Fall lambing success in Shawville, Quebec

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Story & photos by Ursina Studhalter

For sheep producers who follow the holiday markets, fall lambing is going to be a big deal for the next few years. Our operation is no different. The major Islamic holidays are now overlapping with the traditional holiday market of Easter. My partner, Andrew Bos, and I operate Ferme Bosview outside of Shawville, Quebec. We run a flock of Katahdins, with a decent number of Katahdin/Romanov crosses and the odd Dorper, on a modified accelerated lambing system.

Ursina Studhalter and Andrew Bos. Photo by Em’s Art Photography.

We started in 2016, with 85 Katahdin ewes in a rented barn in southwestern Ontario. We moved to Quebec and bought this farm in the fall of 2017. The road here hasn’t always been smooth, and the learning curve has been steep at times. After suffering significant losses in 2018, we invested in a new barn that now houses our approximately 300 mature ewes and replacements. It’s taken us several years to expand to the flock size we are now. The base of our ewe flock is still Katahdin, but we really like the results we get from our half-Romanov ewes bred to Dorper rams.

Our preferred breeds excel at producing light lambs (under 79 lb.) on a high-quality forage diet. We produce exclusively light lambs, in part because of how Quebec sheep marketing works. We’re located close to the Ontario border where market access for the Quebec heavy lamb program is difficult. As a result almost all of our lambs are sold through the Embrun sales barn outside of Ottawa. The Embrun Livestock Exchange is the closest large market for our light lambs, with a number of processors in the region being regular buyers. This does mean that holiday marketing is a big part of our production planning. Although we’ve lambed in the fall before, this year’s group was the largest we’ve attempted so far.

The new sheep barn at Bos View Farm was built as frugally as possible. Both sides of the barn are covered in old dairy barn curtains.

Breeding between April and July involves a bit more luck and management than the usual fall breeding season. All of the breeds we keep will lamb out of season naturally to some degree, with the Romanovs having the best odds and the Katahdins the worst. So we trick their biological clocks a bit to make sure the lambing happens.

We use an MGA protocol to get our sheep to breed out of season. Using MGA is very time-sensitive, and pretty much takes over our lives during the breeding season. Rather than inserting a CIDR into the ewes and then leaving them for up to 14 days, we have to feed MGA every 12 hours for two weeks. And I mean exactly every 12 hours; we have alarms on our phones to be accurate within a minute. The MGA is fed in a feed additive that is obtained with a prescription from our veterinarian. After 14 days of being fed MGA, the ewes get a shot of PMSG (Folligon), as they would if we were using CIDRs.

We exposed 153 ewes for fall lambing, but not all of them were programmed with MGA and/or Folligon. We used 13 rams in total, including two purebred Romanovs and four purebred Dorpers and White Dorpers; the rest were either pedigreed or commercial Katahdins.

The flock consists of Katahdin ewes, as well as Romanov x Katahdin crosses and the odd Dorper.

The first group to be bred (Pen 1) consisted of 58 ewes that were 3-4 years old. Due to space constraints, the entire group were fed the MGA feed but only the 40 Katahdins in the group got a shot of Folligon at the end of the 14-day feeding program. The remaining 18 ewes, which were half-Romanovs, were not injected with Folligon. All 13 of the rams went in with all 58 ewes on the same day.

The second group (Pen 2) consisted of 95 ewes, most of which were older Katahdins. Forty of these ewes (the ones in the best shape) were put on the MGA protocol in two batches of 20, 7 days apart (yes, we have a lot of gates) and injected with Folligon at the end of their respective 14-day feeding periods. The remaining 55 were exposed naturally, as they were older ewes and I really didn’t want multiples from them. As each group of MGA-programmed ewes completed their 14-day feeding period and received their shots of Folligon, they were recombined with the untreated ewes. Seven of the rams used to breed the ewes in Pen 1 were used again to breed the ewes in Pen 2.

All in all, 80 of the 153 ewes were on the full MGA/Folligon protocol, and another 18 (from Pen 1) received MGA but no Folligon.

The goal was to have 80-100 ewes lambing in the fall. We’re set up to handle around 100-120 ewes lambing at a time. Having fewer than 50 ewes lambing in a group is problematic because all of our pens house 60-75 adult ewes comfortably, and we don’t have an easy way to split a pen for more than a few weeks. The rams were in Pen 1 for 30 days and Pen 2 for 35 days. The sheep were scanned in July to confirm pregnancies, so we could adjust the feed rations accordingly.

Lambing dragged out a bit; we started in late September and finished in the first week of November. But it was okay; we’ve tried different lambing schedules over the years and lambing is just a routine activity at this point. Andrew farms full-time, so someone is always home to monitor the sheep. A wonderful side benefit of the MGA protocol is that the ewes tend to lamb during the day, making night checks very rare.

Of the 58 ewes that were exposed in Pen 1, 54 lambed, for a conception rate of 93%. All of these ewes were fed MGA, but only 40 of them were injected with Folligon. In Pen 2, 75 of the 95 ewes lambed, for a conception rate of 79%, even though only 40 of them were programmed with MGA followed by Folligon. 

The overall conception rate for all the ewes (treated and untreated), in both pens, was 84%. We therefore exceeded our goal by about 30 ewes. The ewes that didn’t lamb in the fall were re-exposed in August, unless they already had another strike against them.

Five ewes failed to deliver live lambs, or had mishaps that resulted in their lambs being fostered elsewhere, but we tagged 205 lambs from the 124 ewes that lambed successfully. We tag our lambs within 24-48 hours and track that result. Pre-tagging mortality of lambs is around 8%, which includes lambs that were mummified, aborted, or stillborn, and anything that didn’t live long enough to be tagged. Once a lamb is tagged, the odds of it surviving to be shipped or bred as a replacement are over 95%.

This works out to 1.6 tagged lambs per ewe that lambed. The ewes actually doing the raising are feeding 1.65 lambs per ewe. Pen 2 had fewer lambs on average, which we expected because the risk of a ewe needing help increases with age and most of that pen was bred naturally. We aim for two lambs per ewe, and will foster triplets if possible.

This F1 Romanov x Katahdin ewe was bred to a White Dorper ram.

Spring breeding is always a risk and we definitely did push these ewes to make this possible. Every one of them lambed last between December 2020 and February 2021. There was a bit of a hustle involved in getting them dry fast enough to flush again for re-breeding. We’re really happy with the results of these groups so far, and will definitely do large group fall lambing again in preference to summer lambing, which we dislike greatly.

At time of writing, this group has not yet been weaned, so things can still change. We’re now at just over 500 lambs tagged this year from roughly 200 ewes, with another group due just after Christmas. That group includes 65 ewes from the April lambing, the open ewes that were rebred after failing to catch for fall lambing, and the replacement ewe lambs. All in all, it’s been a good year for our sheep. Next year could be different so I’ll celebrate every success I can.

Ursina Studhalter and Andrew Bos raise commercial hair sheep near Shawville, Quebec.

Sheep Canada – Fall 2021

Table of Contents
4: Greetings from Deerville
5: Producer profile: Grazerie Ranch, High Prairie, Alberta
15: Old ewes ain’t nothing but trouble!
17: Still grumpy about wool?
19: The walk of shame
21: Testing for genetic resistance to scrapie in goats
23: Ruminal microbiota, diet and feed efficiency
25: New treatment for Haemonchus contortus in sheep
27: New manager for Northumberlamb
30: Bluetongue in wild sheep in BC
31: October is Canadian Wool Month
33: 2021 CCWG National Sheep Industry Award

Producer Profile: Grazerie Ranch, High Prairie, Alberta

By Cathy Gallivan, PhD

Photos by Louise Liebenberg

I am always interested to hear how the sheep producers I meet came to be raising sheep. There are a few who grew up on sheep farms themselves, but more often there is some other livestock enterprise, or an off-farm job, that has been supplemented or replaced by sheep farming. 

Louise Liebenberg’s story began in South Africa, where she was born and raised and where she got her first Border Collie at the age of 14. Although her family was not involved in farming they lived near a research station that had sheep, where she was able to work her dog. After graduating from university with a Bachelor of Science degree, she (and the dog) travelled the world until they ended up in the Netherlands. Here she met her former husband and together they ran a grazing company that employed up to five shepherds, grazing sheep on dikes, golf courses and military installations all over the country. As the demand for ecological grazing increased, they started a sheep grazing school in the Netherlands. 

But Louise missed the wide-open spaces of South Africa and, after travelling extensively to explore where they wanted to live next, they moved to the High River area of northern Alberta in 2008.

Preferring to buy as many sheep as possible from a single source, they started out with 100 crossbred ewes of Rambouillet, Dorset and Suffolk breeding from the Twilight Hutterite Colony in Falher. Louise prefers the Dorset to the Rambouillet or Suffolk, and they are now the predominant breed in the flock. She also uses some Suffolk rams as terminal sires.

A year after purchasing the sheep, the family started to build their herd of Angus cattle. By the end of 2014, they had 50 cows and the sheep flock had grown to over 700 ewes. 

Louise (right) and her children, Jess and Roy Verstappen.

But in January of 2015, a fire took their barn, their tractor, all of their equipment and tools, and about 30 ewes and lambs. It could have been worse. They had planned to put all the ewes in the barn the day before the fire. But because of a meeting that ran late, they decided to do it the next day. Although most of the ewes were saved, it was a disastrous situation: several hundred heavily pregnant ewes in a northern Alberta winter with no shelter.

With lambing about to begin and temperatures plummeting to -35 degrees C, the community responded. Neighbours parked stock trailers in the yard to house ewes with newborn lambs, a (roofless) shelter was constructed from round bales to provide protection from the worst of the wind, and a fabric-type shelter was provided at cost. Donations of feed, a small shed, and lambing pens were made. But even with all this help, the 2015 lambing was a stressful and difficult one, with higher than usual losses of lambs.

By 2016, a new barn (300’x80’x26’) with a dirt floor, trusses and metal siding had been constructed, there was a new tractor, and some of the tools and other equipment had been replaced. But in 2018, another setback occurred when Louise’s husband left her and the ranch. Their children (Jess and Roy Verstappen) stayed on the farm. The flock was downsized after the fire and is currently around 200 ewes, but the cow herd has grown to 125 head.

The ewes don’t come into the barn until just before lambing in January.

Jess (25) works for Cargill, and has been working from home since the pandemic began. She is more interested in the farm than her brother, particularly in the cattle. Roy (21) is back working full time off the farm as a woodworker, after being laid off early in the pandemic.

The new barn measures 300’x80’x26’ high and has a dirt floor.

January is busy on the ranch, with most of the ewes and about 10 of the cows giving birth inside the barn. The early lambing lasts for just one month, which is as long as Louise wants to lamb during the cold, short days of January in northern Alberta. A smaller group of ewes that don’t catch for January lambing, plus any ewe lambs that are too small to breed early, lambs later in April. The late lambing also takes place inside, to free up corral space for the rest of the cows, which calve at the same time.

The lambing rate isn’t particularly high; the ewes drop around 150% and wean 130%. Louise has struggled with Chlamydia abortions in the past. She feels that problem is now under control, but she still prefers not to sell ewe lambs. 

Lambing jugs in the part of the barn (40’x80’) that is heated and insulated.

Most of the lamb losses come at 3-4 weeks of age and are caused by Clostridium perfringens Type A. This diagnosis was confirmed by sending dead lambs to the vet school in Saskatoon for post mortem examinations. The 8-way vaccines available in Canada contain Clostridium perfringens Types C and D, but not Clostridium perfringens Type A. There is a vaccine available in other countries however, which contains all three types. The Canadian Sheep Federation has been working with Merck and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to obtain some of this vaccine, Covexin-10, and hopes to have it in the hands of producers this fall. 

Louise owns five quarters (160 acres each) and leases two more from the government. She rents another four quarters for putting up feed. That seems like a lot of land, even when the flock numbered 700 ewes. But the land is covered in spruce and aspen, in addition to grass, and the growing season at this latitude (55.4 degrees north) is short. 

The predominant breed in the flock is Dorset.

And then there is the drought. In contrast to the 18 inches of rain that fell in the area in 2020, they got only 3.5 inches this year over the summer. It has rained recently, but it came too late to help with this year’s pastures or forage crop.

About 650 acres are used for grazing the cattle and sheep. The cattle go to the grazing lease and some rented pastures; the sheep tend to stay closer to home.

Mowing machines mounted on the front and back of the tractor allow Louise to cut 30’ of grass at a time, which gets raked after it has dried.

Louise puts up forage on 550-600 acres, in a mix of hay, greenfeed, chopped silage and round bale silage; the proportions of each vary from year to year with the climate. She usually makes 1,000-1,500 round bales (1,450 lb.) of hay a year, plus 80-150 greenfeed bales. In wet years, more of the crop goes into silage. But some of her fields are 10+ km from home and that, plus the drought, made custom harvesting and trucking of silage impractical this year so most of the forage was put up as hay. About one-eighth of the feed goes into round silage bales, primarily to provide quality feed to the cows calving in April. The greenfeed is usually a mix of oats, wheat, barley and peas underseeded to alfalfa. This year’s greenfeed is straight oats.

Louise is likely to need every acre she has to obtain enough feed for her animals this year. She normally harvests 2.5 round bales per acre but this year that has dropped to 1-1.5 bales per acre. The federal and provincial governments are offering drought relief that will total $200 per cow and $40 per ewe but the problem may be in finding feed to buy, as everyone else in the area is in the same boat.

Louise tests everything she feeds and the sheep get the best forage; the cows clean up the rest, including silage from the edges of the pit. This year, Louise will be supplementing the forage she has with a forage pellet from Cargill.

Louise does most of the fieldwork herself, with the help of her son and daughter when they are available. She trades labour with one neighbour, who does all her baling, and another who is a mechanic and does the maintenance on all the equipment. The silage chopping and trucking is contracted out.

The feeding program is forage-based, with purchased barley and peas being fed at lambing time. Round bales of hay are fed along a fenceline feeder inside the barn, with round bale feeders for small groups such as the rams. Silage from the pit is brought into the barn using the tractor, and spread along the fenceline feeder.

The lambs born in January are weaned and sold before the grazing season begins. They get a pelleted creep feed by the time they are 10 days old, and a complete grower pellet after weaning at 10 weeks of age. These lambs will all be sold by mid-June, when Louise turns her attention to managing the summer grazing. The April-born lambs spend the summer grazing with the ewes. They get sold at the end of the summer after being weaned, vaccinated and wormed, and after becoming accustomed to eating grain.

The lambs are sold to Roger Albers in Stony Plain (east of Edmonton), who also takes any cull ewes. Louise finds it difficult to stay on top of the markets in central Alberta on a daily or weekly basis from her location in the north, and prefers to sell the lambs for a prearranged price rather than take a chance on the auction at Tofield. She makes the 5½ hour (one way) trip herself, with a trailer that can haul 45-50 lambs at a time, or 90 when it is double-decked. 

Before the fire, most of the lambs produced on the ranch were sold as finished lambs, and they used to buy and finish lambs from other producers. But now Louise sells them earlier in the year at around 70 pounds, although that varies with the relative price of lighter or heavier lambs. Louise averaged about $180 on the lambs she shipped in June.

Most of the calves are kept over the winter. Louise sells bulls at two years of age, as well as yearling replacement heifers. She sold some freezer beef packs last year but found it time-consuming and is not sure if she will continue with it.

Louise has to haul water to many of the pastures where the sheep graze, but this one has a dugout.

Much of the grazing is on marginal land, but because most of the ewes are open and dry during the summer they are able to get back into condition for breeding in August, and Louise doesn’t have to move the flock as often as she would if they all had lambs on them. But even with these efficiencies, grazing the sheep is a full-time job in the summer. The ewes are occasionally as far from the home place as 30 km, and Louise sees all of the sheep every day, as well as bringing them water and minerals. Some of the pastures are watered from dugouts, but many are not and have to be watered from tanks on the back of the pickup or pulled behind the tractor

Raising sheep extensively in northern Alberta means having a good predator control system, as there are bears, wolves and cougars in the area, in addition to coyotes. Louise relies on her livestock guardian dogs to keep her in business. Her experience grazing sheep in Europe, combined with her years in northern Alberta, have led to her writing a regular column on the use of livestock guardian dogs for an American sheep magazine; she has also been invited to speak on the subject at sheep industry conferences.

Šarplaninac livestock guardian dogs keep tabs on the sheep flock and Angus cattle at Grazerie Ranch.

Louise’s passions include both wildlife and ranching, which would seem like a conflict to many. Rather than trying to eliminate all of the potential predators in the area, she uses her dogs to coexist with them, even in 2017 when a pack of wolves with seven pups were denning within sight of her barnyard. This approach has earned her a wildlife-friendly certification for her farm from an international organization (wildlifefriendly.org) that began in the US as a way for ranchers to market their wool as predator-friendly.

Šarplaninac guardian dog Mali keeps watch over bred ewes.

Louise’s breed of choice for guarding the sheep is the Šarplaninac, a breed that comes from Macedonia. She currently has seven of these dogs, five working and two retired, plus a new litter of puppies. There are also two working Border Collies and one that is retired, plus a ‘yard’ dog.

Prior to the fire, Louise had an extensive set of portable panels that could be assembled anywhere into a handling system. Since then, with the reduced size of the flock, she manages vaccinations and other treatments by crowding animals into an alleyway inside the barn that holds about 40 ewes at a time. Although she is pretty efficient at doing things by herself, she occasionally gets an assist from a local 4-H club looking for hands-on experience. The members of the club also visit the farm and even spend the night sometimes during the lambing season.

Wolf pups playing within sight of the barnyard.

There was also a completely automated Shearwell handling and weighing system that Louise hasn’t been able to justify replacing, but she still uses the FarmWorks software that was purchased with the system to track her ewes and their production. The lambs are identified but not weighed individually, and most of her selection efforts are directed at identifying poor-doing lambs and ewes to be culled. She uses a cattle scale to weigh lambs in groups, to track their average weights and plan her loads south to the feedlot.

Louise says it’s hard to get a shearer in her area in the spring. She is thinking of transitioning to a fall shearing system that would make it easier to book someone and also reduce the condensation in the cold part of the barn during winter lambing. The farm’s wool has been sold to the Canadian Cooperative Wool Growers in the past, but this year’s wool is still waiting to be shipped.

Louise’s plans for the future include rebuilding to around 350 ewes. She is contemplating introducing another breed to the flock. She would like to sell more lambs, but like many sheep producers, she prefers twins to triplets. She doesn’t want to increase the prolificacy of the flock to an extent that would require a lot of extra labour or other major changes to her current production system.

The sheep spend most of the year outside, where feeding is much less labour-intensive.

 

Producer Profile: Meadowbrook Farm, Walkerton, Ontario

By Cathy Gallivan, PhD

Photos courtesy of the Ernewein family

Meadowbrook Farm is the home of Steve and Lisa Ernewein, and their rapidly growing flock of sheep. The Erneweins started farming in May of 1997, with the purchase of their first farm, and got their first sheep a month later. Steve grew up on a hog and beef farm. Lisa lived in town but spent summer holidays with her grandparents who had sheep, which is where the idea of raising sheep started.

In 2012, they were able to expand by purchasing the farm where Steve grew up from his parents, making their children the fourth generation of Steve’s family to farm on that land. Steve and Lisa and their family still live on the original farm purchased in 1997, and Steve’s parents remain in the house on the family farm. 

L to R, back: Scott and Emily Montag, Kimberly Lippert and Jordan Ernewein, Aaron Ernewein, Lisa and Steve Ernewein; Front: Lillian Ernewein and Benjamin Ernewein. Photo by Karen Ruetz.

Steve and Lisa have five children. Emily (24) is married and lives in Pickering, and is in the final year of her training to be a chiropractor. Jordan (22) is doing an apprenticeship in carpentry but is invested in the farm and lives in a self-contained apartment in the basement of his grandparents’ home on the family farm. Aaron (19) just finished his first year studying Animal Science (remotely) at the University of Guelph, and will be working on the farm this summer. Lillian (16) and Ben (13) are still at home. Ben is a skilled videographer and uses his GoPro camera to create videos of life on the farm, which he uploads to his YouTube channel, Farming with Ben.

Lisa worked off the farm as a dental assistant until five years ago, when she was sidelined by a diagnosis of polymyositis and lupus. She runs the house and acts as what Steve calls his ‘ground rod’ for keeping everything running, but she is quite limited in what she can do on the farm, having “good days and bad weeks.” Lisa says their children have all stepped up since she became sick, and particularly notes the confidence that the two youngest have developed in the lambing barn, not hesitating to jump in and assist any ewe having trouble lambing.

About a third of the flock are straightbred Dorsets.

The flock currently consists of about 700 meat-type ewes (including 200 ewe lambs from 2020). About a third are straightbred Dorsets, and the rest are crosses of Dorset, Rideau and Ile de France. In addition to the meat ewes, there is a flock of 100 dairy ewes of British Milk Sheep and Lacaune breeding, which were acquired just last year. The meat ewes are on an accelerated lambing program, while the dairy ewes will be lambing once a year, in April and May, to allow the milk to be produced under the very specific requirements (pasture-fed, non-GMO feeds) set out by the buyer. There are also 30-35 cows that consume lower-quality feed not suitable for the sheep and follow the sheep in the grazing cycle, cleaning up some of their parasites. 

One of several water wagons, this one is in use at the family farm. The coverall in the background is home to the dairy ewes.

The 7,000 sq. ft. bank barn in Steve and Lisa’s yard is the lambing headquarters for the meat ewes. With the purchase of the family farm in 2012, they added some much-needed shelter in the form of a 4,000-sq.-ft. Coverall hay shed that now houses the dairy ewes, and a 7,000-sq.-ft. feedlot building, where dry ewes are kept and bred. With the dry ewes and rams out of the lambing barn, it can accommodate up to 225 ewes at a time, making it possible for him to move from his ‘homemade’ accelerated lambing program to the more demanding, 72-day STAR system he currently uses, with ewes giving birth in January, March, June, September and November each year. Steve exposes 250 ewes to rams at a time, and ends up lambing 175-225 of them, depending on the season.

The handling system behind the bank barn.

Between the two farms, the Erneweins own 150 acres of arable land and rent a further 90 acres, all within a radius of 4-5 km. Between 80 and 100 acres is planted in a rotation of annual and perennial forage that involves breaking up 40 acres at a time and seeding it to triticale or fall rye, followed by sorghum sudangrass, before seeding it back to an 80-10-10 mix of alfalfa, timothy, and bromegrass. 

Having each of these crops, with their different growing seasons and tolerance for wet or dry conditions, present on some part of the farm each year gives Steve flexibility to alternate between grazing it and harvesting it for winter feed, as conditions dictate. The hay is put up in big round bales of baleage or dry hay.

Sorghum sudangrass is part of the forage rotation.

Some of the rented land is harder to make hay on, and doesn’t get broken up but kept in a mix of alfalfa, birdsfoot trefoil, clover and grass. This land is primarily used for grazing, but Steve will make hay on it when there is a surplus.

The Erneweins don’t lamb on pasture anymore, and the meat ewes stay in confinement until their lambs are weaned. Even then, there are five or six groups of grazing sheep (rams, ewe lambs, breeding ewes, pregnant ewes, dairy ewes and/or dairy ewe lambs) in the summer, plus two groups of cattle.

By alternating between grazing and haymaking in both the annual and perennial forage fields, and grazing the cows after the sheep, Steve can provide the sheep with clean grazing that means he rarely needs to worm anything. Adding dairy sheep to the mix requires a whole new level of forward planning because they can’t be wormed while they are milking. The plan is to have the dairy ewes never graze a field where the dry (meat) ewes have already been that year, but to follow the dairy ewes with the meat ewes and/or the cattle.

All of this flexibility comes at a cost in terms of the fencing and labour required to move the sheep every few days. Steve uses up to 50 rolls of electric netting to graze the ewes, with solar and battery-operated fencers on the rented land. There is about 10,000 ft. of water line on the two farms they own, and three portable water wagons for other areas.

In addition to forage, the sheep get fed corn grain, soybean meal and DDG (distillers’ dried grains). Steve planted his last crop of soybeans in 2019, and now buys all of the concentrates he feeds to the sheep. With only 240 acres, he doesn’t have the land base to grow his own, and with three elevators visible from the two farms, he doesn’t have any trouble obtaining the 15-18 tonnes of corn he feeds each month. 

Placing bales in the feeder on their ends allows ewes to break up the core of the bale.

The farm goes through 500-600 big square bales of straw each year. Steve buys 100 acres or more and puts it up himself with his crew, along with a few small bales for the hard-to-reach corners of the lambing barn. Lambs are tagged, paint-branded and injected with selenium in the claiming pens. With so many ewes, and breeding groups, Steve relies on the EweManage system to keep track of all the animals and record his lambing and production data. He finds the program very flexible and appreciates the customized service he gets from the system’s tech support. 

Groups of ewes are fed grain in a common feeding yard, one group at a time.

EweManage has developed a unique system for collecting data in the barn, which came in at just under $1,000. An Allflex LPR tag reader uses Bluetooth to send tag numbers to a 4 GB iPod Touch with a mobile version of the EweManage software. Steve points out that using an iPod instead of his cellphone for this purpose means that other people can tag and record lambs even when he and his cellphone are off the farm.

The same equipment is used when lambs are weighed. The scale head they have now doesn’t have the capacity to transmit the animals’ weights electronically, so each animal’s weight gets typed into the iPod as its ID is read and transmitted by the tag reader. But not having to read the lamb’s tags as they pass over the scale saves most of the time the job would otherwise take.

Lambing and weighing data is emailed from the iPod to the farm computer in the house and then uploaded to the GenOvis genetic evaluation program, which allows Steve to obtain EPDs for individual traits of economic importance, as well as indexes for making selection decisions. Steve relies on the Maternal Higher Prolificacy index to choose both rams and ewes. Rams, whether purchased or retained, have to be in the top 90th percentile. Ewe lambs in the 75-100th percentile are eligible for retention in the flock and those in the 50- 75th percentile can be sold for breeding stock.

As he expands the meat flock, Steve has suspended his use of terminal sires for the most part, preferring to use Dorset, Rideau and Ile de France rams. He does, however, breed the lower-EPD ewes to Southdown rams to produce lambs that are part of a direct marketing effort he is involved in with some friends. None of the Southdown-sired ewe lambs are retained in the flock.

Baby lambs have access to a textured creep, consisting of rolled corn and a protein supplement pellet. The pellet contains Deccox, which Steve prefers to dosing the lambs with Baycox. At 3 to 4 weeks of age, they transition to a lamb grower pellet prior to being weaned at 40-45 days of age. Steve says he could probably save $50-$100/tonne by mixing his own lamb feed, but he prefers to leave the job to the mill.

Lambs go to the OLEX auction in Kitchener (100-120 km away). Steve will sell new crop lambs at 65-70 lb., in the first six months of the year when barn space is short, and then ships heavier (90-110 lb.) lambs for the rest of the year. He also sells directly to packers, and even direct to consumers.

The dairy part of the operation is relatively new. The sheep and the 12-head milking parlour were purchased from the same operation in October of last year. The parlour was installed in a corner of the building in April, and milking started in May of this year. A pipeline moves the milk from the Coverall to a 300-litre tank in the milk house, which is a sea can shipping container located outside the barn. The milk house is equipped with a walk-in freezer and two chest freezers, where the milk is stored prior to being transported to the buyer. 

This Venostal creep feeder has adjustable sides that allow lambs, but not ewes, to put their heads in to eat. Steve also uses repurposed pig feeders and a 3-in-1 feeder.

The plan is for Steve to do the morning milking and Jordan, who lives in the yard where the dairy sheep are housed, to milk in the evenings. Although he works full-time in construction, Jordan owns 100 of the meat ewes and 50 of the dairy ewes and is buying into the farm operation with his labour. Steve sees the dairy operation as a way to capitalize on the Coverall barn they already had, as well as a way to expand the farm income to someday support two households.

Having invested in the setup to milk sheep, he also plans to try milking some of the Rideau-cross meat ewes for a month or two after their lambs are weaned. This should allow him to ship some extra milk, and also to see what the Rideau-cross ewes are capable of. Once they have had a chance to measure the milk production of both the dairy and non-dairy ewes, they will be able to make decisions about promoting meat ewes into the dairy ewe flock, and vice versa.

Like most new ventures, there have been growing pains as they have begun milking the sheep, but Steve expects they will soon be sorted out and the dairy enterprise will start to pay for itself and contribute to the farm income.

Steve keeps the ewes outside as much as possible, and rolls out round bales for them when they need it.

Grain can also be fed outside using this sheep snackwagon.

Steve has had a number of jobs in agriculture over the years, and has worked part-time and full-time in beef and hog feedlots, and most recently milking a herd of goats. But he has been full-time on the farm for a year now. Rather than continuing to split his time between off-farm work and his own operation, he chose to go big and go home, by acquiring the dairy ewes and expanding the meat flock. He plans to keep another 200-300 ewe lambs out of the meat flock this year and to build a new lambing barn on the home place next year to accommodate them.

With everything else going on in their lives, Steve and Lisa still make time to get involved in the industry, as leaders of the Ripley 4-H Sheep Club, and active members of the Western Ontario Lamb Producers Association. They also participate in a number of Facebook groups for sheep farmers where established producers answer questions for less experienced shepherds. Steve says it is a way of giving back or paying forward, for all the help they received when they were starting out nearly 25 years ago.

Sheep Canada – Spring 2021

Sheep Canada magazine 2021 Spring Cover
Table of Contents
4: Greetings from Deerville
5: Calling all sheep videographers!
7: Rubber rings versus surgical docking and castration
11: Frequency and type of handling affects milk production
13: Fleece production of Rambouillet and Targhee ewe lambs
17: Eating more lamb
19: How not to haul lambs
21: 2020 GenOvis Recognition Awards
27: CSF holds virtual AGM
29: Here’s to you, Sheep Canada readers
33: Campaign for Wool plans for Canada’s fibre future
35: Buyer’s Guide

How not to haul lambs

By Randy Eros

There is a bit of a time lag between when I sit down to write this column and you sit down to read it. With any luck, you will be watching pastures grow and listening to robins by the time you get this. But right now, I’m looking out of my frost-covered office window and hoping it will warm up to -30 degrees C before I have to go out to feed the sheep. They say Canadians don’t really have average weather, just the mid-point of two extremes. This was certainly the case here on the prairies this winter. A record warm January followed by a record cold February, let’s take -20 degrees C and call that average.

Hauling livestock in the winter months can be a real challenge as we try to ensure the comfort of our animals. This means finding a balance between protecting the sheep from extreme cold while still giving them adequate ventilation. Several years ago, I was able to find the Canadian average by giving a load of market lambs a bit of both extremes.

I have a homemade stock-rack for the back of my pickup that is perfect for hauling 10 lambs. Made from 1”x1” steel tubing, it weighs a fair bit but is pinned together so it is easy enough to get on and off the truck.  For winter use, I screw plywood on the sides and top and it’s good to go. Or so I thought.

I was up early on the morning in question, well before daylight, to load my lambs for an hour-long trip to the abattoir. The lambs scooted up the ramp onto the truck just like they knew what they were doing. It was a bitterly cold morning, and the small vent on the top of the stock-rack seemed like a bit too much ventilation for the weather. A quick look around the farmyard yielded a nice-sized piece of plywood to cover the opening. It stuck out a foot and a half on either side of the box, and gave the whole outfit a bit of an aerodynamic look. I kind of liked this, and I put in a bunch of extra screws so as not to lose the new piece of plywood on the highway.

So there I was, scooting along the highway, the sun rising behind me, enjoying the drive. I was only about 10 minutes from the abattoir when two tractor-trailers went by in the opposite direction, one right behind the other. I didn’t think much of it at the time, just held firmly onto the steering wheel to hold my truck straight against their slipstream and carried on.

A few minutes later I caught sight of movement in my side-view mirror and looked over to find a lamb staring at me. My first thought was, “How did that lamb get its head out of the box?” A moment of confusion on my part, and then I looked over my shoulder to see all 10 lambs looking at me from the box of the pickup! No stock-rack; it was just gone, a victim of great aerodynamics and too many screws.

Somehow, I curbed the instinct to slam on my brakes. I put on my flashers and slowly reduced my speed. It was early enough that there was not much traffic. So there I was, crawling along the highway at 20 kph with a load of lambs standing in my open truck box. I had to decide what to do next. If I pulled over, what was I going to do?

On I went, holding my breath. Maintaining a speed slow enough that the wind chill wouldn’t be any worse than a normal prairie winter, but fast enough that the lambs wouldn’t take my slowing down as an invitation to leave the security of the truck box. 

There is only one stoplight in the town that is home to our abattoir. I figured that a full stop was out of the question, so I was going to take it as a slow right turn, no matter what colour the light was, and hope the traffic would allow for this. As I approached the intersection, the light turned red and I adjusted my speed to allow one vehicle to pass just ahead of me. As I did what can best be described as a fast, rolling stop through the intersection, I realized the car I had let go ahead of me was the local RCMP. Still holding my breath, but now for another reason, I carried on.

Luckily there were no flashing lights, and the lambs got to enjoy an uneventful drive through town. As I pulled into the abattoir’s fenced compound, I finally took a breath. A truck with a stock trailer full of cattle pulled in behind me and the driver watched while I backed up to the unloading ramp. I opened the tailgate and the sheep jumped off and ran right into the holding area, no worse for wear. Just like they knew what they were doing.

The cattleman must have mistaken my relief for relaxation; he rolled down his window as we crossed paths and said, “Boy, sheep sure are a lot easier to haul than cattle.” I just nodded, smiled and waved.

As expected, I found my stock-rack sitting, upright and undamaged, in the ditch right where the two trucks had gone by. I figure the gust from the first one lifted the rack because of the extra plywood and the second one added just enough lift to get the whole thing airborne. A few lessons learned: first, always strap down your stock-rack, and second, leave the aerodynamics to the engineers and pilots. 

It’s been long enough now since this happened that I am comfortable talking about it, but I still think of that cattleman who watched me unload. I wonder if he ever gave up on cattle and became a shepherd. You know, because they’re so easy to haul and unload!

Randy Eros and his wife, Solange Dusablon, and their son, Michel, own and operate Seine River Shepherds near Ste. Anne, Manitoba.