By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Photos by Phil Smith
Breezy Ridge Farm was established in 1983, when Phil and Liz Smith bought a 32-acre parcel of land and established a small flock of 40 mixed breed ewes. In 1990, they acquired their first purebred Rideau Arcotts, shortly after the release of the breed from the Agricultural Research Centre near Ottawa. The flock has since grown to 550 head, with seven different genetic lines. As the flock has expanded, so has the land base; in 1999, the Smiths were able to purchase 65 acres on the other side of the road, which had at one time been part of the same farm. They also rent a further 155 acres of hay land.
Like many Rideau flocks, the Breezy Ridge ewes are managed to lamb more often than once per year. Phil describes the size of each lambing group as fluid, because it evolves with conception rates and changes in the management system.
All of the ewes lamb in the first half of the year, either in March/April or May/June/July. The March/April group is exposed to rams again in June. Those that conceive and lamb in November are weaned and rebred (along with the ewe lambs) starting at the end of December to become the late lambing group the following year. The May/June/July group gets rebred starting November 1, to become the early lambing group the following year.
The June breeding season takes place on pasture, with all of the early-lambing ewes being exposed together in a single group to multiple rams. Some of these ewes are treated with CIDRs, but a number of the ones that do not receive CIDRs also conceive and go on to lamb in November. Ewes exposed in June get scanned in October to determine if they are pregnant or not, but the operator doesn’t attempt to count lambs, as Phil feeds all pregnant ewes as if they are carrying triplets. Ewes that are not pregnant at scanning get rebred in November and lamb in March and April again the following year.
Phil limits the June and November breeding seasons to a single, 21-day cycle to allow for time off between winter lambing groups so that barn spaces can clear out between groups of lambing ewes and the family can recharge their own batteries (and go curling).
The original barn on the home farm was torn down in 1986 and replaced with a metal-clad, pole barn measuring 40×80’ that is now used primarily as the lamb feedlot. A 30×100’, greenhouse-type structure and a second metal-clad pole barn (104×44’) provide housing for ewes and space for lambing. There are two hoop buildings for hay storage (100×30’ and 68×30’) in the yard, and a further 50×104’ of hay storage on the 65 acres across the road.
Ewes that lamb in the fall and winter do so in the barn. Lambs are tagged and recorded while in the lambing jugs, and given Baycox® to prevent coccidiosis at 24 hours of age. Mature ewes get to keep three or four of the lambs they give birth to, depending on their past performance and milk supply. Additional lambs are reared on Serval Lamb-O milk replacer on a Förster-Technik milk replacer machine in the insulated, 11×30’ nursery barn. All lambs (except those raised on pasture) are creep fed on Distiller’s Dried Grains with Solubles (DDGs). Lambs raised on ewes are weaned at 60 days; lambs on milk replacer are weaned at 28 days or 25-30 pounds.
Ewe lambs are housed and fed separately from the mature ewes until they are a few weeks away from lambing, when they join the May/June lambing ewes. Weather permitting, the whole group goes out on pasture in mid to late April, where they give birth. After a couple of days in a lambing jug in an emptied hay shed, ewe lambs with one lamb, and mature ewes with one or two, stay outside and raise their lambs on pasture. Ewe lambs with twins, and mature ewes with three or more, go from the jugs into group pens inside the barn.
When I spoke with the Smiths in late August, all of the ewes had been weaned and were being pastured in a single group, and Phil was looking forward to his third cut of hay being harvested in the next two weeks. With 550 ewes to feed, the entire land base is devoted to grazing and forage production, with grain and supplements all being purchased.
The 32 acres of the home place is almost always in pasture, unless it is being renovated. The Smiths have been strip-grazing silage corn since 2006. They plant it the year before the alfalfa is reseeded, and graze it or bale it as silage. This year they have about five acres in corn, although they have had as many as 15 after a bad winter kill on the alfalfa. A 36-acre parcel of rented land right next door is also used for pasture in late summer and fall; the ewes run down the road every morning and back every evening. Previously used as hay land, this piece is a bit worn out, but Phil is waiting to ensure he will have ongoing access to it before reseeding it.
The Smiths’ own land is fenced with five strands of electric wire on the perimeter and three strands inside, most of which is Gallagher. The 36-acre piece next door is grazed with portable reels of electric fence with two wires and step-in posts, another Gallagher product, which is powered from the permanent fence at the boundary with their own land. The reel/wire combination is also used to subdivide pastures for rotational grazing.
The remaining 65 acres of owned land, and 119 acres of rented land, are used for hay production. All of the hay fields are at least 80% alfalfa, with the balance of the mix in orchardgrass and timothy. Hay fields are replanted with brown midrib sorghum sudangrass as a nurse crop. The sudangrass produces a good volume of forage, but the bales have to be wrapped in plastic. A custom operator puts up the hay, with the Smiths doing the raking and bringing the bales in from the field.
After the frost in the fall, the ewes graze the 65 acres of hay land across the road from the home place, where some of them also get bred. Last fall, the snow came on November 1 and they missed out on that late fall grazing.
The ewes are supplemented with purchased corn grain and a 34% crude protein supplement pellet, with the amounts fed depending on the stage of production. Lambs raised on ewes are fed a mix of corn and the same pellet. The pellet also includes the vitamins and minerals required by the ewes and lambs. A custom salt and mineral mix provides extra selenium to the pregnant ewes, so that lambs do not have to be injected with selenium in the claiming pens. The custom mix is also used when the ewes are on pasture, as it contains lasalocid (Bovatec®), which helps prevent bloat on the alfalfa pastures.
Ewe lambs that are selected for breeding stock are taken off concentrates and introduced to pasture at 75 pounds. Ram lambs are selected and put out with the mature rams at 110 pounds. Lambs raised on pasture are weaned at 70 days of age and transitioned onto full feed in the barn.
All of the lambs get an RFID tag at birth, which is used as a management tool, not just for traceability purposes after they leave the farm. A Psion handheld computer scans the tags on the ewes and lambs in the jugs and records this and other lambing data, which is uploaded to the Ewe Byte Management System on their home computer. Weighing data are collected by a Tru-Test XRP2 Electronic ID reader and XR500 scale head and also uploaded to Ewe Byte. Phil makes extensive use of Ewe Byte to manage the flock and track the level of inbreeding among its seven different genetic lines. Data is also exported to GenOvis, the national genetic evaluation program, which produces EPDs for maternal, growth and carcass traits, allowing the Smiths to compare their animals to Rideau Arcotts in other flocks across Canada.
Because the ewes that lamb in November are exposed to multiple sires, all flock replacements are chosen from lambs born at other times of year. Ram lambs are selected from dams that are at least five years old, based on the dam’s performance for number of lambs weaned, adjusted 50-day weights and lambing intervals, a very time-consuming process. Ewe lambs are selected on similar criteria but because more of them are needed, they can be selected from ewes that are less than five years old.
After being selected as lambs, based on the longevity and performance of their dams, rams get tested as yearlings for genetic resistance to scrapie and Maedi visna. Liz says the genotype information provides another level of selection information that some buyers are looking for, after first selections are made on performance.
Like most producers who pasture their sheep, the Smiths spend more time thinking about worms than they want to and are interested in solutions that go beyond consideration of available worming products. Since 2011, they have been involved in a breeding project aimed at developing parasite resistance in the Rideau Arcott breed. They have partnered in this with Dr. Angela Canovas of the Centre for the Genetic Improvement of Livestock at the University of Guelph, and Delma Kennedy with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
The selection is based on regular fecal samples, and Phil is very enthusiastic about the progress they have made in selecting resistant animals (see sidebar page 14). DNA samples have also been taken from the whole flock for future testing for genetic markers for parasite resistance.
Although they do a brisk business in breeding stock, the Smiths also sell slaughter lambs. Because of their location one hour from Toronto, they have lots of marketing options, but most go to the Ontario Stockyards at Cookstown at about 100 pounds live weight. With lambs born over several months of the year, they are able to ship lambs nearly year-round.
Phil and Liz are fortunate to have their sons, David and Nicholas, working with them on the farm, as well as a hired man, Justin Pape, who works Monday to Friday but puts in longer hours during lambing. Phil, David and Justin do most of the feeding, lambing and record keeping; Phil is also in charge of promotion. Liz does the book-keeping, provides late evening lambing help, and starts new lambs on the milk replacer machine. Nicholas is recently back in the country after volunteering for two-and-a-half years at the Baháʼí World Centre in Haifa, Israel. With his work as an electrician disrupted by the pandemic, he has been spending more time on the farm.
After nearly 40 years of raising sheep, Phil and Liz seem keen to continue, and even expand the flock to support the involvement of one or both of their sons. Expansion will depend on their ability to secure more land in the area and put up additional buildings to accommodate more ewes. The work on selecting a parasite-resistant Rideau Arcott is especially rewarding, as it complements their belief in grazing their animals and taking a holistic approach to sheep farming.