Story & photos by Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Visiting with the Good family the first week of May was like visiting people who have been raising sheep for a long time. The flock is well-established, with comfortable facilities, well-fed sheep and an impressive level of production. But the Goods just had their third lambing in 2013. How did they get their act together so quickly?
A background in farming and livestock helps. Dean and Bernice have been farming since 1972. Dean ran a small cow/calf operation all his life, until they got the sheep, and milked cows for several years back in the 1970’s. In addition to the sheep, the family currently produces 330,000 broiler chickens per year. Dean is an electrician by trade, and sold and serviced dairy farm equipment for 25 years, which gives him a unique ability to develop equipment for his own operation. Son Cody is home from the oil patch in Alberta, engaged to be married, and also works full time on the farm.
Before investing in sheep, the Goods did their homework. They researched markets for their lamb, including the Northumberlamb Co-op in Truro, Nova Scotia, which was looking for out-of-season lambs. They also visited several large sheep farms in Québec and studied their production systems, including the use of light control. But they didn’t just copy what they saw. They took the information and adapted it to their own situation. Most of the farms they visited in Québec were using light control, with the goal of lambing more often than once a year. The Goods adopted the light control system, but instead of accelerating the flock, decided to lamb only once a year – in the fall. Their flock lambs from mid-October to mid-November, and their lambs are finished in March and April, when there is no waiting at Northumberlamb, and there is a premium of $0.20 per pound on the rail grade price.
The light control program has been very effective for the Goods, a testament to how carefully they have followed the program developed by the CEPOQ research station in La Pocatière. Called the ‘extension’ system, the method involves adding light to make the days longer, rather than confining ewes in lightproof barns to make days shorter. In the Goods’ system, the lights are kept on in the barn through the winter to provide 22 hours of daylength for four months. It doesn’t take a lot of electricity; there are two very efficient, high-pressure fluorescent lights that use 180 watts each, which at $0.12 per kilowatt works out to $28 per month for both lights.
On April 1st, the lights are turned off and the sheep receive only natural daylight for 56 days before the rams go in on May 25th. The sudden decrease from artificially long days to normal spring daylength causes the sheep to cycle. The breeding season lasts for 35 days; the Goods have found that if a ewe doesn’t get pregnant in the first two cycles under this system, she won’t conceive later in the spring either.
The flock consists of purebred Rideau Arcotts (45%) and Dorset x Rideau crosses (55%), all of which were sourced from light-controlled barns in Québec. The ewes have done a good job of conceiving out of season. In their first lambing in 2001, 121 ewes lambed (93% of those exposed; most were first-time lambers). Fertility increased to 98% in 2012, and settled at 96% (including 50 new ewe lambs) in 2013. Ewes are pregnancy-checked by ultrasound 70 days after breeding. Open ewes are transferred to a nearby spring-lambing flock, and synchronized with CIDR’s to lamb in January or February. This farm is also on light control, so the ewes return to the Good farm at the beginning of April and rejoin the flock to be bred for fall lambing. If they fail to conceive again they go back to the neighbour’s, and stay there.
In 2013, the Goods lambed 145 ewes that gave birth to 331 live and six stillborn lambs (2.3 lambs born per ewe lambing). Eleven lambs died after birth, leaving 320 lambs (2.2 per ewe lambing) to be sold. The first 245 were sold in March and April; the remaining 75 were scheduled for shipment on May 15th.
The Goods farm 120 acres of land. They produce 1,300-1,400 round bales (4’x4.5’) of haylage each year. With the ewes being fed 12 months a year, they use around 450 bales themselves; the rest is sold to a local farmer with 300 ewes, and elsewhere.
The sheep are housed year-round in the former cow barn, which is naturally ventilated, bright and airy. It has been modified for sheep by removing most of the hayloft that used to run down the centre of the barn. When I visited, it was set up with three 13’ x 56’ pens and three more that were 13’ x 48’. These can be subdivided into as many as 22 smaller pens if needed, all with access to water from seven automatic water bowls. The six pens are arranged around two raised feed alleys running the length of the barn, one along the north side and the other about a third of the way in from the south side. Another alleyway divides the barn in half crosswise.
When I visited, the ewes were eating haylage from round bale feeders designed and built by the Goods. During the breeding season, they each get a half-pound of grain as well.
During lambing, claiming pens are set up in the back of the big pens. The round bale feeders are removed and haylage is fed from bales suspended off the ground in the feed alleys. Very early haylage is put up for this time of year (and for breeding). The temperature of the barn is kept above freezing year-round, so water is easily delivered to claiming pens by hoses connectd to pipes strung along the rafters of the barn.
Grain feeding begins again a week before lambing, with a mix of grain and protein supplement pellets, starting off at one pound per day and increasing to two or 2.5 pounds per day, depending on the number of lambs.
Like all sheep producers, the Goods have some sheep that work harder than others. Dean is working to adapt technology from the dairy industry for use by sheep so that he can give individual ewes extra feed over and above what the rest are getting. These ewes wear a neck collar with an RFID tag attached to it. The RIFD tag identifies them to a computer that is connected to an automatic feeding stall, which will hold only one ewe at a time. When a ewe with a neck collar steps into the feeding stall, the computer releases a preset amount of feed. When a ewe with no neck collar steps into the feeding stall, nothing happens. The system is still in a very early stage of development, but will be valuable for managing the high-producing ewes in the flock when it is ready.
Ewes that give birth to three or four lambs are given the opportunity to raise all of them, but the Goods raise 30-40 lambs artificially each year. There is some re-sorting of the ewes when they come out of the claiming pens, based on the number of lambs they have. Ewes with three or four lambs end up in one of the two pens that are close to the Lak-Tek automatic milk replacer feeder, in case they need to go on the machine. Most of the lambs are weaned at six weeks of age but those on milk replacer are weaned after reaching 20 pounds.
Lambs have access to a commercial creep feed crumble from birth to weaning, and are fed on a mixture of corn, barley, oats, and a protein supplement pellet after weaning. Lamb rations have Bovatech™ added, to prevent coccidiosis. The lambs are also fed second-cut haylage in the feed alleys.
The barn gets a little crowded after weaning when the lambs are growing, so the Goods move 50 of the ewes to a nearby hay barn, where they can also receive additional light. The sheep barn is cleaned out every two months. The Goods trade manure from their sheep and chickens for grain with local farmers.
The Goods are ready adopters of RFID technology. Lambs are tagged at birth with RFID tags and Cody uses a Psion to collect lambing data in the barn and transfer it to the computer in the house. Having tried a few software packages, Cody decided that the Select Sheepware® software from Ireland best suited their needs. Lambing information, health records and weekly lamb weights are entered into the system, as well as the carcass and price data on individual lambs that comes back from Northumberlamb. Cody uses the software to generate reports showing which rams and ewes have produced the lambs with the best GR measurements and conformation scores, and have made the most money. They don’t need this information to select replacements, however. The Goods buy in their replacements from Québec, which keeps them in touch with the people who got them started on their breeding program. Because they come from light-controlled barns, the purchased ewe lambs are already on the Goods’ schedule when they arrive. Buying in replacements also means that the entire flock can be bred to rams of terminal sire breeds, which helps with their goal of producing leaner lambs. They have used Canadian Arcott, Ile de France, Texel and Charollais rams, and plan to add a Suffolk this year. Breeding in the spring requires more rams; the Goods use one for every 25 ewes. Rams are kept on the same light schedule as the ewes, but in a different barn.
Most of the lambs go to Northumberlamb, where the target is a 54-pound carcass. A few are sold locally as freezer lambs, and this year a number went to the auction in Cookstown, Ontario. With a 10% shrink, these lambs averaged 102 pounds in Cookstown and returned $215-$222 each. Weekly trucking is available from the island to both Nova Scotia and Ontario; it costs $12 to ship a lamb to Truro and $14 to Cookstown. The Goods are exploring all the options for marketing their lambs, and recently attended an information session for the Canadian Lamb Producers Cooperative that was held on the island. The Goods are fortunate to have their shearer live nearby as their ewes get sheared twice a year, before breeding and lambing. Feet are trimmed once a year, before breeding. Like many island sheep farmers, they get help from the veterinary college in Charlottetown, both at lambing and at other times. The Goods want to know what caused every single death, so lambs that die are taken for post mortem inspection at the UPEI veterinary lab.
The Good family is off to a great start with their sheep flock. The time they spent doing research before getting started, combined with hard work and innovation has produced a very workable system for their situation. They may expand in the future, but are in no hurry, as they wish to plan carefully to use their labour as efficiently as possible.