Suffolk ewes and lambs on pasture at Blackie Farm, Florenceville, New Brunswick.
By Cathy Gallivan, PhD; Photos by James Blackie
Blackie Farm is located in the village of Florenceville in western New Brunswick, which is less than 15 km from the US border. This area is known for growing potatoes, and the village is home to the corporate headquarters of McCain Foods, the largest producer of French fries in the world.
The 200-acre farm was purchased in 1926 by James’ grandfather, Daniel Blackie. Daniel had three sons and two of them, including James’ father, went off to fight in the Second World War. The remaining son, James’ Uncle Donald, stayed home and ran the farm after Daniel died in 1940. The farm is long and narrow and climbs upward from the eastern bank of the Saint John River. James says there have been sheep on the farm as long as it has been in his family.
The farm was purchased by James’ grandfather in 1926.
James grew up within a mile of the farm and spent most of his free time there, especially in the summers. His uncle raised potatoes and had a commercial flock that peaked at around 275 ewes in the early 1970’s. James remembers seeing his first lamb born when he was 10, and shearing his first sheep, a North Country Cheviot, at 12.
James graduated from high school in 1973 and went to the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro. There he met Cecile, a French Acadian girl from St Charles, on the eastern side of the province, and brought her to visit the farm the following summer. Uncle Donald was not exactly progressive in his thinking, being of the opinion that a woman’s place was in the home rather than out working with the animals. But while they were out on the pasture looking at the sheep, they needed to catch one for some reason and Cecile proved her mettle by grabbing it by a hind leg and not letting go. Uncle Donald didn’t say much, but never questioned Cecile working with the sheep again.
One of three breeding groups being bred on pasture in October.
James finished his Bachelor’s degree in Animal Science at Macdonald College of McGill University in 1977 and he and Cecile were married the same year and began living in Truro. Cecile worked at the college there as a Chemistry Lab Technologist, and James sold feed for Shur-Gain.
In March of 1980, James got a job working for the New Brunswick Department of Agriculture in Wicklow, just across the river from his uncle’s farm. He and Cecile returned to Florenceville and built their own house on the farm. The next 10 years were a busy time. James helped his uncle on the farm and worked full time, while Cecile kept busy with the five children born to them during those years.
Suffolk ewe lambs in the fall of 2019.
Uncle Donald died in 1994. It took a while for things to be settled but James and Cecile were able to buy the farm from his father and remaining uncle in 1998. James had always had sheep of his own within his uncle’s flock. After his uncle’s death these became the foundation of their own commercial flock, which peaked at around 100 ewes in the 1990’s.
The flock was managed traditionally. Lambs were born in March and pastured throughout the summer. Most were slaughtered at a small, local abattoir and delivered to freezer customers. The ‘tail-enders’ were put on a truck and sent to an auction in Quebec. James put up his own hay and fed it along with whole oats in the winter, the quantity of each depending on the quality of the hay. When the hay was poor, he fed more of it and allowed the sheep to pick through it and select the best parts.
Above and below: Lambs are born in March and go to pasture in May with the ewes, but still have access to creep feed in the barn until 100-day weights are taken in early July, after which they are weaned and pastured separately from the ewes.
Over the last 10 or 12 years, the purebred flock has gradually replaced the commercial ewes and today there are only registered Suffolks on the farm. The ewes still lamb in March; James says he and Cecile are too old to change their ways, and at least when the temperature falls to -30 Celsius in March they know April is just around the corner.
The feeding regime is also largely the same, consisting of their own hay supplemented by whole oats. Although his uncle grew potatoes on the farm, James found putting up around 3,500 small, square bales of hay and managing the sheep on pasture took as much time as he could spare from his full time job when he was working. He buys whole oats and an 18% crude protein creep ration with added Bovatec (for coccidiosis control), as well as second-cut hay for the creep feeder. Straw is purchased in the field from another farmer and James bales and hauls home about 700 small, square bales each year.
Pregnant mature ewes last winter. This picture was taken to taunt a fellow Suffolk breeder who roots for the Maple Leafs.
Since purchasing the purebred sheep, and especially since his retirement, James has increased his investment in the flock to improve its health status and performance. After several years of testing for genetic resistance to scrapie, all but one of the ewes are now AARRRR (resistant). Last fall the entire flock, including the lambs, were tested for Maedi-Visna and all of them came back negative. James plans to continue testing and hopes the flock will receive its “A” status on the Ontario Maedi-Visna Flock Status Program in the next year or two.
The flock is also registered on the GenOvis genetic evaluation program. Lambs are weighed at 50 and 100 days of age, and for the past six years a technician has come from Quebec to ultrasound them for fat and muscle depth. This allows James to select on the CARC (carcass) index when choosing rams and ewes for his flock, and also to provide that information to prospective buyers. The GenOvis report on pages 10-11 shows the 2019 production of the flock. The 2019 Lamb Report (21 pages, not shown) provides index results for each of the 83 lambs that were ultrasounded. The emphasis on the CARC index is noticeable: 14 of the 83 lambs are in the 99th percentile for the CARC index, and a further 15 are in the 98th percentile.
James participates in the All Canada Classic when the location and timing of the event allow, and his animals have been well received by buyers at the sale. But he prioritizes the production of a good terminal sire for the commercial producers he primarily sells to over success in the show ring.
James regrets not having bought an effective handling system many years ago and finds the digital scale much faster and easier to read than his old spring scale.
One of the biggest challenges the Blackies have had to deal with over the years is parasitism. The barber pole worm is as big a problem here in western New Brunswick as it is in the rest of the country. They have also had problems with liver flukes, which they didn’t realize until they were alerted to it by the abattoir where their lambs are processed. The current protocol is to treat the ewes at lambing with Valbazen, and then worm both the ewes and lambs throughout the summer with Startect, starting three or four weeks after they go to pasture.
Coyotes are another potentially serious problem when pasturing ewes and lambs, but the Blackies have had good luck keeping them out with a combination of electric fencing and Nite Guards. The perimeter fence consists of 12.5-gauge wire. Temporary fences made from a lighter wire (17-gauge) subdivide the pasture into 1-acre paddocks for rotational grazing. The Nite Guards are solar-powered lights that flash red from dusk to dawn. The combination of electric fencing and the Nite Guards seems to be working and the sheep have been able to stay out at night in their paddocks for the last 10 years.
James and Cecile Blackie
Among the many lessons learned over 40 years of raising sheep, James includes:
Make sure you spend the extra to get the ewes in great shape for breeding and for the winter, otherwise you are trying to catch up all winter. One tonne of grain costs as much as one lamb at most.
The single most important management item when pasturing sheep is to worm them and then know that the wormer is working, and to keep on top of your worming schedule; otherwise, a lot of effort is going down the drain.
Don’t put off getting a sheep handling system. If you decide to get one, spend the money to get a digital scale. The numbers are harder to make a mistake on, especially when your eyes aren’t as young as they used to be.
In addition to the sheep, James and Cecile have another farm enterprise, a market garden, which started in the early 90’s with their three sons at the end of the lane selling a barrel of potatoes. By 1995, they were selling more vegetables from the front of Uncle Donald’s old house, which was still standing in the yard. The enterprise has grown over the last 25 years and now 10 acres of the farm is dedicated to the vegetables, and a new market stand sits where the old house used to be. Crop residues are not a problem; the sheep happily consume the pea and bean vines, corn stalks and any vegetables that are not good enough to sell.
The farm climbs gradually from the river to the back, where there is a beautiful view in all directions. Corn and other vegetables are planted early under plastic. The fertilizer plant seen on the right is on the opposite side of the river.
James and Cecile grow everything in the market garden, but are perhaps best known for their Awesome corn, which many local residents look forward to sampling as early as the August long weekend. Green peas are another big seller, and Cecile has a machine that will shell the peas for her customers after they are purchased.
Because the farm is located right in the village and right next to the McCain Foods plant and headquarters, Cecile is able to sell most of the vegetables right out of their yard, although she does attend a weekly farmers’ market in the nearby village of Bristol. A walk-in cooler in the market stand allows them to store and sell crops such as winter squash later in the season than before. One significant worry about the vegetable business is the way the sheep eye the peas, corn and other vegetables on their way out to the pasture, something that keeps James awake at night, wondering if he shut the gate.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic this spring, the Blackies thought about whether to plant vegetables this year or not. They decided to go ahead, knowing that they would have to make major changes in how they deal with the public to sell their produce.
James and Cecile work hard and make a good team. James says, “The sheep are an island where we tend to agree most of the time. I do the chores and Cecile does most of the paperwork. She is the midwife for any lambing problems we might have, and the one with the patience to get a stubborn Suffolk lamb to start sucking. She also helps with communication when French-speaking producers give us a call. I don’t really know what they say but it seems to work out.”
James told all of their children that if they didn’t go to university they might end up back on the farm with him. All five have university degrees and none are back yet. He credits Cecile for motivating them to further their education.
Cecile attends a weekly market in nearby Bristol. All of the Blackie’s signage proclaims ‘We grow everything we sell!”
James and Cecile don’t know how many more years they’ll raise sheep or grow vegetables. James prefers the sheep, but acknowledges that the vegetables involve less physical wear and tear (on him). He jokes, “I tell everyone that when I climb up into the haymow every morning and night, all I have to do is miss one rung and I might be into early retirement.”
Editor’s Note: The villages of Florenceville and Bristol, New Brunswick, were amalgamated into the village of Florenceville-Bristol in 2008 but for simplicity have been referred to separately in this article.
The Willowdale Sheep & Lamb yard, as seen from the southeast. The longest wing of the barn, east of the outdoor pens, is the lambing area. Ewes with lambs move from the lambing area into the centre areas of the barn. The wing closest to the shop (farthest from the lambing area) houses the handling system and permanent shearing setup. Photo by Randy Eros.
By Randy Eros
It was a cool, cloudy January afternoon when I pulled into the parking area at Willowdale Sheep & Lamb, 10 minutes south of Steinbach, Manitoba. The farm sits on a ¼-section (160 acres) that is part of a larger operation owned by Apex Farms.
Harry Warkentin is the manager of the facility, and even before I met up with him I knew I was in for an enjoyable afternoon. As I stepped out of the truck I could hear the voices of the staff hard at work but clearly enjoying what they were doing—always a good sign in any operation. We started our visit in the farm office/staff room over a cup of coffee. From here you can keep an eye on the sheep through a system of cameras strategically placed throughout the barns.
L to R: Harry Warkentin and staff members Edwin Falk, Charity Dueck, Ethan Plett, Bethany Dueck (missing in the photo are Deb Wipf and Alina Fischer). Photo by Randy Eros.
The Willowdale barns are close to home for Harry and his wife, Lorna. They live on the ¼-section straight north of the sheep barns and used to own this one as well. This new venture has been up and running for just over two years, and is currently home to 1,800 ewes.
Like many sheep folks, the Warkentins have a long history in agriculture. They ran a dairy for 12 years and then moved to hogs, putting up the buildings that are now filled with sheep back in 1988. They got into sheep in 2011, and their flock grew to 400 head as they transitioned out of hogs. That flock was merged into what is now the Willowdale flock.
The Warkentins sold this quarter, with the hog barns, three years ago. The new owners wanted to diversify their livestock operations, and asked Harry and Lorna to develop and manage a new sheep operation for them.
This container outside the lambing barn receives the rations for the ewes from the TMR mixer. A conveyor belt carries it from the container into the lambing barn. Photo by Dale Engstrom.
TMR is fed off an overhead belt and into the feed bunks along the outside wall. Photo by Randy Eros.
The flock is mostly straight-bred Rideau Arcotts; there is also a small group of Canadians. The flock is divided into 12 breeding groups of 150 head each. Rams go in with the first group in mid-August, and more rams are added to new groups every two weeks until mid-January. Most (94%) of the ewes catch in the first cycle after being exposed to rams; the rest lamb later with the later breeding groups.
The Willowdale ewes lamb just once a year, but some of them do it out of season in October. Harry uses CIDRs on the ewes that are exposed for fall lambing. Last spring (2019), there were 250 ewes synchronised and exposed to rams, and 75% of them lambed last October.
More out-of-season lambings are planned for this fall, in September, October and November. Harry plans to move into accelerated lambing in 2020, by putting CIDRs in some ewes that lambed this winter, as soon as their lambs are weaned.
The ewes are grouped using a 4-colour tagging system and bred to unrelated groups of purebred Rideau Arcott rams, sourced from Phil and Liz Smith in Ontario. Harry looks for rams with good performance information but is also interested in the work the Smiths are doing with breeding for parasite resistance.
They currently have six ram groups, each with six rams, which are also colour-coded, making for an easy visual tracking system that prevents inbreeding. Lots of ram power is one of the keys to their successful breeding program.
Lambing rates run from 2.3–2.4 in the fall-lambing ewes, and around 3.0 for ewes lambing in season, for an overall rate of about 2.6. The flock is fairly young and these numbers are expected to increase as they mature. The target is to retain or market 2.2 of the 2.6 lambs dropped, and Harry looks forward to higher numbers as they move towards accelerated lambing.
Cameras in the lambing barn allow staff to monitor the action from the barn office. Photo by Randy Eros.
The original barn built for the hogs needed significant internal changes to adapt it for sheep. Pits were filled and all of the floors leveled with an additional layer of concrete. A local welding firm built the panels for pens, alleyways, and gates. The barn is nearly 30,000 square feet in area and consists of five interconnected sections. The lambing area is the largest and is broken up into drop pens that hold 25 ewes. The end of this section contains 39 lambing jugs and several nursery pens.
Attention to detail – this chart in the barn office shows information on each of the 12 lambing groups and tracks the movement of sheep through the barn, as well as helping determine what rations should be delivered where. Photo by Randy Eros.
Photo by Dale Engstrom.
Once the lambs are born and bonded, groups of ewes and lambs move to one of three indoor pens, each of which will house 150 ewes and their lambs, where they stay until weaning. These pens are fed using an automated conveyer belt that delivers a TMR twice daily to a central feed trough built to provide a foot of feeding space per ewe. Each pen includes a creep feeder for the lambs where they can access a custom, 18% crude protein crumble. Straw is used for bedding throughout the barns.
Ewes and lambs in one of three pens in the converted hog barn where they will stay until weaning. TMR is fed from above into a feeder in the centre of the pen. Photo by Dale Engstrom.
The fifth section of the barn contains the handling system and the shearing area. Garrick Reimer, a local shearer, comes in every two weeks from January to June as ewes approach lambing. There is an on-site hydraulic wool packer and full wool bags are shipped to Canadian Cooperative Wool Growers.
Fishing net used to catch lambs. Photo by Dale Engstrom.
Pails of milk in the nursery for lambs who don’t catch on to the nipple-feeding system right away. Photo by Dale Engstrom.
The New Rosedale Feedmill makes up two custom premixes for the farm; this one is fed to ewes in late pregnancy and lactation and contains 30 ppm of selenium. Photo by Randy Eros.
The Förster-Technik milk machine is connected to each of the nursery pens. Photo by Randy Eros.
Directly west of the barn, there are 12 newly built, outdoor paddocks with open-sided shelters that are 12 feet deep. Each paddock is 150 feet long by 70 feet deep. The fence line feeders run the length of the paddock with a 22-foot paved and sloped alleyway between the pens. The pavement extends 7 feet into the pens, giving the sheep solid footing at the feeders in wet weather.
The pens are 150’ long by 70’ wide; sheds running the length of the pens are 12’ deep. Photo by Dale Engstrom.
TMR feeder delivers feed to the outdoor pens every other day. Photo by Randy Eros.
Ewes in these pens are fed a TMR that is mixed and fed every second day. On alternate days, a blade is used to push the remaining feed back up against the feeders, a very efficient system. The ewes stay outside until a week before lambing, when they are brought into the barn and shorn, wormed, vaccinated with Glanvac 6, and treated with Vetolice.
Harry will tell you that a comprehensive nutrition program is essential. The bulk of the ewe ration is a mix of bagged corn silage and alfalfa haylage. The farmland adjacent to the barns has been seeded to alfalfa and the corn silage is harvested from nearby rented land. Barley and corn DDGS (dried distillers grains with solubles) supplement the energy and protein provided by the forage.
Dale Engstrom, a livestock nutritionist from Alberta, visits the farm twice a year and balances rations for ewes in each stage of production. Every new bag of hay silage is tested, and the TMR rations are tweaked accordingly.
Custom premixes, designed by Dale and made up by the New Rosedale Feedmill in Portage la Prairie, are added to the TMR to provide salt, mineral and vitamins for ewes in different stages of production. Selenium has been added to address the natural shortage of this trace mineral in our prairie soils. There is a ‘Dry’ ewe premix, which is fed to ewes in maintenance, but also to those being flushed and bred, and to those in early pregnancy. The ‘Lactating’ ewe premix has higher levels of vitamins ADE, as well as Bovatec for the prevention of coccidia, and is fed to ewes in the last six weeks of pregnancy and the first 6-8 weeks of lactation. Limestone is occasionally used to increase calcium content of the TMR. Having all of the required minerals and vitamins in the premix means fewer injections for newborn lambs and less work for the staff at lambing time.
Lambs are weighed, tagged and docked at birth, and also injected with ¼ cc of Tasvax and a ½ cc of penicillin. They are tagged with both a CSIP tag and a breeding group tag in the appropriate colour. Lambing information is recorded on the Shearwell FarmWorks program. Ewes and lambs get up to three days in the claiming pens, if there’s not too much lambing pressure. Ewes are left with two lambs and extra lambs are moved into nursery pens of about 15 head. These pens are all connected to a single Förster-Technik milk machine. A second machine, a Lak-Tek II, is kept at the Warkentin’s farm, where the lambs go to be grown out and finished after weaning. This allows for older nursery lambs to be moved over to the finishing yard if the regular nursery gets too crowded. The target for weaning nursery lambs is 30 days or 10 kg.
Lambs raised by the ewes are weaned at 8 weeks of age and taken on a short trailer ride to the Warkentin’s home yard for growing out and finishing. The original hog barn and adjacent hoop structure on this property are separated into several pens and feed is delivered through augers directly into self-feeders. The 16% crude protein ration is a mix of whole barley and a 32% custom crumble. The variable speed auger from the crumble bin allows the ration to be adjusted as needed. The lambs are vaccinated again shortly after weaning, ewe lambs with Glanvac 6 and male lambs with Tasvax.
After weaning, lambs are moved to the adjacent ¼-section to be grown out and finished in another former hog barn (above) and hoop barn (below), where a mix of barley and protein supplement is delivered through augers directly into self-feeders. Photos by Dale Engstrom.
Most of the finished lambs (60%) are marketed to SunGold Specialty Meats in Innisfail, Alberta, and the rest are sold through lamb buyers like Ian Deans of Newdale, Manitoba. Harry is keen to chase the market, saying, “If you don’t do it right, you’ll leave money on the table.”
Most of the lambs are marketed to SunGold Specialty Meats in Innisfail, Alberta, at a live weight of approximately 125 lb. Photo by Randy Eros.
Lambs sent to SunGold have a live weight target of 125 lb., which they reach at 5–6 months of age. An on-farm spreadsheet has been developed to calculate when lambs will meet this weight and help plan the shipping dates. It includes a number of variables including average daily gain, the percentage shrink on the trip to Alberta, and the historic carcass yield. All of this is done to optimize market returns based on SunGold’s preferred carcass weight of 26.7 kg. The lambs get weighed frequently, which is made easier with an electronic scale and Psion tag reader. The scale does not have Bluetooth capacity (yet), meaning that someone has to read the weight off the electronic scale and type it into a handheld computer/tag reader (Psion) as the lambs are weighed, but at least no one has to read eartags and no clipboard is required.
Harry keeps an eye on the square footage allocated for each lamb as pens are filled. With several people working in the operation, prominently posted written instructions make sure nothing gets missed. Photo by Dale Engstrom.
With the flock in expansion mode in recent years, Harry has been retaining most of their ewe lambs. Now that they are at capacity, he plans to start marketing replacements to other farms. Harry looks for ewe lambs from dams with a history of multiple births and good growth rates. He doesn’t keep replacements out of ewe lambs, preferring the proven performance of more experienced ewes. Ewes that can’t, or won’t, raise their lambs are culled along with their female offspring.
Although most of the focus of Willowdale Lamb is on the barn and outdoor pens, there is a grazing element to the operation. Apex Farms has a hog operation just outside the nearby town of Niverville, and part of the ewe flock grazes the 60 acres surrounding those barns. Another 60 acres of rotational grazing is available on the Warkentin quarter. Four livestock guard dogs accompany the ewes in the summer and keep coyotes at bay. Predation has not been a problem so far. Ewes get wormed when they come in off the pasture.
Even with all of the automation on the farm, lambing 1,800 ewes and keeping them and their lambs fed is a big job. Harry has two full-time and 2-4 part time (depending on the season) staff working with him. These employees handle the day-to-day work of feeding the stock, moving the ewes and lambs through pens, and processing lambs in the jugs.
A number of Manitoba hog barns have been repurposed into sheep barns over the last few decades as the hog industry here has consolidated. Harry and Lorna’s expertise has made the Willowdale operation into one of the best examples of how to do this. The buildings are comfortable, bright and well ventilated. The interior is smartly laid out, and the penning well made and more than adequate for the job. The outdoor pens are well designed for our prairie climate and provide a very efficient feed delivery setup.
As Harry and I discussed the operation, it was clear to me that the Warkentin’s experience in both the dairy and hog industries have added a lot to their understanding of how to make a sheep operation run efficiently.
Randy Eros, his wife, Solange Dusablon, and their son, Michel, own and operate Seine River Shepherds near Ste-Anne, Manitoba.