|Table of Contents|
4: Greetings from Deerville
15: “Sorry, Sam!”
17: Prevention and detection of pregnancy toxemia
21: Creating success
23: Managing worm infestations with birdsfoot trefoil
25: Wool growers celebrate 100 years
27: CSF elects new executive
29: The Class of Wool
31: Shear frustration
35: Buyers’ Guide Directory
Story by Stuart Chutter; All photos by Arlette Seib
Arlette Seib is a shepherd I admire. Before my visit for this interview, I had the opportunity to meet Arlette, and hear her speak, at a number of conferences and other industry events. Her common sense, and philosophy of management aligned with nature, reduce or remove many of the stresses of small ruminant production. Discussions about production problems or industry issues naturally lead to simple and manageable solutions.
On my own farm, I am often very short-sighted. I am a millennial—I want it all and all now. Arlette is the opposite. She is a patient artist, both literally and figuratively. She creates art pieces with her wool and camera, but she is also an artist in how she farms and lives.
“Land and livestock are linked, and I am glad I have parked myself at their intersection. I have time to take a walk every day in the company of my dogs, cutting across the prairie in any direction I like. I walk in sun, rain, wind and snow, in heat and cold. Sometimes I come across favourite sitting stones and sit for a spell, pondering the life I lead. All the walking and pondering results in my soul being pretty tied up in this land and livestock life.” (Arlette’s blog, Ranching with Sheep, November 2017)
Arlette and her husband, Allen, run roughly 575 ewes on 1,600 acres near Watrous, Saskatchewan, about an hour east of Saskatoon. They started in 2005, with just a few ewes to work their stock dogs. By 2009, they were ready for Arlette to leave her job in a soil microbiology lab at the University of Saskatchewan in order to expand the flock. Allen works full-time off the farm as a machinist and millwright; the sheep are Arlette’s passion and enterprise. The low-input production style allows management of a large flock by one person and a team of reliable dogs. But Allen’s schedule is flexible, allowing him to share some of the workload, especially the big jobs.
The flock lambs on pasture, starting in mid-May when the grass is coming and the weather is more favourable. The ewes are of predominately Clun Forest and Corriedale breeding, selected for maternal efficiencies and easy keeping on a forage-only feeding program. The ewes drop about 1.6 lambs each, and remain productive until they are seven, eight or even nine years old. Arlette reports that they lamb easily and are attentive mothers, critical for pasture lambing.
Lambing interventions are kept to a minimum; oversight, tagging, banding and paper record-keeping are the main management practices at this time. CSIP tags are applied when lambs are shipped, and paper records are limited to only the most vital: litter size and keep/cull comments.
Arlette used to do regular drift lambing. Drift lambing is a pasture lambing system where the flock is moved frequently from one small paddock to another, with the pregnant ewes moving ahead and newly-lambed ewes and lambs staying behind. This system allows newborns to mother up in small groups behind the main flock. That system worked well with a smaller flock and electric netting. But wet, flooding springs and no power to the current lambing fields means Arlette now does longer rotations through four paddocks every few days. The new lambs still get left behind with their mothers, but the moves are less frequent. The system is based on healthy, fit, maternal ewes with manageable litter sizes, lambing in tune with nature.
“Sometimes I come in from the pasture with a grin and savour how smooth it is, other times I come in cussing and/or with tears streaming. There is always one breakdown into tears every lambing. At least one fall-apart moment every year because there isn’t a birthing season that doesn’t offer up some huge injustice of life and purpose and let you know without a doubt that you hold no control over some matters.” (Arlette’s Blog, Ranching with Sheep, May 2018)
The pastures are a mix of tame and native forages. The nutrient-dense, native stands are often stockpiled for winter and early-spring grazing, and are an important part of the plan to limit winter feeding to 110 days or less.
The tame grasses are largely bromes, quackgrass and a very healthy stand of milkvetch. The milkvetch was introduced to the pastures by seeding in a tame forage mix. Arlette has found that having the seed pass through the sheep gut helps with its establishment elsewhere by scratching the seed coating. She is now adding seed to sheep mineral mixes for any fields that need better legume establishment. The success of this strategy was particularly evident in one field that had been previously used for crop production and never seeded to grass. After the last annual crop, the field was left undisturbed apart from sheep feeding and grazing. It is now a healthy stand of grasses and legumes, with only patches of broadleaf weeds here and there.
The flock stays out grazing as long as forage of adequate quality remains available and accessible. Ewes winter in a feeding area closer to the yard, with thick brush and trees and protection from the wind. The winter hay supply is home-grown, dry hay, custom baled by a local farmer. Bales are unrolled in the field to spread manure and nutrients, and allow feed waste for bedding.
Parasites are not a big problem at Dog Tale Ranch, possibly because of the size of the land base. Arlette hasn’t wormed the whole flock at once since 2007. She now relies on selective worming and culling to control parasites and has hardly wormed anything for the last two years. Her last purchase of a dewormer in 2016 expired before it was used up; she has the same problem with antibiotic purchases. The only routine flock treatments are annual 8-way vaccinations and treatment for keds that pop up every three or four years. The only purchased feed is salt and mineral mixes.
The standard stories of problems with coyotes apply to this pasture-based flock as well. The summer of 2010 was one of devastating losses. Despite a coordinated effort to thin the coyote population with predator specialists, hunters and trappers, the losses continued and frustrations escalated. Pushed to the verge of dispersing the flock, Arlette pulled the traplines, stepped up the dog numbers and routinely night-penned the sheep. With the objective changed from removing coyotes to preventive management, she began to see fewer losses. Since then, page wire, perimeter and crossfencing has been expanded, and Corriedale breeding has led to tighter flocking while grazing. This integrated and proactive approach to predator management is working at Dog Tale Ranch.
“I believe a rancher has the right to manage problem animals and secure the safety of livestock. But I am also well aware of what balance and coexistence feel like.” (Arlette’s Blog, Ranching with Sheep, February, 2018)
The guard dogs are a mixed pack of Anatolian, Maremma, Great Pyrenees and Akbash. Herding dogs also play a huge role in the management and enjoyment of the ranch. Australian Kelpies are used to move and sort the sheep for practical farm work, and when Arlette hosts or attends stock dog clinics.
Weaning and marketing often happen at the same time. The flock is handled minimally and weaning is one of only four times a year that sheep pass through the handling system. Market lambs are sorted off and CSIP-tagged, while replacements and ewes return to grass. For the past few years, lambs have been marketed through the Saskatoon Livestock Sales’ Presort Sheep and Lamb Sale, held this year on September 22nd. Arlette finds the auction commands the highest bid from a relatively limited pool of western lamb buyers. She also feels it is important for large flocks to support these sales as the volume attracts buyers, and when large flocks consign all producers benefit. For the past two seasons, prices at the auction, compared to on-farm bids from buyers, have justified the expenses of trucking and commission.
As with most Canadian sheep farmers, wool is a secondary product. But wool plays a significant role in Arlette’s life. Several pencil drawings hang in her studio, but fibre art is now her passion. Select fleeces from her Corriedales are retained and combined with dyed wool bought or traded from other fibre artists to create beautiful wall hangings. A detailed piece may take up to 40 hours, from washing and felting the base to designing and creating the image applied to it.
Shearing is another time when the sheep go through the handling system. Five to eight shearers arrive in April for a busy day of shearing, with the whole flock being done in one day. A bugle system into a long raceway inside a coverall building leads up to a permanent shearing area. The wooden shearing floor is covered and protected for the rest of the year, and Allen welded a hanging frame from the rafters for shearing stands and equipment. Arlette’s connections in the fibre art world have been particularly helpful for recruiting shearing day help. She was shocked to learn how many fibre artists had never attended a shearing; she now invites a few each year and gives them jobs. They appreciate seeing the full story of the wool production, and are happy to work for the experience and a nice fleece or two.
“Yesterday was shearing day…Early this morning I sat at my desk as usual, but instead of doing artwork I sat there soaking quietly in a heap of deep thankfulness for the 30-odd friends and strangers who showed up to lend a hand. People just kept showing up. It snowed all day long but stayed just warm enough so that it became soupy, soupy, muddy outside. While that presented challenges and a whole lot of mess, inside the shearing shed was a beehive of activity and chatter.” (Arlette’s blog, Ranching with Sheep, April 2018)
I asked Arlette about the inspiration for her holistic philosophies on agriculture, animal care and land management—did she have a mentor, did it happen at a conference or did she just have some sort of ‘aha’ moment? She couldn’t think of a specific moment; it has been a continual journey from a conventional, commodity-trading farm to one where more value is placed on what nature has to offer. Arlette is an avid reader, and books did play a large role in her thinking, including Gene Logsdon’s books All Flesh is Grass and At Nature’s Pace, Grass: The Forgiveness of Nature by Charles Walerts, Jr., and More Sheep, More Grass, More Money by Peter Schroedter.
I also asked Arlette what worries she has for her farm business in the future. It took coaxing because her initial answer was one of general satisfaction with the way things are and a lack of worry in her life. Drought and limited marketing options are two things largely out of her control. But then we got into a discussion on the emotional burnout that can occur when things go wrong and wrecks are devastating. The dependence on nature in the day-to-day of farm life is generally enriching for the soul, but when it is not it can be very taxing.
“I’m squeezing in felting and writing time wherever I’m able, and as I work with wool and words the concern over things I cannot control dissipates and my land and livestock perspective lines up once again.” (Arlette’s blog, Ranching with Sheep, May 2018)
Arlette has served for several years on the boards of both the Saskatchewan Sheep Development Board and the Canadian Sheep Federation, and we spoke briefly about the benefits of industry engagement, board volunteerism, and the learning and social benefits to be had at sheep conferences. But sometimes she leaves these events discouraged. The technology, impressive infrastructure and large lamb crops highlighted at these events leave her wondering if she needs to embrace new practices. But it only takes a few days back on the farm to reassert her focus on land and nature, healthy sheep and lifestyle enjoyment.
“Instead of pushing for maximum production, we are letting production be what occurs when we look after our animals and land. I operate my place in this way and it works well. We do not have to sacrifice land and animals to have ample production. There is a point where we can say we produce well, we produce enough, and enough is all we need.” (Arlette’s blog, Ranching with Sheep, November 2017)
On my way home, I was once again inspired by my visit with Arlette. On my farm, the exhausting to-do list, the short-sighted desire for perfection and the need for productivity and profitability lead to moments of burnout. Being a small ruminant producer is for me a deep passion. Arlette’s philosophies provide ideas on how to fulfill the passion with balance, peacefulness and time for other interests.
Arlette is a true artist; her drawings and wool art are infused with dogs and sheep. But what she is creating on her farm with her dogs and sheep is a skilled art as well.
“The ewes seem to go precisely where they need to go, but it seldom feels like they planned to go there. Not every animal follows the other when they head out for the day. More often small groups of ewes branch out on finger trails. Yet each group is taking the path of least resistance, flowing and curving with the land, knowing that the most natural way to travel through the day is to find the flow and go with it.” (Arlette’s blog, Ranching with Sheep, November 2017)
Editor’s Note: Readers can follow Arlette’s blog, photography and artwork at woolstoneprairie.com.
Stuart Chutter is a meat goat producer and custom grazier living near Gull Lake, Saskatchewan.
|Table of Contents|
4: Greetings from Deerville
15: Portable electric netting…the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
18: North American Lamb Company formed
19: Tales from the Creek: Food, fibre and…energy?
23: Feed for profit: Holes in the hide
25: Can genomics be useful for the Canadian sheep industry?
29: 2018 All Canada Sheep Classic, Truro, NS
31: In favour of holidays and luxurious sheep by-products
35: Buyer’s Guide
By Linda & Bill McCutcheon
Black Kreek Ranch, near Lansdowne, Ontario, is the home of Brad and Karen Davis and their children. It is also home to a flock of 1,000 ewes, which is surprising in that the Davises always meant to be dairy farmers.
Brad and Karen met at the University of Guelph, where Brad was enrolled in the Agricultural Diploma program and Karen studied for a degree in Animal Science. Brad grew up on a farm near where they live now. It was a cash crop operation, with no livestock. Karen’s family milked cows near Bolton, Ontario. Brad graduated in 2000, and Karen in 2003.
After they were married in 2005, Brad and Karen worked with Karen’s parents on their dairy farm for around five years, then moved to Listowel, Ontario, where Brad helped run a large dairy farm that milked 600 cows. Karen worked for John Deere for three years after graduating from university, and completed her certification in Nutrient Management Strategies and Plans in 2011. She works with Crop Quest Inc., helping farmers who are looking to expand their operations and add either livestock housing or manure storage.
In 2012, Brad and Karen began a search for their own dairy farm. On Brad’s birthday (April 21st), they attended an auction for a farm next to Brad’s family’s place. The farm was sold in about 30 seconds, and Brad and Karen were disappointed not to be the successful buyers. But while at the auction, they met a man who was retiring and had a farm nearby that he was interested in selling to a young couple.
There was one catch: it was a sheep farm with 600 Border Cheviot ewes, including 50 purebreds. Over the next month, Brad and Karen researched sheep and learned everything they could about raising them. A month later, on Mother’s Day, they returned to walk the 300 acres and discuss the future.
Jim and Nancy Kehoe, the sellers, had built a new home close by and said they would help them as long as they were needed. That made all the difference; on September 7, 2012, their journey as sheep farmers began. With the Kehoes’ help they learned how to run the farm, and for the first year they did everything exactly as it had been done before.
By 2013, Brad and Karen were still learning but made some changes based on their own experiences and lifestyle with a young family. They bred the purebred ewes a week later in October, so they would lamb after, instead of during, March break. They started haying in late June instead of July, to improve the quality of their feed. And they started spending more time with the livestock guardian dogs as puppies, so the children would be safer when working around the sheep. They also purchased a John Deere Gator to make it easier to check pastures and move mineral feeders, water bowls, etc., allowing the kids to be more involved in these activities.
The home farm has grown to 400 acres, subdivided into paddocks of 13-15 acres each. The perimeter and interior fences are either pagewire with one hot wire on top, or 7-strand, high-tensile electric. Electric netting is used to further subdivide the paddocks and minimize waste at certain times of year, such as the first grazing of heavy spring pastures at lambing time, or in the fall for market lamb and ewe lamb groups.
For hayland, they rent Brad’s father’s 250 acres, which is close by. This year, they made 1,600 round (4’x4’) bales and 2,100 small, square bales.
Six years on, the flock has grown to 1,000 ewes. There are also 10 guardian dogs, two Border Collies, three horses, six hens and a group of barn cats. The ewes that came with the farm were Border Cheviots. The Border Cheviot is smaller than the better-known North Country Cheviot but, like the North Country, is known for its ability to survive in harsh conditions. Border Cheviot lambs are vigorous and finish at about 65 pounds.
Breeding season begins in October, when 50 purebred ewes are bred for March lambing. The rest of the flock is bred starting on December 17th, with lambing beginning around May 10th.
During the winter, the main flock stays outside, on round bales of hay, in pastures that have a water source for when there is no snow on the ground. If body condition scores indicate, they also get whole corn fed on the ground. The March-lambing ewes winter in the barnyard, and come inside at the beginning of March to get ready for lambing and get started on some whole corn, which they receive right up until they get turned out on grass in April. Ewe lambs are wintered in the barn so they can be fed extra to support their continued growth while pregnant.
Hay is delivered to the field by a homemade, horse-drawn wagon/sleigh pulled by a team of horses. An attachment on the rear allows the bales to be unrolled. Using horses saves starting a tractor in cold weather and the horses don’t leave ruts in the fields. It also makes it easier to avoid running over the ewes as they race in and around the feed wagon. Leaving the ewes out, and feeding the hay on the fields over the winter, also spreads both manure and hayseed.
Brad also uses a saddle horse at lambing. The ewes stay calm around the horse, allowing Brad to get closer during checks, and from its back he has a better view of the pastures and the sheep. The horse is also much quieter than any vehicle, allowing Brad to hear if a ewe is having a problem.
Lambs born in May are raised on grass, unless there is an early frost or they run out of grass. When that happens, the lambs are finished in the barn on a complete pellet, which they have had access to each night while being pastured. The ewes that lambed in March, and their lambs, join the main flock when the whole group is turned out onto grass around April 20th. These lambs get to stay on their mothers and are weaned with the rest of the lambs, for ease of management. The target weaning date is August 10th, when the youngest lambs are at least 60 days old. The date varies slightly from year to year, depending on grass volumes.
The goal each year is to market all the lambs before Christmas. The Border Cheviot lambs are finished from October through December, at an average weight of 68 pounds. The Davises have their own trailer, and the round trip to the Ontario Livestock Exchange (OLEX) in Waterloo takes about eight hours.
The flock production is currently about 1.2 lambs marketed per ewe exposed to the ram. In an effort to improve on that, Brad and Karen purchased six Romanov rams in August of 2016 and used them to breed 250 ewes that year.
The F1 Romanov x Border Cheviot lambs born in 2017 went to market up to 30 lb. heavier than the Border Cheviots, but required significantly more feed to finish. The Davises kept 90 F1 ewe lambs as replacements, and bred them back to Border Cheviot rams in the fall of 2017. They also kept several of the F1 ram lambs, which were bred to a total of 385 Border Cheviot ewes.
This year the Davises plan to keep approximately 250 replacement females, all from the crossbred groups, plus about 15 crossbred ram lambs. The exact numbers and mating groups are still being sorted out.
The plan is to convert the main commercial flock into ¾ Border Cheviot-¼ Romanov ewes, which will probably take five to seven years. By breeding these ewes back to the Border Cheviot rams again, Brad and Karen hope to end up with more lambs, without substantially changing the finished weight of their lambs. They also hope to sell F1 Romanov x Border Cheviot ewe lambs to other producers in the future.
Black Kreek Ranch is an ‘all hands on deck’ operation. Karen and Brad both drive tractors to harvest the hay and work the farm. Colby (12) also drives a tractor and collects round bales from the fields. Erica (10) helps saddle the horses and drives the Gator. Della (8) collects eggs, feeds the cats, and also drives the Gator. All of the children help with moving and sorting the sheep. They work hard and play hard, at soccer, hockey, football, swimming, piano, dance and 4H.
Ewe lambs, and the March-lambing ewes, are sheared around March 10th. They remain in the barn until around April 20th, when they go outside to make room for the main flock to come in for shearing. These animals will have access to the barn for 10-14 days before being put out on pasture for lambing. The wool is sold to the Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers in Carleton Place. In 2014, the Davises received a Certificate of Merit from the CCWG for the quality of their wool clip.
Brad and Karen work hard to be on top of diseases that could enter their property and flock. Parasites are monitored closely through fecal egg counts completed by Karen. The ewes are normally treated only a couple of times each year, as needed. They don’t currently have a resistance issue, but they are concerned about the limited assortment of medications available in Canada and are watching for it. They move the sheep often to keep the worm population down.
When the Davises purchased the farm, the flock had a serious problem with coccidiosis. In recent years, they have been successful in dealing with this issue by treating lambs with Baycox at 3–4 weeks of age, when they are docked. They have a good relationship with an excellent sheep vet who provides good advice, does yearly flock visits, and is in contact with them to see how things are going.
Brad and Karen say their biggest challenge so far has been accepting that death loss is higher in sheep than in other livestock they have dealt with. Their advice to new producers is to find a mentor to help them learn the ropes, find a good vet and nutritionist, and become part of a support group. There is also a Facebook page (Ontario Lamb Producers / WOLPA) that they have found helpful.
As we walked the farm with Brad and Karen, and chatted about their experiences over the last six years, we were impressed with their desire and passion. They were willing to learn from others, but also to do their own research and try new things, to continue to improve and keep their flock as healthy and profitable as they can.
Statistics Canada reported last year that the average Canadian farmer is 55 years old and that 92% of farmers do not have a succession plan. The Davis family and their story offers hope for aging farmers who do not have family members wanting to succeed them. Perhaps this story will inspire other sheep farmers approaching retirement to consider selling their farm as an ongoing operation to a young couple, and to help with the transition.
Bill and Linda McCutcheon raise sheep at Riverside Heritage Farm outside of Napanee, Ontario.
|Table of Contents|
4: Greetings from Deerville
11: Tales from the creek: Bale grazing in Ontario
17: Feed for profit: Raising replacement ewe lambs
19: Living on the edge
21: Traceability regulations right around the corner
25: Lesson learned
28: CSF welcomes affiliate members
29: Anticipate, predict and plan with Simulovins
33: Is genetic improvement profitable?
35: Buyers’ Guide Directory
Story & photos by Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Les Fermes Solidar (Solidarity Farms) is located on the edge of the city of Chicoutimi, beside the Saguenay River. On driving into the yard, you first notice a beautiful barn and then the magnificent view of the river and city. I met with Robert Gaudreault, the manager, and Myriam Potvin, the chairwoman of the board that operates the farm, and they told me about its history.
The farm is owned by an order of Catholic nuns, the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre-Dame du Bon-Conseil (Our Lady of Good Counsel) of Chicoutimi. The congregation acquired land in the area from 1933 to 1959, having as much as 684 acres at one time. The land was used to provide food for the entire congregation, as well as the schools of home economics and teacher training that they operated (they were self-sufficient).
In the 1960s, with the introduction of CEGEPs (pre-university junior colleges) in Quebec, the teacher’s school was closed. Changes in regulations affecting the Quebec dairy industry at the same time meant the Sisters would need to make a major investment in their dairy operation or shut it down. The congregation made the difficult choice to cease farming operations. Livestock and equipment were dispersed, and part of the land was sold; the rest was rented out to other farmers in the area.
In 2001, the community decided to resume the operation of the farm by setting up an autonomous corporation to manage it, and Les Fermes Solidar came into being as a non-profit, agricultural, social justice organization. Dairy sheep arrived in the fall of 2005, and were followed by chickens, rabbits, goats and horses. Crop production was organized around self-picked raspberries and the garden, where a wide variety of fresh vegetables were grown in season. The land was certified organic and farm products sold from a kiosk right on the farm. The farm also had a social mission, including social reintegration of people in difficulty (e.g., community service), early childhood education, primary and secondary education, sharing of resources and sustainable development.
More recently, as the members of the congregation have aged and it is less able to subsidize the farm operations, most of these activities have been cut. Today, the sheep flock is the sole enterprise on the farm and the milk is sold to outside cheese plants (fromageries).
The dairy sheep that arrived in 2005 were East Friesians but, for the last five years, the farm has used laparoscopic AI to breed ewes with imported Lacaune semen. The Lacaune is a breed of domestic sheep from an area of the same name in southern France. The board wanted to provide diversity to the Canadian dairy sheep industry, which is based for the most part on the East Friesian. The Lacaune was selected because, although it produces a lower volume of milk than the East Friesian, it has a higher concentration of fat and protein, making it ideal for cheese production. They also found it easier to import Lacaune semen from France, compared to alternatives in other countries. The Canadian Sheep Breeders Association has recently approved upgrading for the breed, and the farm hopes to register the first Lacaunes in Canada by 2022.
A total of 236 inseminations have been performed since December 2013. Two local veterinarians, Maude Desrochers and Éric Millette, trained by Dr. Gaston Rioux from CEPOQ, perform the AI. Conception rates currently average around 60%, for both ewe lambs and mature ewes, but have exceeded 70% in the past.
After recent heavy culling of older and less productive animals, the flock now consists of 200 ewes. Unlike many dairy sheep operations, where ewes are milked on an all-in/all-out system to make use of pasture, the Fermes Solidar flock is housed inside and milked year-round.
The flock is split into four groups, each of which follows a 48-week annual cycle, but with different starting and ending dates. One group lambs and starts milking every three months, and continues milking for 23 weeks, so there are two groups milking at any given time. There were 90 ewes being milked when I visited, with each milking taking about two hours. When the flock reaches its goal of 240, there will be 120 ewes in milk year-round.
All of the rams but one are at least ½ Lacaune. With the farm in expansion mode it is retaining most of the female AI lambs, but they do make some male AI lambs, as well as females from the natural matings, available for sale as breeding stock.
Each breeding group consists of ewes that are artificially inseminated and ewes that are bred naturally. About 80% of the matings (including all of the AI matings) are synchronized with CIDRs. If a ewe synchronized for AI is not detected as being in heat, she is transferred to the natural breeding group. All of the ewes in a breeding group are ultrasounded to determine whether or not they are pregnant, and if they are not they are transferred into the next lambing group.
Robert provided me with a copy of his spreadsheet showing the 48-week program, including synchronization, breeding, removal of rams, ultrasounding, lambing and milking. Each group transitions through four rations corresponding to breeding/early pregnancy, late pregnancy, early lactation and late lactation, with ewes being fed either two or three times daily, depending on how much concentrate they are receiving. Ewes are milked twice a day for the first 16 weeks of lactation and once daily for the last seven weeks, in preparation for drying off and rebreeding.
The ewes are reasonably prolific, averaging 1.9 lambs at birth. They are left with their lambs for two or three days to ensure that their lambs receive enough colostrum, and then begin milking in the parlour. The lambs are raised on milk replacer and a pelleted creep feed until weaning at 40 days.
The flock is enrolled on GenOvis and will make use of the new dairy sheep module to select the best ewes. It also participates in Dairy Control (a performance recording program); milk production is measured and samples analysed for fat and protein each month. The average milk production of the flock is about 300 lb. per day.
Milk (fresh and frozen) is delivered to the Fromagerie Nouvelle France, in Sainte-Élizabeth-de-Warwick, (3.5 hours away) and to the Fromagerie Le Détour, in Témiscouata-sur-le-Lac, near the New Brunswick border (4.5 hours, including a one-hour ferry ride). Lambs are marketed through Quebec’s heavy lamb agency at about 65 pounds live weight, and shipped to an abbatoir in Ste-Hyacinthe (4 hours away) every two months.
Rain was threatening on the day I visited and the area is not short of moisture. Good-quality dry hay is scarce, which is a problem, as some types of hard cheese made from the farm’s milk are affected by silage feeding. The dry hay they are able to obtain is kept for the lactating ewes, with silage being fed to animals in all other stages of production. The farm has purchased all of its feed in recent years, with the farmland being rented out for hemp production. This year, however, they are keeping the land to grow silage, which will be custom harvested by a local operator.
All of the forages are sampled and analysed, with the results used to balance rations for ewes and lambs at various stages of growth and reproduction. In addition to the grass hay and silage, the farm makes use of corn and a commercial protein supplement pellet from a local feedmill.
A full-time shepherd and two part-time workers perform the daily work of caring for the flock. They are greatly assisted by a member of the congregation, Sister Claire Bradette, who volunteers at the farm six days a week and looks after the lambs in the nursery.
Since 1933, the operation of the farm has been adapted to the needs of the congregation and the community, and to changes in education and agriculture in Quebec. With the average age of its members now over 80, there will be more changes in the future. But it is hoped that their vision of sustainable production and social justice, for which the farm is named, will continue for the benefit of present and future generations.
|Table of Contents|
4: Greetings from Deerville
11: Feed for profit: Vitamin supplementation of sheep
17: Tales from the creek: Going for green
21: Fibresheds foster production of local textiles
25: Getting off the farm: A day well spent
27: Genetic evaluations for dairy sheep
29: CSF affiliate and associate memberships now available
31: Life with sheep
35: Buyers’ Guide Directory
Story & photos by Randy Eros
Brian Greaves and Karen Hill have been running Silverbend Ranch in western Manitoba for 25 years. Their 2¼ sections of land (1,600 acres) sit on the eastern bank of the Assiniboine River, just north of the small town of Miniota. They run a flock of Ile de France/Polypay cross ewes and a herd of Shaver Beef Blend cattle.
To say that they’ve come a long way since they met would be an understatement. Karen was teaching on the North Island of New Zealand when she met Brian, who was working as the property manager for an 8,500-acre training farm. It ran a two-year program with 10 students each year. The farm had 17,000 Romney ewes, 500 Black Angus cattle, 1,000 Angora cross goats, 350 breeding does and 80 horses. Each of the students also raised a pair of working dogs.
Karen was raised in Manitoba and when she and Brian were given the opportunity to buy and take over the operation of some family land in 1993, they made the move to Manitoba.
When they arrived, the land was not in the best of shape. As a light/sandy soil it had suffered under the traditional wheat/oats/summer fallow rotation of the prairies. Alfalfa had been included in the operation since 1988. “That was important,” says Brian, “there was nothing being done to improve the soil, it was still being mined of its nutrients, but at least with the perennial forage it wasn’t blowing away with the wind.”
Karen tells a lovely story of how the land came to her family. While her dad, Dave Hill, was serving in World War II, his mother was saving most of his pay. And when there was enough, she convinced her son that land would be a good investment. And, like all good sons, he agreed with his mother. But as it turned out, when Dave Hill finished his military career he chose not to farm, but went to university and, after graduation, became an Agricultural Rep for the Province of Manitoba.
“I didn’t grow up farming,” says Karen, “but, unlike my siblings, I did hear what Dad said about agriculture around the dinner table. It kind of stuck.”
Brian took a number of the practices that he had worked with on the training farm in New Zealand and applied them to the new ranch. Sheep, cattle and rotational grazing quickly became a part of the tool kit for renewing the land. Silverbend Ranch is a pasture-based operation and they graze, sow and bale all of their own forage. They purchase oats, which they roll for the calves. In the extreme cold of winter, the growing ewe lambs get one pound of whole oats every other day.
It has taken 25 years to get to where they are with their sheep genetics. Earlier work with Corriedale led them to the Polypay, and now with the conformation and fine wool of the Ile de France, they are seeing both lamb and wool weights that they really like. They tried purebred Targhees, but found the lambing percentage too low. Brian was quick to point out a new Dorset in the ram pen. “Always looking for improvement on what we’ve got.”
The ewe flock lambs out in two groups. One group of 40 select ewes is bred for an indoor March lambing. The rest of the flock lambs on pasture in May. The early group is all about selecting replacement rams. This group will produce about 40 ram lambs and out of those, six to 10 will be selected based on production (twins or triplets) and conformation. These rams will be overwintered and shorn in the spring. The rams with the best wool weight and quality will then be used to produce replacement ewe lambs.
The May lambing flock is put out onto a crested wheatgrass pasture and drifted through a few paddocks as they lamb. The ewes raise twins and any extra lambs are well started on colostrum and then sold at three days of age. The flock will be rotated onto alfalfa pasture as the plants mature and the risk of bloat is reduced. They are moved every two or three days, and followed by the cattle. Brian seeds a polycrop mix that he turns the lambs onto after weaning. The ewes are moved onto native grass paddocks for the rest of the grazing season.
The polycrop seeding is a mix of chicory (3 lb./acre), plantain (3 lb./acre), Italian rye grass (4 lb./acre) and sweet clover (½ lb./acre). This gets put in with a cover crop of oats and peas or soya beans. Brian uses a no-till double disc to seed. The polycrop will be taken off as silage bales in mid- to late July with the lambs moving onto the regrowth at weaning, near the end of August. They stay on the polycrop pasture until the snow cover is too deep.
The flock is run on a dozen 10-15 acre paddocks and, with a three-day rotation, they do not return to the same paddock for at least 30 days. Brian finds that moving the flock off of the pasture before it is grazed too short is critical in managing parasites. The lambs are dewormed at weaning and then again at freeze-up. The ewes are not normally dewormed. If one shows signs of a parasite infestation, she is treated and tagged for culling. They use a three-wire system on their sheep pastures (all live) but only a single wire on most of the cattle pastures. The sheep pastures are closest to the farmyard. The further west you go from the yard, the closer you get to the Assiniboine River and all the bush and trees and wildlife that go with it. Black bears and bald eagles have been part of the predator profile over the years, but the biggest threat is coyotes. They use Great Pyrenees dogs for livestock protection and have had as many as six when the flock was running at 400 ewes.
Livestock numbers have moved up and down over the years. This winter they are running 150 cattle and only 80 ewes. “Last summer was terribly dry and we had very little feed. We were able to sell 140 ewes at a very good price and that reduced our feed requirements. One of the great advantages of sheep is that you can rebound your ewe flock very quickly.”
Market lambs are sold on a live weight basis to a local buyer, and earn a premium because of their quality. If they need to be held off pasture, they will get baled silage or alfalfa hay. No grain is fed to the market lambs. Brian will take advantage of market demand and has held lambs back, or sold earlier than normal, to catch the ethnic market upswing. He has even shorn feeder lambs that were heading to an eastern feedlot. This made for a little more room on the truck and the faster gains on shorn lambs often bring a premium over the regular prices. This option is available to them because Brian does all his own shearing.
Brian and Karen don’t breed their replacement ewe lambs; the ewes lamb for the first time at two years of age. “We find the ewes last longer, and over their lifespan they will produce more lambs for us. And the high value of their wool clip helps to offset the cost of keeping them through their first winter.”
Wool is an important part of the New Zealand sheep industry, and Brian felt there was no reason that shouldn’t be the case in Canada. Their breeding goal is to have ewes that will wean a 200% lamb crop and, at the same time, to maximize the weight and quality of their wool. Brian describes his ideal ewe as being “short legged, stocky, with a fine, heavy fleece and two lambs.” The Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers (CCWG) wool statement for last year’s clip is a strong endorsement of the work that Brian and Karen have done in getting the most from their wool. The greatest portion of their clip paid out $2.30/lb. At 10 lb. per fleece, that goes a long way in paying for the ewe’s upkeep. They usually hold back the best 20 fleeces for direct sales to handcrafters, and those bring as much as $80 for the right fleece.
The March lambing group of ewes is sheared with a cover comb, so they’ve got a little protection if the spring weather turns cold. The rest of the flock is shorn in early May. The ewes are all vaccinated with Tasvax 8 prior to lambing.
Brian has been a director with the CCWG since 1999, and has run a number of shearing workshops over the years. Always looking to improve himself, Brian is now a trained shearing competition judge, and recently received his wool grader’s certificate.
Over the last two decades Brian and Karen have worked closely with the Upper Assiniboine River Conservation District. Their dugouts and sloughs are fenced and equipped with solar watering systems; they’ve also built berms to control runoff. They have provided the conservation district with an easement on 95 acres of land adjacent to the Assiniboine river. This is now public access land that boasts a beautiful five-mile hiking trail and a newly-planted riparian forest. These contributions to the environment were rewarded when they received the conservation district’s Farm Family of the Year award in 2009.
Over the years, Brian has served as a director on the Manitoba Sheep Association and the Canadian Sheep Federation. He was part of the working group that wrote the current Sheep Code of Practice, and is a member of the CSF’s Maedi-Visna working group. Brian also serves on the national Sheep Value Chain Roundtable, and its Meat and Carcass Quality subcommittee.
Karen works off-farm for Manitoba’s Agriculture in the Classroom. She started as a member of the board of directors in 2001, and has been on staff since 2008.
Brian and Karen have two children. Alison is 22 and in her last year of a five-year veterinary program at Massey University in Palmerston, New Zealand. Their son Mark is 19 and works at a local auction mart, as well as helping out on the farm. He is headed to Lakeland College in Alberta this fall.
There is a lot to learn from the Silverbend Ranch. By using a variety of land stewardship and livestock production techniques, Brian and Karen have guided their operation to become a modern, pasture-based system that is able to provide a good farm income and improve the land. When asked about advice for sheep producers, Brian shared this thought. “If you’ve got 100 ewes, breed your best 20 older ewes to a white-faced ram with good wool for replacements, and the rest to a terminal sire. If you use a blackfaced terminal sire, you won’t screw up on the record keeping and that Texel-cross ewe lamb won’t sneak into your breeding flock.”
Brian continues to mentor local producers by helping with their shearing, and answering production questions. It seems he hasn’t really left the New Zealand training farm all that far behind.
Randy Eros, and his wife, Solange Dusablon, own and operate Seine River Shepherds near Ste. Anne, Manitoba.