By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Sheep farmers who feed round bales are familiar with their convenience and also with the resulting high feed waste, even when round-bale feeders are used.
Many unique designs of round-bale feeders have been developed and some claim to reduce or even eliminate feed wastage. Researchers at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences conducted two experiments to investigate the effect of feeder design, roughage type and size of round bales on feed wastage in sheep.
Four indoor pens were each provided with a different type of round-bale feeder, and stocked with 10 Norwegian White ewes in early pregnancy. Ewes in each pen were given a bale of low-quality roughage (Roughage 1) that was left in the feeder for four days, followed by a bale of high-quality roughage (Roughage 2) for the next four days. Each group of 10 ewes was subjected to each type of feeder by rotating them among the pens.
Two of the round-bale feeders were circular; one had diagonal dividers (RD) and one had vertical dividers (RV). A third feeder (KR) had six sides made from linked panels that the ewes could move, with no dividers. The fourth feeder (TR) suspended the round bale in an open ‘basket’ over a square platform 18 inches off the ground. Bales were placed on the floor with round sides up in the first three feeders, and placed in the basket of the TR feeder with the round side facing sideways.
Above: RD feeder. Photos courtesy of the researchers.
Above: RV feeder. Photos courtesy of the researchers.
Above: KR feeder. Photos courtesy of the researchers.
Above: TR feeder. Photos courtesy of the researchers.
Roughage 1 (low quality) was grass silage harvested at a late stage of maturity with a dry matter (DM) content of 56.0%. Roughage 2 (high quality) was hay harvested at an early stage of maturity with 73.8% DM. Each type of roughage was baled in rounds that were approximately 47 inches tall and 52 inches in diameter. The average weight of the bales was 514 kg (288 kg DM) for Roughage 1 and 468 kg (346 kg DM) for Roughage 2. The median particle length was 7.7 inches for Roughage 1 and 3.8 inches for Roughage 2, which also had a greater leaf:stem ratio than Roughage 1.
Bales were replaced every four days, with leftover feed removed from the feeders before new bales were added. Every morning at 0800, the wasted forage on the floor surrounding the feeders was collected, weighed and sampled.
Feeding behavior of the ewes was scored by an observer at 2-minute intervals on Days 2 and 4 from 0900 to 1200, and 1500 to 1800, for each bale of Roughage 2 fed. Behavior was scored as the number of ewes eating with their whole head (both ears) inside the feeder, eating with their head partly inside the feeder (at least one ear outside the feeder), eating from the feeder while climbing with their front legs, or eating roughage from the floor outside the feeder.
Results – feed wastage
Overall, feed wastage averaged 1.1 kg DM/day per ewe. Feed waste was greatest on Day 1 (1.3 kg DM/day per ewe) and decreased gradually until Day 4 (0.9 kg DM/day per ewe). Feed wastage was almost four times as high for Roughage 1 as Roughage 2 (1.9 versus 0.5 kg DM/day per ewe). Feeder design also had significant impact on feed wastage, with more feed being wasted from the RV feeder (1.3 kg DM/day per ewe) than the KR and TR feeders (1.0 and 0.9 kg DM/day per ewe, respectively). The RD feeder (1.1 kg DM/day per ewe) was intermediate between the RV and KR or TR feeders.
Wastage from both types of round bales had lower dry matter content than the baled feeds. Wastage from Roughage 1 also had lower crude protein content compared to round bales of Roughage 1, but wastage from Roughage 2 had a similar content of crude protein as the round bales of Roughage 2.
Results – feeding behavior.
Ewes spent approximately 40% of the time during the observation periods eating. The time spent eating with the whole head inside the feeder was significantly lower for the TR-feeder than for the other feeders. Time spent eating with the head partly inside the feeder was lowest for the KR-feeder. Climbing with the front legs while eating was most prominent in the RV and TR-feeders. Time spent eating wastage from the floor was almost negligible. Interestingly, time spent eating with the whole head inside the feeder increased from 9.3% at Day 2 to 15.6% at Day 4, while time spent feeding with the head partly inside the feeder decreased from 30.3% at Day 2 to 20.8% at Day 4. Eating from the feeder while climbing with the front legs decreased only slightly from 3.6% at Day 2 to 2.8% at Day 4.
In this experiment, the ewes were offered half or whole round bales of only one roughage in each of the same four types of feeders. Roughage in this experiment was harvested at a late stage of maturity and 76.6% DM. Median particle length of the hay was 6.2 inches. Bales were fed as either half bales averaging 188 kg (145 kg DM) or whole bales weighing 419 kg (323 kg DM). Feeding behaviors were scored as in Experiment 1, but morning observations were limited to only one hour due to low feeding activity between 1000 and 1200.
Results – Feed wastage
Overall mean feed wastage in Experiment 2 was 2.2 kg DM/day per ewe and decreased gradually from Day 1 (3.0 kg DM/day per ewe) to Day 4 (1.4 kg DM/day per ewe). Feed wastage was almost twice as high for whole bales (2.9 kg DM/day per ewe) as for half bales (1.5 kg DM/day per ewe). Feed wastage was similar for all feeder types when feeding whole bales, but higher for the TR feeder when feeding half round bales. As in Experiment 1, the dry matter content of the wastage was lower than that of the round bales.
Results – feeding behavior.
Ewes spent approximately 70% of their time eating during the observation periods. Time spent eating with the whole head inside the feeder was much higher when feeding half bales than when feeding whole bales. Feeder design also influenced feeding behavior in that time spent eating with the whole head inside the feeder was lower for the TR-feeder. Time spent eating with the head partly inside the feeder was much higher when feeding whole bales, and also higher on the TR-feeder compared to the other feeders. Time spent eating while climbing with the front legs was significantly higher when feeding whole bales compared to half bales, but this behaviour only occurred on the TR-feeder when feeding half bales. Ewes spent more than twice as much time consuming feed wastage from the floor around the feeders when fed whole versus half bales, regardless of the type of feeder.
Effect of roughage quality
The amount of feed wasted in both experiments was generally high, ranging from 0.5–2.9 kg DM/day per ewe. The amount of feed wasted was actually more than estimates of how much ewes of this size would consume, in two of the four periods. Feed wastage was highest on the day a new bale was fed and gradually decreased over four days. Type of roughage, size of bale (half or whole), and feeder design all had significant effects, but the major factor influencing feed wastage was roughage quality.
In Experiment 1, the feed wastage was nearly four times higher for Roughage 1 than Roughage 2. Roughage 1 was harvested at a later stage of maturity and, hence, had a lower nutritive value. Late-harvested forages also have more stems in relation to leaves, which was seen in the longer particle length of Roughage 1. Ewes were selecting leaves in Roughage 1, as shown by the lower level of crude protein in the wastage compared to that in the round bale. The ewes must have pulled the long fibrous stems out of the feeders and left them as wastage on the floor around the feeder. There was no indication that leaves were being selected from Roughage 2, however, as the crude protein level in the wasted feed was the same as that in the round bale. Therefore, differences in selection may be a product of a greater leaf:stem ratio in the early- versus late-harvested roughage. Dry matter content of the roughage did not affect feed wastage in this study.
In Experiment 2, the roughage used was also harvested at a late stage of maturity, resulting in even more waste (2.9 versus 1.9 kg DM/day per ewe).
Effect of whole versus half bales
Feeding half bales rather than whole ones reduced feed waste by nearly half. Reducing the amount of feed in the feeder may have allowed the ewes to eat with their heads in a normal, downward position unlike when feeders contain whole bales, causing them to raise their heads to eat. The researchers speculated that the ewes dragged the feed out of the feeder in order to eat in a more normal position. This theory is supported by the data, which shows that the ewes spent more time (50.5%) with their heads inside the feeder when feeding on half round bales than when feeding on whole round bales (27.4%), resulting in more of the potential wastage being dropped inside the feeder and less on the ground outside.
In general, the ewes spent little time consuming wastage from the floor around the feeders. However, they spent more time doing so when eating whole bales compared to half bales in Experiment 2, which is probably related to the larger amount of feed wastage available when larger amounts are fed.
Effect of feeder design
Although there was a significant effect of feeder design on feed wastage, the real differences were small. In Experiment 1, where only whole bales were used, the TR feeder had the lowest feed wastage. In Experiment 2, there were no differences between the round-bale feeders when feeding whole bales, but the TR feeder had the highest wastage when feeding half bales. This might be because the half round bales did not fit properly in the TR-feeder design. The ranking of the other feeders also differed between Experiments 1 and 2, so there seems to be no clear effect of feeder design on feed wastage.
Although feeder design did have a small effect on feed wastage, the quality and amount of roughage delivered into the round bale feeders had the largest effect on how much feed was wasted. Low-quality forage fed in whole round bales resulted in the most waste, but producers may take some consolation in knowing that ewes are consuming the higher-protein portions of poor-quality bales before wasting the rest, and that they will waste much less hay fed in round bales if it is of better quality.
S.G. Kischel et al., 2019. The effect of round-bale feeder design and roughage type on feed wastage in sheep feeding. Animal, 13 (10): 2388-2397.
By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Carrie Woolley with her husband, Brett Schuyler, and their daughter Emma. Photo courtesy of Carrie Woolley.
Schuyler Farms Limited, located near Simcoe, Ontario, consists of 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans, 700 acres of apples, 550 acres of sour (pie) cherries, and 400 acres of pasture and woodlot. The farm is run by brothers Brett and Ryan Schuyler, who are in the eighth year of a 10-year transition from their father, Marshall, and uncle, Drew Schuyler. The brothers have clearly-defined responsibilities: Brett is in charge of field management for the corn, soybeans, apples and cherries, and of the staff, including seasonal workers and eight full-time people. Ryan is in charge of the administrative side, looking after the finances, paperwork and food safety requirements.
Carrie Woolley is married to Brett Schuyler, and the mother of Emma (2) and Elliott (8 months). Carrie grew up in the area on a dairy farm, and she, as well as Brett and Ryan, all attended the University of Guelph, graduating in 2007(Ryan), 2008(Brett), and 2011(Carrie). After her undergraduate degree, Carrie stayed on in Guelph to complete a Master’s degree in Animal Behaviour and Welfare (working with dairy cattle), which she completed in 2013.
While she was working on her Master’s degree, Carrie was considering how to add livestock to the other operations at Schuyler Farms. The seeds of a sheep operation were planted in 2011, when a friend from New Zealand suggested grazing sheep between the rows of trees in the orchards, rather than mowing them. For the first two years, the Schuylers custom-grazed a neighbour’s sheep, using portable electric netting, to test out the concept. That arrangement lasted for two summers, ending just as Carrie was returning from Guelph, at which point she and Brett decided to acquire their own sheep.
The rows of cherry trees are far enough apart to permit mechanical harvesting. This also allows hay to be made in the cherry orchards early in the summer, before harvest in July and grazing in August. Photo by Cathy Gallivan.
The flock started small, with the purchase of a dozen North Country Cheviots and five Shetlands. Then Carrie met up with Mark Ritchie and Cherry Allen of Footflats Farm on Amherst Island (see Fall 2012 issue of Sheep Canada), who became her mentors as she started her own flock. At Footflats Farm, Carrie saw a production system that she could adapt to her own situation, one based on easy-care but relatively productive crossbred ewes (a mix of Border Cheviot, Romanov and Coopworth), which were housed outside, lambed once a year, and handled very little. Today, Carrie is managing 600 ewes.
In addition to the orchards, Carrie also has access to about 300 acres of permanent pasture on marginal land. The flock lambs there in May each year. The cherries are harvested in July, after which the lambs are weaned onto the cherry orchards in August.
Schuyler Farms shares ownership of a cherry processing facility (Norfolk Cherry Company) with one of their neighbours. The cherries are harvested by machines, then immersed in cold water for 24 hours, sorted, pitted, packaged and frozen for future sale.
Apple picking takes place in September and October. The process is much more labour-intensive, requiring 150 temporary labourers from Trinidad and Tobago, who are housed on the farm during their stay. The 10-12 different varieties of apples are packed and sold through the Norfolk Fruit Growers’ Association.
Ewes and lambs grazing under cherry trees in summer. Photo by Carrie Woolley.
As the sheep flock expands, so does the need for more pasture. In addition to the marginal land already being used, there are 250 acres of low value woodlot. For the last four or five years, the woodlot has been developed through a practice known as silvopasture (see sidebar page 9), in which enough of the tree canopy is removed to allow sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor, encouraging the growth of grass and other plants to support grazing by the sheep. The process involved having a professional forester mark trees to be removed by loggers, after which a forestry mulcher was brought in to clean up the understory. The area has now been aerially seeded to a mix of orchardgrass, birdsfoot trefoil, red and white clovers and ryegrass.
The perimeters of the permanent pastures (including the silvopasture) are fenced with Electrolock, an electrified Gallagher product that looks like pagewire, which is left up year-round. There is an additional live wire under the Electrolock, and one offset wire on the outside of the fence. Between the electric fence and a team of 13 livestock guardian dogs, Carrie hasn’t had much trouble with predation so far, although she does get the odd coyote kill.
In addition to grazing in pastures and orchards, the sheep also clean up crop residues such as corn stover. The climate is pretty mild in this southern part of Ontario (42.8° N), with very little snow, which means the sheep don’t require any harvested feeds before the end of the year.
The climate in the Simcoe area is mild, with small accumulations of snow that allow the sheep to forage for feed till the end of the year. Photo by Carrie Woolley.
By the new year, the flock is back on the permanent pastures and silvopasture, where they get fed round bales of silage or dry hay, depending on the year. Most of this hay is made in the early part of the summer in the cherry orchards, where the rows between the trees have been seeded with pasture mixes containing alfalfa and clovers. This is in sharp contrast to the days before the arrival of the sheep, when the rows between the trees were kept mowed “like golf courses.” Between the haying and grazing in the orchards, the farm now saves $20,000-$30,000 per year in mowing costs.
The apple trees normally last 40-50 years, while the cherry trees average only 30, partly because of the shaking they endure from the harvesters. I asked if the sheep cause any damage to the trees and Carrie told me that the sheep don’t damage mature cherry trees, but the apple trees have to be handled a little more carefully. Only the lambs graze near the apple trees, and only trees that are more than four years old. The lambs also consume apples that fall to the ground under the trees.
Above: Selective removal of trees allows sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor, promoting growth of feed for the sheep. Below: Round bales stored in silvopasture for winter feeding. Cull apples are available at no cost from the apple growers’ co-op and fed mechanically over the fence. Photos by Cathy Gallivan
With 25% each of Border Cheviot and Romanov in the commercial ewes, the flock is relatively productive, dropping about 1.7 lambs per ewe on average. The ewes are bred in one of two groups, each with several Coopworth rams. The ewe lambs are in their own group with Border Cheviot rams. Lambing takes place in May. The ewes and lambs stay in the same groups from before lambing until August when they are weaned. Carrie interferes with them very little during lambing, only going out to check for dead or ‘orphan’ lambs. Ewes that need help in this system get culled and orphans get sold as bottle lambs.
The ewes lamb on permanent pastures with lots of shelter. Photo by Cathy Gallivan.
When I asked Carrie how she chose her ewe lamb replacements given that the sires and dams are not recorded, she told me that all the ewes are scanned during pregnancy to determine if they are carrying one or more lambs, and then separated into lambing groups based on their scan results. This allows Carrie to give the ewes carrying two or more lambs the best, and most sheltered, lambing pastures. It also allows her to select lambs that are born as twins or triplets simply by restricting her selections to lambs born in that group/pasture.
This old school bus has a ramp at the back and holds 60-70 animals. Photo by Cathy Gallivan.
For managing the flock, Carrie uses a piece of software from Gallagher called APS, and speaks favourably of the company’s willingness to work with her to make needed changes to the software. If a lamb that has been treated walks across the scale, its tag is scanned and a reminder pops up to make sure it doesn’t get shipped before it should.
With sheep grazing in up to seven different locations at once, Carrie needs several energizers and watering systems. She also has a Prattley yard and an Hdale squeeze chute that can clamp animals for vaccinating and other procedures. The chute feeds into an electronic scale and Prattley autosorter.
Carrie kept 200 ewe lamb replacements in 2018. Another 500 went to a feedlot near Holstein at the end of the summer grazing season, at 50-70 lb.
A further 300 were sold as freezer lambs. These were her fastest-growing slaughter lambs, and were processed at a local abattoir (VG Meats) at 80-100 lb., in late October or early November. The frozen lamb is stored in the freezers at Norfolk Cherry Company for sale throughout the next year.
Above: A Prattley yard made up of lightweight aluminum panels is easily transported between grazing areas to weigh or process animals. The Hdale squeeze chute clamps animals for easy vaccination or ultrasonic scanning. Below: A Prattley autosorter connected to the electronic scale head weighs and sorts lambs into weight categories set by the operator, allowing rapid weekly weighing of market lambs. Photos by Carrie Woolley.
Most of the customers are restaurants, which buy specific cuts such as racks, rather than individual households buying single lambs for their freezer, and VG Meats handles most of the arrangements once the lambs have been delivered to the plant. As a local product with a unique story/brand (orchard grazing), Woolley’s Lamb is popular with restaurants that focus on local food, such as David’s Restaurant in Port Dover, which serves their lamb with a cherry chutney.
Carrie plans to expand her breeding flock of 50 purebred Coopworth ewes, and to use AI to breed them with semen from New Zealand sires selected for parasite resistance. She plans to increase the size of the commercial flock until they have about 1,000 ewes in total. Although she appreciates the vigour and productivity that the Border Cheviot and Romanov offer, she is considering increasing the percentage of Coopworth breeding in the ewes from the current level of 50%, in order to get a slightly larger lamb carcass.
After only seven years of owning her own sheep, Carrie has taken the management system she learned from Mark and Cherry at Footflats Farm and put her own stamp on it, by integrating the flock into the other operations at Schuyler Farms, and maximizing the use of resources already owned by the farm.
by Dale Engstrom, M.Sc., P.Ag
I am often asked about using free-choice loose and block minerals. Are they needed? Do they do a good job of providing essential nutrients to sheep? Are they cost effective?
Let’s start by reviewing what minerals are. Minerals fit into two classes: major (or macro) minerals and trace (or micro) minerals.
Major minerals are those that are measured in feedstuffs and reported in requirement tables as percentages (parts per hundred). For example: alfalfa hay may contain calcium in the amount of 1.6% of the dry matter, and a mineral supplement may contain 16% calcium.
Trace (or micro) minerals are measured or required and reported in milligrams per kg (mg/kg), parts per million (ppm) or parts per billion (ppb). For example: grass hay may contain copper in the amount of 5 mg/kg (or ppm), and a trace-mineralized salt may contain 250 mg/kg.
The table below shows the major and trace minerals required in specific amounts in all sheep diets.
So these minerals are ‘essential’ and needed in sheep diets. Does that mean you have to provide supplemental sources of these minerals to your sheep? Not necessarily. Most feeds contain a wide variety of these minerals. The question is: do they contain enough to meet your sheep’s requirements? The only way to know for sure is to find out what is in the feeds (by feed sampling and testing), and then balance rations for each stage of production.
The minerals in the table are the ones that may be deficient to some extent in sheep feeds. When we don’t know how much the sheep are getting, we have to fall back on general recommendations. Here are my rules of thumb for mineral supplementation:
Have major feeds that are going to be used in critical periods (flushing, late gestation, early lactation) tested, and balance rations to determine how much mineral supplementation is required.
Mix required minerals with the grain or silage portion of the ration. This may not be possible; grain is not always being fed and minerals don’t stay evenly distributed in a dry hay mix. One producer I know adds a liquid mineral supplement to his hay/grain rations to get over this problem.
If you can’t mix your mineral supplement effectively with your sheep rations, free-choice mineral feeding is a practical alternative. This is better than not feeding minerals at all when they are needed in the diet. But it pays to actively manage the free choice mineral program:
a. Select the mineral supplement that best fits your rations. Grass and legume forages are often short of phosphorus, so using a mineral relatively high in phosphorus will get you going in the right direction. Look for a salt-free mineral that contains at least 12% phosphorus. Greenfeed and grain rations are typically short of calcium. In this case, select a salt-free mineral that contains about twice as much calcium as phosphorus (e.g., 18% calcium and 9% phosphorus).
b. Always feed a trace-mineralized salt, as most feeds grown in Canada are deficient in copper, manganese, zinc, selenium, cobalt and iodine. A modest level of copper (less than 500 mg/kg) is my recommendation for sheep, while much higher levels are required for cattle and horses. You should not feed cattle and horse minerals to sheep without checking the copper level.
c. Another option is to buy a complete product, one that contains salt (sodium chloride), other major minerals (such as calcium and phosphorus) and trace minerals. The salt level should be around 40 to 60%. The sheep’s natural appetite for salt will encourage consumption of the complete mineral mix, if you don’t feed any additional salt. You can make your own complete mineral by mixing a bag of salt with a bag of salt-free mineral. This will give you 50% salt in the final mix.
d. Have a target level of mineral consumption in mind, and monitor the flock intake to get close to the target. For example, if the ewes need 20 grams (.044 lb.) of mineral mix per day, 100 ewes should then consume 14 kg (30.8 lb.) per week.
e. Keep minerals fresh by feeding two or three times per week, and feed only the amount the sheep will clean up between feedings. Use a feeder that keeps manure and rain out.
f. You can vary the salt content to increase or decrease the consumption of the overall mix. Less salt should result in more intake, and vice versa.
g. Put the mineral feeder near the water source or an area where the sheep spend time.
h. Recognize the limitations of a free-choice system. If there are high sodium levels in your water, the sheep may not eat much mineral that contains salt. Intake of free-choice mineral varies considerably between individual sheep. Deficiencies in some trace minerals, such as selenium, may need custom formulations rather than off-the-shelf products.
Consumption of blocks is usually much lower than that of loose mineral, and a block may not make a significant contribution to the nutrition program. The exception would be blocks that are high in molasses, and intake of these products is hard to predict. Blocks are generally more expensive than loose minerals, but they are also more convenient and usually have less waste. If you use blocks, be sure to monitor intake.
Mineral supplements often come fortified with vitamins ADE. If using a custom-made mineral, specify the amount of vitamins you want included. That way all of the mineral and vitamin requirements for your sheep can be met in a single product. If you are feeding the right vitamin/mineral supplements, and have achieved the right amount of intake, then there would be no need to worry about injecting vitamins or minerals (e.g., selenium) into newborn lambs or other sheep. Prevention of deficiencies through a balanced feeding program is always preferred over treatment later on.
In summary, mineral supplementation needs to be addressed when designing balanced feeding programs. While mixing minerals with grain or TMR’s (total mixed rations) is preferred, free-choice mineral feeding programs are used effectively on many sheep farms. Free choice systems will be more useful and cost-effective when managed by the shepherd, rather than by the sheep alone.
Questions and comments are welcome and can be directed to email@example.com.
Dale Engstrom is a retired former sheep farmer and ruminant nutritionist living in Lake Isle, Alberta, who now consults on sheep nutrition.
Story by Cathy Gallivan, PhD, Photos by Allison Taylor, PhD
Oliver and Sarah Loten.
Oliver and Sarah Loten have been raising sheep for 20 years and, like most sheep farmers, have made a lot of changes to their flock and their management in that time.
They started on a hobby farm near Carleton Place, when they were both working full time, Sarah as a teacher and Oliver in information technology. Fourteen years ago they decided to make sheep farming their way of life. They looked for a large farm that would be suitable for sheep and ended up buying 300 acres of rough (class 4-6) land near Perth with a lovely old stone house. An older dairy barn with an attached cinder block barn provided shelter for sheep and hay storage. The Lotens have since replaced the old cedar rails and single strand fence with a perimeter of page wire and five-strand high tensile electric fence and subsequent subdivisions, which is still ongoing. They have also added three greenhouse-type buildings, or ‘tunnels’, which are used to store hay and equipment, and also as shelter for ewes and lambs.
To feed the flock and produce cash crops they bought an additional 275 acres, which Oliver describes as good, but rocky (class 1); there is another 65 acres of leased land. Here they produce forage for the sheep, which is usually put up as round bale silage. They also grow corn, soybeans and small grains.
Living close to a major city means being close to markets and off-farm work, but also means putting up with non-agricultural development. One of the first things the Lotens did upon purchasing their land was to develop and file a Nutrient Management Plan, which predicted the nutrient (manure) production of their livestock and determined the land base required for its use. They filed a plan for up to 2,500 ewes (and their lambs), leaving lots of room for future expansion. By registering this plan ahead of any proposed developments in their area, they have been able to restrict development around them.
The newest of the three tunnels adjoins the two paddocks where the ewes lamb.
After moving to the new farm, Oliver and Sarah built a flock of 1,000 ewes. Like many sheep farmers who build large flocks from several sources, they found that some of the sheep they acquired were a better match for their operation than others. In the early days they tried pasture lambing but had problems with mis-mothering and lost or abandoned lambs. So they moved to indoor lambing and even tried accelerated lambing for five years. Lambing in a barn gave them more control over the ewes and lambs, but brought with it an increased workload that quickly became overwhelming. And the lamb death loss was still too high.
When they reached the point where they just couldn’t continue spending so much time with individual animals at lambing time, they decided to scale the flock back to 500 ewes and expand again with stricter criteria for lambing and raising lambs unassisted, even if it meant giving up some prolificacy. The flock now stands at 700 ewes again, and Oliver and Sarah plan to get back to 1,000 ewes and to market 1,700 lambs each year.
The centre feeding aisle is filled with sand; strips of the tunnel material are attached to the feeders to hold grain delivered from a side-delivery cart pulled by an RTV. This material is easily swept clean.
Most of the current flock is a mix of Dorset and Rideau Arcott, known in Ontario as OLIBS, after the Ontario Lamb Improvement Breeding Strategy that promoted this type of ewe back in the 1990’s. These were purchased from John and Eadie Steele, of Norwood, Ontario. There are also some Coopworths, from Foot Flats Farm on Amherst Island, Ontario. Although a little less prolific than the OLIBS-type ewes, Sarah says they do super well on pasture, the ewes are great mothers and they produce a very marketable lighter lamb. The Lotens also buy their guardian dogs from Foot Flats.
The flock now lambs in two groups. In the winter, when the farm is quiet, they lamb 150 ewes in the old dairy barn. In the spring, when they are busy with cropping and the start of haying, the rest of the flock lambs on pasture, in two paddocks close to one of the tunnels, where it is easy to keep an eye on them.
Now that they have the right ewes for the job, the Lotens find they only have to check the ewes two or three times a day. They provide the ewes with what they need to give birth and rear their lambs successfully, and then stay out of their way and let them do it. Newborn lambs only get handled if there is a problem; there is no docking or castrating, and RFID tags are applied when the lambs leave the farm. Sarah describes this system as ‘shepherd heaven’, after so many years of penning every ewe and her lambs in the barn and delivering feed to them.
Two other tunnels are used for feed and vehicle storage, and housing sheep.
They used to use a Kubota RTV to drive around the lambing ewes and check them. But because the RTV is used for feeding, the ewes tended to stop whatever they were doing and run out to meet it. When the RTV burned in a fire, they started using one of several horses on the farm to check the lambing ewes, and found they preferred it. Checking from a horse takes a little longer, but it’s quieter and gives them a better chance to observe the behaviour of the ewes.
Mature ewes are given a chance to raise triplets, but the Lotens also have an automatic milk replacer machine for rearing quadruplets or other lambs found struggling on the pasture. If a ewe loses a lamb or her lambs get into trouble, an X is sprayed on her back, and she no longer gets a second or third chance to cause trouble.
The mature ewes are bred to OLIBS-type rams or to British Suffolk terminal sires, and spend the whole year outside, except for the 150 head that lamb in the winter. They are vaccinated and wormed prior to lambing, and selectively wormed again at weaning. Udders are checked at shearing; the Lotens find that they have much less mastitis since they started lambing on pasture.
Oliver and Sarah got this large bin used for storing corn for the cost of moving and setting it up. Electric fans at the bottom are used to dry corn.
In the winter, the flock is fed round bales of hay or silage that are unrolled on the ground. They also get corn or barley, delivered from a cart pulled behind the RTV. When the weather is too cold or the snow too deep, the Lotens use a TMR (total mixed ration) wagon they purchased second-hand to deliver chopped hay or silage mixed with corn or barley. The Lotens are debating putting up corn silage in a pit to see if it would be a more cost-effective way of feeding the sheep.
Salt and a custom mineral mix with extra selenium and vitamin E for the winter are provided free choice. In the summer the sheep get salt and trace minerals.
Ewe lambs are bred to Border Cheviot rams and tend to produce a single, very vigorous, lamb. The ewe lambs overwinter in one of the tunnels, starting in mid-December, where they get some extra rations compared to the mature ewes. They usually lamb out in the tunnel in May.
Much of the future expansion of the flock will come from bought-in ewe lambs, including 100 that have been ordered from the Steeles this fall. Oliver and Sarah prefer to focus on what they are good at and delegate other activities to people who are good at them. They aren’t keen record-keepers and prefer to allow the Steeles to keep the extensive records and make selection decisions for them. They have bought animals from the Steeles in the past and found them a good match for their own system.
This gathering system has made bringing the sheep in from the pasture much easier.
May-born lambs are weaned in mid- to late July, depending on how well the pasture is holding up. The ewes return to the pasture but the lambs stay inside where they are grown out and finished. Lambs are vaccinated with 8-way and wormed at weaning, and amprolium is added to their water for the first five days to help prevent problems with coccidiosis. They are separated into groups of similar size so that small lambs do not have to compete with big lambs. Small lambs are kept in the old barn and larger lambs moved to the tunnels where the feeders are higher.
The Lotens used to pasture their weaned lambs, and finish them on grain. But coyotes, parasites and the challenges of summer pasture management made it difficult to grow out and finish the lambs in a consistent and uniform manner, so now they keep them inside after weaning.
In 2008, they lost 150 lambs to coyotes. Living so close to the city limited their options for control; complaints about noise from neighbours limit the number of guard dogs they can use, and there are restrictions on trapping in the area.
Most of the 2013 lamb crop have been shipped.
Like sheep farmers all across Canada, the Lotens have run into problems with resistant worms. With the assistance of their vet, they are trying Cydectin and levamisole. The Cydectin has too long a withdrawal period (two months) to be used on the lambs, but can be used on the ewes. Withdrawal time on the levamisole is only four days, making it ideal for the lambs. Sarah reserves the levamisole for the lambs after they have come into the barn to stay, so that they will not deposit resistant worms on the pasture. She has also tried selective worming (worming only those animals that show signs of parasites) and found it worked for the ewes but not for the lambs. The Lotens also use pasture rotation to limit the spread of worms; the pastureland is divided into 14 paddocks with electric fence.
The lambs are weaned onto a diet of mostly hay, with a small amount of corn that is gradually increased. A 35% crude protein pellet, with Bovatec for continued protection against coccidiosis, is mixed with the corn. The Lotens have also used unprocessed soybeans as a protein supplement. Some of these come from the transfer mix of corn/soybeans that has to be dumped from the combine when it switches from one crop to the next. Sarah says the soybeans work well if the moisture is right and the ratio of soybeans to barley isn’t higher than 1:5, and they save money by not having to process the soybeans. They haven’t fed the soybeans recently because they are worth too much money but will again if the price is right.
In addition to changing the makeup of the flock, the Lotens decided to invest in infrastructure that would make the job of looking after the sheep easier. This included building a permanent handling system in the old dairy barn and putting up the third tunnel four years ago. The tunnel is organized around a central alley that accommodates a side-delivery grain cart pulled by the RTV. Corn is delivered in the cart, then top-dressed with pellets. Round bales of hay are fed right in the pens. Sarah says that making it easier to do the feeding also makes it easier to find someone to feed the sheep, allowing them to occasionally get away from the farm.
Lambs are marketed at the nearby Ottawa Livestock Exchange, which handles 300-600 lambs per week. Oliver takes 15 to 30 lambs at a time, but doesn’t go every week. He says Ottawa is a strong market for heavy lambs (around 90 lb.), while lighter lambs do better at the Ontario Stock Yards at Cookstown.
The ewes lamb in one of four paddocks close to the newest tunnel, where it is easy to keep an eye on them. Photo by Sarah Loten.
On the day we visited, Oliver had just returned from delivering a load of lambs to the exchange. He can fit 30 lambs in the trailer, which will be sold in six groups of five. The January-born lambs sell in May and June at 90-95 lb, but if 80-lb. lambs are selling well when these early lambs hit 80 lb., they will let them go at that weight. May-born lambs start selling in September. Oliver often sends a group of small lambs to Toronto around Christmas, and hopes to be all out of lambs by the end of the year.
The Lotens find that selling lambs directly to consumers takes more time than they want to spend, although they usually sell a group of lambs to the Greek Festival each year. As with the record-keeping, Oliver and Sarah know where they do and don’t want to spend their time, and direct marketing of lambs isn’t a priority.
That’s not surprising considering all of their other responsibilities. Oliver works full time off the farm as a technical writer, maintains the farm infrastructure and markets the lambs. Sarah does most of the farming and care of the sheep. She also teaches cello lessons from their home, competes in dressage and gives therapeutic riding lessons after school. The Lotens have five children: Emma (22), Tim (18), Evan (14), Grace (10) and Alice (9). Emma teaches riding lessons and trains horses and Tim will be heading off to university next year. The three youngest children are still in elementary or middle school.
The Loten flock is mostly OLIBS and Coopworth ewes. Photo by Sarah Loten.
When the Lotens moved to Perth 14 years ago, the goal was to be full time farmers. But they’ve come to enjoy the balance of the activities they do both on and off the farm, paid and unpaid. The farm is central to the family’s economy and lifestyle, with ‘all hands on deck’, but they also value family time in other areas and time spent on other interests and skills developed over the years. Because of this, it is important that labour is used efficiently and that the farm makes a decent profit; but it also offers value as an activity that they enjoy as a significant part of life. Like so many things in life, it is all about balance…
Story & photos by Cathy Gallivan, PhD
I met with Fred and Anne Hamilton on a sunny day in early July, on the farm that has been in Fred’s family since the expulsion of the Acadians in 1760. The original land grant was 1,000 acres. By 1802, the family had eight heirs and the farm was subdivided; in 2013, 500 acres of the original farm remain.
Like many sheep farmers, Fred acquired his first ewes, a flock of 40 culls, to support his Border Collie habit. But when BSE came to Canada ten years ago, the Hamiltons sold their beef herd and restocked with commercial Rideau Arcotts. The flock now stands at 250 head.
Dairy barn and farm sign.
About 90% of the Rideau ewes are bred to Texel terminal sires, with the rest bred to Rideau rams to produce replacement ewes. There are also 12 purebred Texel ewes that son Fabian (21), a recent graduate of the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University (formerly the Nova Scotia Agricultural College) in Truro, enjoys showing. Daughter Andrea (19) seems set to continue the family’s agricultural tradition, as she is currently enrolled at the same institution.
Haylage for cows and sheep is packed on the ground, and covered with plastic and heaped earth.
In addition to the 250 ewes, the Hamiltons also milk 40 head of Holsteins and put up corn silage, haylage, and two (or three, in a good year) cuts of hay. The farm has 150 acres of pasture (70 fenced for sheep) and 35 acres are planted for corn silage each year. The rest, including 200 acres of productive marshland, is harvested for hay and haylage. Both the corn silage and the haylage are piled on the ground and covered with plastic, with earth heaped up on the edges to form a tight seal.
Cows are fed a 75:25 mix of haylage and corn silage and the ewe flock gets the same mix. Like most flocks feeding silage to sheep, there is some incidence of listeriosis, which they minimize by feeding the best quality silage to the sheep.
Recently weaned lambs on corn silage and concentrate in feedlot pens.
When I visited in July, a group of lambs had been weaned a week or so earlier, and were being self-fed on corn silage and 1-1¼ lb. of a concentrate ration per day. Prior to weaning the lambs had been on pasture with their dams, but were creep fed in the corrals each night.
The flock is divided into three groups, which lamb in December, February and May. The ewes are not accelerated – they just lamb at different times of year. This strategy allows the family to run a larger flock than they could accommodate in their lambing barn all at once. It also lets them lamb a manageable number of ewes around other farm activities, and sell lambs year-round.
Commercial Rideau ewes wait to enter handling system.
The conception rate on the fall lambing is around 80%. In 2012, the Hamiltons moved the fall lambing back to November, but got fewer ewes lambing than in December in previous years, so have gone back to December for this year. The ewes are synchronized with CIDRs in batches of 30 a week apart, with eight rams per group.
Conception rates are nearly 100% for the February and May lambings, where the mature ewes drop an average of 250%. There are lots of triplets and the ewes rear many of them, but when they don’t, there is a ready supply of cow colostrum and milk for them. Ewe lambs that give birth to triplets are only allowed to raise two.
The handling system is located inside this shed, which is attached to the lambing barn.
Ewe lamb replacements are chosen from those born in February and lamb for the first time in November, when they are nearly two years old.
One of the reasons for moving the fall lambing to November is that in December Fred and Anne run horse-drawn sleigh rides on the farm, using three Belgian and two Clydesdale draft horses (two teams plus a spare). Sleigh rides are followed by parties at the camp on the farm, with chili or beans and brown bread on the menu.
With a dog at the back of the flock, the ewes move through the doorway into the handling system.
When not milking, lambing or driving horses, Fred gives herding demonstrations with his Border Collies. All of the animals on this farm appear to have jobs – even one of the cats, which had a cameo appearance in a movie filmed in the area.
On the day I visited, Anne and Fabian were running the ewe flock through the handling system and checking the ewes to see if they needed to be wormed. This was done primarily by examining their eyes for signs of anemia, but thin ewes, as well as those with dirty rear ends, also came in for special attention. On this occasion, 20 out of 250 ewes were treated with normectin. By worming selectively, rather than just worming all the ewes, the Hamiltons save money on worming products but, more importantly, hope to prevent the development of resistant worms.
Anne and Fabian check the ewes’ eyes for signs of anemia caused by parasites.
Before the end of summer, this process was repeated twice more, with a larger number of ewes treated each time. Fecal samples were collected from individual ewes two weeks after each run-through, and submitted to a research project examining parasite resistance in the province.
Predators are not a huge problem for the Hamiltons. In a bad year, they might lose three or four lambs, but have not lost any so far this year. A local trapper controls coyote populations in the area, and they bring the ewes and lambs in from the pasture each night. When I spoke to Fred again in early September, he mentioned that they had a group of 80 ewes and five rams grazing inside electric netting down on marsh (across the road from the farm). For additional protection, he is using two Foxlights, situated 100 feet apart. These are a new predator deterrent product from Australia, sold by the Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers Ltd.
The horse barn houses five draft horses plus harness.
The Hamiltons are members of the nearby Northumberland Lamb Marketing Co-op (Northumberlamb), which is only 10 or 15 minutes from the farm. By lambing three times a year, they are able to ship lambs in the winter and spring when there is no waiting, and receive a premium price. And in the summer and fall, when everyone has lambs ready, producers who ship in the winter and spring are given priority.
The Texel-Rideau cross lambs ship at 100-105 lb. to meet the requirements of the co-op for carcasses between 42 and 54 pounds, with GR measurements from 4 mm for a 42 lb. lamb up to 15 mm for a 54 lb. lamb, and acceptable carcass conformation. They also have to be clean. Lambs that have excessive mud or manure may be assessed a financial penalty and producers with consistently dirty lambs risk being taken off the list of approved suppliers.
Grain feeder made from a 12-inch plastic culvert split in half and capped with wood on each end. The rounded bottom is slippery and the sheep don’t tend to stand in it.
After my visit with the Hamiltons, I took a short drive to the Brookside Abbatoir, home of Northumberlamb, and visited Michael Isenor, who has been the co-op’s General Manager since its inception in 1982. The co-op buys nearly 6,000 lambs per year from about 100 farms in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Whole carcasses and retail cuts are delivered to restaurants and grocery stores all over Nova Scotia each week.
When I visited in early July, the Northumberlamb base price was $3.50/lb. This was about a dollar off the price for the same time last year. Like many lamb processors, Michael mentioned that the last two years of extremely high lamb prices, while good for sheep producers, have been somewhat less beneficial for processors. This includes the co-op, which can sell (and buy) more lamb when prices are more moderate.
The expanded and upgraded Northumberlamb plant.
At the time of my visit, the co-op was awaiting a visit from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), to see if the recent expansion and upgrade of the plant will qualify it for federal inspection. The 30 members of the co-op have invested nearly $600,000 into the project. If it is approved for federal inspection, the co-op will qualify to supply lamb to Atlantic warehouses, to be shipped outside Nova Scotia. This should allow them to sell more lamb; the hope is to expand the kill to 10,000+ lambs per year. As I write this in early September, the co-op has had one inspection from CFIA and is awaiting word on another.
Editor’s Note: Information on Foxlights night predator deterrent, as well as prices of dressed lambs at Northumberlamb, are available online here.
Story by Peggy Johnson, Photos by Tracy Hagedorn
A community with deeply rooted traditions embraces modern technology. Photo by Nathan Hofer
After months of winter gloom, it was wonderful to drive across central Alberta on a sunny morning and experience the magic of spring: soft green of new leaves emerging from tree buds, the hint of grass in the roadside ditches and pastures, new calves worrying their mothers as they ate the last of the winter hay, and geese swimming on the sloughs.
Interior of the new barn. Note air intakes on ceiling.
My destination was the Red Willow Hutterite Colony, northeast of the town of Stettler. The colony was established in 1948, and includes a beef feedlot, a dairy, chickens, turkeys, a sheep flock and extensive cropland. Lawrence Hofer and his wife Marie gave me the tour. The Hofers have four children, two boys and two girls. Their oldest daughter is married, but Nathan (23), Jordan (20), and Caitlyn (18), all help with the sheep. Nathan is the ‘go-to’ guy for keeping computer records.
After 60 years of lambing in the old sheep barn, the people of the colony have constructed an impressive new facility. They started in November of 2011 and finished only three months later in January of 2012. The barn is 80 feet wide by 300 feet long by 16 feet high, with a 2”x 8” wood frame, insulated with fiberglass. The interior walls are lined with plastic (Ag–Liner) and the exterior covered with metal cladding.
The barn includes an attached living quarters and storage area. This building is 23 feet wide by 50 feet long, and includes an open kitchen, dining and seating area paneled in naturally-finished birch, a bedroom/office that sleeps three people, and a three-piece bathroom. The cement floor has hot water heat, from the utility room in the barn. Although it is attached to the barn, there is no direct access. You step outside and enter the barn from a side door. This prevents barn odours from entering the living area. During lambing, the Hofers’ sons Nathan and Jordan, and their nephew Marvin, stay here and work in rotating three-hour shifts. Lawrence is at the barn from 6 am until 10 pm, but goes home to sleep.
Control room in the new barn.
The barn itself includes a room that houses an automatic milk replacer machine, a utility room, a storage area and a two-piece bathroom.
Lawrence calls the Lac-Tek machine a lifesaver, and wouldn’t want to be without it. It can support 60 lambs at a time, but only six were on it the day we visited. It mixes warm milk replacer on demand from the lambs, and pumps it through the wall to nipples secured on the side of the lamb pen. Lawrence says that teaching the lambs to suck by holding them up to the nipples several times the first day is relatively easy, and that they learn to access the milk replacer pretty quickly.
The colony runs 14 shearing machines at a time
Lambs raised on the machine grow well, and Lawrence has weaned them in as little as three weeks. Weaning is accomplished by putting water into the milk supply system. The machine is easy to maintain, as it only needs to be cleaned every other day. The lambs also have access to a commercial creep feed that is medicated with Deccox to prevent coccidiosis.
The utility room houses the complex piping for the barn’s watering system. Lawrence is using a product called Oxyblast 50 (hydrogen peroxide) to purify the water in the barn, but the system could also be used to provide medication to animals in one or more pens. The stainless steel waterers in the barn were built on the colony, and sit on poured cement pads. Water bowls are hinged on one end and can be tipped up and emptied for easy cleaning. The utility room also houses a stationary pressure washer for washing the barn.
Air quality in the barn is maintained through a Hotraco negative pressure ventilation system. Fresh air enters the barn through the many controlled openings in the peak of the roof, and stale air is exhausted by fans in the end wall. Heat is provided by infrared heaters at one end, suspended from the ceiling above the lamb pen and lambing jugs. The temperature of the barn is maintained at 70C. When the weather is warm enough, all of the doors are opened and the system goes from powered to natural ventilation.
Office and living quarters attached to the new barn.
The barn was built to house the colony’s commercial Suffolk flock, which consists of 500 mature ewes, 200 ewe lambs and 14 purebred Suffolk rams. Lawrence is a strong supporter of buying performance-tested rams to make genetic improvement in the flock. He says this is one of the best investments a producer can make. The colony purchased eight rams in 2012, all from the Parker Stock Farm in Three Hills, Alberta.
The Red Willow flock lambs once each year, with the mature ewes going first, followed by the ewe lambs. Rams were turned out on August 15th last year. The ewes stay on pasture until shearing time, but are fed a total mixed ration (TMR) in feed troughs after the first snowfall, or when they run out of grass. They occasionally graze during the day on grain stubble or silage regrowth.
Shearing took place on December 15th, in preparation for lambing in mid-January. The setup for shearing is greatly simplified by a pipe and plywood shearing/handling system built onsite. It supports 14 hand pieces that are run by young men from Red Willow and nearby Donalda Colony. Last year, shearing got underway at 8 am and by 3 pm the entire flock was done.
Lambing jugs are constructed in double rows of seven from oilfield drill pipe and welded wire panels.
After shearing, the ewes move into the barn and are fed a late pregnancy TMR. Lawrence and Nathan balance rations using the online SheepBytes program, but also get some help from a nutritionist. The ration is a mix of silage and hay, and includes .75 lb. of barley per head per day for the pregnant ewes, as well as a 32% crude protein supplement medicated with oxytetracycline to prevent abortions. Approximately 4,700 lb. of TMR is fed each morning with a mixer wagon and if it is all consumed by evening, the ewes receive a ‘top-up’ of small square bales of hay. A second TMR with barley at 1.75 lb. per head per day is fed to lactating ewes. Ewes are injected with selenium six weeks prior to lambing. Ewe lambs are housed and fed separately during the winter, and lamb after the mature ewes.
A length of PVC pipe equipped with a float and attached to a water supply provides water for 14 lambing jugs.
Ewes and newborn lambs are placed in (4’x4’) lambing jugs, which were built onsite from 2⅜ inch drill stem pipe frames and welded wire panels. Each bank of lambing jugs is a double row of seven pens, with a six-inch PVC pipe at the back, which supplies water to jugs on either side. The banks of jugs are moved into the barn with a front-end loader and levelled, so the water in the PVC pipe reaches all of the jugs. Ewes and lambs stay in the jugs for 12 to 24 hours. Before being moved to group pens, the lambs are docked with rubber rings and tagged with Shearwell RFID tags. They are also navel-dipped and injected with penicillin to prevent joint ill.
The colony participated in the Alberta Lamb Traceability Project, and make use of RFID technology in their data collection and record keeping. Lambing data is collected in the jugs on a Psion handheld device and downloaded into FarmWorks software on the computer in the office. Records from the most recent lambing indicate that they had 172% lambs born alive in 2013.
Portable lamb self-feeder.
Lawrence was disappointed with the number of triplets born this year, and plans to breed the ewes a month later this fall. The ewe lambs and mature ewes will be placed on a field of seeded barley pasture in early fall for flushing. They will be fed one pound of barley per head per day for three weeks and then two pounds of barley per head per day for an additional three weeks, prior to breeding.
From the lambing jugs, ewes and lambs move into pens in the barn that hold 60 ewes and their offspring. The pens are filled in chronological order, but ewes nursing triplets are penned separately and given a more concentrated TMR. Pens are bedded with small square bales of straw, put up on the colony farm.
A small grain feeder that lambs can’t get their feet in!
Lambs are weaned at eight weeks of age by moving the ewes out of the pens and leaving the lambs behind in their familiar environment. Lawrence used to wean the lambs at six weeks, but finds waiting two more weeks means the ewes are less likely to develop mastitis and the lambs keep right on growing after being weaned.
Weaned lambs are fed a ration of whole barley and supplement that is delivered to the pens in self-feeding carts, along with a small square bale of second-cut hay in the feed bunks in each pen every other day. The feed carts are also built onsite; they hold 3,500 pounds of feed, and are moved into the pens with a tractor. A full cart feeds a pen for about two weeks.
Lambs are weighed through a Racewell handling system, beginning at 50 days, and again as they approach the optimum market weight of 120 pounds. The best ram lamb this year showed an average daily gain of 1.88 pounds per day. Lambs are marketed through a contract to SunGold Specialty Meats and delivered to the plant at Innisfail, about an hour’s drive from Red Willow.
This shearing floor allows for quick setup on shearing day by multiple shearers. Ewes are penned inside the structure and are easily available through the swinging gates.
Two hundred ewe lamb replacements will be selected again this year. Some are chosen at birth from ewes with a history of successful lamb rearing or from a particular sire. Other selections are based on adjusted weaning weights from the FarmWorks software. All are examined for good feet and legs and other conformation traits.
Ewes that can’t or won’t nurse all their lambs, or those that have laid on a lamb, are culled. The rest of the ewes are moved after weaning to a 200-acre creek bottom pasture just behind the barn. The pasture is fenced with pagewire with two strands of barbed wire on top. Given the hilly terrain, I wondered about predators. Lawrence says that their neighbours hunt coyotes and the boys snare them in the winter. Predators have not been an issue so far, so they don’t have any guardian dogs. Dead animals are composted in the manure pile to avoid attracting predators.
Pasture management includes cutting Canada thistle with a gyro mower in mid- to late summer. Future plans include separating the large pasture into smaller ones with additional fencing, and rotating the ewes through the pastures.
When asked if he wished he could make any changes to their system, Lawrence suggests that he only wishes they had built the new barn bigger.
Editor’s Note: Many sheep producers reading this story will be thinking about the cost of building such a barn, especially relative to the current price of lamb. But if you got 60 years of service out of your last barn, and plan to get 60 years out of a new one, and you have the skills and manpower to build the new barn yourself, it’s easier to take a long-term view of the industry and have the confidence to keep investing in it.
Peggy Johnson has recently retired from teaching animal science at Olds College. She and her daughter Sarah have a flock of Est a Laine Merino cross ewes on their farm near Sundre, Alberta.
Story & photos by Stuart Chutter
Corn is an important part of the Catto feeding program. The whole plant can be used for grazing… (Photo courtesy of Martin & Louise Catto.)
Martin and Louise Catto farmed in Scotland prior to moving to Canada almost 15 years ago. Although their principal enterprise was dairy farming, they would purchase 500 ewes each year in the fall, lamb them out in the spring and then sell them with lambs at foot. That all changed in 1999 when they moved to Lipton, Saskatchewan.
The move to Canada was largely prompted by better farming opportunities here. European regulation and land prices limited any farm growth in Scotland. Martin mentions that when they moved to Saskatchewan, the cost to buy an acre of land here was roughly equivalent to the cost of renting an acre in Scotland. The couple pencilled out several farming enterprises in Canada, including a dairy, but the cost of quota ruled out milking cows and the decision was made for a mixed grain and sheep operation.
… or the crop can be combined and ewes grazed on the aftermath. (Photo courtesy of Martin & Louise Catto)
The first group of 80 ewes arrived on the farm before any sheep fencing had been prepared. A Border Collie that came over from Scotland with the family herded the sheep while fencing and basic facilities were put in place. Additions to the flock were hard to come by at that time, as large groups were rarely available. The Cattos limited themselves to buying complete flock dispersals, to reduce the risk of disease and make sure they were buying good quality, functional ewes.
From those early days the flock has grown to over 2,500 ewes in 2013, and is one of the largest flocks on the prairies. Lambing started in February and will be done in three batches: the February group, another in March just before shearing, and the last group, which includes the ewe lambs, in June. The April/May break allows Martin to get out of the barn and into the shop to prepare for seeding. Martin points out that a lot of their sheep flock management has to be planned around the grain operation, and that there are tradeoffs between what is ideal for sheep production and what is manageable for a mixed farming operation.
Dividers between pens are removable for easy barn cleaning. Snow fence at the back of the barn protects siding from debris that blows out of the bale processor when spreading straw.
All of the ewes go through jugs, where the lambs are docked and tagged and their navels dipped. Males are not castrated, as marketing is done direct to processors and the Cattos have enough lambs to keep males and females of various weights in separate feedlot pens. While in the jugs, the lambs are also scanned into the FarmWorks flock management program.
The Cattos were enrolled on the national RFID pilot project and credit RFID as a primary driver in their flock improvement. Louise is quick to point out that there was a learning process with electronic management. She laughs as she tells me that there are three different types of pneumonia on their farm, because of three different spellings used when the farm computer was originally set up! The RFID management system consists of a handheld Psion tag reader/portable computer, paired with an electronic scale and Racewell drafting system. Automating these procedures has dramatically reduced the labour of managing their flock.
Extra predator protection on outside pen fences.
Of particular note to me was the fact that this large group of lambing ewes had so far produced only one orphan lamb. For me this is a lambing dream; the Cattos credit it to strict culling, adequate time in the jugs and a non-prolific yet highly maternal ewe base. The flock is largely Texel and Cheviot breeding, so litter sizes are manageable for the ewes. Louise says that in an average year they usually have only about 20 orphan lambs.
In the beginning the Cattos lambed out on pasture, but coyotes quickly put an end to that. Martin credits the barns as one of the best investments on the farm. With an increase in lambs weaned per ewe from roughly 1.3 when lambing on pasture to 1.7 when lambing in the barn, Martin is confident that the extra labour and infrastructure are adequately rewarded.
This device is used on the tractor front-end loader to move ewes and lambs from the lambing barn to the open-front sheds.
The increased weaning percentage can also be attributed to the attention the Cattos give to their advanced and precise feeding program. Scientific rationale is behind every feeding decision, from breeding to marketing. Every feed ingredient is tested and rations adjusted accordingly.
Flushing is done while the ewes are grazing corn. Martin’s anecdotal evidence supports corn grazing over alfalfa forage for increased ovulation rate. They have recently switched to a variety that matures in a shorter period of time, a decision that goes against most forage-based philosophy. They made this decision because it allows the option of harvesting the corn for higher-value grain sales instead of grazing it. Even if the crop is combined, the stubble provides quality grazing for flushing.
Winter feeding consists of a total mixed ration (TMR) delivered with a vertical mixer wagon. The Cattos use the SheepBytes ration balancer developed in Alberta, and feel that the annual subscription fee was recovered in the first week of feeding. Rations can be balanced for each stage of production and adjusted daily based on how much is left over at the feed bunk. Prior to using SheepBytes, all feeding had to be completed by one person so that rations were consistent and mistakes avoided. The SheepBytes printouts provide ration ‘cook books’, with easy to follow weights and adjustment factors. With this new system, the winter feeding chores for 3,000+ animals in 12 pens with four or five different rations are all finished within two hours, and can be done by anyone on the farm team.
Home-made feed bunks are filled daily
Winter feed is provided in homemade feed bunks inside each pen, rather than a fence line feeder from outside. Although extra labour is required to lock the sheep up prior to feeding in each pen, nursing lambs can’t wander out of one pen and back into a different one, creating mixups and potential losses. The lack of waste in this system was incredible. I could not figure out what it was about these feed bunks (feeder angle, spacing or height) that made them work so well, but there was virtually no waste outside the bunks.
TMR ingredients include alfalfa silage, hay, grain, salt and mineral. They don’t make any corn silage because if it isn’t good enough to combine, the corn can be grazed with no associated harvest cost. Most of the on-farm forage is made into silage, because it can all be harvested, packed and covered within about two weeks. Martin feels the time required to put the forage up as hay would be unmanageable. There is some hay added to the TMR, but only as much as needed to decrease the moisture content. Hay is put through a bale shredder before it goes in the mixer wagon to decrease waste and ease mixing. The Cattos have yet to experience any notable Listeria problems with this silage-based feeding program and credit that to the care they take to properly pack, line and cover the pits.
A mixer feed wagon is used to fill the home-made feed bunks.
The only element I could think of that might be missing from their nutrition program is scanning and sorting ewes by the number of lambs they are carrying, in order to feed them separately. Martin concedes this would allow even more precise feeding of the flock, but he does not have enough confidence in scanning equipment or operators to put this into practice. In such a remote prairie location, a reliable and experienced scanning practitioner is not readily or affordably available. They have tried scanning ewes in the past and later been surprised when ‘open’ ewes have lambed.
For the past several years, the early-lambing ewes have been shipped after weaning to the Elbow Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) multi-species grazing project in central Saskatchewan. This federal pasture uses sheep to manage leafy spurge on thousands of acres of publicly-owned grazing land. The flock is herded daily by a shepherd or two, and penned at night with electric netting and a pack of guard dogs. Leafy spurge is a noxious weed of growing concern among the prairie provinces and in many remote and environmentally sensitive areas sheep grazing is the best and/or only management tool.
Unfortunately, with the recent federal announcement that PFRA lands will be transferred to the respective provinces, special projects like sheep grazing have been cancelled to ease the transition. For the Cattos, this means the loss of affordable grazing for roughly 1,200 ewes on relatively short notice. The saving grace is their mixed farming model. Among their grain land there is marginal land such as bush and sloughs which, in addition to stubble grazing potential, can be fenced to make up the PFRA grazing loss. The side benefit of this change is that the ewe flock can now be closed to eliminate the health risks they had to live with when using community pasture.
The use of the home-made feed bunks and mixer wagon minimize waste.
Most of the Catto’s lambs end up out east, but their marketing program changes every year depending on pricing and opportunity. Their biggest problem is having enough lambs hit prime condition at the same time to fill a liner. In spite of this, they have been pleased with the results when their lambs have sold on a rail grade basis. But rather than credit genetics or feeding, Martin and Louise believe carcass index success requires shipping decisions based on weight and body condition, rather than weight alone as a market-ready indicator.
Most obvious to me during my visit to the Catto farm was how every process in the production chain has modern and scientific thinking behind it. Nothing is done because “that’s how my father did it” or “we’ve always done it like that”. Every process was built on relevant logic and if that logic is challenged with new ideas, the process gets improved.
As a young farmer myself, I am building my flock and trying to improve productivity every year. But I still have a long way to go and progress often feels slow. So I specifically asked Martin and Louise how long it took them to get their flock to their desired level of production. Martin quickly retorted that there is never an ideal flock and improvement must always be continuous.
“You can’t sit back and think that you have achieved it,” Martin says, “there is always something to change for next year.”
Stuart Chutter is a commercial sheep and meat goat producer in south western Saskatchewan.
Story & photos by Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Bouw lambs on alfalfa pasture in early October
On a cold, grey, October day, I met with Stefan Bouw on his family’s farm about 20 miles east of Winnipeg. I visited Stefan to talk about their recently established sheep flock but, as is often the case, discovered that the sheep were just one part of an integrated operation that has evolved, along with a management philosophy, over several years.
Stefan and his brother Jonathan are the third generation on this farm, which was purchased by their grandfather in 1961, a few years after he emigrated from Holland. Stefan’s parents, Herman and Marilyn, took the farm over in 1998 and operate it today with their sons and their families.
According to their website (www.ediecreekangus.com) the Bouws are taking advantage of the symbiotic nature of mixed farming. Livestock and crop farming provide a balance for each other, as diverse crop rotations make for healthier land, and forage crops help build soil structure and provide competition for weeds. Cattle and sheep also make use of low-quality land that is otherwise unsuitable for crop production.
The Bouws own 1,000 acres and rent a further 600-700. They crop 800 acres of Certified Organic land, producing alfalfa/grass hay, wheat, oats, flax and soybeans. The livestock complement the organic crop production by providing a market for the alfalfa/grass hay and silage that dominate the crop rotation.
Although the family produces grain, they believe that cattle and sheep are ideally adapted to convert low-quality forages into high quality food. Their organic crops are produced for human consumption (with the exception of the alfalfa/grass hay and silage) and the cattle and sheep are fed almost exclusively on forages. This philosophy is a holistic approach to agriculture as a larger picture, considering sustainability for both their environmental and human resources.
Stefan spends many hours moving the water supply from pasture to pasture.
The cow herd numbers 110 registered Angus. The family specializes in producing two-year-old bulls for grass famers, which are marketed at an annual sale. They also sell natural and grass-fed beef direct to consumers.
The sheep flock is a recent addition to the operation, having started in 2010 with purchases of Rideau Arcott and Texel x Rideau Arcott ewe lambs. The Rideaus were bred to an Ile de France ram to produce crossbred ewes that lambed for the first time in 2012. The Texel x Rideau crosses were bred to a Rideau ram to produce a more prolific ¾ Rideau ewe. Stefan admits that the Texel x Rideau Arcott was not his first choice, but rather a reflection of what was available at the time. But he has not been disappointed with these ewes, most of which have dropped twins in 2012. The ram pen also houses Canadian Arcott and Texel rams, used as terminal sires.
The flock has grown from 120 head in 2011 to 160 in 2012. The Bouws plan to keep most of the ewe lambs from the 321 lambs born this year, and lamb 320 in 2013. Further expansion to 640 ewes is a possibility, as long as the flock maintains a good balance between income and work load.
Unlike many flocks where the emphasis is on grass-based production, the Bouw flock lambs in the yard before the ewes and lambs are moved to the pasture. With a high percentage of ewe lambs and 50% Rideau breeding in the flock, Stefan feels that the hours he spends in the barn during three weeks of lambing is time well spent, and probably results in an increase of .5 to .7 lambs per ewe over what they would get if they lambed on pasture.
This former silo with fabric roof measures 40’x120’ and serves as hay storage in winter and lambing space in spring (see below).
Lambing takes place in May in an old concrete silage bunker fitted with a fabric roof. The structure is used for hay storage during the winter, and lambing in the spring. Ewe lambs are wintered separately from the rest of the flock and give birth in a nearby pole shed. With the size of the flock doubling this year, the family plans to convert a wooden quonset used for machinery storage to additional housing for lambing.
The adaptation of existing facilities extends to the handling system. The sheep are run through the same indoor facility used for the cattle, and weighed on the cattle scale. Lambs are tagged at birth with the Shearwell SET tag. Although the cattle scale is electronic, they haven’t yet integrated it with the Archer tag reader used to record the lambs’ identities as they step on the scale, so Stefan reads the weight of each lamb off the scale and enters it manually into the tag reader. In addition to recording the lamb’s ID as it steps on the scale, the tag reader shows Stefan the breed makeup and sex of the lamb, as well as whether it is a single, twin or triplet.
Data from the tag reader is downloaded onto a spreadsheet on the computer, which Stefan manipulates to identify and sort groups of lambs or ewes for shipping or other management practices.
Although most of the feed they consume is organic, neither the cattle nor the sheep are Certified Organic. Purchasing organic feed for the cattle would be prohibitively expensive and, although the family does produce enough organic feed for the sheep flock, there is no specific market in Manitoba that would pay more for an organic lamb. The cattle herd participates in the Verified Beef program, however, and Stefan keeps careful records of all medications used on the sheep.
Raising lambs on grass goes a long way toward reducing the use of medications. There are 80 acres of alfalfa pasture available to the sheep, only 18 of which are fenced. During the pasture season, Stefan moves the portable electric fencing, and then the flock, every three days. This approach limits the spread of internal parasites. In 2011, the lambs were wormed only once over the course of the summer. In 2012, the lambs have not been wormed at all.
Weaned ewes in dry lot in early October.
The Bouws plans to put up permanent fence around the perimeter of the sheep pasture and one line splitting the field up the middle. They will continue to use portable fencing to subdivide the pasture and move the sheep frequently, both to maximize the production from the pasture and to limit the worm burden acquired by the lambs.
Stefan also looks forward to the day when they have a waterline running the length of the pasture, with offshoots into each paddock, to save the time he currently spends moving and filling a water tank every time he shifts the flock to a new paddock.
Weaning takes place in mid-September, but grazing continues in a leader-follower system where the lambs have first access to each new paddock, followed by the ewes. When I visited in early October, the lambs were still out on the pasture, eating alfalfa stems and being supplemented with first-cut hay. The ewes had been moved into a corral by this time; their ration consisted of two round bales of first cut hay and one round bale of timothy straw, every four days. They were also getting two pails of oats on the same schedule, to move them out of the pen while the round bales were being put out. The ewes are bedded with soybean straw that also contains alfalfa and a few weeds, which the ewes enjoy picking through for additional feed. Hay prices are prohibitive in Manitoba this year, with a round bale of first-cut hay going for $75 and second-cut hay costing 10 to 12 cents per pound.
|Lambs grazing alfalfa stems and being supplemented with hay in early October.
The target market for the lambs is the Christmas market, but when I visited in October there were many lambs that were already at market weight. When I spoke to Stefan again in late November, the heaviest 25 lambs had been shipped to the butcher for freezer customers, and the remaining lambs were being fed a small amount of grain to finish them. The Bouws ship lambs to auction at the Winnipeg Livestock Sales, Ltd., at an average weight of 105 pounds. In 2011, the lambs fetched $2.10 – $2.22. The average price for lambs over 80 pounds as I write this the last week of November is $105-$120/cwt.
The family is interested in doing what it can to obtain the best price for their product. Stefan is the secretary of the small, local Agassiz Lamb Marketing Coop, and the family are watching with interest the development of the Canadian Lamb Cooperative.
Based on my brief visit, it seems as though the Bouw family has many advantages that will allow them to make a success of their sheep operation and contribute to the Canadian industry for many years to come: a deep background in agriculture, the involvement of many family members, the strength of youth and the wisdom of experience, and a willingness to learn from and work with others.
By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Photos by Allison Taylor, PhD
At a time when more producers than ever are turning to accelerated lambing, one couple who tried it for eight years has made the decision to go back to lambing once a year.
John and Eadie Steele have been raising sheep near Norwood, Ontario, since 1991. The farm has been in Eadie’s family for generations, and was a dairy farm prior to the introduction of the sheep. John is from Worcestershire, in the English Midlands, where his family raised Suffolk and commercial crossbred sheep.
Like a lot of people trying to assemble a large flock quickly, the Steeles started off with a mix of ewes from a number of sources. Then, in 1998, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the University of Guelph and the Ontario Sheep Marketing Agnecy started the Ontario Lamb Improvement Breeding Strategy (OLIBS), with the objective of sourcing, multiplying and distributing large numbers of healthy, highly-productive ewes to the industry. The OLIBS ewes were a cross of Rideau Arcott and Dorset. Both breeds were known to lamb out of season, and the Rideau also milked well. The goal was a ewe that could produce several lambs more often than once a year, and also be able to feed them.
The bank barn was turned into a lamb finishing barn with the installation of slatted floors.
Turkey netting provides ventilation in warm weather; the sides of the barn can be closed when it’s cold.
The OLIBS ewes were the foundation of the current flock of 2,200, but John and Eadie have made further developments. British Milk Sheep genetics were introduced to some family lines at one point, in order to get more milk. More recently (2010), they have imported Coopworth and TEFROM (a composite of Texel, East Friesian and Romney) semen from performance-tested New Zealand rams with a demonstrated genetic resistance to worms.
Overhead wires and hooks save time by keeping cables up out of the way.
Camron Murphy working ewes in the handling system.
The health status of the flock is maintained through biosecurity measures, regular vet checks and blood testing. The flock has been on the Ontario Sheep Marketing Agency’s Flock Health Program since 1999, has attained an “A” rating on the Ontario Maedi Visna Flock Status Program, and was enrolled on the Voluntary Scrapie Certification program for five years.
This barn houses the handling system, shearing shed and a room used for AI and embryo transfer.
Tracking the performance of such a large flock can’t be done with a clipboard. The Steeles were early adopters of RFID technology, buying the chips and installing them into plastic tags themselves before RFID sheep tags were available. Today, they use Shearwell SET tags, plus tag readers, electronic scales, and EweByte software to make everyday tasks such as weighing, sorting and culling as efficient as possible.
The greenhouse barns have cement feed alleys sized to permit feeding and bedding with a small tractor. (Photo by Camron Murphy.)
But the selection doesn’t stop there. Animals with favourable performance information are subjected to a physical inspection every year. On the day I visited, John and their full-time employee, Camron Murphy, were putting a group of weaned ewes through the handling system to check their teeth and udders, drench and condition score them. They were doing this job in one of the best handling systems I’ve ever seen. The ‘bugle’ shaped system and associated yards are located under cover and have a capacity of 1,200 ewes at one time. There are two curved, side-by-side chutes that ewes flow through readily.
Removable bolts in the supports for the feeder allow it to be raised as the bedding pack rises.
But as impressive as the facility was, what really caught my attention was how they were using the RFID technology to find 30 individual ewes out of all the animals they put through the system that day. These were ewes that John had decided to cull earlier in the year, but had to keep until after they had weaned their lambs, so they were running with the rest of the flock. But nobody was reading ear tag numbers or calling them out to someone else to find on a written list – with the ID numbers of the 30 culls in his hand-held tag reader, all John had to do was wave it over each group of ewes as they came through the chute; if any of those 30 animals were in the group, the tag reader would beep and let him know.
The Steeles realize further efficiency by restricting full performance testing of the flock to an elite group of 600 maternal line ewes, plus the registered Texels. These ewes lamb inside in April, and their performance information is entered into EweByte on the computer and forwarded on to the Ontario Sheep Flock Improvement Program (now GenOvis) for calculation of indexes and EPDs. This information is used to select flock replacements, as well as ewe lambs available for sale. The rest of the ewes lamb in May, out on the pasture.
Weaned lambs grazing 100% alfalfa pastures in late July. Lambs are pastured until they have adequate frame size, then brought into the barn and phased onto a concentrate ration.
John and Eadie own 300 acres and rent another 700 close to home. They grow all of their own forage as well as some mixed grain that they plant as a cover crop, but most of the concentrate fed to the ewes and lambs is purchased.
All of the ewes are grazed with their lambs during the summer. Lambs are weaned in groups starting in August, and pastured separately to add frame size until they are around 85 pounds. They are then brought into the finishing barn and fed a total mixed ration for approximately four weeks until they are finished at 100-110 pounds. With so many lambs, and the ability to vary their weaning dates, time on pasture, and rations fed, the Steeles are able to ship lambs to the Ontario Stockyards at Cookstown each week from October to March. This allows them to achieve the average price at the market over the entire season, rather than taking a chance on selling a large portion of their lambs in a single week when the price might take a sudden drop.
A round bale unwinder brought in from the UK was modified for bedding the greenhouse barns.
A winch turns the table 90 degrees to left or right to bed pens on either side of the central alley.
Like most grass-based sheep farmers, John and Eadie put a lot of their management efforts into predator control. They use a combination of pagewire and electric fences, along with guardian dogs and shooting, to deal with coyotes. They have lost about 20 animals so far this year – a relatively small percentage of the nearly 4,000 lambs they will sell.
This wheelbarrow has an adjustable slide that opens for feeding grain along a fenceline feeder.
Parasites, particularly Haemonchus contortus (barber pole worm), are an even bigger problem. In addition to rotating their pastures, the Steeles drench animals as strategically as possible. Three different drench families are used, and rotated annually in an attempt to minimize the development of resistance. With such a large flock, knowing when animals really need to be drenched, instead of just doing it at regular intervals, can save money and time. John and Eadie have purchased a microscope and McMaster slides, so that they can do their own fecal egg counts as often as necessary. When fecal tests indicate that worming is necessary, they weigh a representative sample of the ewes, to calculate the proper dosage. They are hopeful that the importation of the parasite-resistant Coopworth and TEXFROM genetics from New Zealand will provide a more long-term solution to the problem of internal parasites.
The Sheep Snacker is manufactured locally and is pulled behind an ATV to feed grain in the field.
Openings on a rotating drum on the axle feed grain in piles rather than a line, reducing waste.
In addition to the feeder barn, the farm has ten greenhouse-type barns where the entire flock lambed when they were on the accelerated program. During January lambings, they used propane brooder heaters to keep the temperature in these buildings at 1-2 degrees Celsius. Since the return to once a year lambing, the only ewes that give birth inside are the 800 that lamb in April, which frees up seven of the greenhouse barns for storage of hay and straw. The entire flock spends the majority of the winter out on the land, where they are fed corn silage and/or round bales of hay, supplemented with wet distillers grains or shelled corn as required. John and Camron condition score the flock throughout the winter. Thin ewes are brought inside for extra feed and those that gain too much are sent back out.
John and Eadie made the decision to go back to once a year lambing in order to better control their cost of production. Lambing 1,000+ ewes in January in the greenhouse barns came at a high cost in propane, but also in terms of labour to lamb that many ewes in barns where the temperature was just barely above freezing, as well as labour to deliver feed to the ewes in the barns.
The Steeles use pagewire fencing, with an electric wire above and below, to control predators. The plastic pipe connecting the two hot wires keeps them from shorting out on the pagewire.
The ewes did produce more lambs each year but, between unpredictable fertility in the fall lambing and fewer lambs born per lambing, lambing ewes 1.5 times per year did not result in 1.5 times as many lambs. John says the best result they got during the eight years they were on the accelerated program was 2.2 lambs weaned per ewe per year, compared to the 1.8 they have achieved lambing once a year. These figures include the Texel ewes, which wean about 1.2 lambs per ewe per year.
Lambing the sheep in April and May, just as the grass is coming on, allows the Steeles to work with their ewes’ natural breeding season and maximize the use of their pastures. The ewes are kept out on the land during the winter, where the nutrients they recycle are deposited directly onto the land, saving the time and expense involved in cleaning barns, stockpiling manure on concrete and running equipment to spread it.
With so many ewes and lambs, there is no shortage of work. Neither John nor Eadie work off the farm and, in addition to Camron, they hire summer or exchange student help each year. But everywhere I looked on my visit, I saw well-designed structures and innovative ideas that take much of the drudgery out of running so many sheep. And who knows, if they hadn’t accelerated the flock for so many years, perhaps they wouldn’t have developed all of the time- and labour-saving techniques that make running their once-a-year-lambing flock more workable today.
By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Photos by Tracy Hagedorn
Back in 2008, Bernadette Nikkel and Darlene Stein bought a small flock of 30 ewes and shared it, so that each of them had something to use to train their Border Collies. Four years later, they and their families are lambing nearly 800 ewes on pasture at their homes northwest of Edmonton, Alberta.
Bernadette and her husband Rod own and operate Dry Lake Ranch near Pickardville, Alberta (east of Barrhead), where they run 200 cows and 350 ewes. They have five children, Samuel (13), Abigail (12), Rebekah (10), Hannah (8) and Grace (6), whom they homeschool. Darlene and her husband Rudy live 45 minutes away on Oxbow Ranch (west of Barrhead), which is home to 400 ewes and 20 cows (the remainder of a larger herd sold to make room for the sheep). Rudy and Darlene’s children, Shey (21), Conner (20) and Lexi (11) were/are also homeschooled. Shey got married just as lambing was beginning this year, and will be farming in the area with her husband. Rod and Rudy grew up together, so the two families have been friends for a long time.
Rod and Bernadette have found the Canadian Arcott ewes to be easy keepers and good mothers.
The Nikkels farm 2,200 acres in total; 400 acres is cropland and the rest is split between hay and pasture. The Steins are farming just over 160 acres, and would buy more land in the area if it was available.
A young Polypay ewe and lamb at Dry Lake Ranch.
Farming is the priority for both families. Rod and Bernadette are full time farmers. Darlene is “the lucky one” on their operation, who gets to stay at home and work with the animals. Rudy supplements the operation driving his own gravel truck, but he subcontracts to other drivers much of the time so he can be available whenever he is needed, especially at lambing time. Conner works part time so that he can help at home and build his own flock.
Both families enjoyed lambing their dog sheep in 2009 and so went on to purchase more, with the goal of getting up to 100 ewes so they could participate in the Alberta Lamb Traceability Project.
Rod and Bernadette’s purchases over the next two years included a flock of registered Canadian Arcotts from Saskatchewan, a small group of Ile de France x Polypay cross ewe lambs from the Peace Country in Alberta and another group of Polypays from British Columbia. Rudy and Darlene bought an entire flock of Rambouillets from Saskatchewan. They bred them to Rideau Arcott rams and this cross now makes up half their flock.
Both flocks have grown rapidly. In 2011, the Nikkels lambed 375 ewes, the majority of which were ewe lambs. They did some culling and kept some ewe lambs, and wintered 350 ewes this year. The Steins are lambing 400 head in 2012, about a third of which are ewe lambs.
Given the size of their flocks, an affordable winter feeding program is critical. By sampling and testing all of their feeds and having rations carefully balanced, they make sure the nutritional requirements of the ewes are met at a reasonable cost.
Rudy and Conner Stein examine and tag a pair of twins.
The Nikkel ewes get a mixture of low moisture oat-barley silage, oat hulls and a protein supplement. This is fed every three or four days into bunks out in the field, where they also have access to rolled-out round bales of pea straw. The ration for the ewe lambs is equal parts of oat hulls, ground hay and whole oats, with the addition of a 36% protein supplement. The Stein ewes are wintered on a blend of tub ground hay and straw, while the ewe lambs get good hay with a small amount of grain. All rations in both flocks are carefully balanced with salt, minerals and vitamins.
Both operations make their feeding programs work by monitoring the ewes with frequent condition scoring. If a mature ewe loses condition, she is pulled out and fed with the ewe lambs. If she goes on to have three lambs, she is forgiven; if she doesn’t, she is marked so that none of her lambs are kept as replacements, or she is culled.
When speaking about the ideal ewe, Bernadette and Darlene emphasize the same traits – easy keeping and a strong maternal instinct. Ewes must be able to adapt to the feeding program and stay with their lambs and keep them together on the pasture.
Bernadette is particularly impressed with her Canadians. Although they had never lambed on pasture in their previous home, they seem very well suited to the Nikkels’ system. She finds them to be prolific, easy keepers who stay with their newborn lambs on pasture, even when approached by a human or dog. The lambs get up and suck quickly, and gain well on grass. Lambing in April of 2010, the mature Canadians dropped 210%. With the move to late May/June lambing in 2011, the percentage dropped to 188%.
A Rambouillet ewe and her twins at Oxbow Ranch.
The Ile de France x Polypay crosses have gotten quieter this year, and are delivering good-sized twins and triplets as two-year-olds. Rod and Bernadette plan to continue with Ile de France rams, and breed them to the upper end of their commercial ewes; the crosses will then be bred to Canadian rams.
The Steins are happy with their Rambouillets. They find the ewes to be aggressive mothers that paw their lambs and get them to their feet soon after birth. They have also been surprisingly prolific, dropping 180% overall in 2011. But Rudy and Darlene want to push the prolificacy a little closer to 200%, and also reduce the frame size of the ewes. So for the last two years the Rambouillets have been bred to Rideau Arcott rams. The ½ Rideaus produced a 150% lamb crop in 2011 as ewe lambs, but this year are giving birth to more twins and triplets, which are sired by Canadian Arcott rams. The Steins hope to get lambs with better growth rates from this three-way cross, but also plan to keep some of them to try out as ewes in their system.
During lambing, the Nikkels had two days of wind and rain, so Rod moved calf shelters into the pasture and set up claiming pens inside.
In growing their flocks, both families bought sheep from a number of sources, some of which worked out better than others. Some have had too many singles, others cannot stay in condition on their feeding programs and others do not stick close enough to their lambs. Both families use FarmWorks software to monitor the performance of their sheep. The software ranks the ewes on their productivity, using weaning weights and other data. This allows for identification of ewes or groups of ewes that are not carrying their weight; these can then be moved out to make room for home-bred ewe lambs that are a better fit for the production system.
When the weather is fine, ewes with triplets or those needing help can be put in a claiming pen right on the pasture.
Both families identify themselves as grass farmers, and think of the sheep as tools to harvest their crop. And both have strategies that allow them to pasture their animals well into the fall of the year. Although Rudy and Darlene purchase most of their hay, both families have the equipment to clip, or put up as hay, any paddocks where the forage gets ahead of the sheep.
Dry Lake Ranch sits on an old lake bottom; when it rains, the grass growth is “phenomenal”. The 120 acres of sheep pasture is split into a minimum of eight paddocks, which are grazed in rotation. Paddocks are rested for 25-30 days after their first grazing and 40 days after the second. This program keeps the ewes and lambs supplied with grass into the month of November, and minimizes the amount of grain required to finish lambs or flush ewes.
The Steins also have low land that produces a lot of grass. They have 15 separate paddocks, and move the sheep on a schedule determined by the year, rainfall and forage species. About one-quarter of their grazing is a mix of alfalfa and orchardgrass. They have learned to manage grazing it to avoid bloat, moving the animals daily and making sure they are not hungry when they go into an alfalfa paddock. They also plant two paddocks of cereals such as oats or fall rye for the lambs to graze after weaning. The residue of these fields is being grazed by the lambing ewes this spring, who seem to prefer it to the grass paddocks they also have access to.
Ewe lambs are housed and fed separately from mature ewes during the winter in both flocks, but managed with them on pasture. The Nikkels have talked about separating them, but find the pasture rotation becomes much more difficult to manage with more groups. Darlene says that separating their ewes and ewe lambs on pasture would require splitting the available guard dogs into two groups, reducing their effectiveness.
Similarly, there is no systematic ‘drifting’ of the unlambed ewes away from the ewes with lambs each day, as is the practice in other pasture lambing flocks. When it is time to change paddocks, the entire flock is moved. If a ewe has just given birth and is still bonding with her lambs, she is allowed to remain behind and catch up with the rest of the flock the next day.
Ewes that give birth to three lambs in either flock are given a chance to raise them. In the Nikkel flock, ewes with three lambs are put into claiming pens for a few days, either right in the pasture or in one of the calf shelters that Rod has hauled onto the pasture. From there, they will move into a separate pasture close to the yard, where the ewes can be supplemented with grain and the lambs offered soybean meal in a creep.
Both Rod and Bernadette enjoy the opportunity to observe the behaviour of the ewes and lambs on pasture. Bernadette says the problem with ewes raising three lambs is not that they can’t meet their nutritional requirements on grass, but the difficulty of keeping three lambs together.
The weather has been exceptionally wet at Oxbow Ranch; this stream is normally dry at the end of May, but forms a barricade for ewes and lambs that are not quite ready to cross and move out to pasture.
Rudy and Darlene house their ewes with triplets in a pen in the yard, and give them a chance to raise all three lambs, at least for a while. When the lambs are big enough, they may remove one and send the ewe out to the pasture with the other two for the rest of the summer.
Last year, both families tagged and used rubber rings to dock and castrate at birth except when it was raining, when they delayed for a few days so as not to add to the lambs’ stress. The rubber rings created a problem when some ewes with twins wandered off with their female lamb while their male lamb lay writhing on the ground after being ringed. This year, they plan to tag the lambs at birth, and dock them with a hot docker when they are older. Darlene has researched this equipment and found a propane-powered model from Australia that can be used out on the pasture. The families will share the unit, and the cost of approximately $600.
Guardian dog in training – the yoke keeps him where he belongs.
The Steins do not plan to castrate any lambs this year. The Nikkels are “playing it by ear”. They will castrate any lambs that go into claiming pens and, when the weather is good, catch and ring lambs that are up and doing well as they come across them in the pasture.
Both families wean their lambs at the end of summer, with the exact dates determined by the weather, the growth of the grass and, for the Nikkels, by the timing of the fall harvest.
The Nikkel lambs get weaned onto a fresh piece of grass that has been saved for that purpose. Last year, they were brought into the yard and fed grain in the evening and again in the morning, before being turned back out onto pasture for the day. This year, with more mature guard dogs on the job, they plan to wean at the end of September and keep the lambs on pasture day and night, where they will also feed them grain. The biggest lambs will finish on grass and the rest will be brought into the yard and fed grain and hay.
Accurate identification and record-keeping are a priority for both families. Abigail and Bernadette Nikkel prepare to tag lambs and record the data on the Psion handheld recorder. Every lamb is tagged with an RFID tag in one ear and a metal tag in the other.
The Stein lambs will be weaned at the end of August and graze on oats or fall rye until late September or early October. Toward the end of this period they will also be offered some grain, so that when they are moved into the yard the only change in their diet will be the addition of hay. Rudy and Darlene find the lambs do not do well when kept in very large groups, so they will sort them into pens of no more than 200 male or female lambs. Both ewe flocks will continue to graze until the last half of November.
Another piece of equipment the two families are considering sharing is a microscope. They have each had problems with barber pole worms in the past, which they have dealt with by more regular worming. But they would prefer to worm only when it is really necessary, rather than on a predetermined schedule. To do this, they will learn to examine fecal samples themselves and run them prior to each move to a new paddock. The microscope could also be used by the children for their science studies.
Both families marketed their lambs in December and January in 2012. The Nikkel lambs averaged 115 lb. and sold for an average price of $1.85/lb., while the Stein lambs sold for $1.82/lb. at an average weight of 120 lb.
Whenever I think about a large flock lambing on pasture, I always wonder about the weather. May snowstorms are not uncommon in Alberta, but even a couple of days of rain could cause problems. Bernadette finds that lambs whose mothers have enough colostrum and who lick them off vigorously do just fine, even in wet weather. But she acknowledges that bad weather means they all spend more time with the sheep. Making the rounds with a supply of dry towels and colostrum, she dries and/or feeds any lamb that looks like it needs it. Severely chilled lambs are brought in to the barn for warming in a hotbox, and then returned to the ewe. The ewe may be brought in as well in some cases. She concludes by saying that, although they may have to work hard for a few days when the weather is bad in May and June, they used to work that hard every day when they were calving in winter.
Darlene Stein uses the Psion handheld recorder to read the RFID tags that Rudy has just put in these newborn lambs.
Large flocks that spend most of the time outside the yard require a lot of four-footed assistance. Both families rely on several guardian dogs to protect their animals while on pasture. And they must have found some time along the way to work with the Border Collies they acquired the sheep for, because they both have good dogs that accompany them on lambing checks and help when a ewe needs to be caught or kept near her lambs. The Steins have had a problem this year with ravens attacking newborn lambs. The dogs have not been 100% effective against the ravens and the Steins are still seeking a solution for this problem.
Both the Nikkel and Stein flocks have grown rapidly since 2008, and have high proportions of very young ewes. As the sheep mature in the next few years, they are likely to produce even more lambs, and this will create new opportunities and new challenges for both farms. But with the commitment of each member of their respective families, their willingness to learn and adapt as they move forward, and the support and help they receive from each other, it seems likely that Dry Lake Ranch and Oxbow Ranch will meet those challenges and continue to contribute to the Canadian sheep industry for some time.