Story & photos by Rob Fensom

I have lived in Canada for 30 summers now, having spent roughly half my time on the prairies and half in the southern interior of British Columbia. Most of that time I have been ranching, and one thing that is often glaringly obvious is the mismatching of livestock to location.

Hailing from Britain as I do, where every county or area has its specific breed of sheep, cow, pig, duck or chicken, I find it strange that folks here buy with the heart not the head, keeping the breeds they like even if they are ill suited to the area where they live. This seems to be a bigger problem with small farms than with larger-scale operations. Of course, it’s probably easier to ignore the financial lesson being doled out by owning tropical sheep on a bald prairie with eight months of winter when you have only 20, rather than 200 or 2,000 animals.

It’s always easier to spot our neighbours’ mistakes than our own, so to begin with I will use Britain as an example. No shepherd there would dream of taking Dorset ewes up to the highlands of Scotland and swapping them for Scottish Blackface ewes to take back to the rolling fertile pastures of Dorset County. The Blackface ewes would become overly fat, with many not breeding, and those that did would end up with more lambs than they knew what to do with, along with many foot problems and a few cases of bloat. The Dorsets in Scotland would no doubt lose condition, some would not breed, and many that normally have twins would only have singles. All of the above would make for stressed sheep, stressed shepherds and empty bank accounts.

Sheep Canada

Now to bring this closer to home, I will use my own experience as the bad example. Remember, you know nothing without experience, and the man who hasn’t made any mistakes probably didn’t do a lot either. The trick is to learn by other’s mistakes, it’s a lot cheaper!

I used to ranch in southern Manitoba, we ran sheep, cattle and goats. The sheep were mostly Dorset/Suffolk crosses and suited for our area and management. Then one day I went and fell in love with Columbias, a huge wool breed with lambs that finish at 140 pounds, with lovely fine wool and a low lambing percentage that often goes hand in hand with easy care sheep. Not only did I pick a breed that was ill suited to our economic needs and management style, but I hauled them in from Maple Creek, Saskatchewan (a dry, short-grass area) into a moist park-like setting with grass up to our underwear.

I thought our plentiful grass would increase the lamb crop, but it was like lettuce compared to the granola-like, nutrient-dense stuff in Maple Creek. No extra lambs appeared the next spring, and over two years the wool clip value dropped as the wool became coarse, going from the fineness of silk to the thickness of bristles on a wire brush. It took four years of denial before I smartened up and got rid of the Columbias. As Red on television’s That 70s Show would say, “what a dumbass”. Buying breeds with the heart instead of the head will do that to a fellow.

Now I’m not telling you to sell off your sweethearts and study up on climate, grass and livestock to get a winning combination. But if you want to improve your bottom line, and even with all your tender loving care your gals are not coming up with the goods, maybe it’s time to do a little investigating. Believe me, it’s quicker to destock and buy the right breed than try to upgrade a breed that is a poor fit.

These days we ranch in British Columbia and rotationally graze irrigated pasture. This requires a high degree of management and needs a good return for all the labour of moving electric net fencing and irrigation pipes.

The mothering-up paddock in April, grazing started on April 29th in 2009.

The mothering-up paddock in April, grazing started on April 29th in 2009.

In playing with breeds, I bought in older ewes from small flocks that were being sold. There is some disease risk to doing this, but it has worked out well. We got Dorsets, Romneys and Suffolks. Our pastures are lush and green, and are grazed four to six times a season, so we need a breed that can make good use of these conditions.

The Dorsets and Romneys are coming up trumps, as the conditions here are similar to where these breeds come from. The Suffolks are not doing as well, unless their lambs are sired by the Dorset ram – the Dorset genetics seem to make better use of the grass. Romneys are also a lush grass-type animal, with the added bonus of worm and footrot resistance, as they come from Romney Marsh, a wet lowland in Kent, England.

The Suffolks hail from a grain-growing area of England, and were used to clean up crop land in the fall, and no doubt became accustomed to some grain. The ones I had seemed to be poor milkers on grass, and their lambs did not do as well as the other two breeds, so they had to go. They have now been sold, not because they were bad sheep (they did 175%), but because their lambs in our system did not finish on grass, which is what we require.

So remember, no rash moves, but take a closer look at where your breed comes from and do some looking at your pasture type and weather records. Maybe it’s time to end that love affair and start shepherding with your head. Your bank account will thank you for it.


Rob Fensom ranches in the southern interior of British Columbia and is a grazing mentor to those in need. He has been known to graze any type of critter for a buck.