Story by Randy Eros

Above: Valerie Garber leads the flock of 1300 Corriedale ewes and lambs to new pasture. Below: Joseph Moilliet working the back of the flock. Photos by Randy Eros 

The last few kilometers of the drive to the Aveley Ranch, two hours north of Kamloops, would be easier if it weren’t so beautiful. Tucked in between the North Thompson River and Vavenby Mountain you are faced with the hard choice of keeping your eyes on the winding road or staring at the scenery; I cheated and did a bit of both.

When I knew my travel plans were going to put me in British Columbia, I called Valerie Garber (Moilliet) of the Aveley Ranch to set up a visit. She and her brother Ian have been the driving force of this family farm for a very long time and it came as a surprise when the first thing she said was “You’ll want to talk to Joseph, Ian’s son, he’s really in charge now.” Though Joseph has taken on the role of manager it is clear that this is still very much a family operation.

The visit was a wonderful combination of coffee and history, moving some sheep, dinner and the following morning more sheep moving. The ranch has been in the family since it was homesteaded by Joseph’s great grandfather Tam Moilliet in 1905. Joseph’s grandfather, Jack was only 16 when his father’s early death in 1935 left him in charge of what had become BC’s largest sheep farm. Jack and his wife Alice had four children: Jacqueline, June, Ian and Valerie. Ian and his wife Karen partnered with his parents and would eventually take over. With his sister Valerie, they were the next generation to manage the farm. And now we’re onto the fourth generation, Joseph and his wife Cadence McRae.

Joseph is by no means alone in running the ranch. His parents, Ian and Karen still live on the farm as does his aunt Valerie and her husband John. Valerie and John’s house was the center of activity while I visited. Isaac, Joseph’s younger brother, is also full time on the farm.

Photo by Sheep Canada

The flock lambs out in April and by May is out on the mountain side grazing. The total flock, split evenly between ewes and lambs, is sitting at 1300 head. They have a small paddock that is set up next to rows of 6’x4’ claiming pens, 150 pens in total. The ewes and lambs will spend a day or two in the pen before being run through a step-down pen with a few ewes and then into larger groups. The ewes with twins are put in a separate group so they are easier to keep an eye on. Eventually the whole flock is sent out to pasture.

The lambs are docked in the claiming pen and all but select rams are castrated with rings. Lambs won’t get their CSIP tags till they leave the farm, but there is a customized tagging system for both ewes and lambs that is applied in the claiming pens. One colour for a ewe if she lambs at one year of age, a different colour for having twins. Lambs born as twins are also tagged (these are also paint branded), and finally another colour for all ram lambs that are left intact.

Photo by Sheep Canada

The ewe lambs are all exposed to lamb at a year of age and usually 20 to 30 % will catch. “This is very weather dependent” said Valerie as we toured the lambing area, “if we’ve had a really mild winter and good grazing we can see as high as an 80% catch.” There is no grain fed to the flock and hardiness is one of their selection criteria, along with twining, early maturity and longevity. “There are plenty of 10 year old ewes in the flock.”

The rams are turned in with the ewes for 60 days but 90% of the flock lambs within the first three weeks. They will do a bag check after three weeks and cull the open ewes. These ewes will end up being processed and sold for pet food into the Kamloops market.

The flock returns to the yard for shearing later in May. The ewes and lambs are separated to make the whole process easier. Joseph does some of the shearing himself but they get help in to get the job done quickly. Dave Carson and his crew of shearers help to make a pretty quick job of it. The Corriedale wool is fine and the skirted fleeces weigh between 7-9 lb each. Joseph is not shy about hanging on to the wool if prices are low, “We have the room to keep the wool dry and secure, we have held wool for three or four years before shipping.” The Moilliet family started shipping wool to the Canadian Cooperative Wool Growers the year it was established, 1918.

The flock will be brought back in again in early summer so the lambs can be dewormed. They have used both Ivomec and Valbazen. The flock continues to graze throughout the summer and early fall. In 2019, through the BC Environmental Farm Plan the ranch was able to secure funding for 4 km of new fencing. In the last few years that has extended to 10km of new fencing, including part of a gas pipeline right-of-way. When he started planning for the new fences Joseph wanted an alternative to the standard treated post. “The posts weren’t holding up so I started to look for options.” This led him to the Timeless Fence System, an American company based out of Tennessee. His own operation required enough fencing supplies that he qualified as a reseller for the company. Now he works with local producers to plan their fencing projects and provide the equipment.

By the end of September, the lambs are ready for market. On average 100 lambs will be direct marketed each year with the rest sold to a lamb buyer, usually going to Roger Albers out of Alberta. The ewes will continue to graze standing, stockpiled hay as long as the weather allows, usually well into December.

Joseph sees himself as a grass farmer. “There was a point when the grain prices went up and the lamb prices went down, so we stopped feeding grain. It’s all grass now.” Of their 2000 acres of land Joseph deems 800 of it as grazeable: open grazing land of 400 acres and another 400 of forest grazing. In the bottom of the valley there is another 110 acres of hayland where they make both small square and large round bales. “We like to graze it first and then bale up the 2nd cut.” There is a strong market for small square bales in their area. Some years it can be more economical to sell square bales and bring in large round bales for the sheep from the Peace River area. Back-to-back droughts in 2003 and 2004 taught the Moilliets that, if you can manage it, a two-year supply of hay is a good idea.

Above-Left: Joseph moving ewes through the claiming pens, photo by Valerie Gerber. Above: Maureen Kelly working the flock as it moves to the night pen, photo by Randy Eros

In 2020 Joseph diversified by adding beef cattle to the operation. Just 10 cows with a bull for now. They graze in the lower part of the property. They will have their first grass fed beef available for sale this year. “I see the cattle as another tool we can use to harvest the grass,” he noted, adding “they make a great rotation for parasite management.” The flock of 25 Corriedale rams spends the summer grazing the rough bush areas along the hay fields.

We moved the flock twice while I was visiting. The first evening Valerie took a few minutes to organize the work party before we headed out. Maureen Kelly, a local woman who helps out on the ranch saddled up her horse and headed out ahead of us. Valerie and I had made the five-minute drive up to the grazing flock where I got to meet the other shepherd, Aliette Pabit. Aliette is a 2nd year student from Toulouse University in France. She is on the ranch from July through September as a practicum experience for her agriculture degree. The flock needed to be pushed from the grazing area into their night pen, a few acres of electric netting that will help keep them safe from predators. This is an evening ritual that needs a little organizing but once the flock gets moving doesn’t seem to take much time at all.

Along with the sheep, the shepherds and the horse, there are a few dogs involved. The ever-present border collies push from behind with Maureen and Aliette; the team of 5 livestock guardian dogs (Maremma and Great Pyrenees) moving just ahead of the flock looking for trouble. Valerie leads the whole affair with a soft voice and a keen eye. The move was only about 20 minutes of walking but there are still dogs to feed, salt and mineral to be put out for the sheep, waterers to be checked and the fencer must be turned on for the night. The Moillets use Hi-Pro, salt free, 1-1 sheep mineral. They mix that with equal parts salt and feed it in wooden troughs made from cedar planks. “We use water softener salt; it doesn’t seem to absorb the humidity as quickly and is no more expensive” remarked Joseph.

Over the years the flock had grazed high alpine forest pastures that were a long way from home. They still graze forest pastures but they are much closer to home now. “We started to lose too many lambs to wolves,” lamented Joseph. As the forest infringed on the alpine meadows the forests got thicker and predation got worse. “The sheep were no longer just an occasional meal; they had become the wolves’ main food source.” The livestock guardian dogs were unable to adequately protect the flock in these heavily treed, remote forest grazing areas.

Photo by Sheep Canada

I learned a few new things while we walked the flock to their night pen. Sheep respond really well to a half a dozen tin cans strung out on a coat hanger or a piece of wire bent into a small circle. It makes a great rattle and is very effective when you want to push a flock along. I saw this unique tool everywhere: the horse’s saddle, the side mirror on Valerie’s truck and on a number of gate posts. The whole crew were using them. I also learnt a new term from Valerie, “When we are grazing the flock, we have to make sure they get a chance to ‘flop’ four or five times a day.” She was talking about needing to let the sheep stop and ruminate, or ‘flop’ down and rest. “If you just keep driving them to new grass all day long, they don’t get a chance to digest.”

These mountain pastures, along with the hayland at the bottom of the valley, is all irrigated with a complex network of pipes and sprinkler heads. They used to do flood irrigation on the hayland but by 2015 this was all converted to sprinklers. The irrigation is gravity fed from three creeks that flow into the valley. By reducing the size of the pipe as the water flows downhill you build enough pressure to operate the sprinkler heads. There are 200 sprinkler heads in the system. Draining the lines and blowing out the sprinklers takes two days, a task that needs to be done every fall before the cold weather sets in.

We moved the sheep again the following morning, from their night pen into a large pasture/hay field adjacent to the farmyard. This was part of bringing the flock in to deworm the lambs in the upcoming week. This was a bit longer of a drive and walked the flock past the shearing shed, sorting yards and loading corrals. All of these facilities are built with lumber harvested from the Aveley Ranch forests over the years. I asked Joseph about how the wood harvest fit into their operation. “You want to have a good forester to help you manage your annual allotment.” Along with that, Joseph added “We have as much timber land as we do agricultural land and I see the potential in improving both the forest and the pasture.” The value of the forest can be seen everywhere on the property; our drive out to see the Ranch’s saw mill took us through a tree-planters summer camp.

Moving the sheep with Joseph and Valerie gave me a real insight into the day-to-day operations of the Aveley Ranch. Equally important for me was the time spent with Ian Moilliet. Ian’s love for his family, the land and the sheep was so evident in all that he shared. Ian’s book, The Shepherd’s Heart, gives a wonderful insight into the Moilliet family history and how they farm. And more than a little insight into Ian.

Valerie does a great job of keeping folks up to date with the ranch activities through her Facebook page (Valerie Gerber). She is an excellent photographer with an eye for the beauty of the land and the flock.

As Joseph and I finished up our visit he pointed over towards his new house, smiling proudly. It is almost finished and he and Cadence should be all moved in by Christmas. The view is spectacular. From where we were standing, we could see the flock grazing. I asked Joseph about the A-frame shed in the pasture and he said “That’s one of the oldest buildings on the property; 1905 maybe 1906, we still use it to store hay.” So, a new house for this new generation and a sturdy old hayshed as a reminder of where they’ve come from.