By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Photos by Katrina Joy Photography
Peter and Elly van der Veen emigrated from the Netherlands in 2002 with six children under 15 years of age. Another son, Peterje, died before they left the Netherlands. Twenty years later, the three oldest girls live on dairy farms in Shawville, Quebec (Eline), Barrhead, Alberta (Lisa), and Berwick, Ontario (Marleen), each with families of their own. Marleen took some ewes with her and still has a flock of Rideaus today. Another daughter, Ilze, and son, Pieter, live and work elsewhere in Ontario.
L to R: Harold, Elly, Peter, Roy and Pieter van der Veen.
Harold, now 22, is the youngest of the children born in the Netherlands. He lives and works on the farm, and plans to take it over someday. Roy (17) was born after the family arrived in Canada, and is still in school.
Upon their arrival in Canada, the van der Veens purchased a 215-acre farm with an old house and a bank barn in Grand Valley. The land base has since grown to 525 acres, with a further 175 acres of rented land. There are four Coverall barns that are 50’ wide and 100-154’ long, as well as a 40×200’ pole barn. Peter and Elly built a new house shortly after purchasing the farm, and Harold and his girlfriend, Alyssa Teeuwissen, now live in the old house.
The family started off raising sheep and finishing pigs on straw. But the prices received for the pigs made that enterprise unprofitable, so they decided to concentrate on sheep farming. In 2008, they shipped their last pigs and started filling the barns with Rideau Arcott sheep. From there, the flock grew rapidly to 1,000 ewes lambing on an accelerated (STAR) system.
The two Coveralls that are used for lambing have ceilings and insulation, which keeps them comfortable on cold days.
Further expansion of the flock would have required more land and buildings, so Peter and Elly started thinking about getting more income from the same number of animals by selling milk as well as meat. Rather than compromising the health status of the flock by purchasing outside ewes, they decided to raise their own by crossing dairy breed rams onto the Rideaus. After researching the available breeds, they settled on the British Milk Sheep, and in 2017 obtained rams from Eric & Elisabeth Bzikot in Conn, Ontario. These rams were bred to the calmest Rideau ewes with the best udders, to produce their first dairy ewes. A second dairy breed, the Lacaune, was added later and mated to the British Milk Sheep x Rideau crosses. Today there are about 300 pure Rideaus on the farm and another 600 ewes with at least 50% dairy sheep breeding.
The milking parlour has room for 24 ewes per side.
A milking parlour with room for 16 ewes on each side was installed in 2018, and later expanded to milk 24 on each side. As they waited for the first British Milk Sheep crosses to lamb, the van der Veens starting milking the Rideaus. Peter recalls that it took about two hours to get 100 Rideaus to just walk through the parlour for the first time, without even being milked. But they learned quickly, no doubt aided by the grain fed every time they came into the parlour. Peter says the dairy sheep crosses adapt to the parlour more readily than the Rideaus, which makes sense given that their British Milk Sheep and Lacaune sires came from flocks where animals were selected for milking performance in a parlour.
Harold and his girlfriend, Alyssa, do much of the milking. Sixteen of the spaces on this side of the milking parlour have meters for measuring milk production.
The ewes are bred to lamb throughout the year, and there are 300-400 being milked at any given time. The milking takes about two hours for two people. Harold is the main milker, assisted by Peter, Elly, Alyssa, or other family members when they are around. The milk is sold to Shepherd Gourmet Dairy (Saputo) in St. Marys, and is picked up every few days.
In their first year of milking, the flock produced about 40,000 litres of milk for sale. By 2021, the output had grown to 105,000 litres. Peter points out that their sheep dairy enterprise is a work in progress. The flock includes 300 Rideaus, which produce less milk per day than the dairy cross ewes, and are milked for a shorter period of time after weaning their lambs. And both the Rideaus and the dairy cross ewes raise their lambs for 34 days before getting milked in the parlour. As they continue to refine their selection and management, Peter expects to add another 30,000 litres per year to the current production.
A big part of that improvement will come when they are able to measure and record the milk production of each ewe at every milking. The parlour came with 16 milk meters, which are used occasionally to determine when a ewe should be dried off. But milking 300-400 ewes takes long enough without reading milk meters and writing down the milk produced by each ewe. The van der Veens want to use their RFID tags and other available technology to record this data automatically, but incompatibilities between the RFID tags currently in use in Canada and the ones used by milk recording equipment have so far prevented them from doing this.
Once these data collection issues are resolved, the family will have more accurate information about the relative production of each of their breeds and crosses, and will be able to further refine their selection and culling of individual ewes. What they have found so far is that the Rideaus produce about a litre of milk per day, while the British Milk Sheep or Lacaune cross ewes yield around 2 litres per day.
But there is a lot of variation within the breeds and crosses; one of the British Milk Sheep crosses produces as much as 5 litres per day, and they have ¾-Lacaune ewes giving 2.5 litres per day after lambing for the first time. Peter says the British Milk Sheep ewes have the greatest potential for milk production in their flock. But he likes the body and strength of the Lacaune ewes, and thinks they will probably last longer.
The van der Veens plan to continue keeping 300 Rideau ewes. The Rideaus have larger litters than the dairy sheep, particularly when they lamb in season, and this can lead to more work and higher death losses. But the large litters provide significant numbers of market lambs, as well as ewe lambs sold as breeding stock. They also have good longevity; some of the Rideau ewes on the farm are 12 years old.
And even though they produce less milk than the dairy sheep, the van der Veens find it worthwhile to milk the Rideaus as well as the dairy ewes. It costs 43 cents per day to feed a dry ewe and only 44 cents more (87 cents per day) for a lactating Rideau. The price they receive for a litre of milk depends on the protein content, but has recently been around $2.30 per litre, so even when a ewe produces as little as a half-litre of milk per day, she still nets 72 cents per day over her additional feeding cost.
There are other benefits to milking the Rideaus as well. Before they started milking, the Rideaus were culled on the number and weight of lambs they weaned. But going through the milking parlour twice a day means they can be culled directly for milk production, as well as udder size and shape. Rideaus that survive this culling make better mothers at lambing time, and this benefit gets passed on to the flocks that purchase ewe lambs from the van der Veens.
The Grober milk replacer machine can handle up to 100 lambs. Photo by Sheep Canada.
Most of the ewes raise their lambs for 34 days after lambing, before the lambs are weaned and the ewe begins milking in the parlour. Rideau ewes dry off earlier than the dairy ewes; they usually get milked for 60-90 days, compared to 150-200 days for the dairy ewes. The dairy ewes could probably milk even longer, but rebreeding and drying them off earlier allows them to produce more lambs than if they were milked for a longer period.
Lambs in this plastic tote in the warming room can be left to feed themselves by inserting a bottle of colostrum into the plastic tube secured at the end of the tote. Photo by Sheep Canada.
Lambing and milking year-round means the ewes are bred while they are still milking in the parlour. Before they started milking, Peter and Elly used MGA to induce out-of-season lambing, but they had to switch from MGA to CIDRs when they started selling milk for human consumption. The timing of CIDR insertion depends on the breed, with Rideau ewes getting a CIDR 40-50 days after lambing and the dairy breed ewes a bit later at 70-80 days. CIDRs are only used outside the normal breeding season. Rams go in with the ewes for 34 days at a time, followed by two weeks with no ram exposure, to allow for the lambing barns to empty out and be cleaned before the next lambing begins.
This device holds iodine and marking paint and can be hung from the ceiling framework anywhere in the lambing barn. Photo by Sheep Canada.
An ultrasound technician visits monthly to scan potentially pregnant ewes. Ewes get dried off 35-40 days before they are due to lamb again, or when their daily milk production measures less than half a litre.
The hooks holding this lamb are suspended from a small scale, allowing easy collection of birth weights. The metal frame has a place for everything needed when processing lambs, and can be wheeled from pen to pen.
A Grober milk replacer machine, and the lambs raised on it, are housed in an addition that connects the two lambing barns, along with a warming/recovery room and an office. The prolificacy of the Rideaus made the purchase of the machine a worthwhile investment even before the family began milking sheep. But since then it has become even more useful, as it provides the option of putting a ewe that gives birth to a single directly into the milking group and raising her lamb on milk replacer.
Above and below: An opening in a chute is kept closed by sliding this piece of bent metal over the tops of the swinging doors. Photos by Sheep Canada.
The wheel on the end of this long gate allows it to swing around to crowd animals into a holding area prior to being weighed. Photo by Sheep Canada.
Raising a single lamb on milk replacer seems counterintuitive to most sheep producers, but the amount of milk a ewe produces depends to some extent on how much milk her lambs remove from her udder. The more the lambs drink, the more the ewe produces, so ewes with multiple lambs produce more milk than when they have single lambs.
By the time a single lamb is weaned at 34 days of age, the milk production potential of the ewe has already been set at a lower level than if she had been feeding multiple lambs. Milking her in the parlour and raising her lamb on milk replacer removes more milk from her udder in the first month of lactation, and results in a higher daily production. It also means that she gets milked for 30 days longer than if she first raises her lamb.
This Lacaune cross ewe has a good udder/teat structure for milking in the parlour.
A ewe that produces a litre of milk a day, for an additional 30 days (all ewes feed their lambs for the first day or two), will produce an extra $74 worth of milk, which is more than twice what it costs to raise her lamb on milk replacer ($35).
Not all ewes giving birth to singles will go directly to the milking parlour. The Grober milk replacer machine has a capacity of 100 lambs at a time, so whether a ewe raises her single lamb or not depends on the space available on the machine, and on how much they need the extra milk in the tank at the time.
The family uses Google Docs to share information about rations and numbers of animals between the computer and everyone’s devices. An iPad in the telehandler provides the latest numbers for Harold as he feeds the sheep.
With ewes being fed, bred, lambed and milked year-round, there is no shortage of work, and the summers are even busier, with 100 acres of forage to harvest and cash crops to manage. The grass is cut four, or sometimes five, times a year and put up as haylage in a pit or (very rarely) baled as dry hay and sold. There is no alfalfa in the mix, but one field of orchardgrass is now in its 18th year of production. Cash crops include 180 acres of soybeans, 140 acres of wheat and 270 acres of corn, 40 of which will be harvested as silage.
Above and below: This bunk shaver allows Harold to remove silage from the pit leaving a smooth surface that reduces spoilage.
Dry ewes are grazed on the forage land in between cuttings. Milking ewes need to be close to the parlour, and can’t be wormed when they are being milked. The grazing ewes are moved nearly every day, and only return to a previously grazed area when at least three weeks has elapsed. Worming is kept to a minimum, with regular worming of the entire flock having been replaced by selective worming of only the animals that need it, when they are in the handling system for other purposes.
Above and below: The telehandler is also used to load silage into the TMR mixer. With five different TMRs being mixed and fed each day, the van der Veens can get by with a smaller TMR mixer and narrower feed alleys.
Sheep in the barns are fed total mixed rations (TMRs) in feed alleys once a day. The rations are formulated by Courtney Vriens, an independent nutritionist who specializes in small ruminants. The TMRs contain corn silage, haylage and corn grain, all grown on the farm, as well as purchased protein, vitamin and mineral supplements. The sheep consume 180-200 tonnes of the corn each year. The corn is rolled before being added to the rations to keep the dominant ewes, who eat first, from sorting and eating it all.
Between Rideaus and dairy ewes, and sheep in different stages of pregnancy and lactation, there are five different TMRs to be mixed and fed each day (see table on page 9), which takes about two hours. In addition to the TMRs fed in the barns, the ewes get 80 grams of a parlour supplement (160 grams/day) on each trip through the parlour.
The telehandler has a number of attachments. In addition to running the bunk shaver and loading the silage, it has a blade for pushing the feed back to the sheep along the 1420’ of feed alleys on the farm. It is also used to operate the Emily automatic bedding machine. With the right equipment, one person can feed all of their animals in about two hours a day, and bed the pens in another half hour.
Coyotes were a problem in the past when the family had only one or two guardian dogs; one year they lost 50 lambs. Since increasing to three or four guardian dogs, they haven’t had any kills in the last two years. Ravens have been more of a problem in recent years. Not only do the ravens attack the lambs inside the barns (which are open on the ends), Peter blames them for stressing out the ewes and rams at breeding time and reducing their conception rates.
Lambs that weigh less than 60 lb. are fed a pelleted ration in these turkey feeders. The feeders are filled automatically and their position off the ground keeps the lambs’ feet out of the feed. Once they reach 60 lb., lambs go on the market lamb TMR, which is fed in the feed alley.
Above: British Milk Sheep ram. Below: Lacaune ram.
The van der Veen farm has come a long way in 20 years. With new milk meters on order, the next big development should be the ability to automatically record the milk production of each ewe at each milking, and to use this data to improve their selection for higher levels of milk production. And with Harold’s commitment to the farm operation, Peter and Elly can look forward to retiring someday and seeing what they have built continued by future generations of their family.
By Randy Eros
Photo by Randy Eros
Graham Rannie and Janice Johnstone run two separate flocks of sheep on their farm near Binscarth, Manitoba, four hours northwest of Winnipeg. Janice has 125 Border Cheviot ewes (100 of which are registered), while Graham has 95 Rambouillet ewes (75 of which are registered), for a total of 220 ewes.
The farmyard sits in the middle of the home quarter, which makes clearing snow after a prairie blizzard a big job. Photo by Graham Rannie.
The farmyard sits in the middle of 160 acres of grazing land. The land is divided by permanent fencing into six paddocks of varying sizes. Portable electric fencing is used to further subdivide the paddocks as needed. The pastures are seeded with a variety of forage mixes that include: meadow brome, birdsfoot trefoil, tall fescue, alfalfa, creeping red fescue, orchardgrass and cicer milkvetch.
Graham is quite fond of the milkvetch, saying, “It starts growing in the spring about the same time as the alfalfa. But it’s non-bloating and retains its leaves well into October.”
Graham and Janice also own an adjacent 160 acres. One 30-acre field on this quarter is in alfalfa for hay, and 100 acres are rented out as cropland. The remaining 30 acres is one of the many sloughs that dot the northern reaches of the western prairies.
The land has been in Graham’s family for over a century now, as his grandparents bought it in 1919. The first sheep on the farm were 10 ‘experienced’ ewes that arrived in 1968, when Graham was just 13. He acquired his first registered sheep, four Suffolk ewes, in 1969. The Suffolk flock grew to 125 ewes before being dispersed in 1987, after which Graham kept only commercial ewes until 1994, when he leased a flock of registered Rambouillets with a deal that let him keep two-thirds of the lamb crop. By 2001 he had purchased four small Rambouillet flocks, including the original leased animals, and was on his way as a Rambouillet breeder.
Graham raised Suffolks and commercial sheep before acquiring his first Rambouillets in 1994. Photo by Graham Rannie.
The Border Cheviot flock moved from BC to Manitoba with Janice when she and Graham were married in 2004. Photo by Graham Rannie.
Janice grew up in BC and was involved in the 4H community there. She was quite gifted at fitting out show animals and when asked what she would like for helping a Border Cheviot breeder with some animals, she asked for a bottle lamb. That ewe lamb was the start of her registered Border Cheviot flock, and she can still trace animals in the flock back to that one lamb.
Graham and Janice met, appropriately, at a sheep show in Chilliwack, BC, in 1997 and married in 2004. The shepherds are married, but their flocks aren’t. The two groups of ewes are kept separately all year, with the Border Cheviots shed lambing in April/May and the Rambouillets lambing on pasture in June. Each flock has three or four breeding groups, each bred with a single ram to allow them to register the offspring. Rams are pulled after 35 days of breeding. Breeding in the normal breeding season means that 90–95% of the ewes are covered in the first cycle for both breeds.
Graham and Janice use claiming pens for the Border Cheviot lambing, to give the ewes and lambs a few days to bond before they are combined into step-down groups of 6–8 ewes with their offspring. From there, they get moved into an open-sided shed until the lambing is finished. The lambs are paint branded at birth and docked. No routine injections are given, but animals get treated if they have a problem.
Graham and Janice use matched sets of Shearwell SET tags to identify their registered sheep, as an alternative to tattooing. The yellow tag from each set also serves as the RFID tag required for animals leaving the farm. If one tag of a set gets lost, Graham can order a replacement for it from Shearwell. Photo by Randy Eros.
Registered Border Cheviot lambs are double-tagged when they are about a month old, as Janice finds the Shearwell tags too heavy for the small ears of newborn Border Cheviot lambs. The lambs have access to an 18% crude protein creep ration that is reduced to 14% as they grow, and replaced with whole barley after weaning at around 90 days. Once the pastures are up in late May, the flock is moved onto the paddocks for rotational grazing, with a move every four days.
After the Border Cheviots finish lambing there is a short break before the Rambouillets begin. The Rambouillet ewes lamb on pasture with the pregnant ewes being ‘drifted’ forward every two days, while the ewes with newborn lambs stay where they’ve lambed. These ewes with lambs are combined every four or five days, and held in groups of 40 ewes until the entire flock has given birth and the youngest lambs are at least two weeks old. The Rambouillet flock grazes separately from the Border Cheviots all summer, with the Rambouillet lambs having access to the same creep feed as the Border Cheviots.
Graham was quick to point out significant differences in breed behavior when it comes to lambing. The Border Cheviot lambs are quite vigorous and attach to the ewe immediately, “like Velcro”, making handling the lambs easy in a shed lambing setup. A camera in the lambing shed broadcasts images to the house and lets them know if they need to make a trip to the barn at night.
Lambing the Rambouillets is a bit more nuanced, the ewes will give birth and lick the lambs off, nurse them, lay them down and then go off to drink and eat. The fewer interventions in this situation, the better. Graham has learned to leave the flock alone from sunset to sunup; night-time checks just lead to orphan lambs. These pasture-born lambs will be caught with a fishing net by the time they are two days old, for tail docking and tagging.
All of the pastures have access to water, either through strategically placed waterers or hydrants and hoses. The pastures are grazed as late into October as the weather will allow, with hay used to supplement late season grazing.
The Border Cheviot flock is weaned in August and the Rambouillets in September. Once the Rambouillets have been weaned, the lambs from both breeds are combined, and males are separated from females. When I visited the farm in mid-February, there were five different groups on the farm: bred Rambouillet ewes, bred Border Cheviot ewes, mature rams of both breeds, young rams of both breeds, and a single group of ewe lambs and retired ewes of both breeds.
The sheep consume both native grass bales and alfalfa bales in the winter months; most of it is baled by Graham but some of it is purchased. Breeding groups get hay unrolled in the wintering yards, while the other groups are fed in collapsible, round bale feeders. The native grass bales are run through a shredder for the ewes, while the alfalfa is simply unrolled to prevent leaf loss.
The breeding ewes get a flushing ration of whole grain for four weeks before and after breeding. This winter, the native grass hay didn’t test out very well and the ewes are also getting a half-pound of barley every day, all winter long. The winter grain ration is purchased; Graham uses either barley, oats or corn, depending on price and availability. Ration balancing is done with SheepBytes, paying close attention to copper and molybdenum levels. The native grass hay generally tests out with very low copper, so Graham feeds both sheep and cattle minerals to get the appropriate levels.
With only one mature dog and two yearlings, the farm is a little understaffed when it comes to livestock guardian dogs right now. Graham likes to run four or five mature dogs, and will be adding to the group this year. Coyotes are the main challenge, but there are also cougars, wolves and bears in the area.
Graham has invested in a Ritchie Combi Clamp, allowing him to weigh and perform other tasks much quicker and easier than in the past. Photo by Randy Eros.
Graham and Janice have invested in the Ritchie Combi Clamp sheep handling system, and use FarmWorks software for their data management. The Combi Clamp is great for recording weights, and has also made tagging, vaccinating (Glanvac), hoof trimming and sorting all a lot easier. “I figure I’ll be able to keep handling sheep well into my 80’s, no early retirement here,” jokes Graham.
The animals are selected for a number of criteria including average daily gain, conformation, wool quality and breed character. Graham and Janice aim to select the top 10% of the ram lambs and top 30% of the ewe lambs for sale or retention in the flock.
The Rambouillet wool is fine and crimpy. Photo by Randy Eros.
Both flocks have attended and done well at the annual All Canada Sheep Classics, most recently in Humboldt, Saskatchewan in 2019.
Ewe lambs of both breeds are bred to lamb for the first time at two years of age. Graham and Janice find they grow out better this way, and feel that their overall production balances out over the six or seven lambings that most ewes average. The two breeds have similar levels of prolificacy, and lamb out at 160–180%. If enough ewes have triplets, they will create a separate group for them that is run on select pastures and fed a bit of grain. This is the only time when ewes and lambs of both breeds graze together.
Commercial coloured ewes with Rambouillet ancestry allow Graham to sell naturally coloured, fine wool to handspinners. Photo by Randy Eros.
Lambs that don’t make the cut for breeding are marketed through livestock auction yards in Virden, Manitoba or Yorkton, Saskatchewan, both of which are about 75 minutes away. The Border Cheviot lambs finish at 90–110 pounds; the larger-framed Rambouillets can go much higher. But lately Graham has been selecting Rambouillet rams for a lighter mature weight, somewhere around 250–325 pounds, in order to produce finished lambs that are better suited to the Canadian market.
Over the last 20 years, two-thirds of the Rambouillet rams that Graham has used have come out of the US; a few have been sourced in Canada and the rest retained from within the flock. Finding registered Border Cheviot rams to bring into the flock is more difficult. Janice has the largest registered flock in the country and has sold rams coast to coast; finding new, unrelated, genetics can be a challenge. They are working with their local vet to explore the possibility of importing semen for an AI program.
Above: Because wool is a significant part of the income from the flock, Graham is well organized for shearing day. Below: Fleeces are skirted and sorted to maximize the return from the wool. Both photos by Graham Rannie.
Wool quality is an important factor in the selection process for the Rambouillets. Graham’s interest in wool is a reflection of his time as a roustabout in shearing sheds on the other side of the world. Fresh out of high school, he worked on a mixed farm on New Zealand’s North Island, where the one-man operation ran 2,000 ewes, 1,600 hoggets, 300 feeder cattle and 60 breeding cows. In his words, “it exposed this prairie kid to a whole different type of farming.”
From there he went on to spend the next three years working for shearing crews in both New Zealand and Australia. He learned to shear by doing the bellies and crutching, and finishing up the last few sheep in a run. His first real day of shearing came when one of the shearers showed up late and told Graham he was welcome to get started. There was some discussion at the end of the day whether his count was 99 or 101; either way it was a good day’s work that set him up for some custom shearing back home in Canada. A nagging shoulder injury forced Graham to get a shearer in to help out this year, a new thing as he has always done his own before now.
Graham has done some interesting work improving the quality and quantity of wool produced by the Rambouillets. He sends samples to Lisa Surber, of LM Livestock Services in the US, for fibre diameter analysis. The results from the 2021 clip off the yearling ewes are impressive. The average micron count for the 20 samples was 19.40, with the finest measuring 17.48. In Graham’s experience, the count will go up by 1 micron as the animals get older. The fibre diameter for the flock falls between 21 and 23 microns.
Click here to see fibre test results from GRannie yearling ewes in August 2021.
Selection for fleece weight is another important consideration. In 2007, Graham imported a South Dakota ram that added significantly to the fleece weights by increasing both staple length and fibre density. The mature ewes will shear a 12-pound fleece that will skirt down to 7–8 pounds of good wool. The staple length on the yearling samples runs 3–4 inches.
A few years ago Graham purchased some coloured, commercial ewes. By breeding them to his Rambouillet rams he has created a small group of commercial ewes with rich-coloured, well-crimped, fine wool that is perfect for hand spinners and felters. The Rambouillet wool is sold to a number of small mills across the prairies, with some of the best fleeces held back for the craft market. While most producers are struggling to cover the cost of shearing with their wool sales, Graham figures the sale of the Rambouillet wool represents as much as 20% of the income generated from the flock.
Young Border Cheviot and Rambouillet rams are penned together in the winter and fed round bales in collapsible round bale feeders. Photo by Randy Eros.
Managing any purebred sheep flock is a lot of work. The feeding, lambing, record-keeping, shearing, selection and marketing are only a few of the tasks that need to be done. These two shepherds have a wealth of knowledge and no shortage of experience. Graham notes that between the two of them they’ve been shepherds for over a century, and they’re still going.
Randy Eros and Solange Dusablon and their son Michel own and operate Seine River Shepherds near Ste.-Anne, Manitoba.