By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
The latest census figures show Prince Edward Island as one of two Canadian provinces with sheep industries that have expanded significantly in the last five years (the other is Manitoba). In July, I took a drive along the Blue Shank Road out of Summerside, PEI, to visit one of the farms contributing to that growth.
Blueshank Farms is the home of Robert and Jackie Paynter, and their daughters, Amy and Emily. It is also a Heritage Farm, meaning it has been in Robert’s family since before Confederation. Robert’s grandfather milked cows here, and Robert joined the farm right out of high school. Jackie also grew up on a dairy farm, but had an interest in sheep and brought Suffolks with her when she and Robert were married in 1983.
Those animals were later dispersed, but the interest in sheep remained. After the family stopped milking cows, and after a few years raising beef cattle (just in time for the arrival of BSE in the country), the family got back into the sheep business in 2006, with the purchase of a crossbred flock. Two years later, they added 75 Rideau Arcotts from Breezy Ridge Farm, in Ontario. A smaller group of registered Suffolks followed in 2015.
The flock currently consists of 300 ewes, most of which are purebred, unregistered Rideaus. The ewes lamb once a year, but not all at the same time. By lambing groups of approximately 100 ewes in February, April and May, the Paynters have been able to put more ewes through their lambing facilities and more lambs through their feeder barns; it also helps to spread out the workload and the cash flow. This year, for the first time, they have scheduled a November lambing, with 40 ewes due in the fall.
With the flock expanding gradually over the years, and being kept in confinement, the facilities have undergone a stepwise series of expansions. There is an old, hip-roofed barn (35’ x 100’), with a lean-to (12’ x 90’) on one side and a second addition (24’ x 60’) on one end, used for lambing. There are two Coveralls, measuring 30’ x 70’, and 30’ x 74’, which house open or pregnant ewes, and two wooden barns (35’ x 80’ and 35’ x 100’), for feeding lambs.
The Paynters raise all of their own feed. They farm over 600 acres, including 500 acres of soybeans and grain. In addition to the fieldwork and silage, they do custom forage harvesting for other farmers, bale all of their own straw, and buy straw in the field from other farmers. Robert says the custom work makes it possible for them to own more, and better, equipment, which ensures their own forage is put up at the optimum time.
Lambs are started on a commercial, pelleted lamb creep feed. They get weaned at about eight weeks onto a mix of rolled barley, soybean meal and molasses, along with clover silage. This gets replaced with whole barley, whole raw soybeans and grass/clover silage, and then with a total mixed ration (TMR) with about 50% corn silage.
The Paynters have been feeding a TMR for four years, but not all of the barns are set up for it yet, so the rations fed to the ewes vary with their stage of production and location. Dry, open ewes get dry hay. During flushing and breeding season, they are fed the same TMR as the lambs (corn silage, grass/clover silage, whole raw soybeans and whole barley), or the same mix fed by hand if they are not in a barn that is accessible to the TMR mixer. After breeding, they get good quality silage, with grain and corn silage added back in as lambing approaches. High moisture corn will be added to the operation this year.
All classes of livestock get a customized salt and mineral mix, formulated by Les Halliday (PEI Department of Agriculture and Forestry) and Jeff Walton (Belisle Solution Nutrition). The mineral, known as Blueshank Atlantic, contains organic selenium, a 3:1 ratio of calcium to phosphorus, and lasolocid for coccidia control, and is available for purchase anywhere in the Maritimes. The mix is delivered in the TMR and Jackie says that since they have been using it, their lambs are much stronger at birth and much quicker to get on their feet.
There is no shortage of work. In addition to the cropping, custom work, and straw baling and hauling, the sheep are in total confinement and need to be fed every day. Robert mixes up the TMR each day, and delivers it to the feeder lambs and any of the ewes that are getting it at the time. This takes about an hour and a half each morning, but he also beds the sheep while the TMR is mixing. His evening chores take less time because the TMR is already mixed up. Jackie spends a similar amount of time in the morning and again in the evening, feeding in barns where the TMR mixer can’t go, and caring for the sheep.
Older daughter Amy just moved home from Alberta in May. She was active on the farm growing up, and ran a baler before she moved away. She now works as a carpenter on a large building project, and milks cows on a nearby farm.
Younger daughter Emily just got married in August. She and her husband, Andrew MacArthur, bought the house across the road. Andrew works full time on a large potato farm, and helps out at Blueshank Farms when he can. But Emily is an integral part of the operation. She works seasonally at a potato lab, but is off in the summer, allowing her to do all of the fieldwork in the spring, while Robert does the seeding. Starting in June, they put up their own, and other people’s, silage and hay, then later in the year they bale all of the straw they need for the sheep (150-200 round bales), plus a further 2,000 for sale. Emily also runs a snow blower in the winter, and buys and rears Holstein calves in the summer.
Jackie does all of the work of lambing the ewes, with Robert taking on more of the feeding at this busy time. Emily takes over much of the lambing-time meal preparation, in addition to her job and snow blowing. Neighbours get involved too, dropping in with meals to keep the family going on the most intensive days.
As I visited with the Paynters in the lambing area, I noticed the sheep were decorated with a series of one or more coloured dots, which allows Jackie to match up ewes and their lambs without the hassle of numbered paint brands. A ewe with three lambs gets three dots on her back, as does each of her lambs in the same colour. By using multiple colours within small groups, Jackie can keep track of whose lamb is whose without having to catch animals and read tags.
Mature ewes get to raise up to three lambs, with the odd one keeping four if it looks like she can handle it. Ewe lambs usually raise two, but occasionally three; the day I visited I saw one raising four. The Paynters have a Lac-Tek milk machine and Jackie estimates they raise about 130 lambs a year on it.
Lambs can be marketed as young as 100 days of age, although most average four to five months. Some are pushed harder than others; at certain times of year it is better to slow them down a bit to wait for a higher price.
Most of the Blueshank lambs go to the Northumberland Lamb Marketing Co-Op, Ltd. (Northumberlamb), near Truro, about 2.5 hours away. The target weight for lamb carcasses is 23-24 kg, and lambs leave the farm at about 115 pounds. Conformation scores of 4’s, and even 5’s, add to the base price of the day. By pushing the February-born lambs hard, and letting the later lambs coast till December, the Paynters can ship lambs about nine months of the year. With ewes lambing in November in 2017, they should be able to spread the marketing out even more.
Some lambs go as breeding stock; the Paynters sell packages of ewe lambs, including some sired by the Suffolk rams, to flocks in PEI, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec.
Replacements are selected on conformation and the performance of the dam. Singles are not eligible for selection and ewes that give birth to singles are culled (unless they are first time lambers). This strategy seems to be working; the ewe lambs drop 2.0–2.5 lambs on average, and this year the two-year-olds averaged 3.1 lambs each.
The health program involves running a virtually closed flock and regular vaccinations with Tasvax-8 and CaseBac. Because the sheep are housed inside year-round, parasites and predators are not a problem.
After several years of expanding both the flock and the facilities, the Paynters are now more interested in maximizing the production of the ewes they already have than in further expansion of the flock or facilities. With the involvement of the next generation, Blueshank Farms seems set to remain in the family for more generations to come.