Producer Profile: Foothill Farm Canning, Nova Scotia

Story & Photos by Cathy Gallivan, PhD

The raised feed alley in one of the barns.

In the 23 years I’ve been interviewing sheep farmers for Sheep Canada magazine, I’ve visited a few operations raising sheep in total confinement in converted pig barns. But I got a surprise when I visited Foothill Farm in Canning, Nova Scotia, the home of Coleman Ueffing and his wife, Drew Slaunwhite. If you didn’t know better, you’d never guess that the buildings where the sheep are housed hadn’t been purpose-built for them. They are as bright and airy as any sheep barns I’ve ever been in.


Coleman is the third generation of his family on the farm, which has at one time or another been home to pigs, chickens (broilers and layers), and even mink. The pig enterprise peaked in 2012 at 2200 sows, when they shipped 1,500 40-lb. weaners every other week. The pigs are gone now, as are the mink, but Coleman’s father still has chickens in three of the 10 barns on the premises.

Coleman Ueffing with a few market lambs

The 130 acres of land and the remaining buildings are available for Coleman and Drew to acquire gradually over a period of years as they build their own farm enterprise. They have been renting 40 acres of grassland and three of the barns, and are making arrangements to purchase those barns plus an additional 65 acres.

Coleman started acquiring sheep three years ago, with the purchase of 30 ewe lambs. He added another 50 six months later and 75 more the following year, to bring the flock up to the current 155. He plans to expand to 400 eventually.

Coleman demonstrating the padded piglet squeeze on this repurposed lambing cart.

Coleman and Drew both work off the farm, so for now they have to fit their farming in around their full-time jobs. Drew is a nurse and works at the Valley Regional Hospital in nearby Kentville. Coleman works for a friend who farms 1,000 acres and raises beef cattle only five minutes away. The proximity of the farm gives Coleman the flexibility to run home during the day if he needs to check on his sheep.

Coleman spent a year at the agricultural college in Truro before returning to the farm and worked in his father’s pig and chicken enterprises. He says he is gradually getting his head around the differences between ruminants and non-ruminants. He makes use of the services offered by Perennia, a provincial development agency based in Truro, and gets his rations balanced by Katie Trottier, a ruminant livestock specialist on the Perennia team.

An aerial shot of the farm, three of the barns have been renovated for the sheep operation.

The rations are based on corn and soybean meal, which are readily available in the area, and Coleman grows his own haylage and hay on the 40 acres of rented land. He plans to grow more of his own feed on the 65 acres they are purchasing. Rather than purchasing all the necessary equipment, he will pay the friend he works for to custom farm it for him, and will probably end up doing the work himself as part of his day job.

There are seven barns available to him as his operation grows, and Coleman has renovated three of them for use with his sheep.

As we walk through the first one, which measures 180×50’, I can see the work that has gone into its conversion. The sides have been opened up to let in light and air, and the cement partitions that made it a pig barn have been jackhammered out. The interior is divided in half lengthways by a raised feed alley, which is wide enough to allow round bales to be unrolled behind a tractor.

Mink cages serve as hay feeders and are used across pig penning that has a new life as claiming pens.

On the day I visited, the only animals in the barn were the rams, plus a couple of cows that belong to Coleman’s mother. The rams are Dorsets and Rideau Arcotts, breeds chosen for their ability to lamb out of season. The Dorsets were sourced from Ryan and Romy Schill in Ontario, and the Rideaus were acquired closer to home from Harry Elsinga on Prince Edward Island. There were also several bags of wool stored in this barn. Coleman hasn’t sold any wool yet, but he uses it for insulation in his barns.

The second and third barns that Coleman has renovated are 220x 50’ and 250×50’, and are connected to each other to form one long, continuous structure that is 470 feet long. The sides of each of these have also been opened up, and the interior concrete dividers removed.

The outside alleyway in one of the barns, complete with a modified pig feeder serving as a waterer.

The shorter barn houses the 155 ewes and the remainder of a recent lamb crop on either side of a raised, central feed alley. Narrow alleyways run the length of the outside walls, and are used to move or sort groups of sheep. Coleman uses a tractor to unroll round bales in this barn as well, and grain and other concentrates are fed by hand. But the alley is wide enough, and the roof high enough, for a TMR mixer that will be added when the flock is large enough to justify it.

The longer barn isn’t used for housing sheep yet but the walls have been opened up and the hard work of removing the concrete pen dividers has been done, leaving a huge, open space used to store round bales, as well as panels and equipment not currently in use. A permanent handling system is planned for this barn, at the end that opens to the barn where the sheep are.

Everywhere you look, you see equipment from previous enterprises that has been adapted for sheep. Pig feeders have been modified with floats, turning them into automatic waterers. Other pig feeders serve as mineral feeders. The storage area holds stacks of smooth white panels, once used for penning pigs, which turn into claiming pens at lambing time. The cages formerly used for mink work as hay feeders, spanning two claiming pens

A wheeled cart once used for processing piglets serves the same purpose for lambs.

Unlike other milk replacer machines, the Heatwave milk warmer doesn’t mix the milk replacer powder and water. The machine is designed to be filled with milk replacer, or whole milk, which it then keeps warm and delivers through tubes and nipples to lambs in one or more pens, so that lambs have 24/7 access to milk replacer without the need for frequent mixing and bottle feeding. Coleman uses a non-acidified milk replacer in the Heatwave.

Like the rams, the ewes are mostly Dorset and Rideau Arcott. Coleman alternates between Dorset and Rideau rams with each breeding season, so he always knows which breed sired each group of lambs.

Coleman is interested in accelerated lambing, and has lambed groups of ewes in the fall and winter, but has since decided that winter lambing is not for him. He has more than enough space to lamb all his ewes at once, and this spring decided to simplify things by exposing the whole flock, including some recently-weaned ones, for an August/September lambing. He relies on the ewes’ natural ability to breed out of season, but plans to add light control in the future. A second breeding in late summer will pick up any that fail to conceive for that lambing.

On the day I visited in mid-April, there were four Dorset rams in with the 155 ewes. The ewes, which are between one and three years of age, gave birth to about 1.8 lambs each in the last lambing, and weaned about 1.6. These numbers will increase as the ewes mature and reach their peak production years.

The lambs are grown out to 80–100 pounds, and most are sold to Oulton’s Meats in Windsor. Others go to the Maritime Cattle Market auction in Truro and from there to markets in Ontario. Coleman sells Easter lambs if he has them ready at the right time, but this market isn’t a priority for him.

The feed alleys in the barns are raised so the sheep don’t have to kneel to eat as the bedding pack builds in their pens.

Things are only going to get busier for Coleman and Drew, as they are expecting their first child at the end of July. But they have a unique opportunity to grow their flock at a pace that makes sense for them, with additional land and infrastructure in place and available for purchase as they need it.

Producer profile: Gentes Ridge Ranch, Battleford, Saskatchwan

Story & Photos by Randy Eros

Owen and Jennifer Gentes’ operation, Gentes Ridge Ranch, is an hour and a half northwest of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan along the #16 highway and from there a short 15 minute drive south, past the town of Battleford.

The farmyard sits in the middle of 480 acres of rolling mixed prairie land. Seventy acres in hay and 175 acres split evenly for oats, green feed and barley with the rest forest and native grass. Owen and Jennifer purchased the land in 2012, it is now home to a flock of 300 Rideau Arcott, most of them registered purebreds. They have three children, Simon ,21 is at the University of Saskatchewan, Andrew, 19 is working in Saskatoon and their daughter Grace, 17 is in her last year of high school.

Owen was raised on a 300 acre beef farm near the small community of Corning, an hour and a half southeast of Regina. Owen jokes about it being the typical small prairie community; there was him and one other student in his high school graduating class. Jennifer was raised in Saskatoon but like many prairie kids there are some strong farm roots; her uncle still works the family farm near Duck Lake, Saskatchewan.

West side of the 38′ x 80′ hoop barn.

Owen and Jennifer’s first farm was a 160 acre parcel located east of Saskatoon. There they ran a few horses and their first sheep. They purchased a flock of 57 commercial Canadian Arcott from Richard Zubot that they ran with the kids for 4H programs. Their main farm activity at the time was the annual production and delivery of 16,000 small square hay bales for the acreage farms in the surrounding area.

Groups of ewes feeding in the central alley-way on the east side.

When they moved to the new farm, near Battelford, 10 years ago there was no infrastructure for the sheep. The house had been used as a lodge for a neighbouring hunt farm. At the time Owen and Jennifer both worked full time in Battleford, Jennifer teaching and Owen working in the hydraulic industry.

The transition to a bigger sheep operation on the new farm had a bit of a rough start. They expanded to 100 ewes and in that same year ran into a problem with a pelleted ration that had been made from grain with high levels of ergot infection. “That tainted feed reduced milk production and poor blood circulation caused frozen ears and feet, those were some of the problems” Owen recalled. They choose to sell off the flock and start again. Since that experience they have grown most of their own grains.

The livestock guardian dog, an essential part of prairie sheep management.

The following year, 2013, they started to repopulate the sheep flock, picking up 50 Rideau x Charollais ewes. That same year, the Saskatchewan branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) was called in to disperse the sheep flock from a large farm operation in southern Saskatchewan. Groups of purebred Registered Rideau ewes were tendered for sale and the Gentes were successful in purchasing a group of 250 young ewes. They sold off part of the group and ended up with just over 100 ewe lambs and one year old ewes. Owen remembers bringing them home “they were advertised as open ewes, but of course, more than a few of them lambed.”

A group of 2022 born ewe lambs.

They were initially lambing the mature flock in February and then the ewe lambs in April but as their flock expanded and Owen reduced his offfarm work, they changed their lambing program. They now run what Owen describes as a modified accelerated operation “Groups of 30 to 40 ewes are exposed to lamb almost year-round.” They don’t expose ewes for a May lambing in order to free up time for spring seeding, nor August or September to accommodate harvest. Besides their own crops Owen also helps his neighbours during seeding and harvest.

The operation that they built allows Owen to handle different groups of ewes and lambs with real efficiency. The only fully enclosed part of the operation is a 38’ x 80’ hoop barn that sits at the west end of a long central feeding alley. All of the pens, 11 in all, can access the alley for sorting and grain feeding. Grain is pail fed into wooden troughs in the alleyway and the selected group is allowed in to feed. When the group is finished with the grain Owen’s border collie, Kate, will run the sheep back into their pen, the gate is closed and the next group is fed. The dry ewes and replacement ewe lambs are fed whole oats while barley is fed to lactating ewes, bred ewes and young rams. The feeding system was made even more efficient a few years ago when Owen installed a grain shed on the south side of the alleyway. Now the grain is just a few feet from where he needs it. Hay is fed in collapsible round-bale feeders inside the pens. Several of the pens have access to larger areas and when I was at the farm in January two groups of ewes were being fed their hay and green feed on nearby stubble fields. Depending on the weather Owen will unroll this feed daily or every second day.

They put up their own 5’x 6’ round bales of alfalfa and oat green feed and usually grow all of their grain. Drought affected their region in 2021 and feed supplies were limited. Owen was happy to have some carry over from 2021 but still had to buy in some oats, barley and flax screenings.

Shearwell auto drafter with RFIDreader panels and a Bluetooth enabled scale.

The hoop barn plays a number of different roles. The sorting system is set on one end of the barn and includes a Shearwell automatic drafter with a Bluetooth scale and a Ritchie Combi Clamp. Owen is a big fan of the Bluetooth scale and the CSIP tags (Canadian Sheep Identification Program) “it would take me two hours to weigh 200 lambs now I can do it in 20 minutes, with no errors.” The automatic drafter comes with build in RFID reader panels making life a lot easier, “though both the panels and the gates will slow down a bit in our extreme cold weather.” He has used other holding crates but finds the Ritchie combi clamp works better for CIDRs, “fewer broken applicators and sore hands” he says. Owen feels that the better your handling system the more likely you are to use it.

The whole flock is sheared at the end of April. Laurie Reed, an Alberta based shearer, and his crew will have the work done in a day. The wool is bagged up and sold through Canadian Cooperative Wool Growers.

Small breeding pens.

The claiming pens are portable and get set up as needed for each group. As the lambing continues the space can be converted to a post lambing area for the ewes and young lambs.

The ewes are managed differently; depending on if they are to be bred in-season or “out-of season”. Owen considers in-season breeding for his Rideaus to be anytime between September and early February. No CIDRs (Controlled Intervaginal Drug Release) are used but the ewes will get a shot of Estrumate seven days prior to breeeding and then again when the rams are turned in. For out-of-season breeding with the mature ewes, CIDRs will be inserted 12 days prior to breeding and removed on the day of breeding. For in-season breeding of ewe lambs Owen will insert the CIDRs for six days prior to breeding. There is sufficient drugs remaining in the CIDRs to use them a second time when breeding the next group of ewe lambs.

Customized management tags.

Owen describes himself as “a big fan” of the GenOvis program. “We are not scanning for carcass traits yet but that may change.” Over the last few years they’ve brought in rams from Christian Beaudry at Agronovie in Granby, Québec. The Top Ram reports are what Owen looks to when choosing new rams. “I like the work they’ve done in Québec, they’re light years ahead with these genetic selection programs.”

As a breeder of purebred registered stock Owen is very careful with his breeding. After the CIDRs are removed the ewes are sorted into groups of five or six head and placed in small pens with a single purebred ram. The rams are in with the ewes for only three days. This tight breeding timeframe means that when the ewes are induced with Dexamethsone at 143 days the lambs are born within a three-day window. All ewes are vaccinated with Case-Bac, four weeks prior to lambing.

Moving from annual lambing to this accelerated system has dropped the average lambing percentage but not the overall number of lambs born each year. With annual lambing the ewes were averaging 2.87 lambs, now it varies, depending on the season, from 2.2 to 2.6 per lambing. Given that the ewes are now lambing more often it works out about the same and Owen finds he has fewer bottle lambs.

Ewes are usually left with 2 or 3 lambs and the extras are raised using a Grober machine. He has used a Lac-Tek in the past and find they both worked well for their operation. Owen called the milk replacer machines game changers “as the flock grew, we just didn’t have time for bottles.”

They have been on the GenOvis program for the last 6 years using Farmworks to capture their lambing data. The ewes and lambs will spend a day in the claiming pens where the lambs are weighed and a customized Shearwell management tag (non RFID) is applied. All of the lambs are docked and any commercial male lambs are castrated. They purchase an 18% creep ration for the preweaned lambs and also make sure that they are exposed to the mixed ration that will become their complete diet after weaning.

Lambs are weaned, weighed and given a Case-Bac vaccination at 50 days. One of the advantages of the tight lambing groups is the accuracy of the 50 day weight data; the lambs really are 50 days old. The ewe lambs and ram lambs will be given a Case-Bac booster four weeks later. The CSIP tags are also applied at weaning. The commercial lambs get a regular CSIP tag while the purebred lambs get the matched-set CSIP tags which work as an alternative to tattooing. The weaned lambs are fed an on farm mixed ration of barley and soya bean meal. Owen does his ration balancing with the SheepBytes program. A few years ago he tried replacing the soya bean meal with canola meal as a less expensive option but wasn’t happy with the results. “Palatability was the problem; the lambs wouldn’t eat it.” Feed for the weaned lambs is delivered through a long Flex Flow auger that fills a series of repurposed hog feeders. The feeders are hung on chains inside a south facing open sided shelter. The feeder heights can be adjusted to accommodate additional bedding. Minerals and vitamins are fed free choice to all the sheep using salvaged auger scoops, screwed to the shelter walls.

Market lambs are sold through the Saskatchewan Sheep Development Board (SSDB). The Saskatoon assembly yard is an hour and a half away. Registered Rideau ewe and ram lambs are usually in high demand with sales of 150 head per year. Things changed in 2022 with the collapse of the North American Lamb Company (NALCO). The dispersal of NALCO’s large flock had a negative effect on western Canadian breeding stock sales and the Gentes were not immune to this. Owen ended up wintering more ewe lambs this year. “This year we had quite a few folks back out of sales, they were taking advantage of NALCO’s dispersal, but the demand for good breeding stock will bounce back.”

The pen of registered Rideau rams. Opposite page left: ewes and lambs in the hoop barn. Right: Weaned lambs with the flex-auger fed feeders.

This visit with Owen and Jennifer showed me a new way of looking at year-round lambing. The fact that they can run this many sheep, in this many groups in a set up that is primarily out of doors was inspiring. Owen has spent time on the SSDB as well as on the board of the Canadian Sheep Federation. Through all that time he has seen more than a few sheep operations and he’s paid close attention. “I am a dreamer, when I see something that works, I wonder how I can take it home and use it”. Clearly a philosophy that has paid off.

Producer Profile: Maple Meadow Farms A century of farming in Osgoode, Ontario

There’s a lot of history at Maple Meadow Farms in Osgoode, Ontario. Colleen Acres, her husband Dwayne Bazinet and their sons Mitchell, Taylor and Kieran have been running the operation since 2007, but the farm’s story starts several decades earlier. Sitting around the kitchen table with Colleen and Dwayne, along with Colleen’s parents, Dwayne and Laura Acres, we went over the long history of the farm. Later, a tour of the farm demonstrated what it looks like today.

Maple Meadow FarmsA century of farming in Osgoode, Ontario

Left to right: Dwayne and Laura Acres, Collen Acres, Dwayne Bazinet. Photo by Randy Eros

The farm, 45 minutes south of Ottawa, was purchased in 1923 by George William Acres (Colleen’s great-grandfather) as one of four 100 acre lots to help his four sons start their own farms. Colleen’s grandfather, Cecil, was one of those four young men. Cecil Acres ran hogs and a dairy operation as well as registered Hampshire, Southdown and Cheviot sheep. Through the 1950’s and 60’s Dwayne Acres recalls spending a lot of time at fall fairs throughout the region. Those fairs were a big part of farming and critical in getting your name out there if you wanted to sell breeding stock. Dwayne remembers getting $17/head for 100 lb slaughter lambs when he shipped them to Canada Packers in Hull Québec back in 1956. He is confident that the Maple Meadow Farms Hampshire are the longest continuous registered Hampshire flock in Canada.

The farm was still operating as a mixed farm when Dwayne and Laura got married in 1962. They took over the operation in 1964 and continued to run the dairy operation, registered Yorkshire, Tamworth and Hampshire swine and the registered sheep flocks. The dairy herd was switched over to beef in 2001. Though the farm is now run by the younger generations Laura and Dwayne Acres are still part of the operation. Their home is just down the road from the farmyard and they keep an eye on groups of ewes grazing the adjacent pastures.

Left: Collen Acres and Dwayne Bazinet with Dwayne’s father Larry Bazinet. Below:a group of young lambs in the renovated dairy barn. Opposite page top: Two sample of the rations used at Maple Meadow Fams. Below: Portable sun shade.

Dwayne Bazinet wasn’t a newcomer to farming when he married into the Acres family. He and Colleen met at a Junior Farmers event. Though he was raised in Montreal, his maternal
grandfather ran a dairy farm south of the Acres farm and his paternal grandfather farmed on the east side of Ottawa. Last year, Dwayne’s father, Larry, moved to the nearby town of Winchester, only a few miles away. To say that Larry is retired would be a bit of a stretch; while the rest of us sat around the kitchen table chatting about the farm, he was out in the yard with his tractor gathering and splitting wood for the boiler that heats the house and the lambing sections of the barns.

Colleen and Dwayne started farming in 1995 on a 55 acre farm that was part of her grandfather’s original farm property. They raised purebred Dorset and gradually added 100 commercial ewes which they housed on a nearby rental property. They purchased the home farm, Maple Meadows, from her mom and dad in 2007. Colleen left a position with the Canadian Seed Trade Association in 2005 to farm full time and Dwayne made the decision to leave his off-farm work with a local fuel supply company in 2015. Their eldest son, Mitchell, studied Agriculture at MacDonald College in Montreal and has now been home farming full time with his parents since 2019. Taylor, the middle son still lives at home and is working off-farm as a heavy equipment operator while the youngest, Kieran, is in his last year of high-school.

Though sheep and cropping are the main operations, there are 20 head of beef cattle and seasonal poultry. The current sheep flock is made up of both commercial and registered ewes. The 370 commercial ewes are mostly a Suffolk/Rideau cross with a few Polled Dorset cross as well. The remainder of the ewe flock are registered animals: 90 Rideau Arcott, 20 Hampshire,25 Suffolk and 15 Polled Dorset. The farm also grows and sells grain corn, soybeans and usually has some surplus barley and hay to sell as well.

The flock is bred for four different lambing groups during the year. The registered animals lamb in January/ February. The commercial ewes lamb in March and the ewe lambs have their turn in May at 14 months of age. They re-expose the March lambing group after weaning for an October/November lambing. They use CIDRs on this group. At the same time, they re-expose the purebred Dorset sheep and some of the Rideaus to a natural breeding, relying on their out-of-season breeding advantage.

The ewes lamb out in either the 42’ x 120’ hoop barn or a retrofitted dairy barn with the lambing pens set up on one end. Of the 1000 or so lambs that are born on the farm each year about half end up as market lambs. The rest are either sold as breeding stock, both cross-bred and registered, or retained as replacements for their own flock. Normal replacement for their flock runs between 16 and 18%.

The Rideau and Rideau cross ewes are the most prolific, averaging 270%. The Suffolk flock runs at 200% and the Dorset and Hampshire ewes at 165%.

Breeding stock sales are a very important part of their operation and Colleen and Dwayne have continued the family tradition of producing high quality animals. The they were introduced to the industry in the early 1960s.


Left: Dwayne doing the late afternoon chore of pushing in the TMR along the fence-line feeder. Below: The open face of the bunk sileage, and October born lambs. Opposite page top: The feed mix wagon lined up next to the grain bins and liquid molasses tank ready for loading. Bottom: The end of the hoop barn with the large doors open for ventilation. Photos by Randy Eros

The current program, GenOvis, allows them to track a wide variety of traits in both the terminal and maternal breeds. Lambs are tagged at birth using Canadian Sheep Identification Program (CSIP) tags. The lambing information is entered into the FarmWorks data management program. They have been using the FarmWorks program since their involvement in RFID tag trials for the CSIP. As lambs grow their 50 and 100 day weights are added to the program. All purebred registered animals will have ultrasound measurements taken at 100 days for both loin depth and fat cover. There is significant work involved in the collection and management of the GenOvis data but Colleen and Dwayne feel the payoff is worth it for both their own flock improvement and for shepherds who choose Maple Meadow Farms for breeding stock. Along with their CSIP tag, the registered stock are also tattooed and have an additional tag with the year letter and animal number applied for easy visual identification.

Ewes and lambs will spend a day or two in a claiming pen before being moved into the larger group of lambed ewes. They use a Grober automatic milk mixing machine for extra lambs. Ewes are expected to raise as many as three lambs and they will set up special pens for ewes with quads. The ewes with quads require extra feed and careful attention but Colleen and Dwayne feel it balances out with a reduced demand for milk replacer and allows the Rideau ewes to fully express the maternal traits for which they were developed. Lambs are weaned at 60 days and will be raised in one of the barns with the ewes headed outside.

None of the market lambs will go to the auction markets. Market lambs are generally finished to 100 to 120 lb live weight and the goal is to reach that weight within 120-150 days. They do some marketing of freezer lambs but the bulk of the lambs go as direct sales to local provincially inspected processors and as whole lambs to retail butcher shops. These are well finished 55 to 60 lb carcasses. Colleen talks about the feedback they get from the butchers and processors, saying “we hear directly from the folks who are buying our market lambs and this feedback is important as we work to create higher quality lambs”.

The flock is fed a variety of rations depending on the animal’s stage of production. They have maintenance, breeding, early and late gestation and a lactation ration for the ewes and grower rations for the lambs. Julie Lortie, an animal nutritionist with a local co-op, helps balance the rations. The farm owns a total of 500 acres and rents a further 20 acres. This supplies the bulk of the feed for these rations. The grain corn and the soybeans are used in the rations and also sold as cash crops. Barley is grown primarily for feed. Both corn silage and alfalfa silage are put up for the livestock. The silage is put into ag bags, tower silos and silage bunkers.

They have two custom mineral mixes. One with a coccidiostat and one without. Ewes get the coccidiostat mineral 2 weeks prior to lambing and throughout the lactation period. They have a mix mill and the “grain mix” used in the rations is ⅔ barley and ⅓ corn. The rations are mixed and usually fed along fence-line feeders both outside and in the barns.

The bunk silage is carefully managed. The open face of the silage is fed to the cows, leaving the fresh cut silage to be fed to the ewes. They do the cutting and raking of the hay but have a custom large square baler put up the dry hay. The alfalfa and corn silage is harvested with Maple Meadows’ own equipment and labour. They have been using corn silage for the last five years. They now put up 12 to 13 acres of corn silage a year. They have the large square dry hay bales chopped and blown into the end of the hay shed, usually 20-30 at a time. The increased cost of land has certainly changed how they feed the flock. Dwayne figures that 7 acres of corn silage produces the equivalent of 40 acres of hay.

The feed is all tested as part of the ration balancing. A few years ago they ran into a problem with pregnancy toxemia in the Rideau and Rideau cross animals and now add liquid molasses to the ration to provide the necessary energy for the prolific ewes.

Dwayne is currently doing all of the shearing. The ewes are sheared a month before lambing, along with vaccination (Glanvac-6) and hoof trimming. They will be dewormed if the faecal counts call for it. While a few fleeces are sold locally most of the wool is shipped to Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers in Carleton place, an hour’s drive away.


Colleen and Dwayne are careful about how they source their new genetics. They have been using artificial insemination as a way of safely sourcing new genetics and have their own semen storage tank. Ewes are sent to Sherbrooke, Québec where veterinarians, Dr. Richard Bourassa and Dr. Sylvain Rémy do the laparoscopic insemination. GenOvis evaluations, genotyping for scrapie resistance and flock health status are key factors in making decisions on any live ram purchases. With the recent loosening of border restrictions there is more interest from US producers in breeding stock. This in turn means that scrapie resistant genetics will become increasingly important. When choosing replacement rams the GenOvis Carcass Index (which includes gain) is used for the terminal breeds, the maternal index for Rideaus. The maternal/prolificacy index is used for the Dorset to increase both number born and number raised.


With a century of operations at Maple Meadow Farms it seemed appropriate to ask what has changed in farming. Dwayne Acres talked about the changes in feeding, saying that back then, it was “cheap labour, mostly our own. Everything was fed by pail.” As for genetics, there are now “new breeds like Rideau, Texel, Charolais and Ile de France where it used to be just Hampshire, Suffolk and Dorset.” Everyone agreed that there is a lot more science and technology on the farm. Computer balanced rations, feed tests, TMR machines with weigh scales to monitor the amounts fed, RFID readers tied via Bluetooth to weigh scales and GPS on tractors were not part of farming in Dwayne Acres’ youth.

Colleen has seen some significant changes even in then last 20 years. “More documentation and regulations like the CSIP, animal transport and concerns for welfare and biosecurity have all changed how we document things”.

Many years of flock wide blood sampling for Maedi Visna (ovine progressive pneumonia) ensures no positive carriers are in the flock. The rams are genotyped for scrapie resistance and they will test for Q fever and Johne’s if breeders require it. Industry concerns for animal health and on-farm biosecurity programs have changed how the farm’s genetics are promoted. They no longer participate in the circuit of rural livestock shows that was a big part of her growing up. A farm website and emails with photos or videos along with data support the farm’s marketing efforts. Scheduled on-farm visits to make final selections or just to visit and talk sheep are always welcome. “Involvement in 4-H has been an important part of my life and for our boys too,” says Colleen. “We supply ewe lambs and market lambs for the program and I have led the local 4-H sheep club for over 20 years.”

There has also been significant change in both the access to and the ownership of the local lamb processing plants. There are fewer plants and you need to book processing dates as much as a year ahead of time.

Through all of this talk about the farm and farming it was obvious to me that some things haven’t changed. The commitment to both the sheep industry and local community have remained as strong as ever. Dwayne Acres served the sheep industry for many years on both local boards and as Chair of the CSBA and the Canada Sheep Council (the predecessor to the Canadian Sheep Federation). He and Laura worked with local fairs and community organizations all through their farming careers. Now Colleen and Dwayne Bazinet are doing the same. Their commitment to farming doesn’t stop at the farm gate. Colleen is a past director of the Ontario Sheep Farmers board, sat on the CSBA board for six years and is a member of her local sheep district committee. Dwayne has been a fair volunteer and continues to supports the local hockey association either as an on-ice helper, team trainer or timekeeper. And now with another generation on board, things look very positive for a second century of sheep farming at Maple Meadow Farms.

Producer Profile: Wilson Acres Farm, Arrowwood, Alberta

James and Emilie Wilson’s operation, Wilson Acres Farms, is located in the gently rolling Buffalo Hills of south-central Alberta near the small town of Arrowwood. And though neither of them are new to agriculture they are relatively new to the Canadian sheep and lamb sector. My visit with this couple showed me that with the right attitude and hard work there are still ways for young folks to come into our industry.

Producer profile: Wilson Acres Farms, Arrowwood, Alberta

They have been renting the property for three years and are running a flock of 150 ewes in an accelerated program; each group lambing 3 times in 2 years. The current operation is located on 12 acres with hopes to expand in the future. There is a 135’x60’ barn on the site that houses most of the flock. The few outside paddocks are used for rams and some breeding groups.

Folks who have been in the sheep business for a while will recognize the name Floyd Williams. This is the property where Floyd ran his lamb feeding operation for many years. Their ewe flock was sourced from the Birch Hills Hutterite Colony in Wanham, AB and is a mix of Dorset, Rideau and Suffolk. Emilie and James thought that for health reasons it was important to source the ewe flock from one farm. The rams, all purebred, are Polled Dorsets (McDermit Ranch, Southey, SK and Coyote Acres, Halkirk, AB) and Suffolk (Jordan Livestock, Rimbey, AB and Ashbacher Suffolks, Halkirk, AB).

The ewe flock is run in two groups, one of 100 and one of 50. Lambing is in March, June and November. The regular breeding protocol calls for CIDRs and a PMSG injection. For the late June breeding this year they are running an experiment with part of that group receiving the PMSG and some not. They have marked the ewes’ rumps with different coloured paint to monitor the breeding activity. The rams are turned in with the ewes for 18-20 days. Last year, in the larger group of 100 ewes, they used 5 rams and ended up with a 97% conception rate. Moving forward their breeding plans call for an increase in ram power. They will continue to purchase their male genetics from purebred breeders throughout Alberta.

Six weeks prior to lambing the ewes will be vaccinated with Glanvac 6, shorn and have their hooves trimmed. At 70-80 days post breeding their veterinarian service, the Highview Animal Clinic, will scan the ewes. Any open ewes will be moved into the next breeding group. The culling standard? Two strikes and you’re out.

The ewes lamb out in the barn and will usually spend 24 hours in the claiming jugs. The lambs are weighed, tagged, and the tails banded. Males are usually left intact. When they started, Emilie and James were giving selenium and AD&E vitamin injections to each lamb but have switched to an oral administration of Vitaferst-Care. Unlike many parts of Western Canada the local soil and the feeds they produce are not deficient in selenium. With triplets, one is removed and raised on milk replacer using a Pyon Heatwave Milk Warmer setup. All the newborn lambs have access to an 18% creep feed ration.

The winter group of ewes lambed out at 158% with the average weight for the lambs at 10.7 lb. The lambing rate for the June group was lower at 112% but had much higher birth weights, averaging 13.5 lb. The Animal Management program from Gallagher is used for data collection and they have a Ritchie scale in the sorting chute.

Weaning takes place at 8 weeks. The lambs are fed initially on an 18% ration eventually moving to 16% as they grow. Most of the lambs are marketed at 80-100 lb. directly to a Halal Butcher located 45 minutes from the farm. They also direct market to several Indian restaurants in Calgary. The majority of the March born lambs were already gone when I made my late June visit to the farm. This year’s plans call for more record keeping; 50 and 100 day weights.

All of the rations, except the 18% creep feed, are mixed on farm and fed using a self propelled Jay-Lor tub grinder. They have been working with livestock nutritionist Courtney Vriens to create the different TMRs needed to manage the ewe flock, the rams and the growing lambs. All of the feed inputs are purchased and include a variety of silages, dry hay, dried distillers grain and corn. James works off-farm as the farm manager of a 75,000 head cattle feed-ot and through those connections is able to find the most affordable feeds. They use different silages and a variety of hay types in the feed mixes always looking, as James put it, “ to get the best bang for our buck.” The feeding is done daily in bunk feeders that line the central alley of the barn. Five different ewe rations are formulated for maintenance, flushing, early gestation, late gestation and lactation. As well, grower rations are mixed and adjusted for lamb growth.

I took a ride with James to a nearby hay processing plant where they loaded his truck with 3 large square bales of 2nd cut alfalfa. The fact that they are close to all of their feed supplies helps make this farm work for Emilie and James.

Producer profile: Wilson Acres Farms, Arrowwood, Alberta
I was surprised by how little machinery is required for their operation. The self-propelled tub grinder and a 25 horsepower JD tractor with a loader and grapple are all that is needed. It was with a nod of respect that I watched James unload the heavy alfalfa bales and move them into the barn with his small tractor. They do find it quicker to rent a skid steer when it comes time to clean out the barn between lambing groups. A pulley mounted to one of the beams in the barn allows for the unloading of the large tote bags of feed supplements and minerals.

James hails from Oxfordshire, England but has some Canadian roots; grandmother, Elaine, was born in BC before the family moved to England. He grew up around farming, his father, Simon, still works on the farm where James grew up. In his early 20’s James and a neighbour ran a small flock of sheep together. Realizing that his farming options in England were limited James made his way to Canada in 2014. He spent a year working on a farm near Rosetown, SK. On a trip home to England he met Emilie and together they made plans for Canada.

Producer profile: Wilson Acres Farms, Arrowwood, Alberta

Emilie, who was born in Warwickshire, had spent a gap year traveling in Australia and New Zealand, funding her trip by working on a number of farms. Once home she went back to school and obtained a degree in Agricultural Business Management at the University of West Englands’s Hartpury College. When they met in England in 2014 she had graduated and was working on an outdoor organic pig farm.

Producer profile: Wilson Acres Farms, Arrowwood, Alberta

The self-propelled Jay-Lor grinder used to mix five different rations and feed the flock.

They came to Canada in 2016 and settled in Shaunavon, SK for a few years before making the move to the farm in. They speak appreciatively of the Canadian Agricultural Loans Act Program (CALA) that has helped them finance the capital purchases needed to start up the farm. This program guarantees to the lending bank or credit union up to 95% of the loan. As they build their operation Emilie and James both work at off-farm jobs. James at the feed-lot and Emilie as the Financial Administrator for Trouw Nutrition. Emile is also very involved with the Alberta Lamb Producers (ALP). She has been on the Board of Directors since 2021 and is currently the vice-chair.

Increasing their flock and purchasing the farm along with some additional land are part of the future plans. The flock is relatively young but they are starting to develop criteria for replacement ewe selection. Dorset genetics seem to be the preferred direction, with Suffolk sires, to create good quality meat carcasses. James and Emilie have now added some purebred Texel to their operation and plan on using them in both the commercial operation and as show animals. They are looking at some British genetics as the Texel flock grows.

It was a treat to meet with this young couple. They see a real future in the sheep and lamb industry and with their energy and enthusiasm there is no doubt they’ll get there.

Producer Profile: van der Veen Farms, Grand Valley, Ontario

By Cathy Gallivan, PhD

Photos by Katrina Joy Photography

Peter and Elly van der Veen emigrated from the Netherlands in 2002 with six children under 15 years of age. Another son, Peterje, died before they left the Netherlands. Twenty years later, the three oldest girls live on dairy farms in Shawville, Quebec (Eline), Barrhead, Alberta (Lisa), and Berwick, Ontario (Marleen), each with families of their own. Marleen took some ewes with her and still has a flock of Rideaus today. Another daughter, Ilze, and son, Pieter, live and work elsewhere in Ontario. 

L to R: Harold, Elly, Peter, Roy and Pieter van der Veen.

Harold, now 22, is the youngest of the children born in the Netherlands. He lives and works on the farm, and plans to take it over someday. Roy (17) was born after the family arrived in Canada, and is still in school.

Upon their arrival in Canada, the van der Veens purchased a 215-acre farm with an old house and a bank barn in Grand Valley. The land base has since grown to 525 acres, with a further 175 acres of rented land. There are four Coverall barns that are 50’ wide and 100-154’ long, as well as a 40×200’ pole barn. Peter and Elly built a new house shortly after purchasing the farm, and Harold and his girlfriend, Alyssa Teeuwissen, now live in the old house.

The family started off raising sheep and finishing pigs on straw. But the prices received for the pigs made that enterprise unprofitable, so they decided to concentrate on sheep farming. In 2008, they shipped their last pigs and started filling the barns with Rideau Arcott sheep. From there, the flock grew rapidly to 1,000 ewes lambing on an accelerated (STAR) system. 

The two Coveralls that are used for lambing have ceilings and insulation, which keeps them comfortable on cold days.

Further expansion of the flock would have required more land and buildings, so Peter and Elly started thinking about getting more income from the same number of animals by selling milk as well as meat. Rather than compromising the health status of the flock by purchasing outside ewes, they decided to raise their own by crossing dairy breed rams onto the Rideaus. After researching the available breeds, they settled on the British Milk Sheep, and in 2017 obtained rams from Eric & Elisabeth Bzikot in Conn, Ontario. These rams were bred to the calmest Rideau ewes with the best udders, to produce their first dairy ewes. A second dairy breed, the Lacaune, was added later and mated to the British Milk Sheep x Rideau crosses. Today there are about 300 pure Rideaus on the farm and another 600 ewes with at least 50% dairy sheep breeding.

The milking parlour has room for 24 ewes per side.

A milking parlour with room for 16 ewes on each side was installed in 2018, and later expanded to milk 24 on each side. As they waited for the first British Milk Sheep crosses to lamb, the van der Veens starting milking the Rideaus. Peter recalls that it took about two hours to get 100 Rideaus to just walk through the parlour for the first time, without even being milked. But they learned quickly, no doubt aided by the grain fed every time they came into the parlour. Peter says the dairy sheep crosses adapt to the parlour more readily than the Rideaus, which makes sense given that their British Milk Sheep and Lacaune sires came from flocks where animals were selected for milking performance in a parlour.

Harold and his girlfriend, Alyssa, do much of the milking. Sixteen of the spaces on this side of the milking parlour have meters for measuring milk production.

The ewes are bred to lamb throughout the year, and there are 300-400 being milked at any given time. The milking takes about two hours for two people. Harold is the main milker, assisted by Peter, Elly, Alyssa, or other family members when they are around. The milk is sold to Shepherd Gourmet Dairy (Saputo) in St. Marys, and is picked up every few days. 

In their first year of milking, the flock produced about 40,000 litres of milk for sale. By 2021, the output had grown to 105,000 litres. Peter points out that their sheep dairy enterprise is a work in progress. The flock includes 300 Rideaus, which produce less milk per day than the dairy cross ewes, and are milked for a shorter period of time after weaning their lambs. And both the Rideaus and the dairy cross ewes raise their lambs for 34 days before getting milked in the parlour. As they continue to refine their selection and management, Peter expects to add another 30,000 litres per year to the current production.

A big part of that improvement will come when they are able to measure and record the milk production of each ewe at every milking. The parlour came with 16 milk meters, which are used occasionally to determine when a ewe should be dried off. But milking 300-400 ewes takes long enough without reading milk meters and writing down the milk produced by each ewe. The van der Veens want to use their RFID tags and other available technology to record this data automatically, but incompatibilities between the RFID tags currently in use in Canada and the ones used by milk recording equipment have so far prevented them from doing this.

Once these data collection issues are resolved, the family will have more accurate information about the relative production of each of their breeds and crosses, and will be able to further refine their selection and culling of individual ewes. What they have found so far is that the Rideaus produce about a litre of milk per day, while the British Milk Sheep or Lacaune cross ewes yield around 2 litres per day. 

But there is a lot of variation within the breeds and crosses; one of the British Milk Sheep crosses produces as much as 5 litres per day, and they have ¾-Lacaune ewes giving 2.5 litres per day after lambing for the first time. Peter says the British Milk Sheep ewes have the greatest potential for milk production in their flock. But he likes the body and strength of the Lacaune ewes, and thinks they will probably last longer.

The van der Veens plan to continue keeping 300 Rideau ewes. The Rideaus have larger litters than the dairy sheep, particularly when they lamb in season, and this can lead to more work and higher death losses. But the large litters provide significant numbers of market lambs, as well as ewe lambs sold as breeding stock. They also have good longevity; some of the Rideau ewes on the farm are 12 years old.

And even though they produce less milk than the dairy sheep, the van der Veens find it worthwhile to milk the Rideaus as well as the dairy ewes. It costs 43 cents per day to feed a dry ewe and only 44 cents more (87 cents per day) for a lactating Rideau. The price they receive for a litre of milk depends on the protein content, but has recently been around $2.30 per litre, so even when a ewe produces as little as a half-litre of milk per day, she still nets 72 cents per day over her additional feeding cost.

There are other benefits to milking the Rideaus as well. Before they started milking, the Rideaus were culled on the number and weight of lambs they weaned. But going through the milking parlour twice a day means they can be culled directly for milk production, as well as udder size and shape. Rideaus that survive this culling make better mothers at lambing time, and this benefit gets passed on to the flocks that purchase ewe lambs from the van der Veens.

The Grober milk replacer machine can handle up to 100 lambs. Photo by Sheep Canada.

Most of the ewes raise their lambs for 34 days after lambing, before the lambs are weaned and the ewe begins milking in the parlour. Rideau ewes dry off earlier than the dairy ewes; they usually get milked for 60-90 days, compared to 150-200 days for the dairy ewes. The dairy ewes could probably milk even longer, but rebreeding and drying them off earlier allows them to produce more lambs than if they were milked for a longer period.

Lambs in this plastic tote in the warming room can be left to feed themselves by inserting a bottle of colostrum into the plastic tube secured at the end of the tote. Photo by Sheep Canada.

Lambing and milking year-round means the ewes are bred while they are still milking in the parlour. Before they started milking, Peter and Elly used MGA to induce out-of-season lambing, but they had to switch from MGA to CIDRs when they started selling milk for human consumption. The timing of CIDR insertion depends on the breed, with Rideau ewes getting a CIDR 40-50 days after lambing and the dairy breed ewes a bit later at 70-80 days. CIDRs are only used outside the normal breeding season. Rams go in with the ewes for 34 days at a time, followed by two weeks with no ram exposure, to allow for the lambing barns to empty out and be cleaned before the next lambing begins.

This device holds iodine and marking paint and can be hung from the ceiling framework anywhere in the lambing barn. Photo by Sheep Canada.

An ultrasound technician visits monthly to scan potentially pregnant ewes. Ewes get dried off 35-40 days before they are due to lamb again, or when their daily milk production measures less than half a litre.

The hooks holding this lamb are suspended from a small scale, allowing easy collection of birth weights. The metal frame has a place for everything needed when processing lambs, and can be wheeled from pen to pen.

A Grober milk replacer machine, and the lambs raised on it, are housed in an addition that connects the two lambing barns, along with a warming/recovery room and an office. The prolificacy of the Rideaus made the purchase of the machine a worthwhile investment even before the family began milking sheep. But since then it has become even more useful, as it provides the option of putting a ewe that gives birth to a single directly into the milking group and raising her lamb on milk replacer. 

Above and below: An opening in a chute is kept closed by sliding this piece of bent metal over the tops of the swinging doors. Photos by Sheep Canada.

The wheel on the end of this long gate allows it to swing around to crowd animals into a holding area prior to being weighed. Photo by Sheep Canada.

Raising a single lamb on milk replacer seems counterintuitive to most sheep producers, but the amount of milk a ewe produces depends to some extent on how much milk her lambs remove from her udder. The more the lambs drink, the more the ewe produces, so ewes with multiple lambs produce more milk than when they have single lambs. 

By the time a single lamb is weaned at 34 days of age, the milk production potential of the ewe has already been set at a lower level than if she had been feeding multiple lambs. Milking her in the parlour and raising her lamb on milk replacer removes more milk from her udder in the first month of lactation, and results in a higher daily production. It also means that she gets milked for 30 days longer than if she first raises her lamb. 

This Lacaune cross ewe has a good udder/teat structure for milking in the parlour.

A ewe that produces a litre of milk a day, for an additional 30 days (all ewes feed their lambs for the first day or two), will produce an extra $74 worth of milk, which is more than twice what it costs to raise her lamb on milk replacer ($35).

Not all ewes giving birth to singles will go directly to the milking parlour. The Grober milk replacer machine has a capacity of 100 lambs at a time, so whether a ewe raises her single lamb or not depends on the space available on the machine, and on how much they need the extra milk in the tank at the time.

The family uses Google Docs to share information about rations and numbers of animals between the computer and everyone’s devices. An iPad in the telehandler provides the latest numbers for Harold as he feeds the sheep.

With ewes being fed, bred, lambed and milked year-round, there is no shortage of work, and the summers are even busier, with 100 acres of forage to harvest and cash crops to manage. The grass is cut four, or sometimes five, times a year and put up as haylage in a pit or (very rarely) baled as dry hay and sold. There is no alfalfa in the mix, but one field of orchardgrass is now in its 18th year of production. Cash crops include 180 acres of soybeans, 140 acres of wheat and 270 acres of corn, 40 of which will be harvested as silage.

Above and below: This bunk shaver allows Harold to remove silage from the pit leaving a smooth surface that reduces spoilage.

Dry ewes are grazed on the forage land in between cuttings. Milking ewes need to be close to the parlour, and can’t be wormed when they are being milked. The grazing ewes are moved nearly every day, and only return to a previously grazed area when at least three weeks has elapsed. Worming is kept to a minimum, with regular worming of the entire flock having been replaced by selective worming of only the animals that need it, when they are in the handling system for other purposes.

Above and below: The telehandler is also used to load silage into the TMR mixer. With five different TMRs being mixed and fed each day, the van der Veens can get by with a smaller TMR mixer and narrower feed alleys.

Sheep in the barns are fed total mixed rations (TMRs) in feed alleys once a day. The rations are formulated by Courtney Vriens, an independent nutritionist who specializes in small ruminants. The TMRs contain corn silage, haylage and corn grain, all grown on the farm, as well as purchased protein, vitamin and mineral supplements. The sheep consume 180-200 tonnes of the corn each year. The corn is rolled before being added to the rations to keep the dominant ewes, who eat first, from sorting and eating it all.

Between Rideaus and dairy ewes, and sheep in different stages of pregnancy and lactation, there are five different TMRs to be mixed and fed each day (see table on page 9), which takes about two hours. In addition to the TMRs fed in the barns, the ewes get 80 grams of a parlour supplement (160 grams/day) on each trip through the parlour.

The telehandler has a number of attachments. In addition to running the bunk shaver and loading the silage, it has a blade for pushing the feed back to the sheep along the 1420’ of feed alleys on the farm. It is also used to operate the Emily automatic bedding machine. With the right equipment, one person can feed all of their animals in about two hours a day, and bed the pens in another half hour.

Coyotes were a problem in the past when the family had only one or two guardian dogs; one year they lost 50 lambs. Since increasing to three or four guardian dogs, they haven’t had any kills in the last two years. Ravens have been more of a problem in recent years. Not only do the ravens attack the lambs inside the barns (which are open on the ends), Peter blames them for stressing out the ewes and rams at breeding time and reducing their conception rates.

Lambs that weigh less than 60 lb. are fed a pelleted ration in these turkey feeders. The feeders are filled automatically and their position off the ground keeps the lambs’ feet out of the feed. Once they reach 60 lb., lambs go on the market lamb TMR, which is fed in the feed alley.

Above: British Milk Sheep ram. Below: Lacaune ram.

The van der Veen farm has come a long way in 20 years. With new milk meters on order, the next big development should be the ability to automatically record the milk production of each ewe at each milking, and to use this data to improve their selection for higher levels of milk production. And with Harold’s commitment to the farm operation, Peter and Elly can look forward to retiring someday and seeing what they have built continued by future generations of their family.

Producer profile: GRannie Rambouillets & Johnstone Farm Border Cheviots, Binscarth, MB

By Randy Eros

Photo by Randy Eros

Graham Rannie and Janice Johnstone run two separate flocks of sheep on their farm near Binscarth, Manitoba, four hours northwest of Winnipeg. Janice has 125 Border Cheviot ewes (100 of which are registered), while Graham has 95 Rambouillet ewes (75 of which are registered), for a total of 220 ewes.

The farmyard sits in the middle of the home quarter, which makes clearing snow after a prairie blizzard a big job. Photo by Graham Rannie.

The farmyard sits in the middle of 160 acres of grazing land. The land is divided by permanent fencing into six paddocks of varying sizes. Portable electric fencing is used to further subdivide the paddocks as needed. The pastures are seeded with a variety of forage mixes that include: meadow brome, birdsfoot trefoil, tall fescue, alfalfa, creeping red fescue, orchardgrass and cicer milkvetch. 

Graham is quite fond of the milkvetch, saying, “It starts growing in the spring about the same time as the alfalfa. But it’s non-bloating and retains its leaves well into October.”

Graham and Janice also own an adjacent 160 acres. One 30-acre field on this quarter is in alfalfa for hay, and 100 acres are rented out as cropland. The remaining 30 acres is one of the many sloughs that dot the northern reaches of the western prairies.

The land has been in Graham’s family for over a century now, as his grandparents bought it in 1919. The first sheep on the farm were 10 ‘experienced’ ewes that arrived in 1968, when Graham was just 13. He acquired his first registered sheep, four Suffolk ewes, in 1969. The Suffolk flock grew to 125 ewes before being dispersed in 1987, after which Graham kept only commercial ewes until 1994, when he leased a flock of registered Rambouillets with a deal that let him keep two-thirds of the lamb crop. By 2001 he had purchased four small Rambouillet flocks, including the original leased animals, and was on his way as a Rambouillet breeder.

Graham raised Suffolks and commercial sheep before acquiring his first Rambouillets in 1994. Photo by Graham Rannie.

The Border Cheviot flock moved from BC to Manitoba with Janice when she and Graham were married in 2004. Photo by Graham Rannie.

Janice grew up in BC and was involved in the 4H community there. She was quite gifted at fitting out show animals and when asked what she would like for helping a Border Cheviot breeder with some animals, she asked for a bottle lamb. That ewe lamb was the start of her registered Border Cheviot flock, and she can still trace animals in the flock back to that one lamb.

Graham and Janice met, appropriately, at a sheep show in Chilliwack, BC, in 1997 and married in 2004. The shepherds are married, but their flocks aren’t. The two groups of ewes are kept separately all year, with the Border Cheviots shed lambing in April/May and the Rambouillets lambing on pasture in June. Each flock has three or four breeding groups, each bred with a single ram to allow them to register the offspring. Rams are pulled after 35 days of breeding. Breeding in the normal breeding season means that 90–95% of the ewes are covered in the first cycle for both breeds.

Graham and Janice use claiming pens for the Border Cheviot lambing, to give the ewes and lambs a few days to bond before they are combined into step-down groups of 6–8 ewes with their offspring. From there, they get moved into an open-sided shed until the lambing is finished. The lambs are paint branded at birth and docked. No routine injections are given, but animals get treated if they have a problem.

Graham and Janice use matched sets of Shearwell SET tags to identify their registered sheep, as an alternative to tattooing. The yellow tag from each set also serves as the RFID tag required for animals leaving the farm. If one tag of a set gets lost, Graham can order a replacement for it from Shearwell. Photo by Randy Eros.

Registered Border Cheviot lambs are double-tagged when they are about a month old, as Janice finds the Shearwell tags too heavy for the small ears of newborn Border Cheviot lambs. The lambs have access to an 18% crude protein creep ration that is reduced to 14% as they grow, and replaced with whole barley after weaning at around 90 days. Once the pastures are up in late May, the flock is moved onto the paddocks for rotational grazing, with a move every four days.

After the Border Cheviots finish lambing there is a short break before the Rambouillets begin. The Rambouillet ewes lamb on pasture with the pregnant ewes being ‘drifted’ forward every two days, while the ewes with newborn lambs stay where they’ve lambed. These ewes with lambs are combined every four or five days, and held in groups of 40 ewes until the entire flock has given birth and the youngest lambs are at least two weeks old. The Rambouillet flock grazes separately from the Border Cheviots all summer, with the Rambouillet lambs having access to the same creep feed as the Border Cheviots.

Graham was quick to point out significant differences in breed behavior when it comes to lambing. The Border Cheviot lambs are quite vigorous and attach to the ewe immediately, “like Velcro”, making handling the lambs easy in a shed lambing setup. A camera in the lambing shed broadcasts images to the house and lets them know if they need to make a trip to the barn at night. 

Lambing the Rambouillets is a bit more nuanced, the ewes will give birth and lick the lambs off, nurse them, lay them down and then go off to drink and eat. The fewer interventions in this situation, the better. Graham has learned to leave the flock alone from sunset to sunup; night-time checks just lead to orphan lambs. These pasture-born lambs will be caught with a fishing net by the time they are two days old, for tail docking and tagging.

All of the pastures have access to water, either through strategically placed waterers or hydrants and hoses. The pastures are grazed as late into October as the weather will allow, with hay used to supplement late season grazing.

The Border Cheviot flock is weaned in August and the Rambouillets in September. Once the Rambouillets have been weaned, the lambs from both breeds are combined, and males are separated from females. When I visited the farm in mid-February, there were five different groups on the farm: bred Rambouillet ewes, bred Border Cheviot ewes, mature rams of both breeds, young rams of both breeds, and a single group of ewe lambs and retired ewes of both breeds.

The sheep consume both native grass bales and alfalfa bales in the winter months; most of it is baled by Graham but some of it is purchased. Breeding groups get hay unrolled in the wintering yards, while the other groups are fed in collapsible, round bale feeders. The native grass bales are run through a shredder for the ewes, while the alfalfa is simply unrolled to prevent leaf loss. 

The breeding ewes get a flushing ration of whole grain for four weeks before and after breeding. This winter, the native grass hay didn’t test out very well and the ewes are also getting a half-pound of barley every day, all winter long. The winter grain ration is purchased; Graham uses either barley, oats or corn, depending on price and availability. Ration balancing is done with SheepBytes, paying close attention to copper and molybdenum levels. The native grass hay generally tests out with very low copper, so Graham feeds both sheep and cattle minerals to get the appropriate levels. 

With only one mature dog and two yearlings, the farm is a little understaffed when it comes to livestock guardian dogs right now. Graham likes to run four or five mature dogs, and will be adding to the group this year. Coyotes are the main challenge, but there are also cougars, wolves and bears in the area. 

Graham has invested in a Ritchie Combi Clamp, allowing him to weigh and perform other tasks much quicker and easier than in the past. Photo by Randy Eros.

Graham and Janice have invested in the Ritchie Combi Clamp sheep handling system, and use FarmWorks software for their data management. The Combi Clamp is great for recording weights, and has also made tagging, vaccinating (Glanvac), hoof trimming and sorting all a lot easier. “I figure I’ll be able to keep handling sheep well into my 80’s, no early retirement here,” jokes Graham. 

The animals are selected for a number of criteria including average daily gain, conformation, wool quality and breed character. Graham and Janice aim to select the top 10% of the ram lambs and top 30% of the ewe lambs for sale or retention in the flock. 

The Rambouillet wool is fine and crimpy. Photo by Randy Eros.

Both flocks have attended and done well at the annual All Canada Sheep Classics, most recently in Humboldt, Saskatchewan in 2019. 

Ewe lambs of both breeds are bred to lamb for the first time at two years of age. Graham and Janice find they grow out better this way, and feel that their overall production balances out over the six or seven lambings that most ewes average. The two breeds have similar levels of prolificacy, and lamb out at 160–180%. If enough ewes have triplets, they will create a separate group for them that is run on select pastures and fed a bit of grain. This is the only time when ewes and lambs of both breeds graze together.

Commercial coloured ewes with Rambouillet ancestry allow Graham to sell naturally coloured, fine wool to handspinners. Photo by Randy Eros.

Lambs that don’t make the cut for breeding are marketed through livestock auction yards in Virden, Manitoba or Yorkton, Saskatchewan, both of which are about 75 minutes away. The Border Cheviot lambs finish at 90–110 pounds; the larger-framed Rambouillets can go much higher. But lately Graham has been selecting Rambouillet rams for a lighter mature weight, somewhere around 250–325 pounds, in order to produce finished lambs that are better suited to the Canadian market.

Over the last 20 years, two-thirds of the Rambouillet rams that Graham has used have come out of the US; a few have been sourced in Canada and the rest retained from within the flock. Finding registered Border Cheviot rams to bring into the flock is more difficult. Janice has the largest registered flock in the country and has sold rams coast to coast; finding new, unrelated, genetics can be a challenge. They are working with their local vet to explore the possibility of importing semen for an AI program.

Above: Because wool is a significant part of the income from the flock, Graham is well organized for shearing day. Below: Fleeces are skirted and sorted to maximize the return from the wool. Both photos by Graham Rannie.

Wool quality is an important factor in the selection process for the Rambouillets. Graham’s interest in wool is a reflection of his time as a roustabout in shearing sheds on the other side of the world. Fresh out of high school, he worked on a mixed farm on New Zealand’s North Island, where the one-man operation ran 2,000 ewes, 1,600 hoggets, 300 feeder cattle and 60 breeding cows. In his words, “it exposed this prairie kid to a whole different type of farming.” 

From there he went on to spend the next three years working for shearing crews in both New Zealand and Australia. He learned to shear by doing the bellies and crutching, and finishing up the last few sheep in a run. His first real day of shearing came when one of the shearers showed up late and told Graham he was welcome to get started. There was some discussion at the end of the day whether his count was 99 or 101; either way it was a good day’s work that set him up for some custom shearing back home in Canada. A nagging shoulder injury forced Graham to get a shearer in to help out this year, a new thing as he has always done his own before now.

Graham has done some interesting work improving the quality and quantity of wool produced by the Rambouillets. He sends samples to Lisa Surber, of LM Livestock Services in the US, for fibre diameter analysis. The results from the 2021 clip off the yearling ewes are impressive. The average micron count for the 20 samples was 19.40, with the finest measuring 17.48. In Graham’s experience, the count will go up by 1 micron as the animals get older. The fibre diameter for the flock falls between 21 and 23 microns. 

Click here to see fibre test results from GRannie yearling ewes in August 2021.

Selection for fleece weight is another important consideration. In 2007, Graham imported a South Dakota ram that added significantly to the fleece weights by increasing both staple length and fibre density. The mature ewes will shear a 12-pound fleece that will skirt down to 7–8 pounds of good wool. The staple length on the yearling samples runs 3–4 inches.

A few years ago Graham purchased some coloured, commercial ewes. By breeding them to his Rambouillet rams he has created a small group of commercial ewes with rich-coloured, well-crimped, fine wool that is perfect for hand spinners and felters. The Rambouillet wool is sold to a number of small mills across the prairies, with some of the best fleeces held back for the craft market. While most producers are struggling to cover the cost of shearing with their wool sales, Graham figures the sale of the Rambouillet wool represents as much as 20% of the income generated from the flock.

Young Border Cheviot and Rambouillet rams are penned together in the winter and fed round bales in collapsible round bale feeders. Photo by Randy Eros.

Managing any purebred sheep flock is a lot of work. The feeding, lambing, record-keeping, shearing, selection and marketing are only a few of the tasks that need to be done. These two shepherds have a wealth of knowledge and no shortage of experience. Graham notes that between the two of them they’ve been shepherds for over a century, and they’re still going.

Randy Eros and Solange Dusablon and their son Michel own and operate Seine River Shepherds near Ste.-Anne, Manitoba.

Fall lambing success in Shawville, Quebec

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Story & photos by Ursina Studhalter

For sheep producers who follow the holiday markets, fall lambing is going to be a big deal for the next few years. Our operation is no different. The major Islamic holidays are now overlapping with the traditional holiday market of Easter. My partner, Andrew Bos, and I operate Ferme Bosview outside of Shawville, Quebec. We run a flock of Katahdins, with a decent number of Katahdin/Romanov crosses and the odd Dorper, on a modified accelerated lambing system.

Ursina Studhalter and Andrew Bos. Photo by Em’s Art Photography.

We started in 2016, with 85 Katahdin ewes in a rented barn in southwestern Ontario. We moved to Quebec and bought this farm in the fall of 2017. The road here hasn’t always been smooth, and the learning curve has been steep at times. After suffering significant losses in 2018, we invested in a new barn that now houses our approximately 300 mature ewes and replacements. It’s taken us several years to expand to the flock size we are now. The base of our ewe flock is still Katahdin, but we really like the results we get from our half-Romanov ewes bred to Dorper rams.

Our preferred breeds excel at producing light lambs (under 79 lb.) on a high-quality forage diet. We produce exclusively light lambs, in part because of how Quebec sheep marketing works. We’re located close to the Ontario border where market access for the Quebec heavy lamb program is difficult. As a result almost all of our lambs are sold through the Embrun sales barn outside of Ottawa. The Embrun Livestock Exchange is the closest large market for our light lambs, with a number of processors in the region being regular buyers. This does mean that holiday marketing is a big part of our production planning. Although we’ve lambed in the fall before, this year’s group was the largest we’ve attempted so far.

The new sheep barn at Bos View Farm was built as frugally as possible. Both sides of the barn are covered in old dairy barn curtains.

Breeding between April and July involves a bit more luck and management than the usual fall breeding season. All of the breeds we keep will lamb out of season naturally to some degree, with the Romanovs having the best odds and the Katahdins the worst. So we trick their biological clocks a bit to make sure the lambing happens.

We use an MGA protocol to get our sheep to breed out of season. Using MGA is very time-sensitive, and pretty much takes over our lives during the breeding season. Rather than inserting a CIDR into the ewes and then leaving them for up to 14 days, we have to feed MGA every 12 hours for two weeks. And I mean exactly every 12 hours; we have alarms on our phones to be accurate within a minute. The MGA is fed in a feed additive that is obtained with a prescription from our veterinarian. After 14 days of being fed MGA, the ewes get a shot of PMSG (Folligon), as they would if we were using CIDRs.

We exposed 153 ewes for fall lambing, but not all of them were programmed with MGA and/or Folligon. We used 13 rams in total, including two purebred Romanovs and four purebred Dorpers and White Dorpers; the rest were either pedigreed or commercial Katahdins.

The flock consists of Katahdin ewes, as well as Romanov x Katahdin crosses and the odd Dorper.

The first group to be bred (Pen 1) consisted of 58 ewes that were 3-4 years old. Due to space constraints, the entire group were fed the MGA feed but only the 40 Katahdins in the group got a shot of Folligon at the end of the 14-day feeding program. The remaining 18 ewes, which were half-Romanovs, were not injected with Folligon. All 13 of the rams went in with all 58 ewes on the same day.

The second group (Pen 2) consisted of 95 ewes, most of which were older Katahdins. Forty of these ewes (the ones in the best shape) were put on the MGA protocol in two batches of 20, 7 days apart (yes, we have a lot of gates) and injected with Folligon at the end of their respective 14-day feeding periods. The remaining 55 were exposed naturally, as they were older ewes and I really didn’t want multiples from them. As each group of MGA-programmed ewes completed their 14-day feeding period and received their shots of Folligon, they were recombined with the untreated ewes. Seven of the rams used to breed the ewes in Pen 1 were used again to breed the ewes in Pen 2.

All in all, 80 of the 153 ewes were on the full MGA/Folligon protocol, and another 18 (from Pen 1) received MGA but no Folligon.

The goal was to have 80-100 ewes lambing in the fall. We’re set up to handle around 100-120 ewes lambing at a time. Having fewer than 50 ewes lambing in a group is problematic because all of our pens house 60-75 adult ewes comfortably, and we don’t have an easy way to split a pen for more than a few weeks. The rams were in Pen 1 for 30 days and Pen 2 for 35 days. The sheep were scanned in July to confirm pregnancies, so we could adjust the feed rations accordingly.

Lambing dragged out a bit; we started in late September and finished in the first week of November. But it was okay; we’ve tried different lambing schedules over the years and lambing is just a routine activity at this point. Andrew farms full-time, so someone is always home to monitor the sheep. A wonderful side benefit of the MGA protocol is that the ewes tend to lamb during the day, making night checks very rare.

Of the 58 ewes that were exposed in Pen 1, 54 lambed, for a conception rate of 93%. All of these ewes were fed MGA, but only 40 of them were injected with Folligon. In Pen 2, 75 of the 95 ewes lambed, for a conception rate of 79%, even though only 40 of them were programmed with MGA followed by Folligon. 

The overall conception rate for all the ewes (treated and untreated), in both pens, was 84%. We therefore exceeded our goal by about 30 ewes. The ewes that didn’t lamb in the fall were re-exposed in August, unless they already had another strike against them.

Five ewes failed to deliver live lambs, or had mishaps that resulted in their lambs being fostered elsewhere, but we tagged 205 lambs from the 124 ewes that lambed successfully. We tag our lambs within 24-48 hours and track that result. Pre-tagging mortality of lambs is around 8%, which includes lambs that were mummified, aborted, or stillborn, and anything that didn’t live long enough to be tagged. Once a lamb is tagged, the odds of it surviving to be shipped or bred as a replacement are over 95%.

This works out to 1.6 tagged lambs per ewe that lambed. The ewes actually doing the raising are feeding 1.65 lambs per ewe. Pen 2 had fewer lambs on average, which we expected because the risk of a ewe needing help increases with age and most of that pen was bred naturally. We aim for two lambs per ewe, and will foster triplets if possible.

This F1 Romanov x Katahdin ewe was bred to a White Dorper ram.

Spring breeding is always a risk and we definitely did push these ewes to make this possible. Every one of them lambed last between December 2020 and February 2021. There was a bit of a hustle involved in getting them dry fast enough to flush again for re-breeding. We’re really happy with the results of these groups so far, and will definitely do large group fall lambing again in preference to summer lambing, which we dislike greatly.

At time of writing, this group has not yet been weaned, so things can still change. We’re now at just over 500 lambs tagged this year from roughly 200 ewes, with another group due just after Christmas. That group includes 65 ewes from the April lambing, the open ewes that were rebred after failing to catch for fall lambing, and the replacement ewe lambs. All in all, it’s been a good year for our sheep. Next year could be different so I’ll celebrate every success I can.

Ursina Studhalter and Andrew Bos raise commercial hair sheep near Shawville, Quebec.

Producer Profile: Grazerie Ranch, High Prairie, Alberta

By Cathy Gallivan, PhD

Photos by Louise Liebenberg

I am always interested to hear how the sheep producers I meet came to be raising sheep. There are a few who grew up on sheep farms themselves, but more often there is some other livestock enterprise, or an off-farm job, that has been supplemented or replaced by sheep farming. 

Louise Liebenberg’s story began in South Africa, where she was born and raised and where she got her first Border Collie at the age of 14. Although her family was not involved in farming they lived near a research station that had sheep, where she was able to work her dog. After graduating from university with a Bachelor of Science degree, she (and the dog) travelled the world until they ended up in the Netherlands. Here she met her former husband and together they ran a grazing company that employed up to five shepherds, grazing sheep on dikes, golf courses and military installations all over the country. As the demand for ecological grazing increased, they started a sheep grazing school in the Netherlands. 

But Louise missed the wide-open spaces of South Africa and, after travelling extensively to explore where they wanted to live next, they moved to the High River area of northern Alberta in 2008.

Preferring to buy as many sheep as possible from a single source, they started out with 100 crossbred ewes of Rambouillet, Dorset and Suffolk breeding from the Twilight Hutterite Colony in Falher. Louise prefers the Dorset to the Rambouillet or Suffolk, and they are now the predominant breed in the flock. She also uses some Suffolk rams as terminal sires.

A year after purchasing the sheep, the family started to build their herd of Angus cattle. By the end of 2014, they had 50 cows and the sheep flock had grown to over 700 ewes. 

Louise (right) and her children, Jess and Roy Verstappen.

But in January of 2015, a fire took their barn, their tractor, all of their equipment and tools, and about 30 ewes and lambs. It could have been worse. They had planned to put all the ewes in the barn the day before the fire. But because of a meeting that ran late, they decided to do it the next day. Although most of the ewes were saved, it was a disastrous situation: several hundred heavily pregnant ewes in a northern Alberta winter with no shelter.

With lambing about to begin and temperatures plummeting to -35 degrees C, the community responded. Neighbours parked stock trailers in the yard to house ewes with newborn lambs, a (roofless) shelter was constructed from round bales to provide protection from the worst of the wind, and a fabric-type shelter was provided at cost. Donations of feed, a small shed, and lambing pens were made. But even with all this help, the 2015 lambing was a stressful and difficult one, with higher than usual losses of lambs.

By 2016, a new barn (300’x80’x26’) with a dirt floor, trusses and metal siding had been constructed, there was a new tractor, and some of the tools and other equipment had been replaced. But in 2018, another setback occurred when Louise’s husband left her and the ranch. Their children (Jess and Roy Verstappen) stayed on the farm. The flock was downsized after the fire and is currently around 200 ewes, but the cow herd has grown to 125 head.

The ewes don’t come into the barn until just before lambing in January.

Jess (25) works for Cargill, and has been working from home since the pandemic began. She is more interested in the farm than her brother, particularly in the cattle. Roy (21) is back working full time off the farm as a woodworker, after being laid off early in the pandemic.

The new barn measures 300’x80’x26’ high and has a dirt floor.

January is busy on the ranch, with most of the ewes and about 10 of the cows giving birth inside the barn. The early lambing lasts for just one month, which is as long as Louise wants to lamb during the cold, short days of January in northern Alberta. A smaller group of ewes that don’t catch for January lambing, plus any ewe lambs that are too small to breed early, lambs later in April. The late lambing also takes place inside, to free up corral space for the rest of the cows, which calve at the same time.

The lambing rate isn’t particularly high; the ewes drop around 150% and wean 130%. Louise has struggled with Chlamydia abortions in the past. She feels that problem is now under control, but she still prefers not to sell ewe lambs. 

Lambing jugs in the part of the barn (40’x80’) that is heated and insulated.

Most of the lamb losses come at 3-4 weeks of age and are caused by Clostridium perfringens Type A. This diagnosis was confirmed by sending dead lambs to the vet school in Saskatoon for post mortem examinations. The 8-way vaccines available in Canada contain Clostridium perfringens Types C and D, but not Clostridium perfringens Type A. There is a vaccine available in other countries however, which contains all three types. The Canadian Sheep Federation has been working with Merck and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to obtain some of this vaccine, Covexin-10, and hopes to have it in the hands of producers this fall. 

Louise owns five quarters (160 acres each) and leases two more from the government. She rents another four quarters for putting up feed. That seems like a lot of land, even when the flock numbered 700 ewes. But the land is covered in spruce and aspen, in addition to grass, and the growing season at this latitude (55.4 degrees north) is short. 

The predominant breed in the flock is Dorset.

And then there is the drought. In contrast to the 18 inches of rain that fell in the area in 2020, they got only 3.5 inches this year over the summer. It has rained recently, but it came too late to help with this year’s pastures or forage crop.

About 650 acres are used for grazing the cattle and sheep. The cattle go to the grazing lease and some rented pastures; the sheep tend to stay closer to home.

Mowing machines mounted on the front and back of the tractor allow Louise to cut 30’ of grass at a time, which gets raked after it has dried.

Louise puts up forage on 550-600 acres, in a mix of hay, greenfeed, chopped silage and round bale silage; the proportions of each vary from year to year with the climate. She usually makes 1,000-1,500 round bales (1,450 lb.) of hay a year, plus 80-150 greenfeed bales. In wet years, more of the crop goes into silage. But some of her fields are 10+ km from home and that, plus the drought, made custom harvesting and trucking of silage impractical this year so most of the forage was put up as hay. About one-eighth of the feed goes into round silage bales, primarily to provide quality feed to the cows calving in April. The greenfeed is usually a mix of oats, wheat, barley and peas underseeded to alfalfa. This year’s greenfeed is straight oats.

Louise is likely to need every acre she has to obtain enough feed for her animals this year. She normally harvests 2.5 round bales per acre but this year that has dropped to 1-1.5 bales per acre. The federal and provincial governments are offering drought relief that will total $200 per cow and $40 per ewe but the problem may be in finding feed to buy, as everyone else in the area is in the same boat.

Louise tests everything she feeds and the sheep get the best forage; the cows clean up the rest, including silage from the edges of the pit. This year, Louise will be supplementing the forage she has with a forage pellet from Cargill.

Louise does most of the fieldwork herself, with the help of her son and daughter when they are available. She trades labour with one neighbour, who does all her baling, and another who is a mechanic and does the maintenance on all the equipment. The silage chopping and trucking is contracted out.

The feeding program is forage-based, with purchased barley and peas being fed at lambing time. Round bales of hay are fed along a fenceline feeder inside the barn, with round bale feeders for small groups such as the rams. Silage from the pit is brought into the barn using the tractor, and spread along the fenceline feeder.

The lambs born in January are weaned and sold before the grazing season begins. They get a pelleted creep feed by the time they are 10 days old, and a complete grower pellet after weaning at 10 weeks of age. These lambs will all be sold by mid-June, when Louise turns her attention to managing the summer grazing. The April-born lambs spend the summer grazing with the ewes. They get sold at the end of the summer after being weaned, vaccinated and wormed, and after becoming accustomed to eating grain.

The lambs are sold to Roger Albers in Stony Plain (east of Edmonton), who also takes any cull ewes. Louise finds it difficult to stay on top of the markets in central Alberta on a daily or weekly basis from her location in the north, and prefers to sell the lambs for a prearranged price rather than take a chance on the auction at Tofield. She makes the 5½ hour (one way) trip herself, with a trailer that can haul 45-50 lambs at a time, or 90 when it is double-decked. 

Before the fire, most of the lambs produced on the ranch were sold as finished lambs, and they used to buy and finish lambs from other producers. But now Louise sells them earlier in the year at around 70 pounds, although that varies with the relative price of lighter or heavier lambs. Louise averaged about $180 on the lambs she shipped in June.

Most of the calves are kept over the winter. Louise sells bulls at two years of age, as well as yearling replacement heifers. She sold some freezer beef packs last year but found it time-consuming and is not sure if she will continue with it.

Louise has to haul water to many of the pastures where the sheep graze, but this one has a dugout.

Much of the grazing is on marginal land, but because most of the ewes are open and dry during the summer they are able to get back into condition for breeding in August, and Louise doesn’t have to move the flock as often as she would if they all had lambs on them. But even with these efficiencies, grazing the sheep is a full-time job in the summer. The ewes are occasionally as far from the home place as 30 km, and Louise sees all of the sheep every day, as well as bringing them water and minerals. Some of the pastures are watered from dugouts, but many are not and have to be watered from tanks on the back of the pickup or pulled behind the tractor

Raising sheep extensively in northern Alberta means having a good predator control system, as there are bears, wolves and cougars in the area, in addition to coyotes. Louise relies on her livestock guardian dogs to keep her in business. Her experience grazing sheep in Europe, combined with her years in northern Alberta, have led to her writing a regular column on the use of livestock guardian dogs for an American sheep magazine; she has also been invited to speak on the subject at sheep industry conferences.

Šarplaninac livestock guardian dogs keep tabs on the sheep flock and Angus cattle at Grazerie Ranch.

Louise’s passions include both wildlife and ranching, which would seem like a conflict to many. Rather than trying to eliminate all of the potential predators in the area, she uses her dogs to coexist with them, even in 2017 when a pack of wolves with seven pups were denning within sight of her barnyard. This approach has earned her a wildlife-friendly certification for her farm from an international organization ( that began in the US as a way for ranchers to market their wool as predator-friendly.

Šarplaninac guardian dog Mali keeps watch over bred ewes.

Louise’s breed of choice for guarding the sheep is the Šarplaninac, a breed that comes from Macedonia. She currently has seven of these dogs, five working and two retired, plus a new litter of puppies. There are also two working Border Collies and one that is retired, plus a ‘yard’ dog.

Prior to the fire, Louise had an extensive set of portable panels that could be assembled anywhere into a handling system. Since then, with the reduced size of the flock, she manages vaccinations and other treatments by crowding animals into an alleyway inside the barn that holds about 40 ewes at a time. Although she is pretty efficient at doing things by herself, she occasionally gets an assist from a local 4-H club looking for hands-on experience. The members of the club also visit the farm and even spend the night sometimes during the lambing season.

Wolf pups playing within sight of the barnyard.

There was also a completely automated Shearwell handling and weighing system that Louise hasn’t been able to justify replacing, but she still uses the FarmWorks software that was purchased with the system to track her ewes and their production. The lambs are identified but not weighed individually, and most of her selection efforts are directed at identifying poor-doing lambs and ewes to be culled. She uses a cattle scale to weigh lambs in groups, to track their average weights and plan her loads south to the feedlot.

Louise says it’s hard to get a shearer in her area in the spring. She is thinking of transitioning to a fall shearing system that would make it easier to book someone and also reduce the condensation in the cold part of the barn during winter lambing. The farm’s wool has been sold to the Canadian Cooperative Wool Growers in the past, but this year’s wool is still waiting to be shipped.

Louise’s plans for the future include rebuilding to around 350 ewes. She is contemplating introducing another breed to the flock. She would like to sell more lambs, but like many sheep producers, she prefers twins to triplets. She doesn’t want to increase the prolificacy of the flock to an extent that would require a lot of extra labour or other major changes to her current production system.

The sheep spend most of the year outside, where feeding is much less labour-intensive.


Producer Profile: Meadowbrook Farm, Walkerton, Ontario

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.

Is your feeding program working?

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Abortions and stillborn lambs. These losses are most likely related to disease, but severe vitamin and trace mineral deficiencies may be involved.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.