||Table of Contents
|11: Feed for profit: Coping with feed shortages
13: Elanco Announces Launch of Flukiver™
14: 2015 Wool Certificate of Merit recipients
15: One Welfare: The next step in animal welfare
19: Buyers’ Guide
23: Research roundup
28: Canada invests to eradicate scrapie in sheep and goats
29: Producer profile: Les Bergeries Marovine et Highlanders,
By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Starting from nothing to build a farm a half-hour from Montreal is an intimidating prospect. But Martin Brodeur Choquette and Johanne Cameron have done it, through a combination of hard work and an unconventional approach to acquiring land and facilities.
The yard was a hive of activity when I arrived in mid-November to visit with Johanne and see the flock. The children, Clara (4) and Victor (18 months) were staying with Johanne’s parents in Quebec City, because all the windows had been taken out of their house as part of a renovation. Behind the house, a construction crew was working on a new building that will house a generator and other equipment, part of a broiler barn to be built next year. I was surprised that Johanne had agreed to let me come interview her with all this going on, but over the course of the afternoon I realized that construction projects are just business as usual for her and Martin.
Johanne and Martin were each involved in the sheep industry before they met 12 years ago, but it was the sheep that brought them together.
Martin got his first sheep at the age of 15; he had already been raising and selling meat rabbits for many years and got into sheep when some of his rabbit customers asked about buying lamb. After completing high school in 2001, he attended agricultural college at Saint-Hyacinthe. By the time he graduated in 2003, he had 350 ewes. A year later, the flock numbered 450, and was housed in two rented barns eight kilometres apart. Like many commercial flocks that grow rapidly, Martin’s was far from uniform, with genetics from several breeds and a lot of older ewes. With an average of 1.5 lambs per ewe, it was not a profitable enterprise.
Johanne grew up helping her grandfather, Louis-Philippe McCarthy, with his registered Border Leicester flock. She studied animal science at Laval University and worked with Dr. François Castonguay to develop a photoperiod (light control) system for sheep flocks in Quebec. She completed a Master’s degree in 2006, while working full time at the Centre d’expertise en production ovine du Québec (CEPOQ) research station in La Pocatiere.
By the time Martin graduated from college in 2003, he had 350 ewes.
Johanne’s grandfather, Louis-Philippe McCarthy, raised Border Leicesters for 70 years.
In 2004, as part of her job, Johanne visited Martin to consult with him on using light control to improve the productivity of his flock. By the end of the year, Martin’s flock had been divided into six groups, with one lambing every 40 days (every eight months for each ewe).
The next year Johanne moved to Saint-Hyacinthe to be near Martin. She brought 15 registered Border Leicesters with her, and purchased 100 registered Rideau Arcotts; Martin acquired his first three purebred Hampshires. A third barn was rented to house the purebred sheep.
All of the barns that Martin and Johanne have rented over the years have been empty dairy barns, and all have required renovations to accommodate sheep, most of which Martin has done or supervised himself. As part of their rental agreements, Martin and Johanne always obtain a right of first refusal to buy the land and buildings if the owner of the farm decides to sell.
But even with this new barn, with a combined flock of 550 head, Martin and Johanne were still short of space. In 2005, Martin began extending the barn on one of his other rented sites, adding 1,800 square feet in 2005 and another 3,040 square feet in 2006.
The next big change took place in February 2007, when Johanne and Martin purchased the Romanov flock of Tom Mackowecki, near Edmonton, Alberta. A short-term rental of a cold barn in the area was quickly arranged, where the Romanovs could be quarantined on arrival, and bred. But with the flock now at 650 head and the Romanovs lambing in August, more space was still necessary. So Martin picked up his hammer once again, adding another 2,800 square feet to the barn he had enlarged in 2005 and 2006, bringing the total pen space at this site up to 9,763 square feet, not including feed alleys.
That same year, the Rideau Arcott flock was dispersed. The purebred Romanov, Border Leicester and Hampshire flocks were combined with the commercial flock, and divided into six groups lambing under light control on three sites.
At this point, Martin and Johanne were still renting all the buildings they were using, but an agreement was in place to buy the farm where most of the sheep were housed, in 2008. After assuming ownership of the property, they added a silo and a ‘garage’ for a TMR mixer that arrived the next year.
In 2010, they decided to close down operations at the second barn Martin had been renting since 2003, and to put up another building combining sheep housing (8,500 square feet), manure storage (5,000 square feet) and machinery storage (3,000 square feet) on the main site. Managing the flock on only two sites (the main site and the barn first rented for the purebreds in 2005) rather than three meant no longer having to transport 75 pregnant ewes home for lambing every six weeks, which was a considerable relief.
Construction of the new barn on the main site in 2010.
The Border Leicester and Hampshire ewes have always been bred to produce purebred lambs, and so too are some of the Romanov ewes. But with the arrival of the Romanovs, Johanne and Martin also began the process of replacing their commercial ewes with an F1 Border Leicester x Romanov cross. These F1 ewes are then bred to Hampshire rams to produce a three-way terminal cross lamb, maximizing the hybrid
he Border Leicester and Hampshire ewes have always been bred to produce purebred lambs, and so too are some of the Romanov ewes. But with the arrival of the Romanovs, Johanne and Martin also began the process of replacing their commercial ewes with an F1 Border Leicester x Romanov cross. These F1 ewes are then bred to Hampshire rams to produce a three-way terminal cross lamb, maximizing the hybrid vigour in both the commercial ewes and their lambs, and making strategic use of the prolificacy of the Romanovs and the growth and carcass characteristics of the Hampshires.
The farm has registered flocks of Border Leicesters, Romanovs and Hampshires.
This Hampshire ram is Millfield Muscleman, whose semen Martin and Johanne imported from the UK.
For commercial lamb production, Border Leicester rams are mated to Romanov ewes to produce F1 crosses, which are mated in turn to Hampshire rams to produce a three-way terminal cross lamb.
Many readers at this point will be calculating how many separate breeding groups and pens a program like this would require. But with six groups of sheep lambing every eight months, only 100-110 ewes would be bred for each lambing. And some groups can be combined: a single Border Leicester ram can breed both Border Leicester and Romanov ewes, and a single Hampshire ram can breed both Hampshire and F1 ewes. Although such a program may be more complicated to run, Johanne feels it reduces their risk by allowing them to sell breeding stock as well as slaughter lambs.
In 2012, Johanne and Martin joined the Voluntary Scrapie Flock Certification Program, where they are now at Level B. In 2013, they followed that up by committing to become free of Maedi-Visna. Over the next year, the entire flock of 700+ ewes was tested and divided into MV-negative and MV-positive ewes. The MV-negative ewes were moved to a newly rented barn, where they were divided into three groups, lambing every eight months under natural light conditions (with CIDRs). The larger group of MV-positive ewes were kept at the main site and divided into four groups lambing every eight months with light control. Between the two sites, there is a group of sheep being bred every 60 days.
At the end of 2014, Martin and Johanne, in partnership with a friend, were able to buy the barn they had first rented in 2005 for their purebred sheep, as well as the surrounding farm. The barn was converted into a feedlot in 2015, and has a capacity of 450-500 lambs.
By the end of 2015, after two years of testing, segregating, culling and keeping replacements only from MV-negative ewes, the negative (500) ewes in the flock outnumbered the positive (200) ones, so the two flocks traded places, with the negative ewes moving to the main site (4 groups on light control) and the positive ewes (3 groups on CIDRs) going to the the rented site. The MV-positive flock shrinks each year; by 2018, the entire flock will be negative and this barn will be used for lambing F1 ewes.
This year, Johanne and Martin have expanded again, re-renting the barn where they quarantined the Romanovs in 2007. This facility, with a capacity of 350 head, will house ewes being exposed to short day lengths on the light control program.
Above: The long days barn on the main site. Ewes give birth in the pens on the right side of the alley and lambing jugs are assembled as required inside them. Below: Multiple water lines on far right supply individual water bowls in each jug. The handling system on the far right is going to be moved and the alley enlarged so that ewes in jugs can be fed in the alley with the feed cart rather than by hand inside the jugs.
Above: The short days barn on the main site. Below: Ewes in the Maedi-visna positive barn on a rented site are bred in natural light conditions using CIDRs.
This feeder panel slopes outward to allow purebreds to eat from the feed alley without rubbing all the wool off their necks.
There is no shortage of work. In addition to all the buildings and sheep, there are 400 acres of land under cultivation, about 40% of which they own. Martin grows corn silage and alfalfa to feed the sheep, and this year also grew a mix of alfalfa, oats and peas for forage. Corn is also harvested as grain, to feed the animals and for sale. Cash crops include wheat and soybeans for human consumption, and soybeans for seed. Rye is planted in the fall as a green cover crop, and baled in the spring for the young stock. After one cutting, the rye is sprayed out and the land seeded to soybeans once again.
Above: Martin built these panels and the corner pieces that allow up to four of them to be locked together. Below: The feed alleys have ceramic tile set into the cement, to protect the cement from the acid in the corn silage.
As in many Quebec flocks, the sheep are in total confinement. A TMR feeder on the main site allows Martin to limit the time spent feeding all the barns to three hours each morning, plus another hour at the end of the day pushing feed back to the ewes. The TMR consists of corn silage, alfalfa haylage and corn grain, with a mineral/vitamin supplement; the proportions of each vary depending on the stage of production of the group being fed.
With seven groups of sheep now, and 10 lambings per year, there are always ewes to be sorted, bred and lambed, and lambs to be weaned, weighed and marketed. With her background in sheep research and genetics, Johanne finds record-keeping, evaluation and selection particularly interesting. All of the purebred sheep are registered and all purebred lambs are ultrasounded for fat and muscle depth each year. Johanne uses the EPDs she gets from GenOvis to match up rams and ewes to produce the best progeny on paper, and then makes her final selection decisions based on the conformation and soundness of the lambs themselves.
Even though they raise more than 300 lambs artificially each year, Johanne and Martin do not use a milk replacer machine, preferring to feed cold milk replacer with nipple pails. Johanne feeds a green clay (Zeolite ore) free-choice to the bottle lambs and says they do much better on it.
Johanne and Martin have also invested in genetics from other countries, importing semen from Australia, the UK, and France in 2008 and 2014. Using AI to bring in new blood increases genetic variation, and also allows them to reduce the number of outside animals they bring into the flock.
That being said, Johanne enjoys showing the sheep and participates in a few shows each year. She also serves as one of three Quebec directors on the board of the Canadian Sheep Breeders Association. Martin is also active in the industry, as a director on the Fédération des producteurs d’agneaux et moutons du Québec and on the board of their local COMAX co-op.
Johanne resigned from full-time work at CEPOQ in 2011, but now works for them part-time, both remotely from home and on-site (a three-hour drive from home). This winter, she will spend three hours a week teaching a course on sheep production at the agricultural college in Saint-Hyacinthe.
Besides Martin and Johanne, there is one full-time employee, Amélie Marquette, and another, Marie-Ève Bazinet, who works 15 hours per week. A friend of Martin’s father, Luc Benoit, helps with the fieldwork and the ongoing construction/renovation of the barns, and also delivers market lambs to the abattoir each week.
Johanne (left) and Martin with their only full-time employee, Amélie Marquette.
The table below shows the production of Martin and Johanne’s flock. The last two columns (BLRV and XB) represent the commercial ewes, the vast majority of which are F1 Border Leicester x Romanov crosses. But because Johanne coded them as XB in the early years of the flock, and then later as BLRV, GenOvis generates separate reports for each. There may also be a few Dorset x Romanov ewes in the column marked XB.
The values shown in red for the 100-day weights and ADGs of the lambs out of the BLRV and XB ewes represent only a few lambs that were still present on the farm when 100-day weights were taken; the majority of the terminal lambs had already been shipped to the abattoir at this point.
Most of the slaughter lambs (70%) are sold as heavy lambs through Quebec’s heavy lamb marketing agency. Martin and Johanne buy some of their own lambs back from the agency and sell them to an abbatoir owned by Martin’s cousin, who prefers their lambs. A few go as new crop (1%) or light (10%) lambs; the rest are sold or kept as purebred rams (7%) or breeding ewes (12%).
In 2012, Martin and Johanne were chosen as Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers, in recognition of what they had achieved in building their farm and their flock from scratch, rather than taking over and building onto a family farm.
With the ewe lambs added to the flock in November, Martin and Johanne now have over 800 females. The goal is 1,000, but they also want to work on the health and productivity of the flock as it grows, and will need more land and facilities as they expand.
Buying farmland within a half hour of Montreal is not for the faint of heart. Worth about $5,000 per acre when Martin first started raising sheep, it now sells for $20,000 per acre, making a considerable level of debt a significant cost of doing business in the area. But for those who can manage it, land this close to Montreal is considered a safe investment.
In 2017, Martin and Johanne will start a new enterprise, a broiler barn, which will help pay for the additional land they need for the sheep, but also allow them to diversify their farm operation beyond the sheep and cash crops, thereby reducing their risk. It will create still more work, but not as much as generating the same amount of additional income from sheep would. Life might be simpler with just the broilers, but both Johanne and Martin prefer to raise sheep, finding it more creative and satisfying.
Editor’s Note: The photoperiod system used by Johanne and Martin was described in an article (written by Johanne) in the Spring 2012 issue of Sheep Canada magazine. To read this article, go to sheepcanada.com and click on the link for this issue.
Back row (L to R): Josh, Jim, Maria, Ed and Chantelle Bennett; Front row: Andrew and Heather Bennett.
By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
When I travelled to Elginburg, Ontario, in early July to meet with Jim Bennett of Benacres Farms, I got to meet the whole family – Jim and his wife Chantelle; his parents, Ed and Maria; and Jim and Chantelle’s children, Josh (18), Heather (14) and Andrew (12). As we visited, I learned that the sheep are a relatively new enterprise for them, after more than 75 years of dairy farming by Jim’s grandfather, father and uncle. Jim grew up on the farm and attended Kemptville College, graduating in 1994. He says he never wanted to do anything but be a dairy farmer, so he came home from college and milked cows with his father and uncle, doubling the milking herd to 140 cows and putting up a new dairy barn in 1997.
But after 10 years of milking cows, a number of factors resulted in the farm transitioning from milking cows to raising sheep.
The farm’s location just minutes north of the 401 highway is convenient for farmers in the area, but also for the residents of three nearby subdivisions. With the farm producing a million gallons of liquid manure each year, spreading it on the fields was always going to be an issue.
Labour was another problem, both in terms of availability and cost. Milking 140 cows twice daily, as well as caring for the dry cows and young stock, kept Jim, Ed, Gord and a full-time hired man busy; they also had two part-time night milkers, as the cows were milked three times a day. Raising sheep looked like an option with less reliance on hired labour.
In 2007, Jim took a leap of faith and made the switch, selling the cows (and quota) that had supported three generations of his family, and acquiring their first group of 70 ewes. The move also made it possible for Jim’s father, Ed, and uncle, Gord, to retire with pensions from the farm where they had worked their whole lives, while allowing Jim a chance to do the same.
The Benacres flock varies between 900-1,000 ewes, of mostly Rideau Arcott and Dorset breeding. Replacements are purchased each year from Shepherd’s Choice (John & Eadie Steele) at Norwood, Ontario, who focus on performance recording and selection. The Bennetts have enough to do with 800 acres under cultivation and the daily needs of a large flock in total confinement.
Although there is less work than in the past, Benacres is far from a one-man operation. Jim’s father Ed handles all of the trucking of lambs to market, does a lot of the field work and keeps the equipment running, allowing Jim to spend more time in the barn.
The family puts up about 3,000 round bales of alfalfa-grass silage each year. Field crops include barley, soybeans and fall rye. The soybeans pay for the corn eaten by the sheep, and also for the annual purchase of replacement ewe lambs. The fall rye serves as a cover crop, with the roots serving to open the ground up for the soybeans that follow; it also yields plenty of straw for bedding the sheep. Both generations of the Bennett family heat their homes with outdoor furnaces that burn the (rye) grain.
Like the cows that came before them, the sheep at Benacres are kept in total confinement. Lambing takes place in the old dairy barn, and then ewes and lambs are moved together into the centre part of the new barn. After being weaned at eight weeks, the ewes are moved to a lean-to on one side of the machinery shed where they are fed dry hay; weaned lambs move into feedlot pens on the left and right sides of the new barn, from where they are weighed and shipped. Breeding takes place in what used to be the holding area of the new barn, where cows would wait to go into the milking parlour. Pregnant ewes are accommodated in one of three converted silage bunkers. With no herding dogs on the farm, Jim says it’s “all hands on deck” when it is time to move groups of sheep from one barn to another.
The old dairy barn is now used for lambing the ewes.
The lower part of the barn has ‘tombstone’ fenceline feeders, which Jim says work well for reducing waste and keeping lambs in their own pens.
After feeding unrolled round bales for a number of years, Jim decided to go back to a total mixed ration (TMR) feeding system, similar to what they had used for the cows. He finds the ewes and lambs do much better on the TMR, with less pushing and shoving at feeding time, a big reduction in forage waste and fewer dead lambs.
With sheep and lambs in total confinement, the TMR is fed from feed carts inside each barn. Jim has experimented with a number of fenceline feeders and other options that minimize labour and waste, and also keep lambs where they belong. With the TMR wagon, it takes up to three hours for one person to mix and deliver feed to all the animals.
Rations are based on round bales of alfalfa/grass silage, supplemented with barley and/or corn, dried distillers’ grain (DDG) and a salt and mineral mix. Separate rations are mixed for low-end (e.g., early pregnancy) and high-end (e.g., lactation) ewes, and for the lamb feedlot. The best-quality forage bales are reserved for the lambs. The lamb ration also includes a molasses-based product containing propionic acid, which Jim says makes the feed more palatable and keeps it from spoiling, allowing him to feed the lambs every second day, leaving more time for lambing, weighing and other tasks. Ewes get fed daily.
Posts and beams supporting the top floor of the old barn had to be rearranged to create feed alleys for the sheep. The diagonal bars on these fenceline feeders in the upper part of the old barn work the best for keeping lambs in their own pens.
Jim uses a DDG-based creep feed. These big lambs enter and exit the creep feeder through small openings in the panels such as that seen in the lower right corner of the photo.
A lean-to on one side of the machinery shed creates shelter for ewes after weaning as well as covered storage space.
The posts anchoring this fenceline feeder are the same as those used for highway signs. With no lambs in this space, the feeder is more open.
The new dairy barn, built in 1997.
Ewes and lambs move from the lambing barn into two pens on either side of a centre alleyway in the new barn. Fenceline feeders have been replaced with wooden bunks filled from a special feed cart. This keeps lambs inside their pens but still allows them access to the TMR.
Pens of lambs on the left and right sides of the feedlot barn are fed TMR from an overhead conveyor belt into wooden feed bunks below, which saves the space that would otherwise be occupied by additional feed alleys. This portable conveyor can be moved into position by one person. It carries TMR from the feed cart at one end of the barn up to the conveyor belt.
TMR is dumped onto the overhead conveyor belt from the portable conveyor belt. Photo by Jim Bennett.
Right: A ‘sled’ moves down the length of the conveyor belt and pushes the feed off into the feed bunks below. Photo by Jim Bennett.
With the ewes in total confinement, there is little concern about parasites, beyond worming new ewe lambs and rams upon arrival. Ewes get an 8-way clostridial vaccine before lambing and lambs are treated with Baycox at three to four weeks of age. Jim reports that the Baycox has made “a big difference” in their battle with coccidiosis, and that pneumonia remains the other health issue in the lambs.
Purchasing replacement ewe lambs rather than selecting their own allows Jim to breed the entire flock to rams of terminal sire breeds. Jim has used Ile de France, Canadian Arcott and Texel rams in the past, but is now leaning more heavily on Suffolk rams for production of larger lambs that get out the door quicker.
The former holding area in the new barn, where cows waited to enter the milking parlour. With the sloping concrete floor leveled, the area is now used for breeding pens.
Three silage bunkers provide six pens for breeding or pregnant ewes. ‘Windows’ cut into cement walls at the back allow for circulation on hot days.
Jim participated in a national traceability pilot project several years ago, and acquired a Psion handheld computer and software. Recent hardware problems with both the Psion and their home computer have yet to be resolved, making it harder for him to track the performance and productivity of the flock. He favours the Shearwell RFID eartag, and says it has worked well for them once they figured out how to store the unused tags in hot weather (in the bag in a cool part of the house or office). A True-Test electronic scale paired with a Prattley autosorter, allows Jim to weigh the lambs every week and quickly sort out those that are 100 pounds or more.
Ewes are given the opportunity to lamb more than once a year, but Jim doesn’t push them too hard; lambs are left on the ewes for two months, rather than only 30 days as in many accelerated flocks. In 2015, there were 840 lambings that produced 1710 lambs, of which about 1600 were sold. These numbers would have been higher but for some disappointing conception rates, particularly in the ewe lambs. Jim has culled 50 of the mature ewes that missed one or two breeding cycles, and he is still exploring the cause of the low fertility in the ewe lambs. The ewe lambs are born in the spring and exposed to rams in November, December and January. CIDRs are used in the flock, but only on mature ewes when being bred from February to August.
For the last two years, Jim has been a member of Trillium Lamb, a co-op that ships lambs to the Ontario Lamb Company, a division of Newmarket Meat Packers in Newmarket, Ontario. In addition to marketing their lambs as a group, members meet every other month and share ideas and solutions, which Jim finds particularly helpful. About 80% of Benacres lambs are marketed through Trillium Lamb. Ed handles the transport, making the six-hour round trip every couple of weeks, with up to 50 lambs on the trailer each time. The remaining lambs are marketed to Wallace Beef Inc., and slaughtered at the nearby Joyceville Penitentiary.
Short-term plans for the flock involve a new lean-to on the opposite side of the machinery shed, to create more space for lambing ewes. Jim and Chantelle’s oldest son, Josh, is leaving for Ridgetown College in September. If Josh returns to work on the farm after graduation, the flock and facilities will probably expand again to support that. Jim hastens to add that he’s happy either way, “Farming is a hard enough job when you love it, without trying to do it if you don’t love it.”
By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
A family affair: Graylin, Sheraton, Journey, Tara and Roger Giesbrecht, and Stacey White. Tara and Stacey’s parents, Wayne and Brenda White, are also involved.
Stacey White and his sister, Tara Giesbrecht, are living their dream of being sheep farmers. Four years ago, Stacey was living and working as a vet in Toronto. Tara was living with her husband and three children on an acreage near Bentley, Alberta, and working part-time on a dairy farm. That all changed in 2012 when they bought a quarter-section (160 acres) in west-central Alberta and brought home 100 ½-Romanov ewe lambs. Then they moved a second house onto the quarter, so that both of them could live on-site and be directly involved in the daily care of the sheep. The farm has about 120 acres of grassland, with 60 acres fenced for elk or (as it turns out) sheep and divided into four large paddocks. The remaining 60 acres is too wet and rough for haymaking, but is fenced for the horses that Tara’s family brought with them. This summer, Stacey and Tara hope to make more of the remaining 60 acres safe for the sheep to graze, at least during the day.
The dream seems to include a lot of work. Stacey works two days a week at a vet clinic in nearby Bluffton, and three days a week as the General Manager of the Canadian Sheep Breeders’ Association (CSBA). Tara homeschooled her daughter Journey (16) until she was in the tenth grade, and still homeschools her son, Graylin (14), and daughter, Sheraton (12). Tara’s husband Roger works full time as a chiropractor.
Photo by Tracy Hagedorn
The flock has grown from the original 100 to 150 ewes, plus 33 ewe lambs. In addition to the ½-Romanovs, there are ¾-Romanovs and a few ¾-Rideau Arcotts. Their ideal ewe is ½ highly prolific and ½ East Friesian. The ewe lambs are all half East Friesian, and Tara and Stacey are eagerly anticipating their first lambing.
Both Stacey and Tara want a bigger flock, but the drought in Alberta last year forced them to sell most of their ewe lambs and cull heavily. The dream of a thousand ewes is still alive, but on hold until the facilities can be expanded, Stacey can cut back his off-farm work, and Tara’s children require less of her time.
The sheep work hard too, lambing every eight months in January, September and May. Because the lambing barn can only accommodate 50 ewes for winter lambing, Stacey and Tara lamb 50 in January and again in September, with the rest (100 ewes) lambing in between, in May. This larger group is then re-exposed in August to lamb again in January of the following year (along with any that failed to conceive in April). In order to limit the number of ewes lambing in the winter, however, the rams are removed after 50 ewes have been marked. The remainder of this larger group (50+ ewes) join the smaller September-lambing group for breeding in December and lamb in May of the next year.
Ewes are flushed in August and April, but Stacey and Tara have learned that flushing doesn’t affect prolificacy in their flock for the May lambing, when the problem tends to be one of too many, rather than too few, lambs.
Safe grazing for sheep: 60 acres of the farm were fenced for elk by the previous owner.
Teaser rams are used in all three breeding seasons (August, December and April) to get the ewes cycling prior to the introduction of the intact rams. Rams are kept some distance from the dry ewes, to get the best response once the teasers go in (ram effect). The breeding season lasts only 17 days after introduction of the intact rams, so it’s important to have as many ewes cycling as possible at that point. Stacey finds the use of the teaser rams most important for the August mating, as the ewes bred in August are synchronised and those bred in December have been cycling for months by the time the rams go in.
Stacey and Tara have discovered that few of their ewes will cycle in April without the use of a CIDR, although Stacey acknowledges that more of them might if they hadn’t just lambed in January and been weaned at the end of March. CIDRs are inserted for 12 days, with PMSG injected at CIDR removal; the ewes are expected to breed 24-48 hours later.
The first year they tried this program (2014), 20 out of 20 ewes were marked; one turned up open and another was culled for mastitis. In 2015, 47 ewes were marked, but only 35 subsequently lambed.
Tara and Stacey have also learned that some of their rams won’t breed in April. The farm has a lot of rams relative to the size of the flock (9, plus the teaser). This is partly because they use different breeds to sire replacement ewes and terminal lambs, but also so each ram has only five ewes to breed in April. In addition to Romanovs and a Rideau, there are terminal sires (Charollais and Canadian Arcott), an East Friesian and an Ile de France x Rideau cross. The Romanovs and the Rideau ram do well in the spring, as do the Charollais and the Canadian; the East Friesian and the crossbred ram are less successful.
Photo by Tracy Hagedorn
This year, for the first time, they used CIDRs on 33 replacements, in an effort to have more sheep lambing in September. These ‘ewe lambs’ were born in May of 2015 and will, hopefully, be lambing this fall at 18 months of age. Stacey says their ewe lambs often have triplets and, although they mother them well, they don’t always have enough milk for the job. They are hoping that letting them grow a few months longer will allow more of them to raise three lambs.
Feed testing, ration balancing and body condition scoring are key to keeping these prolific ewes in excellent body condition. Photo by Tracy Hagedorn.
Stacey says they’re learning all the time, and I get the impression that being able to try new ideas and see how they work is a big part of what he and Tara enjoy about being sheep farmers. They both love the constant activity of multiple breedings and lambings, and challenging the ewes to see how much they can produce. Lambing frequently allows them to get the most out of their small lambing barn and available pasture, and to take advantage of better prices at the SunGold plant in Innisfail for “less seasonal” lambs. Although it creates more work than lambing once a year, it makes it easier because the work is spaced out over the year.
Even with the limitations of their small barn, there have been 599 lambings on the farm since April of 2013, with 1,536 lambs born. To keep track of all these animals and monitor their performance, Stacey and Tara invested early in a Psion handheld tag reader/computer and a (used) Model 250 Reliable electronic scale, which allows for quick and easy data collection in the barn and transfer to a desktop computer in the office.
Record-keeping starts with the breeding season; marking harnesses indicate dates of service so they know when each ewe should lamb. At lambing, they record the sire and dam ID, the lambing date and litter size (including stillborn lambs), as well as the ID of each lamb, its birth weight, 50- and 100-day weights and market weight. Although FarmWorks does a good job of collecting data and sorting sheep into management groups, Stacey uses the GenOvis system for making selection and culling decisions. And now that FarmWorks is compatible with GenOvis, he can upload flock data without having to re-enter it online.
All of Stacey and Tara’s animals are on GenOvis, and they don’t buy rams that don’t have GenOvis evaluations. Because most of their replacement ewe lambs score very high on the maternal index (90th percentile or higher), they refine their choices by looking for ewe lambs that are also in the 75th percentile or higher for growth. Once ewe lambs with this combination have been identified, they are subject to further culling for conformation, and those whose dams have had lambing problems or that have poor udder conformation are also culled, regardless of how good their numbers are.
Graylin sorts lambs. Clean lambs get a premium of $.02/lb.
Because the flock is young, Tara and Stacey haven’t had to cull much for production yet. But they do expect every ewe to be able to raise decent triplets (triplets that can’t be told from twins at 50-day weighing), without supplemental feeding of colostrum or extra care at birth. They regularly foster orphan lambs onto twin-bearing ewes, and cull ewes that can’t raise three lambs. The farm has a Lac-Tek automatic milk replacer feeder, but Stacey and Tara do everything they can to avoid raising lambs artificially, even selling some as bottle lambs.
With everyone on the farm having other jobs and roles, clearly-defined job descriptions are important. Tara does all the morning chores, hauls animals to market, does the book-keeping and uses FarmWorks to keep track of animals on the computer. Stacey feeds in the evening, balances rations, makes selection decisions and does the vet work. They coordinate times to weigh lambs, fill feeders, clean barns, move sheep, etc., and Graylin and Sheraton also help out.
Everyone pitches in during lambing. With ewes giving birth to so many lambs, Stacey checks the sheep every two hours from late afternoon till 2 am; Tara comes on at 4 am and works till mid-afternoon.
Tara’s husband, Roger, is in charge of mechanics, and his parents bought a skid steer for the farm. Stacey and Tara’s parents, Wayne and Brenda, recently moved from Saskatchewan to a house in Rimbey. Their strength has been in getting facilities ready; they took charge of renovations on both Stacey’s and Tara’s homes as well as a rebuild of the barn.
Stacey and Tara have achieved remarkable results with their young flock (see GenOvis chart), both in terms of the number of lambs born and their negligible death loss. Lambs that are born alive tend to stay that way, but they have been plagued with a higher-than-expected number of deformed, stillborn and/or mummified lambs. Stacey has worked hard to solve the problem, consulting nutritionists and other veterinarians. Infectious causes of abortion have been ruled out by repeated testing through Alberta’s Small Ruminant Abortion program. In May of this year, they increased the level of selenium/Vitamin E injected into the ewes prior to lambing, and had only one deformed lamb out of 289. But they still got some stillborn and mummified lambs, all in the last week of lambing, so are now considering another round of injections for ewes that lamb later in the cycle. Ergot has also been suggested, and they did reduce the grain fed this year, so it is hard to say which change, if either, made the difference.
Dry ewes spend the winter on round bales. Stacey and Tara buy all of their hay and, with ewes giving birth to so many lambs so often, they don’t take chances; all of the hay is tested each year. Although it’s hard to limit the consumption of ewes on round bales, they use condition scoring to determine when to start feeding grain. Tara and Stacey have been lucky to obtain large square bales of dairy-quality hay the last few years, which is reserved for late gestation and lactation. Ewes feeding triplets are supplemented with dried distillers grains (DDG) added to their barley.
Stacey relies heavily on SheepBytes to do his initial ration formulations; then he condition scores a few quiet ewes every day and adjusts the rations as required.
Lamb feeding is a definite bottleneck on the farm. Tara and Stacey have two of these 3-in-1 feeders but need another one or they may have to sell some feeder lambs this fall. Photo by Tracy Hagedorn.
January-born lambs get a commercial creep crumble with added Deccox to limit coccidiosis. Lambs born in May or September get a combination of barley and DDG, which is continued after weaning. May-born lambs are pastured with the ewes but are also creep fed on pasture, which Stacey says is important for the triplet lambs, and allows for a seamless weaning at 60 days of age. Weaned lambs stay on pasture with their creep for a week after weaning, and then move to a drylot.
For the past two years, all of the lambs have been forward contracted to SunGold at market weight. Getting carcass data back on the lambs helps Tara and Stacey manage their feeding, marketing and genetics to produce even better lambs in the future.
Stacey shared a report from SunGold with me, on a group of 51 lambs shipped in December. The printout shows the CSIP number, GR measurement, hot carcass weight, premium (or deduction) and rail grade price for each lamb individually. The 51 lambs averaged 114.2 lb. live, and had hot carcass weights that ranged from 48 to 63 lb., with an average of 54.4 lb.
Most of the lambs were Yield Grade 1 or 2; two were a bit fatter (YG3), and two were underfinished (YGC). The base price that day was 3.50/lb. on the rail, which would have earned Tara and Stacey an average of $190.40 per lamb, but the printout also shows premiums on individual lambs for desirable hot weights and fat covers, which ranged from $1.16 to $11.40 (not counting the two underfinished lambs, which had deductions rather than premiums), and a further premium of $.02/lb. on the entire group because the lambs were clean when they arrived at the plant. With the premiums (and the two deductions) included, the 51 lambs averaged $199.24 or $3.66/lb. on the rail. The current payment grid at SunGold can be seen on the company website at sungoldmeats.com, under the ‘For Producers’ tab.
Photo by Tracy Hagedorn.
I asked Stacey for some closing thoughts on the farm and their plans for the future:
“Having the farm has been a dream come true, for both Tara and I. We came at it with some farm experience, but we know we’ll always be learning and the sheep will always find new ways of surprising us.
“Our story has lots of embarrassing mistakes, but we hope it will inspire other city-dwellers or dreamers to take a leap of faith. We recommend developing a support network to take the leap with you! Our families have been dedicated to our dream, and we couldn’t do any of this without them.
“We were also very lucky to start with healthy, productive genetics from long term producers who devoted hours of their time to showing us the ropes.
“Neither Tara nor I plan on moving again. The farm is our home and the sheep our retirement plan. We hope they keep us active as seniors, and we would both rather spend January in the barn than someplace sunny further south…at least at this point in our lives”
Brown, L. (2011). Eating lamb is worst for the environment, Earth Times.
Ong, S. (2016). Taxing red meat to fight climate change, Science Line.
Edwards-Jones, G. et al., (2008). The carbon footprint of sheep farming in Wales. Bangor University.
Jones, A. et al., (2014). The carbon footprint of lamb: Sources of variation and opportunities for mitigation. Agricultural Systems, 123: 97-107.
Dyer, J., et al., (2014). A comparison of greenhouse gas emissions from the sheep industry with beef production in Canada. Sustainable Agriculture Research, 3(3): 65-75.
Karimi-Zindashty, Y., et al., (2012). Sources of uncertainty in the IPCC Tier 2 Canadian Livestock Model. Journal of Agricultural Science, 150(5): 556-569.
Little, S.M., et al., (2008). Holos – A tool to estimate and reduce GHGs from farms. Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada.
Krobel, R., et al., (2012). A proposed approach to estimate and reduce the environmental impact from whole farms. Acta Agriculturae Scandinavica, 62 (4): 225-232.
Alltech E-CO2 tool
Cool Farm Tool
Story & photos by Cathy Gallivan, PhD
The Zillig farmhouse dates back to around 1770.
Marg Zillig is a busy woman; once part of a family farm, she now carries on alone. Marg’s parents, Gernot and Edith, purchased the home farm (175 acres) back in 1958, shortly after they emigrated from Germany, and added another 100 acres a few years later. Determining early on that the heavy clay soil and local climate were not suitable for crop production, they decided on a mixed livestock operation and a philosophy of not having all their eggs in one basket.
Marg and her brother, Manfred, grew up on the farm, which at its peak in the early 1990s included 350–400 ewes, a 45–sow farrow-to-weaning operation (with breeding stock sales), and 6–10 Jersey cows raising veal calves and baby beef. The family also produced and processed around 100 geese and 100 ducks each year. Gernot usually had some off-farm work as well, and Edith brought in extra money tanning sheepskins and creating crafts from their wool.
The farm includes 8 acres of salt marsh along the side of the Kennetcook River, which the sheep can access in dry weather from the upland pasture.
Marg left the farm long enough to obtain an associate degree in education from the NS Teachers College and a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Macdonald College of McGill University in Québec. Over the years, she has worked off-farm at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College (now Dalhousie University Faculty of Agriculture), the NS Department of Agriculture, and the federal research station in Lethbridge, Alberta.
Marg’s father died unexpectedly in 1992. Marg and her mother ran the farm together until Edith’s death in 2009, with the number and variety of livestock gradually being reduced. Today there are no pigs or cattle, and the flock has shrunk to around 100 ewes. Manfred has participated in some aspects of the farm, but with his own farm and off-farm employment, he now has little time to be involved on the home place.
The sheep barn was built in the late 1960s, after the original barn burned to the ground in 1967. It was designed to house 200 ewes and 8,000 square bales of hay, but Marg finds herself storing and feeding round bales in it, as that is what the custom operators in the area prefer to put up.
Before these wooden grain bins were built into the roof of the barn, Marg carried pails of grain from a separate grain storage building.
The flock consists primarily of registered Polled Dorsets, which Marg’s parents chose in the early 1960s for their extended breeding season and carcass characteristics. The family preferred the traditional style of Dorset to the show-ring type; the flock was founded on stock from the late Eleanor and Jack Gartshore, of Dundas, Ontario. Marg still finds the Dorsets a good fit for her purposes, as they provide good muscling and finish over a wide range of live weights (50-95 lb.).
Since the mid 1990s, there has been significant investment in genetics, using semen imported from the UK, Québec and Australia. Breeding stock sales from the Zillig flock are limited, but Marg usually sends a few animals to the annual Atlantic Sheep Sale in Truro.
Both Gernot and Marg have used performance records to make their selection decisions. The flock was enrolled in the old federal-provincial Record of Performance (ROP) program, and was one of the first in Nova Scotia to sign onto GenOvis when it became available outside of Québec. Marg even served as the GenOvis resource person for the Atlantic region during the initial years of the program’s expansion.
Ram and ewe lamb replacements are chosen using GenOvis EPD indexes, in addition to their conformation and pedigrees. Last year, thanks to a visit by technicians from Québec, Marg was able to get ultrasound fat and muscle depths on her lambs, and now has EPDs for carcass traits in addition to those for growth and maternal characteristics.
Not all of the ewes are purebred Dorsets; Marg has also used AI to add East Friesian genetics to the flock. She likes the temperament of the crossbred ewes and is happy with their performance in raising triplet lambs. A Suffolk sire is sometimes used also, to separate breedings from successive Dorset rams and produce heavy market lambs.
Half of the flock lambs in early to midwinter, and the rest follow in the spring. This allows Marg to split the workload into two manageable blocks, but the main reason for having a winter lambing is to supply her Greek customers in Halifax with a lamb for their Easter celebrations. The Zillig farm has been providing Easter lambs since the late 1950s, and many of their original customers still want that all-important lamb each spring.
This Dorset yearling ram carries the Carwell muscling gene. The ram lamb is entered in this year’s Atlantic Sheep Sale in Truro.
Dorset ewes and week-old lambs; most of the lambs are sired by an East Friesian x Dorset cross ram. Photo by Marg Zillig.
Four-year-old East Friesian x Dorset ewe and her triplets at about 20 hours of age.
Marg designed this ‘Shepherd’s Mate’ and had it made by a local welder. It is easily carried and attaches with a pin on the opposite side of a fence panel, anywhere a ewe needs to be restrained. Photo by Marg Zillig.
In the 1970s, the family would sell up to 125 (whole) Easter lambs each year, butchered on the farm. Marg now sells 30–40 per year, at 10-12 weeks of age. The breeding and feeding are both timed to produce lambs that weigh 50–70 pounds by the week before the Greek Easter. This is more difficult in years when the ewes give birth to more singles and triplets and fewer twins, or when lambing is delayed due to temporary summer infertility in a ram.
Most of the Easter lambs are now killed at a local abattoir, although a few are still done on the farm. On-farm butchering is permitted in Nova Scotia, as long as the lamb is sold directly to the consumer rather than through a middleman. In 2015, the average price for Marg’s Easter lambs was $3.10/lb., based on their live weight.
Early lambs that are too big or small for the Easter market are weaned and grown out. Some go as freezer lambs, but Marg’s customers are not usually interested in stocking their freezers at this time of year. Some are sold to Oulton’s Meats in Windsor, others to the NorthumberLamb Co-op in Bible Hill (where the Zilligs have been members since its start in 1982). Seldom, if ever, does Marg find it necessary to ship lambs to the stockyards in Truro.
An annex was added to the barn in the 1980s to allow for feeding round bales to larger groups. The barn annex has a ramp outside and a central feed alley designed for round bales to be unrolled and fed on either or both sides, but Marg prefers to feed this second-cut hay with a fork. Note home-treated larch posts harvested from the farm.
Late-lambing ewes. The tanned hides from black animals sell well.
The spring lambing takes place after the Easter lambs are gone, in April or May; these lambs have traditionally been raised on grass. There is about 25 acres of permanent pasture on the farm, and Marg also grazes hay aftermath in late summer and fall, depending on when the first cut is made. Ewes and lambs are brought in each night to avoid losses from predators, and lambs have access to creep feed overnight. Ewes and lambs are normally left together until 100-day weights (for GenOvis) are taken, at which time the ram lambs are weaned and housed for feeding up to market weight, while the ewe lambs stay on pasture with the ewes a bit longer.
But in recent years, management of the spring lambing flock has become much more challenging due to Haemonchus contortus, the barber pole worm. The nursing ewes are particularly affected, and if not watched carefully can become anemic and die without much warning. Access to creep feed in the barn at night, along with strategic weaning, seems to largely diminish the parasite problem for the lambs.
Marg has tried a number of strategies, including keeping the ewes and lambs in the barn later into the summer, continuing to supplement the ewes with concentrate after turnout onto pasture, and attempting to monitor anemia in the ewes and selectively worm them. This last method she found time-consuming, even for a small flock, and ended up treating most of the ewes anyway.
In July of last year, Marg tried a new strategy: she weaned about half the lambs at approximately 60 days of age, and sent the ewes to pasture with only one lamb each, thereby reducing their workload. The lambs that were kept in the barn adapted to their early weaning very well. Those on passture also grew well until the 100-day weighing, and then tapered off.
Spring-born lambs are sold to freezer customers at carcass weights up to 55 pounds. Like many direct marketers, Marg has to be flexible about when and where the lambs are butchered. With no complete service available in her area nowadays, the lambs are killed at one provincially inspected abattoir and cut up at another. Freezer lambs in 2015 averaged $4.75/lb., based on the carcass weight, with the customer paying for the killing ($30) and cutting ($35 flat fee, irrespective of carcass weight).
When it comes to pricing, the lessons Marg learned from her father were twofold: increase by small increments and try not to go backward, even when the market price for lambs is down.
Marg’s father was born in the Moselle region of Germany, famous for its white wine. Marg’s parents established these grape vines on the farm, from which Marg sells juice and jelly.
Marg served as the director to the Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers, Ltd., for the Atlantic region from 2004 to 2015, and most of the wool from her flock is sold to them. She occasionally sends a small amount to MacAusland’s Woollen Mills in Bloomfield, PEI, to exchange for yarn and blankets, which she also sells from the farm.
Like her mother, Marg tans the hides of lambs killed on the farm, as well as any usable ones recovered from her lambs at abattoirs. She uses two different tanning processes: an alum and salt method (see page 38) and a kit (Rittel’s E-Z 100) from the US, which produces a washable, environmentally-friendly product.
Nothing is wasted and no opportunities are overlooked; Marg also sells composted sheep manure for $5 a bag at the farm, or $6 delivered. The slatted floor on one side of the sheep barn produces an especially pure product for this purpose.
Sheep are not the only livestock at the Zillig farm. Marg still raises geese and ducks each year, and sells duck eggs (in season), goose egg shells (for craft projects) and goose butter (rendered goose fat for use in cooking), in addition to the dressed birds.
Marg’s relationships with her customers are, in some cases, more like those between friends, or even family members. Some of her customers have been getting lamb or goose from Marg or her parents for over 50 years and, in some instances, the business is now with the second generation of both families.
Marg and Belle, with part of the 2015 garlic harvest. Photo by Alison MacNeil.
The sheep and poultry operations are complemented by a wide variety of products from the garden originally established by Marg’s parents to provide for the family. These include home-grown garlic, vegetables (squash, carrots and pumpkins), fruit (pears and quince), six kinds of jam, a further six kinds of jelly, pumpkin and citrus marmalade, pear compote, five kinds of juice, and tomato puree. The order sheet is sent out to her customers, they place their orders and Marg packs their boxes and delivers them to one of two ‘depots’ in Halifax and Dartmouth for pickup. She also makes a few home deliveries, in special cases.
New customers come by word of mouth. Marg has noticed increased interest from people who want to know where or how their food is produced, or who support the concept of buying local.
Every sheep operation has its own unique challenges and the Zillig farm is no exception. In early April of 2013, four lambs were taken from the barn annex, killed and removed from the farm. The annex is some distance from the house. Marg doesn’t know if the lambs were taken during the day when she was out, or during the night when she (and her English Shepherd, Belle) were asleep inside.
Marg has taken steps to reduce the possibility of a recurrence by installing motion sensor lights and a camera in the area where the lambs were taken. A Maremma x Great Pyrenees guardian dog, Anna, has also been acquired and now keeps watch for two-legged predators, should they ever return.
Many readers will be wondering how Marg finds enough hours in the day to get all the work done. Marg readily admits that there is a lot of work, and wishes she had more free time. But for now she plans to continue living on the farm, honouring her parents’ memory by maintaining and building on what they created there, and selling high-quality food to customers who appreciate it.
When Marg left work at the Lethbridge, Alberta, research station, she was presented with this piece of stained glass, created by Dr. Anne McClelland.