By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
When I travelled to Elginburg, Ontario, in early July to meet with Jim Bennett of Benacres Farms, I got to meet the whole family – Jim and his wife Chantelle; his parents, Ed and Maria; and Jim and Chantelle’s children, Josh (18), Heather (14) and Andrew (12). As we visited, I learned that the sheep are a relatively new enterprise for them, after more than 75 years of dairy farming by Jim’s grandfather, father and uncle. Jim grew up on the farm and attended Kemptville College, graduating in 1994. He says he never wanted to do anything but be a dairy farmer, so he came home from college and milked cows with his father and uncle, doubling the milking herd to 140 cows and putting up a new dairy barn in 1997.
But after 10 years of milking cows, a number of factors resulted in the farm transitioning from milking cows to raising sheep.
The farm’s location just minutes north of the 401 highway is convenient for farmers in the area, but also for the residents of three nearby subdivisions. With the farm producing a million gallons of liquid manure each year, spreading it on the fields was always going to be an issue.
Labour was another problem, both in terms of availability and cost. Milking 140 cows twice daily, as well as caring for the dry cows and young stock, kept Jim, Ed, Gord and a full-time hired man busy; they also had two part-time night milkers, as the cows were milked three times a day. Raising sheep looked like an option with less reliance on hired labour.
In 2007, Jim took a leap of faith and made the switch, selling the cows (and quota) that had supported three generations of his family, and acquiring their first group of 70 ewes. The move also made it possible for Jim’s father, Ed, and uncle, Gord, to retire with pensions from the farm where they had worked their whole lives, while allowing Jim a chance to do the same.
The Benacres flock varies between 900-1,000 ewes, of mostly Rideau Arcott and Dorset breeding. Replacements are purchased each year from Shepherd’s Choice (John & Eadie Steele) at Norwood, Ontario, who focus on performance recording and selection. The Bennetts have enough to do with 800 acres under cultivation and the daily needs of a large flock in total confinement.
Although there is less work than in the past, Benacres is far from a one-man operation. Jim’s father Ed handles all of the trucking of lambs to market, does a lot of the field work and keeps the equipment running, allowing Jim to spend more time in the barn.
The family puts up about 3,000 round bales of alfalfa-grass silage each year. Field crops include barley, soybeans and fall rye. The soybeans pay for the corn eaten by the sheep, and also for the annual purchase of replacement ewe lambs. The fall rye serves as a cover crop, with the roots serving to open the ground up for the soybeans that follow; it also yields plenty of straw for bedding the sheep. Both generations of the Bennett family heat their homes with outdoor furnaces that burn the (rye) grain.
Like the cows that came before them, the sheep at Benacres are kept in total confinement. Lambing takes place in the old dairy barn, and then ewes and lambs are moved together into the centre part of the new barn. After being weaned at eight weeks, the ewes are moved to a lean-to on one side of the machinery shed where they are fed dry hay; weaned lambs move into feedlot pens on the left and right sides of the new barn, from where they are weighed and shipped. Breeding takes place in what used to be the holding area of the new barn, where cows would wait to go into the milking parlour. Pregnant ewes are accommodated in one of three converted silage bunkers. With no herding dogs on the farm, Jim says it’s “all hands on deck” when it is time to move groups of sheep from one barn to another.
After feeding unrolled round bales for a number of years, Jim decided to go back to a total mixed ration (TMR) feeding system, similar to what they had used for the cows. He finds the ewes and lambs do much better on the TMR, with less pushing and shoving at feeding time, a big reduction in forage waste and fewer dead lambs.
With sheep and lambs in total confinement, the TMR is fed from feed carts inside each barn. Jim has experimented with a number of fenceline feeders and other options that minimize labour and waste, and also keep lambs where they belong. With the TMR wagon, it takes up to three hours for one person to mix and deliver feed to all the animals.
Rations are based on round bales of alfalfa/grass silage, supplemented with barley and/or corn, dried distillers’ grain (DDG) and a salt and mineral mix. Separate rations are mixed for low-end (e.g., early pregnancy) and high-end (e.g., lactation) ewes, and for the lamb feedlot. The best-quality forage bales are reserved for the lambs. The lamb ration also includes a molasses-based product containing propionic acid, which Jim says makes the feed more palatable and keeps it from spoiling, allowing him to feed the lambs every second day, leaving more time for lambing, weighing and other tasks. Ewes get fed daily.
With the ewes in total confinement, there is little concern about parasites, beyond worming new ewe lambs and rams upon arrival. Ewes get an 8-way clostridial vaccine before lambing and lambs are treated with Baycox at three to four weeks of age. Jim reports that the Baycox has made “a big difference” in their battle with coccidiosis, and that pneumonia remains the other health issue in the lambs.
Purchasing replacement ewe lambs rather than selecting their own allows Jim to breed the entire flock to rams of terminal sire breeds. Jim has used Ile de France, Canadian Arcott and Texel rams in the past, but is now leaning more heavily on Suffolk rams for production of larger lambs that get out the door quicker.
Jim participated in a national traceability pilot project several years ago, and acquired a Psion handheld computer and software. Recent hardware problems with both the Psion and their home computer have yet to be resolved, making it harder for him to track the performance and productivity of the flock. He favours the Shearwell RFID eartag, and says it has worked well for them once they figured out how to store the unused tags in hot weather (in the bag in a cool part of the house or office). A True-Test electronic scale paired with a Prattley autosorter, allows Jim to weigh the lambs every week and quickly sort out those that are 100 pounds or more.
Ewes are given the opportunity to lamb more than once a year, but Jim doesn’t push them too hard; lambs are left on the ewes for two months, rather than only 30 days as in many accelerated flocks. In 2015, there were 840 lambings that produced 1710 lambs, of which about 1600 were sold. These numbers would have been higher but for some disappointing conception rates, particularly in the ewe lambs. Jim has culled 50 of the mature ewes that missed one or two breeding cycles, and he is still exploring the cause of the low fertility in the ewe lambs. The ewe lambs are born in the spring and exposed to rams in November, December and January. CIDRs are used in the flock, but only on mature ewes when being bred from February to August.
For the last two years, Jim has been a member of Trillium Lamb, a co-op that ships lambs to the Ontario Lamb Company, a division of Newmarket Meat Packers in Newmarket, Ontario. In addition to marketing their lambs as a group, members meet every other month and share ideas and solutions, which Jim finds particularly helpful. About 80% of Benacres lambs are marketed through Trillium Lamb. Ed handles the transport, making the six-hour round trip every couple of weeks, with up to 50 lambs on the trailer each time. The remaining lambs are marketed to Wallace Beef Inc., and slaughtered at the nearby Joyceville Penitentiary.
Short-term plans for the flock involve a new lean-to on the opposite side of the machinery shed, to create more space for lambing ewes. Jim and Chantelle’s oldest son, Josh, is leaving for Ridgetown College in September. If Josh returns to work on the farm after graduation, the flock and facilities will probably expand again to support that. Jim hastens to add that he’s happy either way, “Farming is a hard enough job when you love it, without trying to do it if you don’t love it.”