By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Photos by Tracy Hagedorn
Back in 2008, Bernadette Nikkel and Darlene Stein bought a small flock of 30 ewes and shared it, so that each of them had something to use to train their Border Collies. Four years later, they and their families are lambing nearly 800 ewes on pasture at their homes northwest of Edmonton, Alberta.
Bernadette and her husband Rod own and operate Dry Lake Ranch near Pickardville, Alberta (east of Barrhead), where they run 200 cows and 350 ewes. They have five children, Samuel (13), Abigail (12), Rebekah (10), Hannah (8) and Grace (6), whom they homeschool. Darlene and her husband Rudy live 45 minutes away on Oxbow Ranch (west of Barrhead), which is home to 400 ewes and 20 cows (the remainder of a larger herd sold to make room for the sheep). Rudy and Darlene’s children, Shey (21), Conner (20) and Lexi (11) were/are also homeschooled. Shey got married just as lambing was beginning this year, and will be farming in the area with her husband. Rod and Rudy grew up together, so the two families have been friends for a long time.
The Nikkels farm 2,200 acres in total; 400 acres is cropland and the rest is split between hay and pasture. The Steins are farming just over 160 acres, and would buy more land in the area if it was available.
Farming is the priority for both families. Rod and Bernadette are full time farmers. Darlene is “the lucky one” on their operation, who gets to stay at home and work with the animals. Rudy supplements the operation driving his own gravel truck, but he subcontracts to other drivers much of the time so he can be available whenever he is needed, especially at lambing time. Conner works part time so that he can help at home and build his own flock.
Both families enjoyed lambing their dog sheep in 2009 and so went on to purchase more, with the goal of getting up to 100 ewes so they could participate in the Alberta Lamb Traceability Project.
Rod and Bernadette’s purchases over the next two years included a flock of registered Canadian Arcotts from Saskatchewan, a small group of Ile de France x Polypay cross ewe lambs from the Peace Country in Alberta and another group of Polypays from British Columbia. Rudy and Darlene bought an entire flock of Rambouillets from Saskatchewan. They bred them to Rideau Arcott rams and this cross now makes up half their flock.
Both flocks have grown rapidly. In 2011, the Nikkels lambed 375 ewes, the majority of which were ewe lambs. They did some culling and kept some ewe lambs, and wintered 350 ewes this year. The Steins are lambing 400 head in 2012, about a third of which are ewe lambs.
Given the size of their flocks, an affordable winter feeding program is critical. By sampling and testing all of their feeds and having rations carefully balanced, they make sure the nutritional requirements of the ewes are met at a reasonable cost.
The Nikkel ewes get a mixture of low moisture oat-barley silage, oat hulls and a protein supplement. This is fed every three or four days into bunks out in the field, where they also have access to rolled-out round bales of pea straw. The ration for the ewe lambs is equal parts of oat hulls, ground hay and whole oats, with the addition of a 36% protein supplement. The Stein ewes are wintered on a blend of tub ground hay and straw, while the ewe lambs get good hay with a small amount of grain. All rations in both flocks are carefully balanced with salt, minerals and vitamins.
Both operations make their feeding programs work by monitoring the ewes with frequent condition scoring. If a mature ewe loses condition, she is pulled out and fed with the ewe lambs. If she goes on to have three lambs, she is forgiven; if she doesn’t, she is marked so that none of her lambs are kept as replacements, or she is culled.
When speaking about the ideal ewe, Bernadette and Darlene emphasize the same traits – easy keeping and a strong maternal instinct. Ewes must be able to adapt to the feeding program and stay with their lambs and keep them together on the pasture.
Bernadette is particularly impressed with her Canadians. Although they had never lambed on pasture in their previous home, they seem very well suited to the Nikkels’ system. She finds them to be prolific, easy keepers who stay with their newborn lambs on pasture, even when approached by a human or dog. The lambs get up and suck quickly, and gain well on grass. Lambing in April of 2010, the mature Canadians dropped 210%. With the move to late May/June lambing in 2011, the percentage dropped to 188%.
The Ile de France x Polypay crosses have gotten quieter this year, and are delivering good-sized twins and triplets as two-year-olds. Rod and Bernadette plan to continue with Ile de France rams, and breed them to the upper end of their commercial ewes; the crosses will then be bred to Canadian rams.
The Steins are happy with their Rambouillets. They find the ewes to be aggressive mothers that paw their lambs and get them to their feet soon after birth. They have also been surprisingly prolific, dropping 180% overall in 2011. But Rudy and Darlene want to push the prolificacy a little closer to 200%, and also reduce the frame size of the ewes. So for the last two years the Rambouillets have been bred to Rideau Arcott rams. The ½ Rideaus produced a 150% lamb crop in 2011 as ewe lambs, but this year are giving birth to more twins and triplets, which are sired by Canadian Arcott rams. The Steins hope to get lambs with better growth rates from this three-way cross, but also plan to keep some of them to try out as ewes in their system.
In growing their flocks, both families bought sheep from a number of sources, some of which worked out better than others. Some have had too many singles, others cannot stay in condition on their feeding programs and others do not stick close enough to their lambs. Both families use FarmWorks software to monitor the performance of their sheep. The software ranks the ewes on their productivity, using weaning weights and other data. This allows for identification of ewes or groups of ewes that are not carrying their weight; these can then be moved out to make room for home-bred ewe lambs that are a better fit for the production system.
Both families identify themselves as grass farmers, and think of the sheep as tools to harvest their crop. And both have strategies that allow them to pasture their animals well into the fall of the year. Although Rudy and Darlene purchase most of their hay, both families have the equipment to clip, or put up as hay, any paddocks where the forage gets ahead of the sheep.
Dry Lake Ranch sits on an old lake bottom; when it rains, the grass growth is “phenomenal”. The 120 acres of sheep pasture is split into a minimum of eight paddocks, which are grazed in rotation. Paddocks are rested for 25-30 days after their first grazing and 40 days after the second. This program keeps the ewes and lambs supplied with grass into the month of November, and minimizes the amount of grain required to finish lambs or flush ewes.
The Steins also have low land that produces a lot of grass. They have 15 separate paddocks, and move the sheep on a schedule determined by the year, rainfall and forage species. About one-quarter of their grazing is a mix of alfalfa and orchardgrass. They have learned to manage grazing it to avoid bloat, moving the animals daily and making sure they are not hungry when they go into an alfalfa paddock. They also plant two paddocks of cereals such as oats or fall rye for the lambs to graze after weaning. The residue of these fields is being grazed by the lambing ewes this spring, who seem to prefer it to the grass paddocks they also have access to.
Ewe lambs are housed and fed separately from mature ewes during the winter in both flocks, but managed with them on pasture. The Nikkels have talked about separating them, but find the pasture rotation becomes much more difficult to manage with more groups. Darlene says that separating their ewes and ewe lambs on pasture would require splitting the available guard dogs into two groups, reducing their effectiveness.
Similarly, there is no systematic ‘drifting’ of the unlambed ewes away from the ewes with lambs each day, as is the practice in other pasture lambing flocks. When it is time to change paddocks, the entire flock is moved. If a ewe has just given birth and is still bonding with her lambs, she is allowed to remain behind and catch up with the rest of the flock the next day.
Ewes that give birth to three lambs in either flock are given a chance to raise them. In the Nikkel flock, ewes with three lambs are put into claiming pens for a few days, either right in the pasture or in one of the calf shelters that Rod has hauled onto the pasture. From there, they will move into a separate pasture close to the yard, where the ewes can be supplemented with grain and the lambs offered soybean meal in a creep.
Both Rod and Bernadette enjoy the opportunity to observe the behaviour of the ewes and lambs on pasture. Bernadette says the problem with ewes raising three lambs is not that they can’t meet their nutritional requirements on grass, but the difficulty of keeping three lambs together.
Rudy and Darlene house their ewes with triplets in a pen in the yard, and give them a chance to raise all three lambs, at least for a while. When the lambs are big enough, they may remove one and send the ewe out to the pasture with the other two for the rest of the summer.
Last year, both families tagged and used rubber rings to dock and castrate at birth except when it was raining, when they delayed for a few days so as not to add to the lambs’ stress. The rubber rings created a problem when some ewes with twins wandered off with their female lamb while their male lamb lay writhing on the ground after being ringed. This year, they plan to tag the lambs at birth, and dock them with a hot docker when they are older. Darlene has researched this equipment and found a propane-powered model from Australia that can be used out on the pasture. The families will share the unit, and the cost of approximately $600.
The Steins do not plan to castrate any lambs this year. The Nikkels are “playing it by ear”. They will castrate any lambs that go into claiming pens and, when the weather is good, catch and ring lambs that are up and doing well as they come across them in the pasture.
Both families wean their lambs at the end of summer, with the exact dates determined by the weather, the growth of the grass and, for the Nikkels, by the timing of the fall harvest.
The Nikkel lambs get weaned onto a fresh piece of grass that has been saved for that purpose. Last year, they were brought into the yard and fed grain in the evening and again in the morning, before being turned back out onto pasture for the day. This year, with more mature guard dogs on the job, they plan to wean at the end of September and keep the lambs on pasture day and night, where they will also feed them grain. The biggest lambs will finish on grass and the rest will be brought into the yard and fed grain and hay.
The Stein lambs will be weaned at the end of August and graze on oats or fall rye until late September or early October. Toward the end of this period they will also be offered some grain, so that when they are moved into the yard the only change in their diet will be the addition of hay. Rudy and Darlene find the lambs do not do well when kept in very large groups, so they will sort them into pens of no more than 200 male or female lambs. Both ewe flocks will continue to graze until the last half of November.
Another piece of equipment the two families are considering sharing is a microscope. They have each had problems with barber pole worms in the past, which they have dealt with by more regular worming. But they would prefer to worm only when it is really necessary, rather than on a predetermined schedule. To do this, they will learn to examine fecal samples themselves and run them prior to each move to a new paddock. The microscope could also be used by the children for their science studies.
Both families marketed their lambs in December and January in 2012. The Nikkel lambs averaged 115 lb. and sold for an average price of $1.85/lb., while the Stein lambs sold for $1.82/lb. at an average weight of 120 lb.
Whenever I think about a large flock lambing on pasture, I always wonder about the weather. May snowstorms are not uncommon in Alberta, but even a couple of days of rain could cause problems. Bernadette finds that lambs whose mothers have enough colostrum and who lick them off vigorously do just fine, even in wet weather. But she acknowledges that bad weather means they all spend more time with the sheep. Making the rounds with a supply of dry towels and colostrum, she dries and/or feeds any lamb that looks like it needs it. Severely chilled lambs are brought in to the barn for warming in a hotbox, and then returned to the ewe. The ewe may be brought in as well in some cases. She concludes by saying that, although they may have to work hard for a few days when the weather is bad in May and June, they used to work that hard every day when they were calving in winter.
Large flocks that spend most of the time outside the yard require a lot of four-footed assistance. Both families rely on several guardian dogs to protect their animals while on pasture. And they must have found some time along the way to work with the Border Collies they acquired the sheep for, because they both have good dogs that accompany them on lambing checks and help when a ewe needs to be caught or kept near her lambs. The Steins have had a problem this year with ravens attacking newborn lambs. The dogs have not been 100% effective against the ravens and the Steins are still seeking a solution for this problem.
Both the Nikkel and Stein flocks have grown rapidly since 2008, and have high proportions of very young ewes. As the sheep mature in the next few years, they are likely to produce even more lambs, and this will create new opportunities and new challenges for both farms. But with the commitment of each member of their respective families, their willingness to learn and adapt as they move forward, and the support and help they receive from each other, it seems likely that Dry Lake Ranch and Oxbow Ranch will meet those challenges and continue to contribute to the Canadian sheep industry for some time.