on the stage of production. Lambs raised on ewes are fed a mix of corn and the same pellet. The pellet also includes the vitamins and minerals required by the ewes and lambs. A custom salt and mineral mix provides extra selenium to the pregnant ewes, so that lambs do not have to be injected with selenium in the claiming pens. The custom mix is also used when the ewes are on pasture, as it contains lasalocid (Bovatec®), which helps prevent bloat on the alfalfa pastures.
Above and below: Drop down augers in both steel barns allow for easy expansion of the lamb feedlot as needed. Repurposed hog feeders work well for lambs and can be raised up on a tire as the lambs grow.
Ewe lambs that are selected for breeding stock are taken off concentrates and introduced to pasture at 75 pounds. Ram lambs are selected and put out with the mature rams at 110 pounds. Lambs raised on pasture are weaned at 70 days of age and transitioned onto full feed in the barn.
All of the lambs get an RFID tag at birth, which is used as a management tool, not just for traceability purposes after they leave the farm. A Psion handheld computer scans the tags on the ewes and lambs in the jugs and records this and other lambing data, which is uploaded to the Ewe Byte Management System on their home computer. Weighing data are collected by a Tru-Test XRP2 Electronic ID reader and XR500 scale head and also uploaded to Ewe Byte. Phil makes extensive use of Ewe Byte to manage the flock and track the level of inbreeding among its seven different genetic lines. Data is also exported to GenOvis, the national genetic evaluation program, which produces EPDs for maternal, growth and carcass traits, allowing the Smiths to compare their animals to Rideau Arcotts in other flocks across Canada.
Because the ewes that lamb in November are exposed to multiple sires, all flock replacements are chosen from lambs born at other times of year. Ram lambs are selected from dams that are at least five years old, based on the dam’s performance for number of lambs weaned, adjusted 50-day weights and lambing intervals, a very time-consuming process. Ewe lambs are selected on similar criteria but because more of them are needed, they can be selected from ewes that are less than five years old.
Most of the ewes have three or more lambs. This ewe has five and will be allowed to keep three or four of them, depending on her past history and milk production.
After being selected as lambs, based on the longevity and performance of their dams, rams get tested as yearlings for genetic resistance to scrapie and Maedi visna. Liz says the genotype information provides another level of selection information that some buyers are looking for, after first selections are made on performance.
Like most producers who pasture their sheep, the Smiths spend more time thinking about worms than they want to and are interested in solutions that go beyond consideration of available worming products. Since 2011, they have been involved in a breeding project aimed at developing parasite resistance in the Rideau Arcott breed. They have partnered in this with Dr. Angela Canovas of the Centre for the Genetic Improvement of Livestock at the University of Guelph, and Delma Kennedy with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
Hired man Justin Pape drenches lambs with assistance from David Smith.
The selection is based on regular fecal samples, and Phil is very enthusiastic about the progress they have made in selecting resistant animals (see sidebar page 14). DNA samples have also been taken from the whole flock for future testing for genetic markers for parasite resistance.
Although they do a brisk business in breeding stock, the Smiths also sell slaughter lambs. Because of their location one hour from Toronto, they have lots of marketing options, but most go to the Ontario Stockyards at Cookstown at about 100 pounds live weight. With lambs born over several months of the year, they are able to ship lambs nearly year-round.
Phil and Liz are fortunate to have their sons, David and Nicholas, working with them on the farm, as well as a hired man, Justin Pape, who works Monday to Friday but puts in longer hours during lambing. Phil, David and Justin do most of the feeding, lambing and record keeping; Phil is also in charge of promotion. Liz does the book-keeping, provides late evening lambing help, and starts new lambs on the milk replacer machine. Nicholas is recently back in the country after volunteering for two-and-a-half years at the Baháʼí World Centre in Haifa, Israel. With his work as an electrician disrupted by the pandemic, he has been spending more time on the farm.
Students prepare to collect fecal samples from a group of rams as part of an ongoing project to select for resistance to parasites.
After nearly 40 years of raising sheep, Phil and Liz seem keen to continue, and even expand the flock to support the involvement of one or both of their sons. Expansion will depend on their ability to secure more land in the area and put up additional buildings to accommodate more ewes. The work on selecting a parasite-resistant Rideau Arcott is especially rewarding, as it complements their belief in grazing their animals and taking a holistic approach to sheep farming.
Breezy GenOvis report
Suffolk ewes and lambs on pasture at Blackie Farm, Florenceville, New Brunswick.
By Cathy Gallivan, PhD; Photos by James Blackie
Blackie Farm is located in the village of Florenceville in western New Brunswick, which is less than 15 km from the US border. This area is known for growing potatoes, and the village is home to the corporate headquarters of McCain Foods, the largest producer of French fries in the world.
The 200-acre farm was purchased in 1926 by James’ grandfather, Daniel Blackie. Daniel had three sons and two of them, including James’ father, went off to fight in the Second World War. The remaining son, James’ Uncle Donald, stayed home and ran the farm after Daniel died in 1940. The farm is long and narrow and climbs upward from the eastern bank of the Saint John River. James says there have been sheep on the farm as long as it has been in his family.
The farm was purchased by James’ grandfather in 1926.
James grew up within a mile of the farm and spent most of his free time there, especially in the summers. His uncle raised potatoes and had a commercial flock that peaked at around 275 ewes in the early 1970’s. James remembers seeing his first lamb born when he was 10, and shearing his first sheep, a North Country Cheviot, at 12.
James graduated from high school in 1973 and went to the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro. There he met Cecile, a French Acadian girl from St Charles, on the eastern side of the province, and brought her to visit the farm the following summer. Uncle Donald was not exactly progressive in his thinking, being of the opinion that a woman’s place was in the home rather than out working with the animals. But while they were out on the pasture looking at the sheep, they needed to catch one for some reason and Cecile proved her mettle by grabbing it by a hind leg and not letting go. Uncle Donald didn’t say much, but never questioned Cecile working with the sheep again.
One of three breeding groups being bred on pasture in October.
James finished his Bachelor’s degree in Animal Science at Macdonald College of McGill University in 1977 and he and Cecile were married the same year and began living in Truro. Cecile worked at the college there as a Chemistry Lab Technologist, and James sold feed for Shur-Gain.
In March of 1980, James got a job working for the New Brunswick Department of Agriculture in Wicklow, just across the river from his uncle’s farm. He and Cecile returned to Florenceville and built their own house on the farm. The next 10 years were a busy time. James helped his uncle on the farm and worked full time, while Cecile kept busy with the five children born to them during those years.
Suffolk ewe lambs in the fall of 2019.
Uncle Donald died in 1994. It took a while for things to be settled but James and Cecile were able to buy the farm from his father and remaining uncle in 1998. James had always had sheep of his own within his uncle’s flock. After his uncle’s death these became the foundation of their own commercial flock, which peaked at around 100 ewes in the 1990’s.
The flock was managed traditionally. Lambs were born in March and pastured throughout the summer. Most were slaughtered at a small, local abattoir and delivered to freezer customers. The ‘tail-enders’ were put on a truck and sent to an auction in Quebec. James put up his own hay and fed it along with whole oats in the winter, the quantity of each depending on the quality of the hay. When the hay was poor, he fed more of it and allowed the sheep to pick through it and select the best parts.
Above and below: Lambs are born in March and go to pasture in May with the ewes, but still have access to creep feed in the barn until 100-day weights are taken in early July, after which they are weaned and pastured separately from the ewes.
Over the last 10 or 12 years, the purebred flock has gradually replaced the commercial ewes and today there are only registered Suffolks on the farm. The ewes still lamb in March; James says he and Cecile are too old to change their ways, and at least when the temperature falls to -30 Celsius in March they know April is just around the corner.
The feeding regime is also largely the same, consisting of their own hay supplemented by whole oats. Although his uncle grew potatoes on the farm, James found putting up around 3,500 small, square bales of hay and managing the sheep on pasture took as much time as he could spare from his full time job when he was working. He buys whole oats and an 18% crude protein creep ration with added Bovatec (for coccidiosis control), as well as second-cut hay for the creep feeder. Straw is purchased in the field from another farmer and James bales and hauls home about 700 small, square bales each year.
Pregnant mature ewes last winter. This picture was taken to taunt a fellow Suffolk breeder who roots for the Maple Leafs.
Since purchasing the purebred sheep, and especially since his retirement, James has increased his investment in the flock to improve its health status and performance. After several years of testing for genetic resistance to scrapie, all but one of the ewes are now AARRRR (resistant). Last fall the entire flock, including the lambs, were tested for Maedi-Visna and all of them came back negative. James plans to continue testing and hopes the flock will receive its “A” status on the Ontario Maedi-Visna Flock Status Program in the next year or two.
The flock is also registered on the GenOvis genetic evaluation program. Lambs are weighed at 50 and 100 days of age, and for the past six years a technician has come from Quebec to ultrasound them for fat and muscle depth. This allows James to select on the CARC (carcass) index when choosing rams and ewes for his flock, and also to provide that information to prospective buyers. The GenOvis report on pages 10-11 shows the 2019 production of the flock. The 2019 Lamb Report (21 pages, not shown) provides index results for each of the 83 lambs that were ultrasounded. The emphasis on the CARC index is noticeable: 14 of the 83 lambs are in the 99th percentile for the CARC index, and a further 15 are in the 98th percentile.
James participates in the All Canada Classic when the location and timing of the event allow, and his animals have been well received by buyers at the sale. But he prioritizes the production of a good terminal sire for the commercial producers he primarily sells to over success in the show ring.
James regrets not having bought an effective handling system many years ago and finds the digital scale much faster and easier to read than his old spring scale.
One of the biggest challenges the Blackies have had to deal with over the years is parasitism. The barber pole worm is as big a problem here in western New Brunswick as it is in the rest of the country. They have also had problems with liver flukes, which they didn’t realize until they were alerted to it by the abattoir where their lambs are processed. The current protocol is to treat the ewes at lambing with Valbazen, and then worm both the ewes and lambs throughout the summer with Startect, starting three or four weeks after they go to pasture.
Coyotes are another potentially serious problem when pasturing ewes and lambs, but the Blackies have had good luck keeping them out with a combination of electric fencing and Nite Guards. The perimeter fence consists of 12.5-gauge wire. Temporary fences made from a lighter wire (17-gauge) subdivide the pasture into 1-acre paddocks for rotational grazing. The Nite Guards are solar-powered lights that flash red from dusk to dawn. The combination of electric fencing and the Nite Guards seems to be working and the sheep have been able to stay out at night in their paddocks for the last 10 years.
James and Cecile Blackie
Among the many lessons learned over 40 years of raising sheep, James includes:
Make sure you spend the extra to get the ewes in great shape for breeding and for the winter, otherwise you are trying to catch up all winter. One tonne of grain costs as much as one lamb at most.
The single most important management item when pasturing sheep is to worm them and then know that the wormer is working, and to keep on top of your worming schedule; otherwise, a lot of effort is going down the drain.
Don’t put off getting a sheep handling system. If you decide to get one, spend the money to get a digital scale. The numbers are harder to make a mistake on, especially when your eyes aren’t as young as they used to be.
In addition to the sheep, James and Cecile have another farm enterprise, a market garden, which started in the early 90’s with their three sons at the end of the lane selling a barrel of potatoes. By 1995, they were selling more vegetables from the front of Uncle Donald’s old house, which was still standing in the yard. The enterprise has grown over the last 25 years and now 10 acres of the farm is dedicated to the vegetables, and a new market stand sits where the old house used to be. Crop residues are not a problem; the sheep happily consume the pea and bean vines, corn stalks and any vegetables that are not good enough to sell.
The farm climbs gradually from the river to the back, where there is a beautiful view in all directions. Corn and other vegetables are planted early under plastic. The fertilizer plant seen on the right is on the opposite side of the river.
James and Cecile grow everything in the market garden, but are perhaps best known for their Awesome corn, which many local residents look forward to sampling as early as the August long weekend. Green peas are another big seller, and Cecile has a machine that will shell the peas for her customers after they are purchased.
Because the farm is located right in the village and right next to the McCain Foods plant and headquarters, Cecile is able to sell most of the vegetables right out of their yard, although she does attend a weekly farmers’ market in the nearby village of Bristol. A walk-in cooler in the market stand allows them to store and sell crops such as winter squash later in the season than before. One significant worry about the vegetable business is the way the sheep eye the peas, corn and other vegetables on their way out to the pasture, something that keeps James awake at night, wondering if he shut the gate.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic this spring, the Blackies thought about whether to plant vegetables this year or not. They decided to go ahead, knowing that they would have to make major changes in how they deal with the public to sell their produce.
James and Cecile work hard and make a good team. James says, “The sheep are an island where we tend to agree most of the time. I do the chores and Cecile does most of the paperwork. She is the midwife for any lambing problems we might have, and the one with the patience to get a stubborn Suffolk lamb to start sucking. She also helps with communication when French-speaking producers give us a call. I don’t really know what they say but it seems to work out.”
James told all of their children that if they didn’t go to university they might end up back on the farm with him. All five have university degrees and none are back yet. He credits Cecile for motivating them to further their education.
Cecile attends a weekly market in nearby Bristol. All of the Blackie’s signage proclaims ‘We grow everything we sell!”
James and Cecile don’t know how many more years they’ll raise sheep or grow vegetables. James prefers the sheep, but acknowledges that the vegetables involve less physical wear and tear (on him). He jokes, “I tell everyone that when I climb up into the haymow every morning and night, all I have to do is miss one rung and I might be into early retirement.”
Editor’s Note: The villages of Florenceville and Bristol, New Brunswick, were amalgamated into the village of Florenceville-Bristol in 2008 but for simplicity have been referred to separately in this article.
The Willowdale Sheep & Lamb yard, as seen from the southeast. The longest wing of the barn, east of the outdoor pens, is the lambing area. Ewes with lambs move from the lambing area into the centre areas of the barn. The wing closest to the shop (farthest from the lambing area) houses the handling system and permanent shearing setup. Photo by Randy Eros.
By Randy Eros
It was a cool, cloudy January afternoon when I pulled into the parking area at Willowdale Sheep & Lamb, 10 minutes south of Steinbach, Manitoba. The farm sits on a ¼-section (160 acres) that is part of a larger operation owned by Apex Farms.
Harry Warkentin is the manager of the facility, and even before I met up with him I knew I was in for an enjoyable afternoon. As I stepped out of the truck I could hear the voices of the staff hard at work but clearly enjoying what they were doing—always a good sign in any operation. We started our visit in the farm office/staff room over a cup of coffee. From here you can keep an eye on the sheep through a system of cameras strategically placed throughout the barns.
L to R: Harry Warkentin and staff members Edwin Falk, Charity Dueck, Ethan Plett, Bethany Dueck (missing in the photo are Deb Wipf and Alina Fischer). Photo by Randy Eros.
The Willowdale barns are close to home for Harry and his wife, Lorna. They live on the ¼-section straight north of the sheep barns and used to own this one as well. This new venture has been up and running for just over two years, and is currently home to 1,800 ewes.
Like many sheep folks, the Warkentins have a long history in agriculture. They ran a dairy for 12 years and then moved to hogs, putting up the buildings that are now filled with sheep back in 1988. They got into sheep in 2011, and their flock grew to 400 head as they transitioned out of hogs. That flock was merged into what is now the Willowdale flock.
The Warkentins sold this quarter, with the hog barns, three years ago. The new owners wanted to diversify their livestock operations, and asked Harry and Lorna to develop and manage a new sheep operation for them.
This container outside the lambing barn receives the rations for the ewes from the TMR mixer. A conveyor belt carries it from the container into the lambing barn. Photo by Dale Engstrom.
TMR is fed off an overhead belt and into the feed bunks along the outside wall. Photo by Randy Eros.
The flock is mostly straight-bred Rideau Arcotts; there is also a small group of Canadians. The flock is divided into 12 breeding groups of 150 head each. Rams go in with the first group in mid-August, and more rams are added to new groups every two weeks until mid-January. Most (94%) of the ewes catch in the first cycle after being exposed to rams; the rest lamb later with the later breeding groups.
The Willowdale ewes lamb just once a year, but some of them do it out of season in October. Harry uses CIDRs on the ewes that are exposed for fall lambing. Last spring (2019), there were 250 ewes synchronised and exposed to rams, and 75% of them lambed last October.
More out-of-season lambings are planned for this fall, in September, October and November. Harry plans to move into accelerated lambing in 2020, by putting CIDRs in some ewes that lambed this winter, as soon as their lambs are weaned.
The ewes are grouped using a 4-colour tagging system and bred to unrelated groups of purebred Rideau Arcott rams, sourced from Phil and Liz Smith in Ontario. Harry looks for rams with good performance information but is also interested in the work the Smiths are doing with breeding for parasite resistance.
They currently have six ram groups, each with six rams, which are also colour-coded, making for an easy visual tracking system that prevents inbreeding. Lots of ram power is one of the keys to their successful breeding program.
Lambing rates run from 2.3–2.4 in the fall-lambing ewes, and around 3.0 for ewes lambing in season, for an overall rate of about 2.6. The flock is fairly young and these numbers are expected to increase as they mature. The target is to retain or market 2.2 of the 2.6 lambs dropped, and Harry looks forward to higher numbers as they move towards accelerated lambing.
Cameras in the lambing barn allow staff to monitor the action from the barn office. Photo by Randy Eros.
The original barn built for the hogs needed significant internal changes to adapt it for sheep. Pits were filled and all of the floors leveled with an additional layer of concrete. A local welding firm built the panels for pens, alleyways, and gates. The barn is nearly 30,000 square feet in area and consists of five interconnected sections. The lambing area is the largest and is broken up into drop pens that hold 25 ewes. The end of this section contains 39 lambing jugs and several nursery pens.
Attention to detail – this chart in the barn office shows information on each of the 12 lambing groups and tracks the movement of sheep through the barn, as well as helping determine what rations should be delivered where. Photo by Randy Eros.
Photo by Dale Engstrom.
Once the lambs are born and bonded, groups of ewes and lambs move to one of three indoor pens, each of which will house 150 ewes and their lambs, where they stay until weaning. These pens are fed using an automated conveyer belt that delivers a TMR twice daily to a central feed trough built to provide a foot of feeding space per ewe. Each pen includes a creep feeder for the lambs where they can access a custom, 18% crude protein crumble. Straw is used for bedding throughout the barns.
Ewes and lambs in one of three pens in the converted hog barn where they will stay until weaning. TMR is fed from above into a feeder in the centre of the pen. Photo by Dale Engstrom.
The fifth section of the barn contains the handling system and the shearing area. Garrick Reimer, a local shearer, comes in every two weeks from January to June as ewes approach lambing. There is an on-site hydraulic wool packer and full wool bags are shipped to Canadian Cooperative Wool Growers.
Fishing net used to catch lambs. Photo by Dale Engstrom.
Pails of milk in the nursery for lambs who don’t catch on to the nipple-feeding system right away. Photo by Dale Engstrom.
The New Rosedale Feedmill makes up two custom premixes for the farm; this one is fed to ewes in late pregnancy and lactation and contains 30 ppm of selenium. Photo by Randy Eros.
The Förster-Technik milk machine is connected to each of the nursery pens. Photo by Randy Eros.
Directly west of the barn, there are 12 newly built, outdoor paddocks with open-sided shelters that are 12 feet deep. Each paddock is 150 feet long by 70 feet deep. The fence line feeders run the length of the paddock with a 22-foot paved and sloped alleyway between the pens. The pavement extends 7 feet into the pens, giving the sheep solid footing at the feeders in wet weather.
The pens are 150’ long by 70’ wide; sheds running the length of the pens are 12’ deep. Photo by Dale Engstrom.
TMR feeder delivers feed to the outdoor pens every other day. Photo by Randy Eros.
Ewes in these pens are fed a TMR that is mixed and fed every second day. On alternate days, a blade is used to push the remaining feed back up against the feeders, a very efficient system. The ewes stay outside until a week before lambing, when they are brought into the barn and shorn, wormed, vaccinated with Glanvac 6, and treated with Vetolice.
Harry will tell you that a comprehensive nutrition program is essential. The bulk of the ewe ration is a mix of bagged corn silage and alfalfa haylage. The farmland adjacent to the barns has been seeded to alfalfa and the corn silage is harvested from nearby rented land. Barley and corn DDGS (dried distillers grains with solubles) supplement the energy and protein provided by the forage.
Dale Engstrom, a livestock nutritionist from Alberta, visits the farm twice a year and balances rations for ewes in each stage of production. Every new bag of hay silage is tested, and the TMR rations are tweaked accordingly.
Custom premixes, designed by Dale and made up by the New Rosedale Feedmill in Portage la Prairie, are added to the TMR to provide salt, mineral and vitamins for ewes in different stages of production. Selenium has been added to address the natural shortage of this trace mineral in our prairie soils. There is a ‘Dry’ ewe premix, which is fed to ewes in maintenance, but also to those being flushed and bred, and to those in early pregnancy. The ‘Lactating’ ewe premix has higher levels of vitamins ADE, as well as Bovatec for the prevention of coccidia, and is fed to ewes in the last six weeks of pregnancy and the first 6-8 weeks of lactation. Limestone is occasionally used to increase calcium content of the TMR. Having all of the required minerals and vitamins in the premix means fewer injections for newborn lambs and less work for the staff at lambing time.
Lambs are weighed, tagged and docked at birth, and also injected with ¼ cc of Tasvax and a ½ cc of penicillin. They are tagged with both a CSIP tag and a breeding group tag in the appropriate colour. Lambing information is recorded on the Shearwell FarmWorks program. Ewes and lambs get up to three days in the claiming pens, if there’s not too much lambing pressure. Ewes are left with two lambs and extra lambs are moved into nursery pens of about 15 head. These pens are all connected to a single Förster-Technik milk machine. A second machine, a Lak-Tek II, is kept at the Warkentin’s farm, where the lambs go to be grown out and finished after weaning. This allows for older nursery lambs to be moved over to the finishing yard if the regular nursery gets too crowded. The target for weaning nursery lambs is 30 days or 10 kg.
Lambs raised by the ewes are weaned at 8 weeks of age and taken on a short trailer ride to the Warkentin’s home yard for growing out and finishing. The original hog barn and adjacent hoop structure on this property are separated into several pens and feed is delivered through augers directly into self-feeders. The 16% crude protein ration is a mix of whole barley and a 32% custom crumble. The variable speed auger from the crumble bin allows the ration to be adjusted as needed. The lambs are vaccinated again shortly after weaning, ewe lambs with Glanvac 6 and male lambs with Tasvax.
After weaning, lambs are moved to the adjacent ¼-section to be grown out and finished in another former hog barn (above) and hoop barn (below), where a mix of barley and protein supplement is delivered through augers directly into self-feeders. Photos by Dale Engstrom.
Most of the finished lambs (60%) are marketed to SunGold Specialty Meats in Innisfail, Alberta, and the rest are sold through lamb buyers like Ian Deans of Newdale, Manitoba. Harry is keen to chase the market, saying, “If you don’t do it right, you’ll leave money on the table.”
Most of the lambs are marketed to SunGold Specialty Meats in Innisfail, Alberta, at a live weight of approximately 125 lb. Photo by Randy Eros.
Lambs sent to SunGold have a live weight target of 125 lb., which they reach at 5–6 months of age. An on-farm spreadsheet has been developed to calculate when lambs will meet this weight and help plan the shipping dates. It includes a number of variables including average daily gain, the percentage shrink on the trip to Alberta, and the historic carcass yield. All of this is done to optimize market returns based on SunGold’s preferred carcass weight of 26.7 kg. The lambs get weighed frequently, which is made easier with an electronic scale and Psion tag reader. The scale does not have Bluetooth capacity (yet), meaning that someone has to read the weight off the electronic scale and type it into a handheld computer/tag reader (Psion) as the lambs are weighed, but at least no one has to read eartags and no clipboard is required.
Harry keeps an eye on the square footage allocated for each lamb as pens are filled. With several people working in the operation, prominently posted written instructions make sure nothing gets missed. Photo by Dale Engstrom.
With the flock in expansion mode in recent years, Harry has been retaining most of their ewe lambs. Now that they are at capacity, he plans to start marketing replacements to other farms. Harry looks for ewe lambs from dams with a history of multiple births and good growth rates. He doesn’t keep replacements out of ewe lambs, preferring the proven performance of more experienced ewes. Ewes that can’t, or won’t, raise their lambs are culled along with their female offspring.
Although most of the focus of Willowdale Lamb is on the barn and outdoor pens, there is a grazing element to the operation. Apex Farms has a hog operation just outside the nearby town of Niverville, and part of the ewe flock grazes the 60 acres surrounding those barns. Another 60 acres of rotational grazing is available on the Warkentin quarter. Four livestock guard dogs accompany the ewes in the summer and keep coyotes at bay. Predation has not been a problem so far. Ewes get wormed when they come in off the pasture.
Even with all of the automation on the farm, lambing 1,800 ewes and keeping them and their lambs fed is a big job. Harry has two full-time and 2-4 part time (depending on the season) staff working with him. These employees handle the day-to-day work of feeding the stock, moving the ewes and lambs through pens, and processing lambs in the jugs.
A number of Manitoba hog barns have been repurposed into sheep barns over the last few decades as the hog industry here has consolidated. Harry and Lorna’s expertise has made the Willowdale operation into one of the best examples of how to do this. The buildings are comfortable, bright and well ventilated. The interior is smartly laid out, and the penning well made and more than adequate for the job. The outdoor pens are well designed for our prairie climate and provide a very efficient feed delivery setup.
As Harry and I discussed the operation, it was clear to me that the Warkentin’s experience in both the dairy and hog industries have added a lot to their understanding of how to make a sheep operation run efficiently.
Randy Eros, his wife, Solange Dusablon, and their son, Michel, own and operate Seine River Shepherds near Ste-Anne, Manitoba.
By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Sheep farmers who feed round bales are familiar with their convenience and also with the resulting high feed waste, even when round-bale feeders are used.
Many unique designs of round-bale feeders have been developed and some claim to reduce or even eliminate feed wastage. Researchers at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences conducted two experiments to investigate the effect of feeder design, roughage type and size of round bales on feed wastage in sheep.
Four indoor pens were each provided with a different type of round-bale feeder, and stocked with 10 Norwegian White ewes in early pregnancy. Ewes in each pen were given a bale of low-quality roughage (Roughage 1) that was left in the feeder for four days, followed by a bale of high-quality roughage (Roughage 2) for the next four days. Each group of 10 ewes was subjected to each type of feeder by rotating them among the pens.
Two of the round-bale feeders were circular; one had diagonal dividers (RD) and one had vertical dividers (RV). A third feeder (KR) had six sides made from linked panels that the ewes could move, with no dividers. The fourth feeder (TR) suspended the round bale in an open ‘basket’ over a square platform 18 inches off the ground. Bales were placed on the floor with round sides up in the first three feeders, and placed in the basket of the TR feeder with the round side facing sideways.
Above: RD feeder. Photos courtesy of the researchers.
Above: RV feeder. Photos courtesy of the researchers.
Above: KR feeder. Photos courtesy of the researchers.
Above: TR feeder. Photos courtesy of the researchers.
Roughage 1 (low quality) was grass silage harvested at a late stage of maturity with a dry matter (DM) content of 56.0%. Roughage 2 (high quality) was hay harvested at an early stage of maturity with 73.8% DM. Each type of roughage was baled in rounds that were approximately 47 inches tall and 52 inches in diameter. The average weight of the bales was 514 kg (288 kg DM) for Roughage 1 and 468 kg (346 kg DM) for Roughage 2. The median particle length was 7.7 inches for Roughage 1 and 3.8 inches for Roughage 2, which also had a greater leaf:stem ratio than Roughage 1.
Bales were replaced every four days, with leftover feed removed from the feeders before new bales were added. Every morning at 0800, the wasted forage on the floor surrounding the feeders was collected, weighed and sampled.
Feeding behavior of the ewes was scored by an observer at 2-minute intervals on Days 2 and 4 from 0900 to 1200, and 1500 to 1800, for each bale of Roughage 2 fed. Behavior was scored as the number of ewes eating with their whole head (both ears) inside the feeder, eating with their head partly inside the feeder (at least one ear outside the feeder), eating from the feeder while climbing with their front legs, or eating roughage from the floor outside the feeder.
Results – feed wastage
Overall, feed wastage averaged 1.1 kg DM/day per ewe. Feed waste was greatest on Day 1 (1.3 kg DM/day per ewe) and decreased gradually until Day 4 (0.9 kg DM/day per ewe). Feed wastage was almost four times as high for Roughage 1 as Roughage 2 (1.9 versus 0.5 kg DM/day per ewe). Feeder design also had significant impact on feed wastage, with more feed being wasted from the RV feeder (1.3 kg DM/day per ewe) than the KR and TR feeders (1.0 and 0.9 kg DM/day per ewe, respectively). The RD feeder (1.1 kg DM/day per ewe) was intermediate between the RV and KR or TR feeders.
Wastage from both types of round bales had lower dry matter content than the baled feeds. Wastage from Roughage 1 also had lower crude protein content compared to round bales of Roughage 1, but wastage from Roughage 2 had a similar content of crude protein as the round bales of Roughage 2.
Results – feeding behavior.
Ewes spent approximately 40% of the time during the observation periods eating. The time spent eating with the whole head inside the feeder was significantly lower for the TR-feeder than for the other feeders. Time spent eating with the head partly inside the feeder was lowest for the KR-feeder. Climbing with the front legs while eating was most prominent in the RV and TR-feeders. Time spent eating wastage from the floor was almost negligible. Interestingly, time spent eating with the whole head inside the feeder increased from 9.3% at Day 2 to 15.6% at Day 4, while time spent feeding with the head partly inside the feeder decreased from 30.3% at Day 2 to 20.8% at Day 4. Eating from the feeder while climbing with the front legs decreased only slightly from 3.6% at Day 2 to 2.8% at Day 4.
In this experiment, the ewes were offered half or whole round bales of only one roughage in each of the same four types of feeders. Roughage in this experiment was harvested at a late stage of maturity and 76.6% DM. Median particle length of the hay was 6.2 inches. Bales were fed as either half bales averaging 188 kg (145 kg DM) or whole bales weighing 419 kg (323 kg DM). Feeding behaviors were scored as in Experiment 1, but morning observations were limited to only one hour due to low feeding activity between 1000 and 1200.
Results – Feed wastage
Overall mean feed wastage in Experiment 2 was 2.2 kg DM/day per ewe and decreased gradually from Day 1 (3.0 kg DM/day per ewe) to Day 4 (1.4 kg DM/day per ewe). Feed wastage was almost twice as high for whole bales (2.9 kg DM/day per ewe) as for half bales (1.5 kg DM/day per ewe). Feed wastage was similar for all feeder types when feeding whole bales, but higher for the TR feeder when feeding half round bales. As in Experiment 1, the dry matter content of the wastage was lower than that of the round bales.
Results – feeding behavior.
Ewes spent approximately 70% of their time eating during the observation periods. Time spent eating with the whole head inside the feeder was much higher when feeding half bales than when feeding whole bales. Feeder design also influenced feeding behavior in that time spent eating with the whole head inside the feeder was lower for the TR-feeder. Time spent eating with the head partly inside the feeder was much higher when feeding whole bales, and also higher on the TR-feeder compared to the other feeders. Time spent eating while climbing with the front legs was significantly higher when feeding whole bales compared to half bales, but this behaviour only occurred on the TR-feeder when feeding half bales. Ewes spent more than twice as much time consuming feed wastage from the floor around the feeders when fed whole versus half bales, regardless of the type of feeder.
Effect of roughage quality
The amount of feed wasted in both experiments was generally high, ranging from 0.5–2.9 kg DM/day per ewe. The amount of feed wasted was actually more than estimates of how much ewes of this size would consume, in two of the four periods. Feed wastage was highest on the day a new bale was fed and gradually decreased over four days. Type of roughage, size of bale (half or whole), and feeder design all had significant effects, but the major factor influencing feed wastage was roughage quality.
In Experiment 1, the feed wastage was nearly four times higher for Roughage 1 than Roughage 2. Roughage 1 was harvested at a later stage of maturity and, hence, had a lower nutritive value. Late-harvested forages also have more stems in relation to leaves, which was seen in the longer particle length of Roughage 1. Ewes were selecting leaves in Roughage 1, as shown by the lower level of crude protein in the wastage compared to that in the round bale. The ewes must have pulled the long fibrous stems out of the feeders and left them as wastage on the floor around the feeder. There was no indication that leaves were being selected from Roughage 2, however, as the crude protein level in the wasted feed was the same as that in the round bale. Therefore, differences in selection may be a product of a greater leaf:stem ratio in the early- versus late-harvested roughage. Dry matter content of the roughage did not affect feed wastage in this study.
In Experiment 2, the roughage used was also harvested at a late stage of maturity, resulting in even more waste (2.9 versus 1.9 kg DM/day per ewe).
Effect of whole versus half bales
Feeding half bales rather than whole ones reduced feed waste by nearly half. Reducing the amount of feed in the feeder may have allowed the ewes to eat with their heads in a normal, downward position unlike when feeders contain whole bales, causing them to raise their heads to eat. The researchers speculated that the ewes dragged the feed out of the feeder in order to eat in a more normal position. This theory is supported by the data, which shows that the ewes spent more time (50.5%) with their heads inside the feeder when feeding on half round bales than when feeding on whole round bales (27.4%), resulting in more of the potential wastage being dropped inside the feeder and less on the ground outside.
In general, the ewes spent little time consuming wastage from the floor around the feeders. However, they spent more time doing so when eating whole bales compared to half bales in Experiment 2, which is probably related to the larger amount of feed wastage available when larger amounts are fed.
Effect of feeder design
Although there was a significant effect of feeder design on feed wastage, the real differences were small. In Experiment 1, where only whole bales were used, the TR feeder had the lowest feed wastage. In Experiment 2, there were no differences between the round-bale feeders when feeding whole bales, but the TR feeder had the highest wastage when feeding half bales. This might be because the half round bales did not fit properly in the TR-feeder design. The ranking of the other feeders also differed between Experiments 1 and 2, so there seems to be no clear effect of feeder design on feed wastage.
Although feeder design did have a small effect on feed wastage, the quality and amount of roughage delivered into the round bale feeders had the largest effect on how much feed was wasted. Low-quality forage fed in whole round bales resulted in the most waste, but producers may take some consolation in knowing that ewes are consuming the higher-protein portions of poor-quality bales before wasting the rest, and that they will waste much less hay fed in round bales if it is of better quality.
S.G. Kischel et al., 2019. The effect of round-bale feeder design and roughage type on feed wastage in sheep feeding. Animal, 13 (10): 2388-2397.
By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Carrie Woolley with her husband, Brett Schuyler, and their daughter Emma. Photo courtesy of Carrie Woolley.
Schuyler Farms Limited, located near Simcoe, Ontario, consists of 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans, 700 acres of apples, 550 acres of sour (pie) cherries, and 400 acres of pasture and woodlot. The farm is run by brothers Brett and Ryan Schuyler, who are in the eighth year of a 10-year transition from their father, Marshall, and uncle, Drew Schuyler. The brothers have clearly-defined responsibilities: Brett is in charge of field management for the corn, soybeans, apples and cherries, and of the staff, including seasonal workers and eight full-time people. Ryan is in charge of the administrative side, looking after the finances, paperwork and food safety requirements.
Carrie Woolley is married to Brett Schuyler, and the mother of Emma (2) and Elliott (8 months). Carrie grew up in the area on a dairy farm, and she, as well as Brett and Ryan, all attended the University of Guelph, graduating in 2007(Ryan), 2008(Brett), and 2011(Carrie). After her undergraduate degree, Carrie stayed on in Guelph to complete a Master’s degree in Animal Behaviour and Welfare (working with dairy cattle), which she completed in 2013.
While she was working on her Master’s degree, Carrie was considering how to add livestock to the other operations at Schuyler Farms. The seeds of a sheep operation were planted in 2011, when a friend from New Zealand suggested grazing sheep between the rows of trees in the orchards, rather than mowing them. For the first two years, the Schuylers custom-grazed a neighbour’s sheep, using portable electric netting, to test out the concept. That arrangement lasted for two summers, ending just as Carrie was returning from Guelph, at which point she and Brett decided to acquire their own sheep.
The rows of cherry trees are far enough apart to permit mechanical harvesting. This also allows hay to be made in the cherry orchards early in the summer, before harvest in July and grazing in August. Photo by Cathy Gallivan.
The flock started small, with the purchase of a dozen North Country Cheviots and five Shetlands. Then Carrie met up with Mark Ritchie and Cherry Allen of Footflats Farm on Amherst Island (see Fall 2012 issue of Sheep Canada), who became her mentors as she started her own flock. At Footflats Farm, Carrie saw a production system that she could adapt to her own situation, one based on easy-care but relatively productive crossbred ewes (a mix of Border Cheviot, Romanov and Coopworth), which were housed outside, lambed once a year, and handled very little. Today, Carrie is managing 600 ewes.
In addition to the orchards, Carrie also has access to about 300 acres of permanent pasture on marginal land. The flock lambs there in May each year. The cherries are harvested in July, after which the lambs are weaned onto the cherry orchards in August.
Schuyler Farms shares ownership of a cherry processing facility (Norfolk Cherry Company) with one of their neighbours. The cherries are harvested by machines, then immersed in cold water for 24 hours, sorted, pitted, packaged and frozen for future sale.
Apple picking takes place in September and October. The process is much more labour-intensive, requiring 150 temporary labourers from Trinidad and Tobago, who are housed on the farm during their stay. The 10-12 different varieties of apples are packed and sold through the Norfolk Fruit Growers’ Association.
Ewes and lambs grazing under cherry trees in summer. Photo by Carrie Woolley.
As the sheep flock expands, so does the need for more pasture. In addition to the marginal land already being used, there are 250 acres of low value woodlot. For the last four or five years, the woodlot has been developed through a practice known as silvopasture (see sidebar page 9), in which enough of the tree canopy is removed to allow sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor, encouraging the growth of grass and other plants to support grazing by the sheep. The process involved having a professional forester mark trees to be removed by loggers, after which a forestry mulcher was brought in to clean up the understory. The area has now been aerially seeded to a mix of orchardgrass, birdsfoot trefoil, red and white clovers and ryegrass.
The perimeters of the permanent pastures (including the silvopasture) are fenced with Electrolock, an electrified Gallagher product that looks like pagewire, which is left up year-round. There is an additional live wire under the Electrolock, and one offset wire on the outside of the fence. Between the electric fence and a team of 13 livestock guardian dogs, Carrie hasn’t had much trouble with predation so far, although she does get the odd coyote kill.
In addition to grazing in pastures and orchards, the sheep also clean up crop residues such as corn stover. The climate is pretty mild in this southern part of Ontario (42.8° N), with very little snow, which means the sheep don’t require any harvested feeds before the end of the year.
The climate in the Simcoe area is mild, with small accumulations of snow that allow the sheep to forage for feed till the end of the year. Photo by Carrie Woolley.
By the new year, the flock is back on the permanent pastures and silvopasture, where they get fed round bales of silage or dry hay, depending on the year. Most of this hay is made in the early part of the summer in the cherry orchards, where the rows between the trees have been seeded with pasture mixes containing alfalfa and clovers. This is in sharp contrast to the days before the arrival of the sheep, when the rows between the trees were kept mowed “like golf courses.” Between the haying and grazing in the orchards, the farm now saves $20,000-$30,000 per year in mowing costs.
The apple trees normally last 40-50 years, while the cherry trees average only 30, partly because of the shaking they endure from the harvesters. I asked if the sheep cause any damage to the trees and Carrie told me that the sheep don’t damage mature cherry trees, but the apple trees have to be handled a little more carefully. Only the lambs graze near the apple trees, and only trees that are more than four years old. The lambs also consume apples that fall to the ground under the trees.
Above: Selective removal of trees allows sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor, promoting growth of feed for the sheep. Below: Round bales stored in silvopasture for winter feeding. Cull apples are available at no cost from the apple growers’ co-op and fed mechanically over the fence. Photos by Cathy Gallivan
With 25% each of Border Cheviot and Romanov in the commercial ewes, the flock is relatively productive, dropping about 1.7 lambs per ewe on average. The ewes are bred in one of two groups, each with several Coopworth rams. The ewe lambs are in their own group with Border Cheviot rams. Lambing takes place in May. The ewes and lambs stay in the same groups from before lambing until August when they are weaned. Carrie interferes with them very little during lambing, only going out to check for dead or ‘orphan’ lambs. Ewes that need help in this system get culled and orphans get sold as bottle lambs.
The ewes lamb on permanent pastures with lots of shelter. Photo by Cathy Gallivan.
When I asked Carrie how she chose her ewe lamb replacements given that the sires and dams are not recorded, she told me that all the ewes are scanned during pregnancy to determine if they are carrying one or more lambs, and then separated into lambing groups based on their scan results. This allows Carrie to give the ewes carrying two or more lambs the best, and most sheltered, lambing pastures. It also allows her to select lambs that are born as twins or triplets simply by restricting her selections to lambs born in that group/pasture.
This old school bus has a ramp at the back and holds 60-70 animals. Photo by Cathy Gallivan.
For managing the flock, Carrie uses a piece of software from Gallagher called APS, and speaks favourably of the company’s willingness to work with her to make needed changes to the software. If a lamb that has been treated walks across the scale, its tag is scanned and a reminder pops up to make sure it doesn’t get shipped before it should.
With sheep grazing in up to seven different locations at once, Carrie needs several energizers and watering systems. She also has a Prattley yard and an Hdale squeeze chute that can clamp animals for vaccinating and other procedures. The chute feeds into an electronic scale and Prattley autosorter.
Carrie kept 200 ewe lamb replacements in 2018. Another 500 went to a feedlot near Holstein at the end of the summer grazing season, at 50-70 lb.
A further 300 were sold as freezer lambs. These were her fastest-growing slaughter lambs, and were processed at a local abattoir (VG Meats) at 80-100 lb., in late October or early November. The frozen lamb is stored in the freezers at Norfolk Cherry Company for sale throughout the next year.
Above: A Prattley yard made up of lightweight aluminum panels is easily transported between grazing areas to weigh or process animals. The Hdale squeeze chute clamps animals for easy vaccination or ultrasonic scanning. Below: A Prattley autosorter connected to the electronic scale head weighs and sorts lambs into weight categories set by the operator, allowing rapid weekly weighing of market lambs. Photos by Carrie Woolley.
Most of the customers are restaurants, which buy specific cuts such as racks, rather than individual households buying single lambs for their freezer, and VG Meats handles most of the arrangements once the lambs have been delivered to the plant. As a local product with a unique story/brand (orchard grazing), Woolley’s Lamb is popular with restaurants that focus on local food, such as David’s Restaurant in Port Dover, which serves their lamb with a cherry chutney.
Carrie plans to expand her breeding flock of 50 purebred Coopworth ewes, and to use AI to breed them with semen from New Zealand sires selected for parasite resistance. She plans to increase the size of the commercial flock until they have about 1,000 ewes in total. Although she appreciates the vigour and productivity that the Border Cheviot and Romanov offer, she is considering increasing the percentage of Coopworth breeding in the ewes from the current level of 50%, in order to get a slightly larger lamb carcass.
After only seven years of owning her own sheep, Carrie has taken the management system she learned from Mark and Cherry at Footflats Farm and put her own stamp on it, by integrating the flock into the other operations at Schuyler Farms, and maximizing the use of resources already owned by the farm.
by Dale Engstrom, M.Sc., P.Ag
I am often asked about using free-choice loose and block minerals. Are they needed? Do they do a good job of providing essential nutrients to sheep? Are they cost effective?
Let’s start by reviewing what minerals are. Minerals fit into two classes: major (or macro) minerals and trace (or micro) minerals.
Major minerals are those that are measured in feedstuffs and reported in requirement tables as percentages (parts per hundred). For example: alfalfa hay may contain calcium in the amount of 1.6% of the dry matter, and a mineral supplement may contain 16% calcium.
Trace (or micro) minerals are measured or required and reported in milligrams per kg (mg/kg), parts per million (ppm) or parts per billion (ppb). For example: grass hay may contain copper in the amount of 5 mg/kg (or ppm), and a trace-mineralized salt may contain 250 mg/kg.
The table below shows the major and trace minerals required in specific amounts in all sheep diets.
So these minerals are ‘essential’ and needed in sheep diets. Does that mean you have to provide supplemental sources of these minerals to your sheep? Not necessarily. Most feeds contain a wide variety of these minerals. The question is: do they contain enough to meet your sheep’s requirements? The only way to know for sure is to find out what is in the feeds (by feed sampling and testing), and then balance rations for each stage of production.
The minerals in the table are the ones that may be deficient to some extent in sheep feeds. When we don’t know how much the sheep are getting, we have to fall back on general recommendations. Here are my rules of thumb for mineral supplementation:
Have major feeds that are going to be used in critical periods (flushing, late gestation, early lactation) tested, and balance rations to determine how much mineral supplementation is required.
Mix required minerals with the grain or silage portion of the ration. This may not be possible; grain is not always being fed and minerals don’t stay evenly distributed in a dry hay mix. One producer I know adds a liquid mineral supplement to his hay/grain rations to get over this problem.
If you can’t mix your mineral supplement effectively with your sheep rations, free-choice mineral feeding is a practical alternative. This is better than not feeding minerals at all when they are needed in the diet. But it pays to actively manage the free choice mineral program:
a. Select the mineral supplement that best fits your rations. Grass and legume forages are often short of phosphorus, so using a mineral relatively high in phosphorus will get you going in the right direction. Look for a salt-free mineral that contains at least 12% phosphorus. Greenfeed and grain rations are typically short of calcium. In this case, select a salt-free mineral that contains about twice as much calcium as phosphorus (e.g., 18% calcium and 9% phosphorus).
b. Always feed a trace-mineralized salt, as most feeds grown in Canada are deficient in copper, manganese, zinc, selenium, cobalt and iodine. A modest level of copper (less than 500 mg/kg) is my recommendation for sheep, while much higher levels are required for cattle and horses. You should not feed cattle and horse minerals to sheep without checking the copper level.
c. Another option is to buy a complete product, one that contains salt (sodium chloride), other major minerals (such as calcium and phosphorus) and trace minerals. The salt level should be around 40 to 60%. The sheep’s natural appetite for salt will encourage consumption of the complete mineral mix, if you don’t feed any additional salt. You can make your own complete mineral by mixing a bag of salt with a bag of salt-free mineral. This will give you 50% salt in the final mix.
d. Have a target level of mineral consumption in mind, and monitor the flock intake to get close to the target. For example, if the ewes need 20 grams (.044 lb.) of mineral mix per day, 100 ewes should then consume 14 kg (30.8 lb.) per week.
e. Keep minerals fresh by feeding two or three times per week, and feed only the amount the sheep will clean up between feedings. Use a feeder that keeps manure and rain out.
f. You can vary the salt content to increase or decrease the consumption of the overall mix. Less salt should result in more intake, and vice versa.
g. Put the mineral feeder near the water source or an area where the sheep spend time.
h. Recognize the limitations of a free-choice system. If there are high sodium levels in your water, the sheep may not eat much mineral that contains salt. Intake of free-choice mineral varies considerably between individual sheep. Deficiencies in some trace minerals, such as selenium, may need custom formulations rather than off-the-shelf products.
Consumption of blocks is usually much lower than that of loose mineral, and a block may not make a significant contribution to the nutrition program. The exception would be blocks that are high in molasses, and intake of these products is hard to predict. Blocks are generally more expensive than loose minerals, but they are also more convenient and usually have less waste. If you use blocks, be sure to monitor intake.
Mineral supplements often come fortified with vitamins ADE. If using a custom-made mineral, specify the amount of vitamins you want included. That way all of the mineral and vitamin requirements for your sheep can be met in a single product. If you are feeding the right vitamin/mineral supplements, and have achieved the right amount of intake, then there would be no need to worry about injecting vitamins or minerals (e.g., selenium) into newborn lambs or other sheep. Prevention of deficiencies through a balanced feeding program is always preferred over treatment later on.
In summary, mineral supplementation needs to be addressed when designing balanced feeding programs. While mixing minerals with grain or TMR’s (total mixed rations) is preferred, free-choice mineral feeding programs are used effectively on many sheep farms. Free choice systems will be more useful and cost-effective when managed by the shepherd, rather than by the sheep alone.
Questions and comments are welcome and can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dale Engstrom is a retired former sheep farmer and ruminant nutritionist living in Lake Isle, Alberta, who now consults on sheep nutrition.
Story by Cathy Gallivan, PhD, Photos by Allison Taylor, PhD
Oliver and Sarah Loten.
Oliver and Sarah Loten have been raising sheep for 20 years and, like most sheep farmers, have made a lot of changes to their flock and their management in that time.
They started on a hobby farm near Carleton Place, when they were both working full time, Sarah as a teacher and Oliver in information technology. Fourteen years ago they decided to make sheep farming their way of life. They looked for a large farm that would be suitable for sheep and ended up buying 300 acres of rough (class 4-6) land near Perth with a lovely old stone house. An older dairy barn with an attached cinder block barn provided shelter for sheep and hay storage. The Lotens have since replaced the old cedar rails and single strand fence with a perimeter of page wire and five-strand high tensile electric fence and subsequent subdivisions, which is still ongoing. They have also added three greenhouse-type buildings, or ‘tunnels’, which are used to store hay and equipment, and also as shelter for ewes and lambs.
To feed the flock and produce cash crops they bought an additional 275 acres, which Oliver describes as good, but rocky (class 1); there is another 65 acres of leased land. Here they produce forage for the sheep, which is usually put up as round bale silage. They also grow corn, soybeans and small grains.
Living close to a major city means being close to markets and off-farm work, but also means putting up with non-agricultural development. One of the first things the Lotens did upon purchasing their land was to develop and file a Nutrient Management Plan, which predicted the nutrient (manure) production of their livestock and determined the land base required for its use. They filed a plan for up to 2,500 ewes (and their lambs), leaving lots of room for future expansion. By registering this plan ahead of any proposed developments in their area, they have been able to restrict development around them.
The newest of the three tunnels adjoins the two paddocks where the ewes lamb.
After moving to the new farm, Oliver and Sarah built a flock of 1,000 ewes. Like many sheep farmers who build large flocks from several sources, they found that some of the sheep they acquired were a better match for their operation than others. In the early days they tried pasture lambing but had problems with mis-mothering and lost or abandoned lambs. So they moved to indoor lambing and even tried accelerated lambing for five years. Lambing in a barn gave them more control over the ewes and lambs, but brought with it an increased workload that quickly became overwhelming. And the lamb death loss was still too high.
When they reached the point where they just couldn’t continue spending so much time with individual animals at lambing time, they decided to scale the flock back to 500 ewes and expand again with stricter criteria for lambing and raising lambs unassisted, even if it meant giving up some prolificacy. The flock now stands at 700 ewes again, and Oliver and Sarah plan to get back to 1,000 ewes and to market 1,700 lambs each year.
The centre feeding aisle is filled with sand; strips of the tunnel material are attached to the feeders to hold grain delivered from a side-delivery cart pulled by an RTV. This material is easily swept clean.
Most of the current flock is a mix of Dorset and Rideau Arcott, known in Ontario as OLIBS, after the Ontario Lamb Improvement Breeding Strategy that promoted this type of ewe back in the 1990’s. These were purchased from John and Eadie Steele, of Norwood, Ontario. There are also some Coopworths, from Foot Flats Farm on Amherst Island, Ontario. Although a little less prolific than the OLIBS-type ewes, Sarah says they do super well on pasture, the ewes are great mothers and they produce a very marketable lighter lamb. The Lotens also buy their guardian dogs from Foot Flats.
The flock now lambs in two groups. In the winter, when the farm is quiet, they lamb 150 ewes in the old dairy barn. In the spring, when they are busy with cropping and the start of haying, the rest of the flock lambs on pasture, in two paddocks close to one of the tunnels, where it is easy to keep an eye on them.
Now that they have the right ewes for the job, the Lotens find they only have to check the ewes two or three times a day. They provide the ewes with what they need to give birth and rear their lambs successfully, and then stay out of their way and let them do it. Newborn lambs only get handled if there is a problem; there is no docking or castrating, and RFID tags are applied when the lambs leave the farm. Sarah describes this system as ‘shepherd heaven’, after so many years of penning every ewe and her lambs in the barn and delivering feed to them.
Two other tunnels are used for feed and vehicle storage, and housing sheep.
They used to use a Kubota RTV to drive around the lambing ewes and check them. But because the RTV is used for feeding, the ewes tended to stop whatever they were doing and run out to meet it. When the RTV burned in a fire, they started using one of several horses on the farm to check the lambing ewes, and found they preferred it. Checking from a horse takes a little longer, but it’s quieter and gives them a better chance to observe the behaviour of the ewes.
Mature ewes are given a chance to raise triplets, but the Lotens also have an automatic milk replacer machine for rearing quadruplets or other lambs found struggling on the pasture. If a ewe loses a lamb or her lambs get into trouble, an X is sprayed on her back, and she no longer gets a second or third chance to cause trouble.
The mature ewes are bred to OLIBS-type rams or to British Suffolk terminal sires, and spend the whole year outside, except for the 150 head that lamb in the winter. They are vaccinated and wormed prior to lambing, and selectively wormed again at weaning. Udders are checked at shearing; the Lotens find that they have much less mastitis since they started lambing on pasture.
Oliver and Sarah got this large bin used for storing corn for the cost of moving and setting it up. Electric fans at the bottom are used to dry corn.
In the winter, the flock is fed round bales of hay or silage that are unrolled on the ground. They also get corn or barley, delivered from a cart pulled behind the RTV. When the weather is too cold or the snow too deep, the Lotens use a TMR (total mixed ration) wagon they purchased second-hand to deliver chopped hay or silage mixed with corn or barley. The Lotens are debating putting up corn silage in a pit to see if it would be a more cost-effective way of feeding the sheep.
Salt and a custom mineral mix with extra selenium and vitamin E for the winter are provided free choice. In the summer the sheep get salt and trace minerals.
Ewe lambs are bred to Border Cheviot rams and tend to produce a single, very vigorous, lamb. The ewe lambs overwinter in one of the tunnels, starting in mid-December, where they get some extra rations compared to the mature ewes. They usually lamb out in the tunnel in May.
Much of the future expansion of the flock will come from bought-in ewe lambs, including 100 that have been ordered from the Steeles this fall. Oliver and Sarah prefer to focus on what they are good at and delegate other activities to people who are good at them. They aren’t keen record-keepers and prefer to allow the Steeles to keep the extensive records and make selection decisions for them. They have bought animals from the Steeles in the past and found them a good match for their own system.
This gathering system has made bringing the sheep in from the pasture much easier.
May-born lambs are weaned in mid- to late July, depending on how well the pasture is holding up. The ewes return to the pasture but the lambs stay inside where they are grown out and finished. Lambs are vaccinated with 8-way and wormed at weaning, and amprolium is added to their water for the first five days to help prevent problems with coccidiosis. They are separated into groups of similar size so that small lambs do not have to compete with big lambs. Small lambs are kept in the old barn and larger lambs moved to the tunnels where the feeders are higher.
The Lotens used to pasture their weaned lambs, and finish them on grain. But coyotes, parasites and the challenges of summer pasture management made it difficult to grow out and finish the lambs in a consistent and uniform manner, so now they keep them inside after weaning.
In 2008, they lost 150 lambs to coyotes. Living so close to the city limited their options for control; complaints about noise from neighbours limit the number of guard dogs they can use, and there are restrictions on trapping in the area.
Most of the 2013 lamb crop have been shipped.
Like sheep farmers all across Canada, the Lotens have run into problems with resistant worms. With the assistance of their vet, they are trying Cydectin and levamisole. The Cydectin has too long a withdrawal period (two months) to be used on the lambs, but can be used on the ewes. Withdrawal time on the levamisole is only four days, making it ideal for the lambs. Sarah reserves the levamisole for the lambs after they have come into the barn to stay, so that they will not deposit resistant worms on the pasture. She has also tried selective worming (worming only those animals that show signs of parasites) and found it worked for the ewes but not for the lambs. The Lotens also use pasture rotation to limit the spread of worms; the pastureland is divided into 14 paddocks with electric fence.
The lambs are weaned onto a diet of mostly hay, with a small amount of corn that is gradually increased. A 35% crude protein pellet, with Bovatec for continued protection against coccidiosis, is mixed with the corn. The Lotens have also used unprocessed soybeans as a protein supplement. Some of these come from the transfer mix of corn/soybeans that has to be dumped from the combine when it switches from one crop to the next. Sarah says the soybeans work well if the moisture is right and the ratio of soybeans to barley isn’t higher than 1:5, and they save money by not having to process the soybeans. They haven’t fed the soybeans recently because they are worth too much money but will again if the price is right.
In addition to changing the makeup of the flock, the Lotens decided to invest in infrastructure that would make the job of looking after the sheep easier. This included building a permanent handling system in the old dairy barn and putting up the third tunnel four years ago. The tunnel is organized around a central alley that accommodates a side-delivery grain cart pulled by the RTV. Corn is delivered in the cart, then top-dressed with pellets. Round bales of hay are fed right in the pens. Sarah says that making it easier to do the feeding also makes it easier to find someone to feed the sheep, allowing them to occasionally get away from the farm.
Lambs are marketed at the nearby Ottawa Livestock Exchange, which handles 300-600 lambs per week. Oliver takes 15 to 30 lambs at a time, but doesn’t go every week. He says Ottawa is a strong market for heavy lambs (around 90 lb.), while lighter lambs do better at the Ontario Stock Yards at Cookstown.
The ewes lamb in one of four paddocks close to the newest tunnel, where it is easy to keep an eye on them. Photo by Sarah Loten.
On the day we visited, Oliver had just returned from delivering a load of lambs to the exchange. He can fit 30 lambs in the trailer, which will be sold in six groups of five. The January-born lambs sell in May and June at 90-95 lb, but if 80-lb. lambs are selling well when these early lambs hit 80 lb., they will let them go at that weight. May-born lambs start selling in September. Oliver often sends a group of small lambs to Toronto around Christmas, and hopes to be all out of lambs by the end of the year.
The Lotens find that selling lambs directly to consumers takes more time than they want to spend, although they usually sell a group of lambs to the Greek Festival each year. As with the record-keeping, Oliver and Sarah know where they do and don’t want to spend their time, and direct marketing of lambs isn’t a priority.
That’s not surprising considering all of their other responsibilities. Oliver works full time off the farm as a technical writer, maintains the farm infrastructure and markets the lambs. Sarah does most of the farming and care of the sheep. She also teaches cello lessons from their home, competes in dressage and gives therapeutic riding lessons after school. The Lotens have five children: Emma (22), Tim (18), Evan (14), Grace (10) and Alice (9). Emma teaches riding lessons and trains horses and Tim will be heading off to university next year. The three youngest children are still in elementary or middle school.
The Loten flock is mostly OLIBS and Coopworth ewes. Photo by Sarah Loten.
When the Lotens moved to Perth 14 years ago, the goal was to be full time farmers. But they’ve come to enjoy the balance of the activities they do both on and off the farm, paid and unpaid. The farm is central to the family’s economy and lifestyle, with ‘all hands on deck’, but they also value family time in other areas and time spent on other interests and skills developed over the years. Because of this, it is important that labour is used efficiently and that the farm makes a decent profit; but it also offers value as an activity that they enjoy as a significant part of life. Like so many things in life, it is all about balance…