Story & photos by Cathy Gallivan, PhD
On a cold, grey, October day, I met with Stefan Bouw on his family’s farm about 20 miles east of Winnipeg. I visited Stefan to talk about their recently established sheep flock but, as is often the case, discovered that the sheep were just one part of an integrated operation that has evolved, along with a management philosophy, over several years.
Stefan and his brother Jonathan are the third generation on this farm, which was purchased by their grandfather in 1961, a few years after he emigrated from Holland. Stefan’s parents, Herman and Marilyn, took the farm over in 1998 and operate it today with their sons and their families.
According to their website (www.ediecreekangus.com) the Bouws are taking advantage of the symbiotic nature of mixed farming. Livestock and crop farming provide a balance for each other, as diverse crop rotations make for healthier land, and forage crops help build soil structure and provide competition for weeds. Cattle and sheep also make use of low-quality land that is otherwise unsuitable for crop production.
The Bouws own 1,000 acres and rent a further 600-700. They crop 800 acres of Certified Organic land, producing alfalfa/grass hay, wheat, oats, flax and soybeans. The livestock complement the organic crop production by providing a market for the alfalfa/grass hay and silage that dominate the crop rotation.
Although the family produces grain, they believe that cattle and sheep are ideally adapted to convert low-quality forages into high quality food. Their organic crops are produced for human consumption (with the exception of the alfalfa/grass hay and silage) and the cattle and sheep are fed almost exclusively on forages. This philosophy is a holistic approach to agriculture as a larger picture, considering sustainability for both their environmental and human resources.
The cow herd numbers 110 registered Angus. The family specializes in producing two-year-old bulls for grass famers, which are marketed at an annual sale. They also sell natural and grass-fed beef direct to consumers.
The sheep flock is a recent addition to the operation, having started in 2010 with purchases of Rideau Arcott and Texel x Rideau Arcott ewe lambs. The Rideaus were bred to an Ile de France ram to produce crossbred ewes that lambed for the first time in 2012. The Texel x Rideau crosses were bred to a Rideau ram to produce a more prolific ¾ Rideau ewe. Stefan admits that the Texel x Rideau Arcott was not his first choice, but rather a reflection of what was available at the time. But he has not been disappointed with these ewes, most of which have dropped twins in 2012. The ram pen also houses Canadian Arcott and Texel rams, used as terminal sires.
The flock has grown from 120 head in 2011 to 160 in 2012. The Bouws plan to keep most of the ewe lambs from the 321 lambs born this year, and lamb 320 in 2013. Further expansion to 640 ewes is a possibility, as long as the flock maintains a good balance between income and work load.
Unlike many flocks where the emphasis is on grass-based production, the Bouw flock lambs in the yard before the ewes and lambs are moved to the pasture. With a high percentage of ewe lambs and 50% Rideau breeding in the flock, Stefan feels that the hours he spends in the barn during three weeks of lambing is time well spent, and probably results in an increase of .5 to .7 lambs per ewe over what they would get if they lambed on pasture.
Lambing takes place in May in an old concrete silage bunker fitted with a fabric roof. The structure is used for hay storage during the winter, and lambing in the spring. Ewe lambs are wintered separately from the rest of the flock and give birth in a nearby pole shed. With the size of the flock doubling this year, the family plans to convert a wooden quonset used for machinery storage to additional housing for lambing.
The adaptation of existing facilities extends to the handling system. The sheep are run through the same indoor facility used for the cattle, and weighed on the cattle scale. Lambs are tagged at birth with the Shearwell SET tag. Although the cattle scale is electronic, they haven’t yet integrated it with the Archer tag reader used to record the lambs’ identities as they step on the scale, so Stefan reads the weight of each lamb off the scale and enters it manually into the tag reader. In addition to recording the lamb’s ID as it steps on the scale, the tag reader shows Stefan the breed makeup and sex of the lamb, as well as whether it is a single, twin or triplet.
Data from the tag reader is downloaded onto a spreadsheet on the computer, which Stefan manipulates to identify and sort groups of lambs or ewes for shipping or other management practices.
Although most of the feed they consume is organic, neither the cattle nor the sheep are Certified Organic. Purchasing organic feed for the cattle would be prohibitively expensive and, although the family does produce enough organic feed for the sheep flock, there is no specific market in Manitoba that would pay more for an organic lamb. The cattle herd participates in the Verified Beef program, however, and Stefan keeps careful records of all medications used on the sheep.
Raising lambs on grass goes a long way toward reducing the use of medications. There are 80 acres of alfalfa pasture available to the sheep, only 18 of which are fenced. During the pasture season, Stefan moves the portable electric fencing, and then the flock, every three days. This approach limits the spread of internal parasites. In 2011, the lambs were wormed only once over the course of the summer. In 2012, the lambs have not been wormed at all.
The Bouws plans to put up permanent fence around the perimeter of the sheep pasture and one line splitting the field up the middle. They will continue to use portable fencing to subdivide the pasture and move the sheep frequently, both to maximize the production from the pasture and to limit the worm burden acquired by the lambs.
Stefan also looks forward to the day when they have a waterline running the length of the pasture, with offshoots into each paddock, to save the time he currently spends moving and filling a water tank every time he shifts the flock to a new paddock.
Weaning takes place in mid-September, but grazing continues in a leader-follower system where the lambs have first access to each new paddock, followed by the ewes. When I visited in early October, the lambs were still out on the pasture, eating alfalfa stems and being supplemented with first-cut hay. The ewes had been moved into a corral by this time; their ration consisted of two round bales of first cut hay and one round bale of timothy straw, every four days. They were also getting two pails of oats on the same schedule, to move them out of the pen while the round bales were being put out. The ewes are bedded with soybean straw that also contains alfalfa and a few weeds, which the ewes enjoy picking through for additional feed. Hay prices are prohibitive in Manitoba this year, with a round bale of first-cut hay going for $75 and second-cut hay costing 10 to 12 cents per pound.
|Lambs grazing alfalfa stems and being supplemented with hay in early October.|
The target market for the lambs is the Christmas market, but when I visited in October there were many lambs that were already at market weight. When I spoke to Stefan again in late November, the heaviest 25 lambs had been shipped to the butcher for freezer customers, and the remaining lambs were being fed a small amount of grain to finish them. The Bouws ship lambs to auction at the Winnipeg Livestock Sales, Ltd., at an average weight of 105 pounds. In 2011, the lambs fetched $2.10 – $2.22. The average price for lambs over 80 pounds as I write this the last week of November is $105-$120/cwt.
The family is interested in doing what it can to obtain the best price for their product. Stefan is the secretary of the small, local Agassiz Lamb Marketing Coop, and the family are watching with interest the development of the Canadian Lamb Cooperative.
Based on my brief visit, it seems as though the Bouw family has many advantages that will allow them to make a success of their sheep operation and contribute to the Canadian industry for many years to come: a deep background in agriculture, the involvement of many family members, the strength of youth and the wisdom of experience, and a willingness to learn from and work with others.