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.
Story & photos by Cathy Gallivan, PhD
George and Melaney Matheson have literally gone back to the land. George grew up on the farm where they now raise sheep, hay and straw, but the land was sold when his father retired in 1974. The house was kept in the family, however, and George and Melaney moved into it when they were married in 1995. A year later, the land came back on the market and they were able to buy it, much to George’s father’s delight. The farm is 150 acres. Fifty acres are in hay, 20 are in pasture and the rest is a woodlot.
Photo by Ila Matheson
George’s father passed away in 2001, but his mother, Marian Matheson (95), lives in her own home adjacent to the farmhouse. Two miles down the road is her family’s farm, which George and Melaney also own. This farm is 175 acres, with 80 acres cleared.
Melaney grew up in Ontario and studied to be a United Church minister, which brought her to PEI in 1993. She and George met, married and started their family, and in 2004 she gave up her position with the church to focus on the farm and daughters Ila (12) and Rae (10). George works part time as a director for PEI Mutual Insurance.
George and Melaney built the barn with the help of friends, using timber from their own woodlot. It measures 40’ by 88’ and 17.5’ high. They hired carpenters to build the lean-to on the east side, which is 20’ wide.
Prince Edward Islanders love horses, so George and Melaney decided to produce hay and straw in small square bales to serve that market. They make about 15,000 bales of hay and 1,500 of straw each year. Hay sells for $2.50 per bale on the farm or $3.75 delivered in the Charlottetown area. A bale of straw is also worth $2.50; the Matheson’s don’t grow any grain themselves, but it is part of the crop rotation for potato farmers in the area, who are happy to have George and Melaney bale the straw and take it off their land.
The Matheson’s have five hay wagons, which are parked inside each night during haymaking, and unloaded the next morning. This part of the barn also houses the feeder lambs.
A year after buying the farm, another opportunity arose. In 1997, they were attending a lamb dinner put on every year by the PEI Sheep Breeders’ Association. A woman at the dinner announced that she was going to Fiji for three years and needed someone to look after her sheep. The Mathesons thought that sounded like fun. They took the 10 ewes and one ram in, and had their first lambing in 1998. The woman bound for Fiji never returned and the flock of mostly registered Suffolk ewes now stands at 80 head.
George’s father asked him to cut this tree down back in 2000, when it fell over. But the sheep love the shade and the family still get Russet apples from it each year. Photo by Melaney Matheson.
The sheep are divided into two groups, one of which lambs in February and the other in May. This is accomplished by exposing the entire flock to rams wearing marking harnesses in September. When half the ewes are bred, the rams are removed.
George and Melaney are on a herd health program through the veterinary school at the University of PEI in Charlottetown. As part of this program, the students perform pregnancy checks on the marked ewes at a cost of $3 per head. George says their accuracy is good; the only surprises they get occur when ewes that were never marked (or ultrasounded) surprise them by lambing early. Unmarked ewes go back in with the rams in December for the May lambing. They also put one ram back in with the ewes that were bred earlier, “just in case”.
The lamb sold at the farmers’ market is all fresh; anything that doesn’t sell goes into the freezer. The label on this leg steak shows the name, address and phone number, as well as the date it was packaged and the total price. The weight is on the small label in the upper right corner.
Both lambings take place in the barn. George finds if he is patient in the spring and doesn’t put the ewes out on the pasture too early, he can keep them out there for most of October or even into November. To this end, he keeps the pasture growing in early summer by mowing when it threatens to get ahead of the sheep. The 20 acres is fenced with six strands of electric wire on the perimeter, and five wires separating paddocks. Students equipped with weed whackers provide maintenance throughout the season.
Springwater Farm has a permanent booth at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market. Photo By Melaney Matheson.
There is lots of work to go around in the summer time. On an average day they might harvest four or five wagonloads of hay (1,000 to 1,200 bales), which are parked in the barn overnight. This usually takes them well past the supper hour. There are also chores to do with the care and feeding of the sheep. Each morning one of them handles the job of getting the wagons unloaded (with the assistance of their summer students) while the other is cutting or raking the next field or delivering hay to regular customers. After the noon meal, it is back to the field to begin filling the wagons again. An accumulator pulled behind the baler collects eight bales at a time, and a grab on the front-end loader lifts them onto the bed of the wagon, but the load is built and unloaded by hand.
The Shepherd’s Nook shop at the front of the farmhouse is open six days a week in the summertime. Photo by Melaney Matheson
The ewes, plus the May-born lambs, go to pasture around the first of June. The lambs will be weaned into the barn when the pasture starts to become limiting, or when parasites become an issue.
The Mathesons cite parasites as one of their problems. They have found Ivomec to be less effective than in the past, and are experimenting with an older drug, levamisole, which they obtained through the veterinary school.
They are also interested in learning more about FAMACHA©, which involves identifying and treating only the animals that are actively suffering, rather than the whole flock.
The Shepherd’s Nook shop at the front of the farmhouse is open six days a week in the summertime. Photo by Melaney Matheson
Apart from spreading out the work, lambing at two different times supports the Matheson’s strategy of marketing fresh lamb 52 weeks per year. The early lambs are slaughtered and sold each week through the summer and fall. Late lambs spend part of the summer on pasture, but are then brought into the barn and fed a high-forage diet. The moderate growth rate resulting from this program allows George and Melaney to sell lean, fresh lamb throughout the winter and spring, until the new crop lambs are ready in June.
The Springwater Farm sign lets hay or sheep buyers know they’ve come to the right place. Photo by Melaney Matheson.
George attends the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market on Saturdays throughout the year, and also on Wednesdays during the summer. The lambs are shipped on Mondays and cut on Fridays. George picks up the fresh tray-wrapped meat at the abbatoir on Saturday mornings, on his way to the market. Any packages that don’t sell that day go home and into the freezer.
The cuts are priced to provide a gross income per lamb of about $300, with a butchering cost of $1 per pound of carcass or about $50 per lamb. They also sell entire lambs, cut and wrapped, to area restaurants, and have one restaurant that buys only ground lamb.
The award for sustainability won by the Mathesons is crafted from island clay. George jokes that it symbolizes the “never-ending work” of farming. Photo by Ila Matheson.
Their marketing has been so successful they have had to resort to purchasing small numbers of lambs from other local producers. These lambs are bought-in and fed at the farm for several weeks prior to slaughter, in an effort to ensure a final product that is as similar to their own as possible. They would like to expand the flock and/or increase the prolificacy and number of lambs weaned by their existing ewes, to bring them closer to their goal of not having to buy any outside lambs.
But the stall at the farmers’ market is just the beginning. All of their wool goes to the McAusland’s mill in Bloomfield, PEI, to be made into blankets. And their neighbour, Carol MacLeod, taught Melaney how to tan lambskins. These are popular with islanders and tourists alike, at $115 for white skins and $145 for black ones. Everything sold at the farmers’ market is also available in the Matheson’s on-farm store, located at the front of the farmhouse.
Ila (right) and Rae (centre) enjoy working with the sheep and participating in 4-H. The Matheson Suffolks have British bloodlines and are compact and well-muscled. Photo by Melaney Matheson
Melaney sees the store as an opportunity to show both islanders and tourists what agricultural life is all about. A driveway alarm alerts them when someone pulls into the yard, giving Melaney time to meet the visitors outside, where she offers them the opportunity to see the sheep and learn a bit about the farm before doing their shopping.
Anyone who has visited Prince Edward Island knows that islanders are environmentally conscious, and George and Melaney are no exception. Their home is heated geothermically. The sheep addition to the barn has a cement floor to contain runoff from the manure, which is composted before it is spread. They have created a berm ditch, ensuring runoff from the roadway and wet areas is directed down a grassed waterway.
Melaney tans 50 to 60 sheepskins each year. Photo By Shane MacClure
Their land is kept in hay, and only broken up every seven or eight years. When that happens, they allow potato farmers to row crop for one year before direct seeding back to hay. And, like many island potato farmers, they have redirected their fields by removing hedgerows, allowing the crop to be planted crossways on the hills rather than running up and down, to further prevent soil erosion. The hilliest land is kept in pasture all the time. George and Melaney’s commitment to sustainability led to them being nominated for, and winning, the 2011 Gilbert R. Clements Award for Excellence in Sustainable Agriculture.
The pony was won by a cousin in a raffle.
Short-term goals include updating the farm website and getting to the point where they don’t have to buy in outside lambs. The award for sustainability came with a cash prize, which is being reinvested in the form of a new laptop computer and software (EweByte) to help them track the performance of their sheep and do a better job of selecting replacements to increase the number of lambs born and reared in the flock. With so much demand for their lamb, they have kept few replacements and haven’t worried about selling breeding stock, but want to do both in the future.
The long-term goal is to stay on the farm and continue earning their living from it, so they can be there every day when their daughters get off the school bus. And for the girls to have the option to take the farm over some day if they choose.
Story and photos by Peggy Johnson, B.Sc., B.Ed.
The Alysheep barn measures 250’ x 80’ with a 30’ extension.
It’s fun to look back and see where our life’s journeys have taken us. When I visited Miles Driedger at his farm east of Olds on a blustery November day, he told me he was originally from Russell, Manitoba. He came to this community to work for the father of a young lady named Alyssa, who is now his wife. Shortly after they met, Alyssa purchased an aging flock of bred Cheviot ewes. This was followed a year later by a purchase of Rideau-cross ewes from her father. These two groups were the foundation of the well-managed intensive flock I saw on my visit, and the beginning of a dream to start a family that would work together on the farm.
In their first year of raising sheep, Miles and Alyssa lambed on pasture, without benefit of a barn, but that situation has changed dramatically. In September 2009 they purchased land up the road from where Alyssa was raised. Although cattle had been housed on the site previously, a development application through the Alberta Natural Resources Conservation Board was still required. After working through that process, Miles and Alyssa began construction in 2010 of a barn that would shelter 1,000 ewes and their lambs. The flock is still expanding, with 700 ewes now in place.
The barn is a repurposed broiler barn that was dismantled at Alyssa’s parents’ farm, moved to its present location and reconstructed on a new concrete foundation. It has a timber frame, metal roof and metal cladding inside and out, and is insulated with fiberglass batts. It measures 250’ long and 80’ wide, with 10’ walls and a vaulted ceiling that supports cool air inlets for the negative pressure ventilation system. Electric fans in the outside walls exhaust moist or dusty air and maintain the barn temperature at 60oF. Fresh cool air enters through ducts located at the peak of the roof. Thermostats control four natural gas furnaces, each with a capacity of 250,000 BTUs, suspended from the ceiling.
A 30’ extension on the barn houses the handling system and provides a place to park the tractor on cold winter nights. It also contains an entryway with a boot change area, bathrooms, vet supplies, a deep sink, a mechanical room and a tool storage area. The mechanical room has retained all the environmental monitoring features the barn had as a broiler barn. It has the capacity to monitor and record daily water consumption in four different locations. It is also equipped to monitor barn temperatures and send this data to the house.
Equipment dating from when the barn was used to raise broiler chickens allows Miles to monitor water consumption in different parts of the barn.
Equipment dating from when the barn was used to raise broiler chickens allows Miles to monitor water consumption in different parts of the barn.
The barn entrance houses an office with sinks, bathrooms, boot changing area and the mechanical room.
The Driedgers are cooperators on the Alberta Lamb Traceability pilot project, and have found it very helpful in choosing and using RFID technology, such as the ear tags, scale, handling system and software that they use to run their farm.
The sheep handling area consists of a wide curved alleyway made of solid-sided metal panels, bolted into the cement floor. The metal panels were salvaged from a dismantled hog barn and work very well for sheep. The curved alley leads to a narrower double alley terminating at a Racewell handling crate and Tru-test scale. The Racewell is fitted with a panel reader that sends RFID numbers to a Psion data recorder running FarmWorks software. The Tru-test scale runs a three-way sorting gate, so that Miles can weigh and sort the lambs frequently, without any assistance. The comprehensive growth data that he collects and downloads to his computer allows him to accurately predict how many lambs he will be shipping in the following weeks and months, and also to ensure that they dress out in the targeted weight range.
The widest part of the chute is made from solid sided panels out of an old hog barn, bolted into the floor.
From there, the sheep move into this double chute.
The Racewell scale/sorting system can also catch the sheep and hold them when required.
Near the handling system is the bottle lamb pen, with a Nursomat machine capable of feeding 60 lambs. Miles says the machine works very well, but that the smaller capacity machine designed for 35 lambs would probably suit their operation better.
As we step off the cement floor of the extension into the main barn, I note that the rest of the barn has a compact clay floor. A wide centre alley runs the length of the barn.
The alleyway in the barn is wide enough to accommodate the tractor and bale buster.
The feed bunks that line each side of the alley are built of steel pipe taken from the original broiler barn. Inside the bunk, welded-wire hog panels are positioned with the small openings at the bottom to keep lambs in, while the ewes eat hay through the larger openings at the top. Grain is fed from an auger bucket transported by a skid steer loader. The augur bucket has a scale, allowing Miles to weigh the grain fed into each pen.
The auger bucket allows Miles to weigh the grain delivered to each pen in the barn.
After the grain is fed, a tractor and bale buster is used to feed hay. The bale buster is one of a new design with a conveyer on the side that delivers hay into the feed bunks. The bale buster is also used to blow straw into the center of the pens for bedding. The fans in the barn are equipped with an override switch, and the dust resulting from bedding the pens clears within a short time.
The conveyer belt on the side of the bale buster is used to put hay into the bunk feeders lining the alleyway. The chute at the top blows straw into the centre of the pens
On the day I visited, a group of 150 ewes was finishing lambing in a large pen on one side of the alley. As the ewes lamb, they are moved into one of a bank of jugs positioned in the middle of the pen. Approximately 48 hours after birth, the ewes and lambs are moved out of the jugs, into a hardening area at the back of the pen.
Claiming pens or ‘jugs’ are made from galvanized wire hog panels, cut to size.
Processing of lambs includes ear-tagging, tail docking with rubber rings and injections of selenium and Vitamin ADE. Ram lambs are left intact. Ewes are injected with an 8-way clostridial vaccine about two weeks before lambing, so that lambs will have a strong immune system from the start.
Ewes are usually shorn a month prior to lambing. Miles did all his own shearing until recently but, as the number of sheep has grown, he is switching over to using custom shearers. The newborn lambs seem very comfortable in the 60oF barn.
When lambing is over, the jugs (which are suspended on cables) can be lifted up and stored against the ceiling, allowing all ewes in the pen to once again have access to the feed bunks. Raising the jugs also makes short work of cleaning the pen with the loader before the next group comes in to lamb.
Cables allow the pens to be raised up against the ceiling (right) when not in use.
Miles and Alyssa have lambed three times this year: once in January, once in May and this group in October/November. I asked Miles about the process he used to get the ewes to cycle for this fall lambing.
He told me that these ewes were part of the 300 ewes that lambed in January. After weaning, he flushed them with barley and Vitamin E. Many, but not all, of them were fitted with CIDRs, but several of the CIDRs were found in the lamb pen next to where the ewes were housed. It seems they were pulled out by the lambs through the wire panels dividing the pens. Miles finds that ewes with a heavy fleece have better CIDR retention.
The ewes were exposed to rams and ultrasounded three months later. Miles doesn’t attempt to count lambs. He just confirms if the ewes are pregnant or open, and sorts them on that basis. Of the 300 ewes that lambed in January, about half lambed again this fall. All of the open ewes (including the ewe lambs born in January) were bred naturally in September to lamb in February of next year.
With their Rideau-based flock, the Driedgers are working toward a live birth rate of 250% at each lambing. While in expansion mode they have retained both ewe lambs and new breeding rams from their own flock, but plan to purchase outside rams in the future.
On the opposite side of the alleyway is a pen of breeding rams on hay and behind them, next to the outside wall, is a pen of lambs on concentrate that are almost ready for market. Miles is clear about his priority for these lambs: they are being self-fed to get them to market weight as quickly as possible and move them out to make room for more lambs, thereby maximizing the use of the barn. Miles’ production goal is to have 100-pound ram lambs at 100 days of age.
Lamb grower ration is delivered to self-feeders through flexible augurs.
Rideau Arcott ram lambs are shipped to SunGold Specialty Meats, Ltd. in nearby Innisfail.
The ration is a mixture of whole barley, soybean meal, whole canola seed and a mineral/vitamin premix, which is delivered into hopper-bottomed bins. The self-feeders are long boxes suspended from the ceiling, filled automatically from the bins. It is Miles’ intention to install winches on these cables, so the feeders can be raised as the lambs grow or lifted out of the way completely for cleaning pens.
The Driedgers bale 30 acres of their own alfalfa and purchase a further 300 round bales from a neighbor, who delivers and stacks it in their hay shed. They also purchase some second-cut hay. All of the hay is feed-tested.
Miles does custom baling of straw in the fall to maximize the use of his baler. Given the rainfall in the Olds area this past summer, straw is very plentiful.
In addition to the hayland, the Driedgers have access to two pastures of 60 acres each. They have had problems with predators, so Miles does some hunting and trapping of coyotes. Losses have been low on one pasture but the far pasture has greater bush cover and is more of a challenge. If losses become unacceptable, ewes are taken off the pasture and brought back to the barn.
The Driedgers have sold some small groups of commercial ewe lambs, but have retained most of them as they increase the size of their flock. Intact ram lambs are delivered to SunGold Specialty Meats Ltd. in Innisfail (about 30 minutes away) and sold on the rail where they index 102 on average. The wool is skirted very carefully at shearing and sold to the Custom Woolen Mill in Carstairs, which is also nearby.
Miles says his biggest challenge is keeping up with everything. As they build outside corrals and continue to expand their flock, there is always something waiting to be done. To relieve some of the pressure, Miles’ brother Kurt and his wife have recently relocated from Manitoba, fitting perfectly with Miles’ vision of their sheep enterprise.
Peggy Johnson and her daughter Sarah raise Est à Laine Merino-cross sheep near Sundre, Alberta. Peggy also works as an instructor in the Animal Science department at nearby Olds College.
Story & photos by Cathy Gallivan, PhD
July 21st was a gloriously sunny day as I drove 30 minutes north of Regina to visit Trent and Sandy Larson at their sheep operation along the beautiful Qu’Appelle River valley. It was a busy day for the Larsons, who kindly made time to talk to me smack in the middle of haying season and with a new barn going up in the yard.
Trent and Sandy started raising sheep on an acreage near Stony Plain, Alberta, in 2002, when Trent was working as a police officer with the City of Edmonton. In 2006, they decided to expand their operation, and came to Saskatchewan in search of more affordable land. A retiring grain farmer sold them 620 acres, they put up some fences and small shelters and moved their flock of 80 ewes from Alberta. The flock now stands at 370 head, including ewe lambs, and is entirely descended from the original Alberta ewes.
The Larsons started with Romanovs for high prolificacy and out-of-season breeding ability, then added Dorset genetics to improve the lamb carcass while retaining the aseasonality. They are now using Rideau Arcott rams to sire replacement ewe lambs in an effort to add more milk; the first of the Rideau Arcott crosses are lambing this year. Texel and Canadian Arcott rams are used as terminal sires.
The new lambing barn measures 40 x 100’.
Trent and Sandy lamb three times per year – in December/January, April/May and August/September. The entire ewe flock goes out to pasture in the summer time, but lambs are weaned, kept in the yard and fed a pelleted ration plus free-choice hay. Trent makes his own hay, but purchases all the concentrates the flock requires.
Trent sees lots of opportunity for expansion in the industry. He says the demand is there for a Canadian product, and the industry needs to take advantage of it. But with many Canadian sheep farmers being close to retirement age, and many others limited to hobby operations, the Canadian industry needs young farmers to run larger flocks and/or lamb more often than once per year.
The old lambing barn was extended by the use of three fabric garages, joined end to end.
The Larsons are definitely in expansion mode. The new barn (40’ x 100’) will serve as the lambing barn, freeing up the older hip-roofed barn for the lambs reared on milk replacer and the rams. More corrals will be built to tie the new barn in with the rest of the existing facilities. They are also making the switch from hand-feeding to self-feeding lambs in the feedlot. The goal is to have 600 ewes, producing a 200% lamb crop every eight months, for a total of 1,800 lambs sold per year. From there, they might expand to 1,000 ewes, if they can acquire the land to support a flock of that size.
The ‘tunnel’ addition provided space for ewes to drop lambs before being moved into the old barn.
A key to meeting this goal is having the ewes conceive for the lambings they are scheduled for. Trent and Sandy have learned that the rams do a better job of breeding the ewes during the hot days of summer when they are confined to about five acres, rather than running on 80 acres.
Ewes are exposed for fall lambing without any assistance from artificial hormones or light control, and the results are good: 80% of ewes exposed in the spring go on to lamb in the fall. Ewe lambs are selected from all three lambings, and exposed to lamb at one year of age. Ewe lambs born in the fall, however, usually end up lambing for the first time in the winter at 16 months of age.
Ewes are sheared prior to each lambing. Lambing rates are highest in the spring lambing, when the flock drops around 225% with 200% marketed. With a high percentage of ewe lambs in the flock, the average is closer to 200% dropped and 190% marketed. Ewes routinely raise three lambs, depending on the season and their condition, but about 80 lambs a year are raised on milk replacer.
The tunnel was surprisingly bright inside.
Trent finds that the Rideau Arcotts and Dorsets adapt well to confinement. They thrive on the pasture in the summer (in the company of a guard dog), but choose to come in to the yard in the evenings as it gets dark.
An effective handling system located inside an old grain bin allows for rapid processing of sheep and lambs in any weather. Ewes are vaccinated for clostridial diseases every year in the fall, and lambs at one month of age. Ewes are wormed prior to lambing in the spring and fall, but not before the winter lambing.
Most of the lambs are marketed as feeders at around 90 lb., which keeps them moving through the facilities in time for the next group of lambs to be born and fed.
The flock has Romanov, Dorset and Rideau Arcott bloodlines.
Trent and Sandy are strong proponents of the advantages of traceability equipment. Lambs are RFID-tagged and numbers are read automatically with a Psion tag reader as the lamb steps in the scale. The scale is electronic but not connected to the Psion, so Sandy reads the lamb’s weight from the scale head, then types it into the Psion where it is stored with the tag number for later downloading into the computer. Using this system, the Larsons can move a group of 440 lambs through the system and weigh them in about three hours.
In addition to farming, Trent does construction/renovation work in the community. He and Sandy have three children (Jocelyn, Nolan and Megan) who keep them very busy as well.
This round bale feeder was constructed from galvanized wire panels. The lambs are able to push it around and eat the whole bale, but they do lose an ear tag occasionally.
Trent also makes time to be actively involved in the industry, serving as a director on the Saskatchewan Sheep Development Board, and also as Saskatchewan’s representative to the Canadian Sheep Federation (CSF). Trent says the CSF’s greatest value is the knowledge and advancements that can be gained through communication and cooperation with farmers across the country.
There is no doubt that Trent and Sandy are ready to do what they can to help the Canadian industry meet its objective of expansion; having spent a short time with them, I left feeling more optimistic about the future.
Story & photos by Anne Switzer
Last year was one of rain, rain and more rain. Our regular shearer did not show up on two separate occasions in May and June, and we had been scrambling to find another shearer but not having any luck.
On August 6th we discovered to our horror that one of our ewes (Wendy) had flystrike. Flystrike is a condition that occurs in the summertime when blow flies lay their eggs on the soiled hindquarters of sheep. These eggs hatch into larvae (maggots), which feed on the skin and flesh of the sheep.
Wendy was much more comfortable after being washed, sheared, and treated.
I have no idea how long Wendy had been in trouble before we realized it. We do check our sheep every day, but there was one week when we hadn’t been able to get out to see them until after nightfall, and therefore did not see her condition as soon as we should have.
Wendy’s coat appeared to be wet, and when we looked closer we discovered the area was infested with maggots – it was horrible to look at and smelled just awful.
After a fast trip to the vet for advice and supplies, we washed the maggots off with cold water, and treated her with injectible ivermectin, long-acting penicillin, and something for pain. We sprayed the area with scarlet (wound) spray and covered it with an old T-shirt. We sprayed the rest of her with fly spray and kept her inside.
The shearer arrived the next day and we sheared her in a standing position. We then washed and patted dry the affected area, applied more scarlet spray and gave her another injection for pain. We covered her hindquarters with a clean T-shirt to keep the area as clean and dry as possible. She was feeling a little better by now, and starting to eat again. Her milk supply had decreased, however, and we were supplementing her lamb.
Wendy on Day One, after clipping and washing off the maggots.
We washed and treated her twice a day for the first few days, and continued the pain treatment for the first three days. By the third day Wendy was feeling even better and eating more aggressively.
On the fourth day, at the suggestion of Dr. Tim Slemp, we started applying honey to the damaged area. The honey was much less painful on her raw skin than the scarlet spray had been, and her recovery seemed to really speed up from this point on.
A few days later, new pink skin is emerging.
Treatment of the affected area with raw honey promoted rapid healing.
Six weeks after treatment began, Wendy is almost completely healed.
A few days later, Wendy’s milk was coming back and her lamb began to nurse again, and a couple of days later we were able to stop the bottle feeding altogether.
We continued the washing and other treatments for two weeks. Four weeks after the treatments began, there was soft fleece coming in all over her back and hindquarters.
Wendy’s fleece regrew and she raised triplets in 2011.
Anne Switzer is a small flock owner and photographer living near Medicine Hat, Alberta.
By Jim Morgan, PhD
Many flocks use marking harnesses on their breeding rams to help manage their lambing ewes. They are not 100% in catching all matings but, in our flock about 90% of the time, the marks do identify the mating that leads to the ewe becoming pregnant. Typically, a shepherd will use a light colour for the first cycle and then near the start of the second cycle change to a different colour. In our flock, the colour of the crayon is changed on day 14 or 15.
Prior to the start of lambing, based on the markings, it is possible to make a chart of the predicted order in which the ewes will lamb. In our system, the vast majority of ewes lamb at 145-149 days. When walking through the flock, it saves time to only have to closely look at the ewes that are predicted to be near lambing. We find it useful.
But what else can a marking harness tell you?
One year, every ewe in one breeding group marked in the first 15 days. Then at day ten in the second cycle, after we changed the colour of the marking crayon, every ewe was marked again. It told us that the ram wasn’t very fertile. If only one or two ewes had been marked with a different colour, we would have blamed those ewes. A marking harness can alert you to an infertile or sub-fertile ram when there is still time to do something about it, which is much better than finding out months later when ewes fail to lamb.
Managing a prolapsing ewe
About one out of 80 lambing ewes will prolapse in our system. Knowing when the ewe is predicted to lamb helps us decide how to manage that prolapsing ewe. If there is only a week left before the expected lambing date, we would use a harness. If she still has three or four weeks to go, we would probably resort to suturing.
Late gestation nutrition
Early in our shepherding careers, we noticed that the average gestation length in our flock increased from 147 to 150 days and our lambs were born about 1.5 lb. lighter on average (several 6.5 to 7.5 lb. lambs). Both of these were quantifiable. It seemed that it took two days after birth before any of the lambs were hopping around. The vast majority of the lambs were pretty lethargic. But the behavioural observation fit with the other data and we concluded that our flock had had some adverse nutritional event during late gestation.
Ewes switching breeding groups
One year we were using a green crayon for a ram in one breeding group and a yellow crayon for another ram in a different breeding group. After the third cycle, I noticed a yellow marked ewe in the green group. After checking eartags, we realized we had a ewe that went over or through two 32” electrified cross-fences and around some electric netting. Never would I have considered that a ewe would do that, since we rarely have ewes that get out. I now use different coloured crayons for every ram in their separate breeding pastures. This is important for maintaining accurate sire records.
Changing rams in a breeding group
When registering lambs, it is important to know which ram sired your lambs. A safe waiting period between two rams is ten days or maybe even two weeks. When using harnesses, you can shorten the period between taking one ram out and putting another one in to four days. Rarely have I seen a ewe that will breed for longer than 36 hours. You can be certain that a ewe that didn’t get marked by the first ram and then did get marked four days later by a new ram was bred by the second ram. But this only works if the shepherd goes out every day and looks for newly marked ewes.
It is important to watch lambing dates. If the gestation length for a ewe doesn’t make sense in terms of who you think the sire is, then it is best to either blood test the lambs or not register them.
In our system, about one out of 20 or 30 ewes doesn’t get marked, but most of them usually go ahead and lamb.
More rarely, we have ewes that don’t lamb. Most of these ewes are good candidates for culling, but marking records can tell us whether the ewe did not cycle at all (no marks), or cycled repeatedly but did not conceive (marked every cycle) or conceived in the first cycle and then lost the pregnancy later in the year (marked in the first cycle only).
Making culling decisions
Occasionally, a flock will run short on winter feed. In the midst of winter, trying to decide which ewes to cull can be difficult. Marking harness records could tell you which ewes did not get marked, or which ewes got marked several times. These ewes have a lower probability of lambing and may be better candidates to cull. A ewe that always takes three cycles to become pregnant makes management more difficult.
Selecting ewes for out-of-season lambing
This task is always difficult, as there are more variables, including ewes that cycle and get bred but do not conceive. But that being said, marking records provide the shepherd with more information about his or her ewes and their ability to cycle in the spring.
If some ewes are marked, then you know the ram is detecting estrous and you know how many ewes are cycling out of season. If a ram marked most of the ewes but none of them lambed, it indicates that many of the ewes were cycling but the ram probably has sub-par fertility at this time of the year.
Catching the ram
We often remove rams from the breeding pen without taking all the ewes back to the sorting pens. The sheep could be in a distant part of the rotation or across the highway from the sorting pens. By dropping a little grain or alfalfa hay on the ground, the harness straps make it handy for us to catch and control the ram as we get him out of the pen or into a cage on the trailer or back of the truck.
Problems with harnesses
Harnesses do not work for everyone. If the pastures or pens have brush or junk that can catch a harness, a ram could get caught or become entangled, and maybe even be severely injured.
Crayons can be purchased for three sets of temperatures (hot, warm, cold). The wax of the crayon needs to melt in order to mark the ewe. A hot crayon will not melt if the temperature is 300F. A cold crayon will melt all over the ram if the ambient temperatures are in the 70’s or 80s, thus requiring replacement. If temperatures change dramatically, the shepherd needs to catch the ram immediately and change the crayon to keep the harness working.
Harnesses can also rub the ram raw, if not adjusted correctly. They can even cause bleeding. Some folks say the harnesses are only 25-50% successful in helping to identify when ewes are bred and when they will lamb.
Harnesses are less useful for those with off-farm jobs that do not allow them to see the ewes in the daylight every day to check for marks. Some rams have a light touch or maybe a cooler chest and are less likely to leave marks.
In summary, marking harnesses are a useful management tool. They provide much more information for managing your flock than just telling you when a ewe is likely to lamb.
Editor’s Note: Many producers prefer applying a mixture of paint and vegetable oil directly to the chest of the ram to using a marking harness, but it can be very time-consuming for producers with several rams, as the paint has to be reapplied daily.
Jim Morgan raises Katahdins in Arkansas and is Operations Manager for Katahdin Hair Sheep International.
By Kathleen Raines
It was a frosty day as I headed down the aptly named ‘roller coaster road’ to Morning View Farm, with ice fog blanking out the deep valleys and shrouding the driveway until I was almost past it. The farm site is an old one for rural Alberta – the house was built in 1921, and moved to its present location in 1928.
Jaclyn, Hannah and Naomi Delisle. Photo by Kathleen Raines.
When Claude and Debbie Delisle first saw the quarter-section in the early fall of 2004, they fell in love with the view to the east over rolling hills to the tiny village of Elnora and beyond, but they knew they had their work cut out for them. They purchased the farm in October of that same year and negotiated possession of the neglected outbuildings one month prior, to get started on cleanup before snowfall. Claude is a skilled electrician and, with the help of his father, he undertook the first stage of renovations and upgrades that would make the house livable for their family and the buildings suitable for livestock.
Sheep were not part of the original plan for the farm. Claude grew up on a farm in Ontario (his father raised sheep, but lost the barn and stock in a fire when Claude was very young) and studied livestock production at Olds College. Debbie was raised on a dairy farm in Manitoba and was working in Olds when the couple met. Married in 1999, their family grew to include Hannah in 2000, Naomi in 2001 and Jaclyn in 2004.
The simple desire to live in the country hinged on Claude’s goal of raising cattle and Debbie’s dream of working with horses. Ten cows were purchased in spring 2005, and work on the buildings and fences continued.
Photo by Tracy Hagedorn.
Then Debbie made a fateful phone call in response to an ad on the local radio station – four Suffolk-type ewes and a ram were for sale. The sheep hadn’t been shorn in years so Debbie undertook the slow, painful process of shearing them by hand.
While that initial purchase wasn’t very productive – the ewes didn’t lamb and ended up being sold for meat – it did shift the Delisle’s thinking to the potential of lamb production. They met neighbouring shepherds Vera and Bill Mokoski of Treco Ranch, who were retiring and selling their established flock of purebred Danish Texels and Texel-Romanov crosses.
Debbie demonstrates new Racewell handling system. Photo by Tracy Hagedorn
They purchased a small group of bred females from the Mokoskis in 2006 and lambed their first 18 ewes in 2007. Vera coached Debbie through that first lambing, and acted as her mentor while she completed the Green Certificate program in sheep production.
By 2008 the flock had grown to 40 females, the cattle were sold, and the Delisles had made the decision to “go big in sheep”. Their goal is to have the sheep support the family, with Claude having the flexibility to take on occasional contract work as an electrician. Being able to involve their daughters in the operation is an added benefit, and all three are building their own flocks and involved in daily chores.
Ewes exit the barn after a night of snow and high winds. Photo by Debbie Delisle.
The purebred Texels remain integral to the operation, generating income through sales of purebred and high-percentage rams, but Claude realized that they needed a more prolific maternal ewe to produce the 1,100-1,200 lambs called for each year in the business plan. His research on the Cornell system of accelerated lambing led to the Polypay as offering natural out-of-season breeding potential, good maternal traits and consistent twinning. According to Claude’s research, the additional advantages of the Polypay include strong flocking instinct and the demonstrated success of the Texel-Polypay cross in the United States. Their farm goal is to run 500 to 600 females, lambing 200 every eight months.
The year 2009 was one of transition, and sourcing the Polypay breeding stock was the major challenge. Unable to find the number of females they needed, they booked ewe lambs from two breeders in southern Alberta to be delivered over the next two years.
Only one of the two old barns on the farm site, formerly used for hogs, was salvageable; the hip-roofed barn was reluctantly bulldozed. The 30’ x 40’ hog barn became the lambing barn, and the first of three wood-arch tarped shelters, this one measuring 30’ x 72’, was erected nearby. Claude mounted the waterers on the outside walls to increase the flexibility of the space, which is used at various times of the year for lambing jugs, mothering pens, equipment housing and feed storage. A second, measuring 30’ x 45’, provides machinery and feed storage and a third, 30’ x 72’, was erected this year to house the new Racewell handling system and lamb feeding pens.
This well-organized system of having supplies needed for various tasks “ready to grab and go” is a trick Debbie learned from mentor Vera Mokoski. Photo by Kathleen Raines.
Both Debbie and Claude take advantage of every learning opportunity that comes their way; I originally met them both at an Alberta Lamb Producers’ seminar. Claude, in particular, is always researching new and better ways to raise and market their lambs. The Delisle’s participation in the Alberta Lamb Traceability project has allowed them to access funding to partially offset the cost of their handling system, Psion tag reader and FarmWorks software.
All of this year’s lambs were marketed through Sunterra Meats, a short half-hour drive away. Debbie feels they are establishing a good relationship with the plant and getting a fair price for their lambs.
Claude built these fenceline feeders from 12” gas pipe, cut in half. Mounted with lag bolts, the 2 x 4s are easily adjustable for sheep of different sizes. The ewe lambs occasionally knock hay cubes over the back of the feeder, and Claude later added a plywood backboard to reduce feed wastage. Photo by Kathleen Raines.
Given the fact that Morning View Farm is still very much in a growth phase, it’s understandable that the couple’s learning curve has been steep. Debbie finds that each year presents them with a new challenge.
During their first lambing, the highly prolific Romanov-cross ewes showed signs of pregnancy toxaemia. Grain overload, chilled lambs and, this past year, high mortality in the bottle lambs have been issues, but each year the operation continues to grow and reward the couple sufficiently that they remain committed to their farm goals.
Debbie has taken on a new challenge this fall, letting her name stand as a director with the Alberta Sheep Breeders’ Association.
Like many Alberta shepherds the Delisles have struggled to find shearers, and part of their learning plan has involved each of them completing the Alberta Lamb Producers’ shearing school. Following Debbie’s ‘graduation’ in early 2010, she and Claude purchased a new professional shearing system for use on their own flock and to generate additional off-farm income. Debbie reports that she sheared 17 head on her best day to date, and as a shearing school classmate, I can attest that she does a very neat job.
The farm has roughly 100 acres of arable land and 20 acres each of bush and native pasture. Water is abundant and is fed to outlying pastures in the summer by surface lines with valves every 200 feet. Claude is gradually upgrading the fence with the addition of page wire on the perimeter and six strands of barbed wire on internal lines. One of Hannah’s summer jobs last year was shepherding, holding the ewes off the greenfeed while Claude fenced. Most of Claude’s machinery, older and smaller-scale, was given to him but has worked well. Annual pastures generally include some fall rye for early season grazing and have easy access to the barns and pens for water and security for ewes with young lambs. Turnips were successfully used this year for the first time to flush ewes and finish lambs. Coyote losses haven’t been a major problem so far, but a variety of security measures including two guard dogs and a llama are in place, supported by ongoing improvements to fences.
Month old Texel and Texel cross lambs. The ewe ration includes barley, alfalfa cubes and free choice greenfeed. The round bale feeder is from the CCWG. Photo by Kathleen Raines.
The original plan for flock expansion has been modified as Claude has been busier than anticipated with off-farm work, leaving Debbie to manage the daily tasks alone. They lambed 113 ewes this year and now have 50 more Polypay ewe lambs and a handful of additional purebred Texels. Finding unrelated stock of both breeds has been a problem, and the new Texels were brought in from Ontario. They now have 195 ewes bred to lamb in two groups in 2011.
Claude’s dream of cattle is but a memory, but Debbie keeps her interest in horses alive with Acorn, the Norwegian Fjord pony she is training. Full time jobs, a full time sheep operation and a busy young family don’t leave much time for play, but Debbie is happy to report that Acorn is coming along very well.
Kathleen Raines raises Rideau Arcotts and F1 crosses near Spruce View, Alberta.
Story & photos by Jonathan Wort
The earliest record of sheep in Canada is found in the records of De Mont’s voyage to Acadia (Nova Scotia) in 1604; Champlain established Port Royal the following year. It appears that the Acadians raised sheep from the early days of their presence here. The tradition continues to this day with several Acadian families, such as the d’Eons, d’Entremonts and Boudreaus who have kept sheep for many many generations on islands off the coast of Nova Scotia.
James Vallis seems to know what he’s doing with this lobster, served on the Saturday night of the island sheep tour.
The sheep graze year-round on these islands, feeding on grass in the summer and seaweed in the winter months. It is thought that the early European fishermen who came here to fish for the summer brought sheep with them on their boats and pastured them on the islands, beginning the tradition of raising sheep in this manner.
On the weekend of June 19th, the Purebred Sheep Breeders’ Association of Nova Scotia was hosted by Mary Morse, Leroy d’Entremont and their family for a weekend island sheep tour. The event started with supper on Saturday evening at Le Village historique acadien in Pubnico. The meal featured lobster caught by Leroy. Supper was followed by an informal gathering of sheep producers and local residents, with music provided by several local musicians.
Sunday morning everyone met at a wharf on Shelburne Harbour for the half hour boat ride to McNutt’s Island in the mouth of the harbour. Shelburne Harbour is the third-largest natural harbour in the world.
The island sheep are North Country Cheviot and Scottish Blackfaces.
While on the island, the sheep breeders were treated to coffee breaks and moussaka, prepared with local mutton, for lunch. Ann Yarborough and Greg Brown, the island’s only remaining full-time residents, prepared the treats in their wonderful restored 150-year-old fisherman’s house. Ann and Greg bought the property in 2007, and have become an important part of the island. You can find out more about them from Ann’s blog, Nova Scotia Island Journal or Greg’s book of the same name.
Greg welcomed everyone to their island home by saying that they were very happy with the lawn maintenance crew (sheep) who had been mowing (eating) the grass, and fertilizing it for generations. The only compromise that they have had to make is to maintain the fences around their flower and vegetable gardens.
The first stop on the tour was the sheep pens where Leroy does all his sheep handling, shearing, and sorting. From there we made our way, by various unique modes of transport, to the other side of the 2,000-acre island to the lighthouse where we hoped to see the sheep.
The sheep graze on grass in the summer and seaweed in the winter.
Leroy told us that McNutt Island currently supports a flock of about 90 crossbred North County Cheviot and Scottish Blackface ewes. He breeds these ewes to either a North Country Cheviot or Scottish Blackface ram, in order to retain a crossbred flock. On other islands, such as Blue Island, he has a purebred Scottish Blackface flock. He finds that by maintaining crossbred and purebred flocks on different islands he can breed sheep that are suited to the environmental conditions on the various islands and produce marketable lambs.
One of Leroy’s Border Collies hitches a ride to the island.
The islands vary considerably in size and geography. Some are forested and others are not much more than rock outcrops in the ocean. A critical factor that determines the islands’ suitability for sheep is the amount of seaweed that washes up on the shore in the fall and winter storms. Without this, the sheep would not have enough winter feed.
On McNutt Island the sheep graze the open land along the shore and around the houses or areas where people lived in the past. The interior of the island is thick hardwood and softwood forest. Leroy relies on Border Collies to work his sheep; without them it would be impossible to gather the sheep and work with them.
The sheep have become an important part of the ecology of the island that they graze. Several islands have lost their sheep flocks. When this happens, within a couple of years the islands grow up in an impenetrable web of bushes and raspberries, changing the landscape dramatically. Once this happens even the bird population changes, with shore birds no longer nesting on the islands.
One of the ‘various, unique forms of transportation’ used on the island sheep tour.
Island sheep flocks used to exist all along the shore of Nova Scotia. But the only flocks that continue to this day are in the southwestern region where fishermen like Leroy continue the tradition of inshore fishing and raising sheep, started by their ancestors in the early 1600’s. Leroy and his fellow island sheep farmers are very proud of this tradition and plan to continue it for many generations to come.
Jonathan Wort works for Agrapoint in Truro, Nova Scotia. He and the rest of the tour group would like to thank Leroy and Mary and their family, and Ann and Greg for sharing their world with the Purebred Sheep Breeders Association of Nova Scotia.
Story & photos by Rob Fensom
I have lived in Canada for 30 summers now, having spent roughly half my time on the prairies and half in the southern interior of British Columbia. Most of that time I have been ranching, and one thing that is often glaringly obvious is the mismatching of livestock to location.
Hailing from Britain as I do, where every county or area has its specific breed of sheep, cow, pig, duck or chicken, I find it strange that folks here buy with the heart not the head, keeping the breeds they like even if they are ill suited to the area where they live. This seems to be a bigger problem with small farms than with larger-scale operations. Of course, it’s probably easier to ignore the financial lesson being doled out by owning tropical sheep on a bald prairie with eight months of winter when you have only 20, rather than 200 or 2,000 animals.
It’s always easier to spot our neighbours’ mistakes than our own, so to begin with I will use Britain as an example. No shepherd there would dream of taking Dorset ewes up to the highlands of Scotland and swapping them for Scottish Blackface ewes to take back to the rolling fertile pastures of Dorset County. The Blackface ewes would become overly fat, with many not breeding, and those that did would end up with more lambs than they knew what to do with, along with many foot problems and a few cases of bloat. The Dorsets in Scotland would no doubt lose condition, some would not breed, and many that normally have twins would only have singles. All of the above would make for stressed sheep, stressed shepherds and empty bank accounts.
Now to bring this closer to home, I will use my own experience as the bad example. Remember, you know nothing without experience, and the man who hasn’t made any mistakes probably didn’t do a lot either. The trick is to learn by other’s mistakes, it’s a lot cheaper!
I used to ranch in southern Manitoba, we ran sheep, cattle and goats. The sheep were mostly Dorset/Suffolk crosses and suited for our area and management. Then one day I went and fell in love with Columbias, a huge wool breed with lambs that finish at 140 pounds, with lovely fine wool and a low lambing percentage that often goes hand in hand with easy care sheep. Not only did I pick a breed that was ill suited to our economic needs and management style, but I hauled them in from Maple Creek, Saskatchewan (a dry, short-grass area) into a moist park-like setting with grass up to our underwear.
I thought our plentiful grass would increase the lamb crop, but it was like lettuce compared to the granola-like, nutrient-dense stuff in Maple Creek. No extra lambs appeared the next spring, and over two years the wool clip value dropped as the wool became coarse, going from the fineness of silk to the thickness of bristles on a wire brush. It took four years of denial before I smartened up and got rid of the Columbias. As Red on television’s That 70s Show would say, “what a dumbass”. Buying breeds with the heart instead of the head will do that to a fellow.
Now I’m not telling you to sell off your sweethearts and study up on climate, grass and livestock to get a winning combination. But if you want to improve your bottom line, and even with all your tender loving care your gals are not coming up with the goods, maybe it’s time to do a little investigating. Believe me, it’s quicker to destock and buy the right breed than try to upgrade a breed that is a poor fit.
These days we ranch in British Columbia and rotationally graze irrigated pasture. This requires a high degree of management and needs a good return for all the labour of moving electric net fencing and irrigation pipes.
The mothering-up paddock in April, grazing started on April 29th in 2009.
In playing with breeds, I bought in older ewes from small flocks that were being sold. There is some disease risk to doing this, but it has worked out well. We got Dorsets, Romneys and Suffolks. Our pastures are lush and green, and are grazed four to six times a season, so we need a breed that can make good use of these conditions.
The Dorsets and Romneys are coming up trumps, as the conditions here are similar to where these breeds come from. The Suffolks are not doing as well, unless their lambs are sired by the Dorset ram – the Dorset genetics seem to make better use of the grass. Romneys are also a lush grass-type animal, with the added bonus of worm and footrot resistance, as they come from Romney Marsh, a wet lowland in Kent, England.
The Suffolks hail from a grain-growing area of England, and were used to clean up crop land in the fall, and no doubt became accustomed to some grain. The ones I had seemed to be poor milkers on grass, and their lambs did not do as well as the other two breeds, so they had to go. They have now been sold, not because they were bad sheep (they did 175%), but because their lambs in our system did not finish on grass, which is what we require.
So remember, no rash moves, but take a closer look at where your breed comes from and do some looking at your pasture type and weather records. Maybe it’s time to end that love affair and start shepherding with your head. Your bank account will thank you for it.
Rob Fensom ranches in the southern interior of British Columbia and is a grazing mentor to those in need. He has been known to graze any type of critter for a buck.