Sheep and goats grazing in southeast Saskatchewan during the drought of 2015.
Story & photos by Stuart Chutter
Spring started out as usual here on the farm. Lambing in May was chaotic and exhausting, but that is normal. But normal stopped when it never rained. I was rotating pastures faster than ever before because the growth was so slow. It didn’t take long to realize that there wasn’t going to be enough grass this year, and I would run out of forage long before winter. With hay crops devastated and hay selling at over $200 per tonne, early feeding was not a solution. Early marketing of lambs, destocking or finding more grass were the only possible answers.
Normally our ewes and lambs graze together with the goat herd until weaning in mid-August. But with so little rain and poor growth of grass, things had to be different this year. After weaning in July, the lambs were sent back out to graze barley and oat greenfeed regrowth on the farm. Meanwhile, the does, ewes and I took a six-hour truck ride to southeast Saskatchewan to graze leafy spurge, an invasive weed taking over prairie grasslands, This was a last-minute opportunity for which I was not well prepared. It was out of pure necessity and naivety that I ended up with over 1,000 breeding ewes and 540 does grazing weeds off-farm, to help sustain the herd until winter. We would graze there from early July to mid-October.
Stuart arrived on site just ahead of the semis; a short time later he was alone, except for his dogs, in unfamiliar territory.
The first three weeks were a total adventure. I arrived in my pick-up with a quad in the box, pulling a tent trailer. The semis were right behind me! We drove farther into the bush than I had expected, until we arrived at the unloading ramp. Before I had much time to plan, set camp or get myself organized, the trucks were unloaded and I was off herding with a map in hand and only a vague idea of where I was.
The goats arrived first, a few weeks before the sheep, as they had been weaned and processed first. The sheep started rolling in later, after they had been weaned, sorted, wormed, footbathed and loaded from home.
For most of the summer the sheep and goats were grazed separately. They were penned nightly in separate small holding pens made of electric netting energized by solar panels. The goats took longer to learn respect for electric netting, so keeping them separate allowed a closer eye on their night pen. The night pens were moved every other day or so, and my camp more or less weekly, so that fresh grass was close at all times.
Have quad (and dogs), will travel.
The novelty of living in a tent trailer wore off as the grazing season progressed.
Each morning, we left early to find spurge to graze. In the hottest part of summer I would often pen the sheep during the heat of the day, when they would bed down anyway, and go for a lunch break. But later in the summer, as days got shorter and cooler, it was often easier to just graze all day. I used the quad all the time. I couldn’t have survived without it! I used it to take animals to and from camp, as well as to bunch the animals up as needed (and also to explore a little and see, “What’s over there?”).
Leafy spurge: the area on the right side of the fenceline has been grazed by sheep for many years.
For me, the purpose of taking this drastic step was to feed my sheep. But for the landowner, the purpose of having me and my animals there was to control leafy spurge. It was obvious that this weed was taking over the land and, outside of the boundari
es where sheep had been grazing for several years, it was out of control. When the sheep finished eating through a plot of thick, tall spurge, the soil underneath was nearly completely bare, with no grass or native species under the canopy of spurge. Looking at the fence lines of the land I was grazing, and where sheep have been for several years, the benefit of sheep grazing was obvious. Inside the fence, the spurge looked like a managed problem, but the area outside was full of wild and uncontrolled spurge growth.
Over the course of the summer there were many adventures and near disasters. I awoke one night to the sound of noisy sheep. Settled sheep are relatively silent; noisy sheep mean trouble. On this night, some of the netting had been knocked down and the whole flock had escaped. After herding all day I was not impressed to be herding at night as well, but after about two hours I had most of them collected and back in their pen, and I was back in bed. The next morning there was a bunch of sheep waiting outside the pen that I must have missed in the darkness.
Near disaster – a middle-of-the-night breakout from the night pen.
Another near disaster occurred while pushing sheep down a trail late in the evening. The days were getting shorter and I had stayed out grazing too long. I was hurrying to get the flock back to the night pen before dark. In my panic, I lost one of my collies. Duke was with me one minute and gone the next. I mistakenly assumed he would find us back at camp, so I kept pushing the sheep. Luckily, I got everyone penned before dark; but there was no sign of Duke. I spent the better part of the next week knocking on nearby farm doors and putting up missing dog signs, in between herding shifts. I had nearly lost hope when Duke was found, miles away, deep in a valley, by a recreational dirt biker who had seen one of my signs. I was thrilled to have him back at camp, and so was Lexi (my other collie), who was exhausted from doing double duty for the week that he was missing.
The biggest recurring problem I had was flat tires on the quad. My poor quad was abused all summer; in hindsight I should have had a backup quad with me. I had flat tires at least weekly and became a quick pro at sealing leaks. I bought new tires by midsummer but even these were full of plugs by fall. It may be more dependable to herd on horseback but I was not nearly organized enough to try that this summer. As much of a headache as the tires were, at least the quad didn’t require feed or rest, and didn’t create extra chores in addition to herding.
Border Collies Duke and Lexi were essential to the success of the grazing operation.
The sheep and goats performed reasonably well while grazing. There were no young stock out with me, just dry females needing to meet their maintenance requirements. The ewes arrived thin, as they had just weaned their lambs, and they were relatively fleshy by the time they left in the fall. The goats did wonderfully on all the browse and bush, and I have never had such nice condition on my does heading into winter. It was very obvious over the summer that goats really were made for grazing projects involving eating bush and weeds. Lameness was the biggest animal health problem.
The goats arrived first, as they had already been weaned and processed when the grazing opportunity arose. By the end of the season, the goats were in better condition than ever before. It seemed that goats, particularly, were made for grazing leafy spurge.
With eight guard dogs, constant supervision and night penning, predation was not an issue.
I had never considered the old farm house I live in to be very luxurious, until I spent the summer herding. For most of the summer, a provincial park 20 minutes away was open, and I could sneak in on a side trail for a quick shower. But in mid-September the park closed and I was left to bathe in a small pail of water warmed on a propane stove. It is surprising how clean you can get from a sponge bath with a litre of water—it makes showering seem so wasteful!
Groceries were available 25 minutes away in a small town. But buying food was much more strategic than normal grocery shopping. Prospective purchases had to be easy to prepare and preferably non-refrigerated, as I only had a cooler with an ice pack. Milk had to be drunk quickly. On one of my first grocery trips, without much planning, I bought a box of fudgesicles and had to eat all six on the truck ride home. Avocados, canned tuna, apples, bananas and bulk granola bars quickly became staples. I also figured out that you can cook a can of soup over a stove without even putting it in a pot—other than a spoon, no dishes required!
Laundry was available at a laundromat in town. But, in all honesty, as summer turned to fall, laundry became less and less of a priority. It only takes so long living in a tent trailer before you just become dirty and tired. The sheep were getting tired too. Nights were colder and I was getting irritable and a little crazy from too long in the bush…it was time to go home!
All in all, my summer grazing was an adventure and experience I really learned from. Before this summer, if I had to move sheep across the road or across the neighbour’s land, I would have recruited lots of help at corners and gates. But now I am comfortable with sheep behaviour and handling large groups, and can move sheep on my own nearly anywhere. That being said, the grazing took a ton of time and there is no such thing as a balanced life when herding, so it is not something I’d look to do again on my own. If I have to do it again, it will be with relief help, better equipment, and more planning!
Hopefully next spring it will rain, so the sheep and I can just stay put and appreciate the comforts of home.
Stuart Chutter is a commercial lamb and meat goat producer living near Gull Lake, Saskatchewan.
Story & photos by Barbara Johnstone Grimmer, P.Ag.
The BC sheep industry is relatively small and very diverse, with an average flock size of 30–40 ewes and a total of 55,000 head. There are no federally inspected plants that kill lambs in BC.
According to Statistics Canada (2011), 26% of BC sheep are located on Vancouver Island and the southern Gulf Islands (between the mainland and Vancouver Island). Sheep production is spread throughout the islands with 14,000–15,000 sheep on nearly 500 farms. The Gulf Islands are unique in that large predators are either absent or rare, with only flying predators such as eagles and ravens to worry about. Vancouver Island has cougars and bears, but no coyotes. Livestock is transported on and off the islands by ferry or, for those islands without ferry service, by barge. The mild coastal climate allows sheep to remain outdoors most of the year.
Up until a few years ago, most lamb was processed on the farm and sold to the community and visitors to the islands. Direct marketing increased following the BSE border closure in 2003, enhanced by the demand for local food. In 2004, the BC government changed its meat regulations to require licensing of all facilities slaughtering livestock and the inspection of all meat in the province. After a rocky period of farmer protests and consultations, the regulations became law in 2007. All over the province, local abattoirs shut down. Required plant upgrades were costly for many operators, especially in isolated rural areas where direct sales of uninspected meat had previously been allowed. With no inspection on the small islands, animals had to be transported off the islands for slaughter. Off-island abattoirs were often over-booked, creating long waits.
The Gulf Islands have no four-legged predators.
Sheep numbers fell across BC by 33%. Island numbers fell even farther. A 2010 study of livestock on Salt Spring Island determined that, although sheep comprised 90% of livestock raised on the island, sheep numbers had fallen by 44% in just five years.
Implementation of the new regulations was delayed initially because few plants upgraded to the new standards; most of them closed down. The government scrambled for solutions and offered funding to assist with upgrades, and slowly plants began to apply for funds. Some communities had to start from scratch.
One of the few plants licensed to process lamb before the regulatory changes is located on a farm in Metchosin, a half hour from the city of Victoria. The small plant services southern Vancouver Island and the southern Gulf Islands, providing custom slaughter services and lamb for local butcher shops, grocery stores and restaurants. John and Lorraine Buchanan and their family started out as regular customers and suppliers of lamb to the plant, and over 30 years became one of the biggest sheep producers on Vancouver Island. They have since taken over operation of the plant to preserve access to the local market. The workers remained; without that smooth transition the business would not have survived.
John Buchanan unloads a group of lambs for slaughter at the abattoir built by Bernie Nikkels at Metchosin, Vancouver Island. Lambs come down the ramp and through the chute that runs behind the back of the abattoir, into the holding pens on the left. The design is a good one and the animals move readily through it.
John says the challenges have included training new workers in case someone leaves, finding people who are willing to slaughter, and finding work for them the rest of the week, such as making deliveries, as the plant only operates about one-and-a-half days a week and does not do cutting and wrapping. The plant can kill 60 lambs a week; this number is limited by how many can be cut and wrapped (about 35 per week) at three local butcher shops. The rest are wholesale carcass sales. John feels that they are succeeding in all of these areas. They are also succeeding with the buy-in of independent butchers and the many restaurants that really value having a good local supply of lamb.
Slaughter waste is taken to the local landfill, at an average cost of $5 per lamb, including trucking. John looked into composting, but his plant is just a bit too big to be exempt from composting regulations, and it can be difficult to make composting on a large scale economically viable.
The Buchanan family’s Parry Bay Sheep Farm is well known locally and in the larger sheep community. They are good farmers and good business people, and have expanded their 300+ ewe operation by leasing farmland and smaller pastures, while owning little land themselves. The ewes are on pasture for nine months, and grazed rotationally to optimize grass growth. They also grow some grain, including wheat for local bakeries.
John and Lorraine are generous with their time and knowledge, hosting field days for the Inter-Island Sheep Breeders Association, teaching new sheep producers the finer points of raising good lamb, and inviting the general public and school groups to visit at lambing time. At a BC Sheep Federation (BCSF) seminar last year, the Buchanans heard about the Premium BC Lamb Program being developed by the BC Association of Abattoirs (BCAA), in partnership with BCSF. They hosted a field day a few months later, which introduced the BC Meats Quality Information System (BCMQIS), a carcass scoring system for grading lamb. The Buchanans provided lambs, and producers were taught how to select for quality and finish. The next day the lambs were processed and the carcasses graded and compared to the live evaluations.
Producers who are members of the BC Abattoir Association can sign up for the Premium BC Lamb program and receive feedback on their lambs from participating abattoirs. The association is a unique organization that has developed the Premium BC Lamb brand, bringing together chefs, retailers, processors and lamb producers, working for a strong, effective value chain. The BCAA was formed in 2009 by the licensed BC meat industry, and has partnered with the BCSF to develop standards and ensure high-quality lamb production and a powerful marketing scheme for the industry.
Producers receive guidance and training on nutrition and selection of lambs, and abattoir operators are trained in the unique grading system.
The weight and grade of each lamb is recorded with its RFID tag number, and the results are available to the producers. Lambs grading high are stamped, and can be marketed using the Premium BC Lamb label. Boxes of lamb are identified with the RFID tag number, ensuring traceability.
Marketing materials for restaurants state ‘Proudly Serving BC Lamb’, using a distinctive logo that is on all materials used by producers, stores and restaurants. The production, selection and grading system has been introduced at workshops around the province and more are scheduled for this fall.
Jacques (pronounced Jackie) Campbell operates Campbell Sheep Farm and Campbell Farm Abattoir on Saturna Island, BC.
One of the early adopters of the BCMQIS grading system is also a director of the BC Association of Abattoirs. Jacques Campbell (with brother Tom and sister Nan) raises sheep and beef cattle and operates a small abattoir on beautiful Saturna Island, a 31-sq. km island with a population of 300. Jacques’ parents, Jim and Lorraine, started Campbell Farm in 1945. The Campbells currently run about 100 commercial ewes, with Cheviot, Charollais and Suffolk breeding, and ten cows. The ewes lamb in February under the trees, and the lambs are primarily grass-fed and finished.
Campbell Farm Abattoir, BC #32, was built in the 1950’s, designed with advice from the UBC Faculty of Agriculture, which both of Jacques’ parents attended in the 1940’s. There are two levels in the plant. A drop floor allows for beef to be hung. The walk-in cooler on the upper level has an overhead track to move carcasses. The change in meat regulations imposed only minimal upgrades on the plant, such as improved surfaces and a closed-in ceiling. Other items were added, such as a bolt gun and sanitizers for the knives. Wooden cutting boards had to go, but knives with wooden handles were allowed to wear out. Additional considerations, such as an office and bathroom for the inspector, were accommodated by facilities in an adjacent building.
Campbell Farm Abattoir, BC #32., Saturna Island, BC.
Waste is under the jurisdiction of the BC Ministry of Environment, and the Campbells have a fenced and covered burial pit, with a separate pit for specified risk materials.
The holding pen outside the Campbell Farm Abattoir always has at least one additional animal, so that the last lamb to be slaughtered does not have to wait in the pen by itself.
Slaughter is seasonal, from June to December, three days a week, with one day for slaughter and two for cutting and wrapping. The inspector comes on an early ferry from Victoria, arriving around 6:30 am. Work ends when he has to catch the ferry back around 10 am. About 15-20 lambs can be done in a day on this schedule.
Jacques says that when the changes to the regulations were announced, they were told there was no room for small slaughterhouses like hers, but that attitude has changed with the assistance of the BC Food Processors, whom the government enlisted to help with the transition. Jacques feels that the advantages of the license and the inspection process outweigh the expense and extra oversight, providing opportunity. They now have scheduled slaughter days, and the farm can sell their lamb in the local store and to local restaurants. They can also continue to supply lamb for the annual Saturna Island Lamb Barbeque held each Canada Day. The Argentine-style barbeque has been an annual community fundraiser since 1950, bringing tourists by boat and ferry from all over BC and the world.
Being inspected also means they can provide custom cutting and wrapping for islands that do not have an abattoir. Campbell Farm has a growing customer base of sheep and beef producers from neighbouring islands, who bring animals by truck on the ferries, or from smaller islands by barge.
Argentinian-style barbecue at the annual Saturna Island Lamb Barbecue.
Jacques was one of the first lamb abattoir operators trained on the BCQMIS system, which uses a tablet to photograph carcasses, which are then graded against a standard. She also has a Psion RFID reader, FarmWorks software and an electronic scale head to monitor her own flock’s progress. In 2010, Campbell Farm hosted a producer workshop to show how the abattoir works, and to demonstrate the benefits of RIFD.
Jacques gets help from friends and members of the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms Program (WWOOFERs), shown here holding their favourite lambs.
One group of sheep producers who came to the field day had a specific purpose: to learn about small-scale abattoirs so they could build one for Salt Spring Island. They watched a lamb being processed, from start to finish. They saw how the sheep were handled, how the bolt gun quickly stunned the animal, how many people it took to process the lamb and how the facilities were laid out, as well as the role of the inspector. Two years later, the newest abattoir in the Gulf Islands is the community-owned and operated Salt Spring Abattoir.
Salt Spring is the largest Gulf Island, at 183 sq. km, and over 10,000 people. The abattoir was built because of the difficulty of transporting animals off-island for processing, and the decline in livestock and poultry on the island after the new meat regulations came into effect. Before it was built, there had been no slaughter service on Salt Spring for five years.
Sheep have been central to the character of many Gulf Islands since the first European settlers found the island more suited to grazing livestock than growing crops. The animal has become a mascot for Salt Spring, featured on souvenirs and signage, and Salt Spring lamb has been proudly served to the Queen on her visits to British Columbia. It is said that the lamb’s famous flavour comes from the salt air, the island grasses and the apples that fall in old orchards every fall. All of this contributed to the ‘Save Salt Spring Lamb’ campaign, which spurred development of the new abattoir.
A feasibility study determined that the only way an abattoir could be built to government standards would be through fundraising in the community, as the income from such a small plant would not pay to build it. An Agriculture Area Plan followed, which reinforced the idea that more infrastructure was needed on the island. The non-profit Salt Spring Island Agricultural Alliance was formed in 2008, and fundraised for the abattoir using crowd funding, farm dinners, chef’s dinners, restaurant fundraisers and musical events to bring the community together on the project. The original cost estimate was $500,000 for a permanent building (not including land) versus $300,000 for a simple mobile abattoir, a solution other communities had settled on.
It was decided to build a multi-species abattoir on site, to process lamb, goats, poultry and (eventually) pigs and beef, with moveable modular components (in case another site is chosen in the future) for cutting and wrapping, cooling and freezing, offal and hides, plus a custom-built slaughter trailer. It was estimated that the society would need $350,000 to build this customized style of abattoir, with $200,000 from fundraising and $150,000 from a government grant. But costs went up as local and provincial governments added requirements and plans were changed, resulting in a final cost of $470,000, with another $25,000 still being raised for upgrades for beef and pig slaughtering.
The Salt Spring Abattoir Society is the not-for-profit that was formed to manage the abattoir business. The business model is unique in that the abattoir is owned and run by the community. David Astill is the president of the society. The one thing that David would suggest to someone thinking of following their model would be to go with a permanent building rather than a mobile abattoir. Mobile abattoirs are expensive and tight on space, as well as hard to keep cool on hot days. The government’s requirements for docking stations are so high for a mobile abattoir in BC that it adds to the cost of construction and takes away the advantages of a mobile unit.
The Salt Spring Island Abattoir has moveable, modular components.
The abattoir owes its success to the organizational skills and knowledge base of the fundraisers and volunteers, the incredible support of the community, and the attention paid to the labour component. A central goal was to achieve sustainability through high animal welfare standards, and fair wages and working conditions. The plant has retained good employees, critical for success in any business but even more so for slaughter plants. David emphasized that it is important to hire employees who work well for the business, work well together and are flexible, and to appreciate them for the hard work they do. An added benefit of good working conditions for employees has been the positive contribution to animal welfare, product quality, and a good working relationship with the producers and the abattoir society.
Building a community business has led David to develop a value chain for the Salt Spring Abattoir and its stakeholders, working with retailers like Thrifty Foods who are considering taking Salt Spring lamb back to Vancouver Island Thrifty stores instead of sending trucks back empty after delivering groceries to Salt Spring. That is a big win, supported by the Premium BC Lamb brand, which ensures quality and provides branded marketing materials for retailers. National chain stores often do not accept provincially inspected meat as a matter of policy, given that provincially inspected meat cannot be sold across provincial or federal borders. Thrifty Foods is a Victoria-based brand that values local food and, although it was sold to the national Sobey’s retail chain in 2007, has retained a lot of its character.
The Salt Spring plant was designed to process 750 lambs per year at 20 per day. Last year the abattoir was able to process 25 lambs per day and did a total of 450 lambs. A local farmer composts slaughter waste from the plant, by mixing it with old hay in a feed mixer mounted on the PTO of his tractor. The mixture is turned for a half hour a few times a day and composting is complete in a week.
Now that the growing pains of the new plant have eased and its potential is being realized, the larger sheep producers on Salt Spring are starting to use it as well, and there is hope that as it becomes available to beef and pork producers livestock numbers will rebound and the viability of agriculture on Salt Spring Island will improve. The ‘Save Salt Spring Lamb’ campaign that started this project seems to have achieved its goals.
Barbara Johnstone Grimmer is a commercial sheep producer and professional agrologist who lives on Pender Island, BC.
By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Over the last 15 years, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to a lot of places for Sheep Canada magazine, but there are still many parts of the country I’ve yet to see. One of these was the Gaspésie, or Gaspé Peninsula, which extends along the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River in eastern Québec, north of New Brunswick.
But I got my chance last month as I made the 4.5-hour trip from home to meet with Manon Lelièvre and her partner, Sylvain Arbour, to learn about the production and marketing of their seaweed-fed lamb.
Les Bergeries du Margot was started 25 years ago by Sylvain, with the purchase of a single building on 50 hectares of unused farmland and a starter flock of 50 crossbred ewes. Over the years Sylvain added buildings, acquired more sheep and took on partners in the enterprise, including Manon. The farm now consists of 500 acres plus another 100 that they rent, and is home to 600 ewes. This progress is especially impressive in view of the fact that scrapie has twice forced them to depopulate the flock and start over– in 2001 and again in 2005.
The current flock of registered Rideau Arcotts is scrapie-certified and closed to the introduction of outside animals, except for rams that have been genotyped. The farm is also on the provincial Maedi-visna program.
The new barn was just completed last fall. It is connected by an indoor passageway to the Cover-All, which has a passageway to the old barn.
The flock is maintained year-round in three buildings on the home farm, and another barn on a separate property. The photoperiod system developed at the CEPOQ research station is used to program six groups of ewes so that there is a lambing roughly every six weeks. Manon says using the photoperiod system allows for some quality of life, with time to relax a little between lambings, in contrast to when they used sponges and PMSG to induce the ewes to lamb out of season.
Sylvain uses a software program called BerGére to record the production of the flock and make management decisions. He shared one report with me (see sidebar), which breaks the production of the flock down into in-season and out-of-season results, as well as according to the age of the ewes. The data on individual animals in BerGére is uploaded directly to GenOvis for the production of EPDs used to select rams and ewes.
The inside of the new barn. Walls are easily washable, the sides of the pens can be moved up and down to accommodate buildup of the bedding pack, and alleys on both outside walls make it easy to sort sheep into their respective pens.
Wooden flaps suspended from pieces of old conveyer belts or tires keep lambs in their own pens.
The Rideau ewes are bred to Ile de France terminal sires to improve the carcass quality of the lambs. Les Bergeries du Margot lambs are slaughtered as heavy lambs and therefore must be sold to Québec’s single-desk marketing agency. But after sending the lambs to the HACCP-certified abbatoir near Rimouski (about 200 miles away), Manon buys some of them back to be marketed to meat shops and restaurants in Montreal and other parts of Québec as Agneau de la Gaspésie – Nourri aux Algues (Gaspé Peninsula Seaweed-Fed Lamb). Manon is quick to credit the agency with bringing stability to the price of heavy lambs in Québec, and the extra step of having to repurchase her own lambs from them is well worth it to have that security.
Young lambs in the Cover-All barn have free-choice access to feed in self-feeders on the outside wall, which are filled automatically.
The seaweed in question is a Fucus species that is sold locally, but Sylvain and Manon buy it more affordably from a plant in Nova Scotia. Because it is an expensive ingredient, the seaweed is added to the basic ration of barley, wheat, and soybeans for the finishing stage only—which begins for male lambs at 30 kg and continues until they reach slaughter weight at 48-50 kg. Female lambs are not fed seaweed and not marketed as seaweed-fed lambs. They are slaughtered at lower weights (43-46 kg), due to their tendency to be fatter at a given weight, and sold to the agency.
The seaweed smells good and is highly palatable.
Like all Québec lamb producers, Manon receives detailed carcass information such as weight, GR measurement, and conformation scores on every lamb they ship. But, unlike most producers, she receives this information the day after the lambs are killed, which allows her to make a final selection of the lambs that will represent her brand. It also allows her to allocate specific carcasses to each customer, based on their individual preferences.
Manon acknowledges that the seaweed probably does not directly affect the taste or quality of the lamb—it is, however, a valuable tool in creating a brand that helps to sell lamb for a premium price. But the seaweed-fed lambs are a superior product; not because of the seaweed but because of the strict criteria that lambs must meet to be marketed as seaweed-fed lamb: male lambs (because they are leaner and better-muscled than females at the same carcass weight) that have never been treated with antibiotics or other medications, raised under specific conditions of space, light and temperature, and with specific GR measurements (fat depths) and conformation scores.
These lambs are truly the ‘cream of the crop’ at Les Bergeries du Margot—premium lambs, distinctive for their uniformity (conformation and weight), marbling and tenderness. In order to purchase these elite lambs back from the agency, Manon must keep detailed records of their feeding and management, which is also certified by an independent monitoring agency—EcoCert.
When they reach the finishing stage, lambs get a controlled amount of concentrate twice daily.
Manon works with two other farms in the Gaspé, who also raise seaweed-fed lamb according to her criteria and deliver to the same abbatoir. With three farms working together they have fresh lambs for their customers every week, but none of them has to ship lambs more often than every two weeks.
Every Tuesday Manon makes the four-hour trip from their home in Bonaventure to the abbatoir, where she picks up 25–30 lamb carcasses in their refrigerated delivery van. From there she heads to Montreal (a further five hours), where she delivers the carcasses to butcher shops and restaurants, before spending the night with family and returning home the next day. To offset the cost of the weekly trip, Manon does a ‘backhaul’, picking up items in Montreal or Québec City for delivery to people in the Gaspé.
Manon shared some printouts from the heavy-lamb agency for 15 lambs killed in the first week of May. These lambs had an average slaughter weight of 22.6 kg and an average index of 104.39. The average price paid for lambs at the abbatoir that week was $10.50, but the price paid for these 15 higher-indexing lambs was $10.96 per kg or $247.70 per head. There is a small deduction of $1.65 plus tax per lamb for shearing the wool off the bellies before slaughter.
Ewe lambs eligible for sale. The ones with a notch in the ear are purebred Rideaus, the rest are F1 Ile de France x Rideau crosses. Lambs with a pink mark have been treated with antibiotics.
When Manon buys the lambs back from the agency, she pays the same price, plus the cost of slaughtering the lambs, which ranges from $28-30 per head. When she sells the carcasses on to her customers, she receives an 18% premium for these specialty lamb carcasses.
Of course none of this would be possible without the use of RFID tags and readers, both on the farm and at the abbatoir. Like all lambs in Québec, Sylvain and Manon’s are double-tagged with an Allflex dangle tag and matching RFID tag within 48 hours of birth. The Agri-Traçabilité Québec (ATQ) number on the tags is used to identify each lamb from the farm to the abbatoir to the customer, and on all reports and invoices from the heavy lamb agency.
Manon works with a distributor who finds the customers in Montreal and other parts of Québec. The distributor is waiting for the abbatoir where the lambs are killed to obtain USDA certification, so they can expand their sales into the US. The farm website (in English and French) is an important marketing tool and lists all of the locations where their product can be purchased, or is served.
For more information on Les Bergeries du Margot, visit their website by going to sheepcanada.com and clicking on the link for this issue.
The business office is located in the yard between the house and three barns. Manon and Sylvain each have a desk, and there is one for the book-keeper who comes in once a week.
Rideau, Canadian, Charollais and Ile de France ewe lambs.
Story by Kathleen Raines
Photos courtesy of the Brinkmann family.
When Ute and Gerrit Brinkmann immigrated to Canada from Germany with their two young children in 1988, their dream was to farm. Although they hadn’t grown up on farms, both had a background in animal production and experience as farm apprentices. They purchased land near New Norway in central Alberta’s parkland region and established a pig operation that peaked at 400 sows. The Hanoverian horses they brought with them as a hobby grew to be a significant part of the farm business over the years. The farm is home to 30 horses including two stallions standing at stud. Canadian Equestrian Team member and 2008 Olympic silver medalist Jill Henselwood competes internationally on an Equitop stallion, Quidam Blue.
Gerrit and Ute with one of their horses at Spruce Meadows, Calgary, Alberta. Photo courtesy of Kim Berlie Photography.
As the horses were building Equitop’s reputation and contributing to the bottom line, the challenges of pork production—low prices, record-high input costs and competition from the oil and gas sector for labour—led to a decision to liquidate the pig operation in 2010. That left four barns totaling 25,000 square feet empty, and had the couple exploring options to use the space in a way that would complement the horse business.
During this period of farm business adjustment, a mutual friend introduced the Brinkmanns to Deb and Ian Clark of Medicine Ridge Farm. The Clarks were exploring a transition from fulltime shepherds to semi-retirement. It was a fortuitous meeting that led to the formation of a partnership whereby the Brinkmanns purchased half of the Medicine Ridge flock of four pure breeds: Charollais, Ile de France, Canadian and Rideau Arcotts. Deb and Ian provided hands-on assistance as Ute and Gerrit “learned sheep”, coaching them through their first couple of lambings and advising on genetics and selection criteria.
The core production principles the Brinkmanns successfully applied to their hog operation—genetics, nutrition, facilities, health and management—have served them well as sheep producers. A strict bio-security protocol, part of the Medicine Ridge regime since the flock’s inception in 1988, has been maintained, along with full certification in the Voluntary Scrapie Flock Certification Program.
Inside the repurposed pig barns. Both the lambing barn (above) and the feeder barn (below) have a central alley and fenceline feeder.
Lambs are fed concentrate in pig self-feeders (not shown).
Medicine Ridge Ovine has been a very good fit with the Brinkmanns’ facilities and farm operation. Gerrit stripped the pig equipment from three of the four barns, filling in the gutters and opening up doorways to improve airflow and accommodate a skid loader. Round hay bales are spaced down a centre corridor and hand-forked into fenceline feed bunks on each side. Portable panels are used to adjust pen sizes, depending on production stage.
To the north of the barns and well sheltered by a row of trees are four ewe pens. They open onto a central feeding area where each group takes its turn at the grain troughs. Hay is provided at fenceline bunks, although Gerrit is hoping that the new Hay Boss feeder he’s trying will reduce feed waste and allow him to eliminate feeding hay by hand in these pens.
Above and below: Dry and pregnant ewes are housed in drylot pens, where round bales are fed by hand from central feed alleys.
The flock currently numbers 330 ewes split between the four breeds. Over the last two years the traditional spring lambing has been changing into a system where smaller groups lamb every three months. The March-lambing group is still the largest, and most of the ewe lambs are bred to lamb in June. CIDRs and prostaglandin are used to synchronize the September and December lambing groups, which are exposed to rams for three days, and subsequently lamb in a single week. When I visited the farm in mid-February, the 80 lambs born in December had just been weaned. Gerrit feels the winter lambs do especially well: “They’re clean, no diarrhea, really healthy”.
The Brinkmanns are testing this new round bale feeder as a method of reducing the workload. Photo by Tracy Hagedorn.
Ewes and lambs always have access to the outdoors, even when they are housed inside. Photo by Tracy Hagedorn.
Within each breeding cycle, rams are introduced in stages according to the average gestation of the breed. The Ile de France rams go in first, the Canadian Arcott and Charollais rams three days later, and the Rideau Arcott rams another three days later.
Young rams selected for sale in the sorting pens. These pens hold up to 10 animals, depending on their size. At lambing they are divided in half and used as claiming pens.
After lambing, ewes and lambs are sorted into groups based on the number of lambs being reared. Extra colostrum is kept on hand for small and weak lambs, and an automatic milk replacer feeder supplies the “bottle lamb” group of orphans and those from larger Rideau litters. Ewes are weaned when the lambs average 50 days of age to allow time for them to regain condition for breeding on a nine-month cycle; those that don’t conceive on the modified schedule drop back into a once-a-year cycle, although the goal is four evenly-sized breeding groups. Gerrit sees a number of advantages to this accelerated system including a better use of their facilities and a more even workload and cash flow. It also offers the potential to reduce price fluctuations, and enhances their ability to meet customer demand for year-round freezer lamb and out-of-season breeding stock, especially valued by more intensive sheep producers.
Paired Shearwell CSIP tags are used to register the sheep. A colour-coded management tag is also applied at birth. Green = Canadian Arcott. Photo by Tracy Hagedorn.
Detailed, meticulous record keeping is essential for performance-based selection. FarmWorks software is used for flock management and inventory, and Ewe Byte to calculate within-flock performance indexes. The flock is also enrolled on GenOvis for calculation of between-flock Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs). All of this gives Gerrit a wealth of relevant data for his own use, and also to share with prospective breeding stock customers who range from small acreage operators to large-scale intensive producers.
Asked to list the relative advantages of the four breeds on the farm, Gerrit diplomatically attests that “each has its benefits and purpose”. By offering a range of types from the maternal Rideaus through to the terminal Canadian, Charollais and Ile de France, the Brinkmanns can satisfy a variety of customer needs. In order to maintain a wide range of bloodlines within each breed, the mature ram pen numbers 45 animals. Each ram is used for one season only, increasing the rate of genetic improvement in the flock.
Pregnant Rideau ewe lambs on a sunny winter day. Photo by Tracy Hagedorn.
Having two livestock enterprises makes it easier to provide the necessary labour. A local helper handles the morning sheep chores, and students who ride and work in the stables after school can be mobilized for bigger sheep projects such as weighing, vaccinating and sorting. Word-of-mouth brings European students to the farm on a regular basis, including the German veterinary student set to arrive for a practicum this spring.
Ute sees tremendous potential in the variety of viable production models in the sheep industry, in marked contrast to their experience as pork producers. Many of their customers are new entrants to the industry whose goals are relatively modest: raising 50–100 ewes on small land holdings, supplementing an off-farm job or diversifying an existing farm operation. Many, like the Brinkmanns, are seeking to utilize empty hog barns.
While the flock goal is to maximize breeding stock sales, over 50% of the lambs are sold for slaughter, either to a local buyer or through private sales of freezer lambs. The latter are processed at a number of provincially-inspected plants in the area, and Ute enjoys providing quality local food to customers. As the year-round lamb supply becomes more consistent, the Brinkmanns will be able to assemble and ship larger groups of lambs and provide more efficient deliveries.
This Rideau ewe (Medicine Ridge 53W) was born in 2009. She had a single lamb in 2010, twins in 2011 and 2012 and these five lambs in March of 2013. She lambed twice last year, in March and December, producing another six lambs, for a lifetime total (so far) of 16 lambs.
The Brinkmanns own four quarters (640 acres) of land. The cropland is rented and a neighbour puts up hay on a share basis, limiting the farm’s equipment needs to a small tractor and skid loader. Hay fields are a mix of timothy, alfalfa, brome and orchardgrass in varying stages of production. With both horses and sheep to be fed, the Brinkmann’s are able to maximize the use of their forage crops and pasture. All feeds are tested and rations are formulated using SheepBytes. Barley and 32% protein supplement are sourced locally and mixed according to production status; an 18% crumbled creep ration is also purchased. Trace-mineralized salt is fed, along with a commercial sheep mineral with added ammonium chloride to prevent urinary calculi in the rams.
Fencing is a work in progress and is one area where the differing needs of the sheep and horses present a challenge. A field across the road from the farm site has electric fence around the perimeter and electric netting, moved once a week, was used for rotational grazing of the ewes last summer. Although the Pyrenees guardian dog was kept close to the barns, there were no predator problems on pasture.
Medicine Ridge Ovine is located in Alberta’s Parkland region, south and east of Edmonton. This five-acre pasture in front of the house is used primarily for mares and very young foals. The Brinkmanns have approximately 80 acres of pasture and 210 acres in hay.
Entering its fifth year, Medicine Ridge Ovine has built on the success of its founders as solid producers of healthy breeding stock. Gerrit and Ute agree that the sheep fit much better with their vision of family farming in Canada than did the pigs. Ute laughs as she admits that “getting rich with sheep” might not be the most realistic goal, but she and Gerrit plan to convert more of their existing barns and further increase the size of the flock.
Kathleen Raines raises Rideau Arcott sheep near Innisfail, Alberta.