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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.
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.
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 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.
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.