|Table of Contents
4: Greetings from Deerville
5: Genetic variability of 22 Canadian sheep breeds
13: New vaccine for barber pole worm
14: Feed for profit
17: Canadian Sheep Federation has new chair
19: Buyers’ Guide
22: Subscriber and Buyers’ Guide forms
23: Sing, sing, sing!
25: Natural health remedies for sheep: garlic
27: When good tags go bad
28: Good news about the treatment of footrot
31: Producer Profile: Drover’s Way Farm, Perth, Ontario
| Web Links (Feed for Profit column)
Management at Lambing Time
Nutrition Guide for Sheep Producers
Feeding Ewes Better for Increased Production and Profit
| Web Links (Natural health remedies for sheep: garlic)
Rancher uses garlic to keep flies at bay
Garlic prevents common cold
Garlic, a natural antibiotic
Why we use spices
|Web Links (Good news about treatment for footrot)
Impact of footrot vaccination and antibiotic therapy…
Randomized clinical trial of long-acting oxytetracycline…
Impact of rapid treatment of sheep lame with footrot…
A review of footrot in sheep
A within farm clinical trial to compare two treatments…
Story by Cathy Gallivan, PhD, Photos by Allison Taylor, PhD
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
|Table of Contents
4: Greetings from Deerville
5: 2013 All Canada Classic, Barriere, BC
13: Animal House
15: SunGold drops carcass conformation score
17: Increased selenium boosts growth and immunity
18: Subscription & Buyers’ Guide forms
19: Buyers’ Guide
23: Rational selection of replacement animals
27: CSF appoints new Executive Director
28: Feed for profit
31: Producer Profile: Millferns Holsteins, Lower Onslow, NS
|Web Links Mentioned in this Issue
SunGold Prices and Lamb Payment Grid
Foxlights night predator deterrent
Lamb prices at Northumberlamb *
* Click on the week you are interested in; lamb prices on the first page of the report are from the Maritime Cattle Market (auction) in Truro; Northumberlamb’s prices are on the second page of each weekly report.
|Table of Contents
4: Greetings from Deerville
5: Producer Profile: Red Willow Colony, Stettler, AB
15: Feed for profit
19: Buyers’ Guide
23: Natural health remedies for sheep: fly control
25: Using CIDRs in the non-breeding season: update
31: Spring break 2013
|Web Links Mentioned in this Issue
How houseflies work
Resource guide for organic insect and disease management
Activity and biological effects of neem products
Sheep Nutrition Fact Sheet
The Busine$$ of Sheep
Story by Peggy Johnson, Photos by Tracy Hagedorn
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Table of Contents
4: Greetings from Deerville
5: Producer Profile: Catto Sheep Farm, Lipton, SK
13: Jennifer MacTavish leaves CSF to head up OSMA
15: Lambing live…
17: Cache Valley virus in Canada?
18: New strategies for control of OPP
19: Buyers’ Guide
23: RFID software for flock management
27: Peas in a pod?
29: Natural health remedies for sheep: Aloe vera
31: Farming in Shangri-la
|Web Links Mentioned in this Issue
RFID software for flock management
Sheep go to heaven (or why Alyson Champ hates goats)
GeneSeek Lab in Lincoln, Nebraska
Story & photos by Stuart Chutter
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.