Sheep Canada – Summer 2018

Sheep Canada – Summer 2018 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

Producer Profile: Les Fermes Solidar, Chicoutimi, Quebec

The farm has a beautiful view of Chicoutimi and the Saguenay River, even on an overcast day.

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 sign at the gate recalls the days when the farm produced and sold a multitude of products from a kiosk in the yard.

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.

This beautiful barn was built from concrete blocks in 1944 and houses the milking parlour, bulk tank and walk-in freezer, as well as the milking ewes.

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.

The Lacaune is the most widely-used dairy sheep breed in France, with a population of about 800,000 ewes, and is the predominant breed used in the production of Roquefort cheese in that country. Photo Myrabella/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

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 barn has raised feeding alleys that allow for bedding pack buildup in the pens, and multiple waterers for flexible pen arrangements. A second, similar barn houses the nursery and young stock.

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.

An alley system delivers the ewes to the milking parlour and sorts them back into the right pen after milking.





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 milking parlour can accommodate 32 ewes at a time.

Ewes receive concentrate in the parlour. As each group finishes milking, this structure at the front lifts up and the ewes jump down and return to their pens.

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.

February-born lambs; only the female lambs are docked.

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.

Nursery lambs have 24/7 access to milk from the Grober automatic milk replacer feeder and a pelleted creep ration. As lambs are added to nursery pens, they are given collars of various colours, which are removed after a few days when they are well-established on the milk machine.

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.

L to r: Shepherd Alain Fradette, Manager Robert Gaudreault and Chairwoman Myriam Potvin.

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.

Sheep Canada – Spring 2018

Sheep Canada – Spring 2018 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

Producer Profile: Silverbend Ranch, Miniota, Manitoba

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.

The farm where Brian worked in New Zealand.

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.”

The ranch in Miniota where Brian and Karen make their home now.

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 ram pen: Ile de France rams and one Dorset.

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.

Ile de France/Polypay cross 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.

Ewe lambs cluster around a feeder made by Brian.

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.”

Part of the Silverbend Ranch Ile de France/Polypay cross ewe flock.

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 Silverbend Ranch wool grading statement.

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 also keep a herd of Shaver Beef Blend cattle.

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.