By Kathleen Raines
It was a frosty day as I headed down the aptly named ‘roller coaster road’ to Morning View Farm, with ice fog blanking out the deep valleys and shrouding the driveway until I was almost past it. The farm site is an old one for rural Alberta – the house was built in 1921, and moved to its present location in 1928.
When Claude and Debbie Delisle first saw the quarter-section in the early fall of 2004, they fell in love with the view to the east over rolling hills to the tiny village of Elnora and beyond, but they knew they had their work cut out for them. They purchased the farm in October of that same year and negotiated possession of the neglected outbuildings one month prior, to get started on cleanup before snowfall. Claude is a skilled electrician and, with the help of his father, he undertook the first stage of renovations and upgrades that would make the house livable for their family and the buildings suitable for livestock.
Sheep were not part of the original plan for the farm. Claude grew up on a farm in Ontario (his father raised sheep, but lost the barn and stock in a fire when Claude was very young) and studied livestock production at Olds College. Debbie was raised on a dairy farm in Manitoba and was working in Olds when the couple met. Married in 1999, their family grew to include Hannah in 2000, Naomi in 2001 and Jaclyn in 2004.
The simple desire to live in the country hinged on Claude’s goal of raising cattle and Debbie’s dream of working with horses. Ten cows were purchased in spring 2005, and work on the buildings and fences continued.
Then Debbie made a fateful phone call in response to an ad on the local radio station – four Suffolk-type ewes and a ram were for sale. The sheep hadn’t been shorn in years so Debbie undertook the slow, painful process of shearing them by hand.
While that initial purchase wasn’t very productive – the ewes didn’t lamb and ended up being sold for meat – it did shift the Delisle’s thinking to the potential of lamb production. They met neighbouring shepherds Vera and Bill Mokoski of Treco Ranch, who were retiring and selling their established flock of purebred Danish Texels and Texel-Romanov crosses.
They purchased a small group of bred females from the Mokoskis in 2006 and lambed their first 18 ewes in 2007. Vera coached Debbie through that first lambing, and acted as her mentor while she completed the Green Certificate program in sheep production.
By 2008 the flock had grown to 40 females, the cattle were sold, and the Delisles had made the decision to “go big in sheep”. Their goal is to have the sheep support the family, with Claude having the flexibility to take on occasional contract work as an electrician. Being able to involve their daughters in the operation is an added benefit, and all three are building their own flocks and involved in daily chores.
The purebred Texels remain integral to the operation, generating income through sales of purebred and high-percentage rams, but Claude realized that they needed a more prolific maternal ewe to produce the 1,100-1,200 lambs called for each year in the business plan. His research on the Cornell system of accelerated lambing led to the Polypay as offering natural out-of-season breeding potential, good maternal traits and consistent twinning. According to Claude’s research, the additional advantages of the Polypay include strong flocking instinct and the demonstrated success of the Texel-Polypay cross in the United States. Their farm goal is to run 500 to 600 females, lambing 200 every eight months.
The year 2009 was one of transition, and sourcing the Polypay breeding stock was the major challenge. Unable to find the number of females they needed, they booked ewe lambs from two breeders in southern Alberta to be delivered over the next two years.
Only one of the two old barns on the farm site, formerly used for hogs, was salvageable; the hip-roofed barn was reluctantly bulldozed. The 30’ x 40’ hog barn became the lambing barn, and the first of three wood-arch tarped shelters, this one measuring 30’ x 72’, was erected nearby. Claude mounted the waterers on the outside walls to increase the flexibility of the space, which is used at various times of the year for lambing jugs, mothering pens, equipment housing and feed storage. A second, measuring 30’ x 45’, provides machinery and feed storage and a third, 30’ x 72’, was erected this year to house the new Racewell handling system and lamb feeding pens.
Both Debbie and Claude take advantage of every learning opportunity that comes their way; I originally met them both at an Alberta Lamb Producers’ seminar. Claude, in particular, is always researching new and better ways to raise and market their lambs. The Delisle’s participation in the Alberta Lamb Traceability project has allowed them to access funding to partially offset the cost of their handling system, Psion tag reader and FarmWorks software.
All of this year’s lambs were marketed through Sunterra Meats, a short half-hour drive away. Debbie feels they are establishing a good relationship with the plant and getting a fair price for their lambs.
Given the fact that Morning View Farm is still very much in a growth phase, it’s understandable that the couple’s learning curve has been steep. Debbie finds that each year presents them with a new challenge.
During their first lambing, the highly prolific Romanov-cross ewes showed signs of pregnancy toxaemia. Grain overload, chilled lambs and, this past year, high mortality in the bottle lambs have been issues, but each year the operation continues to grow and reward the couple sufficiently that they remain committed to their farm goals.
Debbie has taken on a new challenge this fall, letting her name stand as a director with the Alberta Sheep Breeders’ Association.
Like many Alberta shepherds the Delisles have struggled to find shearers, and part of their learning plan has involved each of them completing the Alberta Lamb Producers’ shearing school. Following Debbie’s ‘graduation’ in early 2010, she and Claude purchased a new professional shearing system for use on their own flock and to generate additional off-farm income. Debbie reports that she sheared 17 head on her best day to date, and as a shearing school classmate, I can attest that she does a very neat job.
The farm has roughly 100 acres of arable land and 20 acres each of bush and native pasture. Water is abundant and is fed to outlying pastures in the summer by surface lines with valves every 200 feet. Claude is gradually upgrading the fence with the addition of page wire on the perimeter and six strands of barbed wire on internal lines. One of Hannah’s summer jobs last year was shepherding, holding the ewes off the greenfeed while Claude fenced. Most of Claude’s machinery, older and smaller-scale, was given to him but has worked well. Annual pastures generally include some fall rye for early season grazing and have easy access to the barns and pens for water and security for ewes with young lambs. Turnips were successfully used this year for the first time to flush ewes and finish lambs. Coyote losses haven’t been a major problem so far, but a variety of security measures including two guard dogs and a llama are in place, supported by ongoing improvements to fences.
The original plan for flock expansion has been modified as Claude has been busier than anticipated with off-farm work, leaving Debbie to manage the daily tasks alone. They lambed 113 ewes this year and now have 50 more Polypay ewe lambs and a handful of additional purebred Texels. Finding unrelated stock of both breeds has been a problem, and the new Texels were brought in from Ontario. They now have 195 ewes bred to lamb in two groups in 2011.
Claude’s dream of cattle is but a memory, but Debbie keeps her interest in horses alive with Acorn, the Norwegian Fjord pony she is training. Full time jobs, a full time sheep operation and a busy young family don’t leave much time for play, but Debbie is happy to report that Acorn is coming along very well.
Kathleen Raines raises Rideau Arcotts and F1 crosses near Spruce View, Alberta.