By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Photos by Chris Reaman
Like many Rideau Arcott breeders, Harry and Vicki Elsinga have achieved a high level of productivity in their Rideau Arcott flock. What is unusual is that they have done it without a major investment in facilities and while lambing their ewes only once a year.
Harry grew up on this 300-acre farm after his family moved to PEI from Ontario. He milked cows here until 2004, when he made the decision to disperse the herd and rent his land, rather than invest in costly upgrades to the barns. Then he got married and started a family and decided to get back into livestock production. After doing some research, he determined that the existing facilities would work well for sheep production.
He started by purchasing two small groups of sheep, which were never mingled. One of the groups was quickly dispersed when it turned out to be infected with Maedi visna. The other group of 35 Rideau Arcott ewes has grown into the present flock of 200. Harry still isn’t interested in major renovations to the barns, so the ewes lamb once a year in two batches in April and May.
The farmland is rented, so the sheep are confined to the yard year-round. Harry buys his forage from the renter (if the quality is there) and trades sheep manure for all the round bales of straw he needs.
The first group of ewes were just finishing lambing when I visited on April 29. April was wet in PEI and the yard was muddy but the barn, located at the top of a hill, was dry and comfortable. The barn measures 50’x100’, and houses pregnant ewes, claiming pens and pens of ewes and lambs. A lean-to shed adds an extra 15’x100’ along one side, and houses the ‘bottle’ lambs being reared on a Lak-Tek automatic milk replacer machine. A 40’x80’ quonset will provide accommodation for the first batch of ewes and lambs when they are moved out of the lambing barn to make room for the second group.
After weaning, the ewes occupy an old bunk silo, with shelter from the rain, for the rest of the summer and into the fall. The ewes eat round bales of hay from June till October, which Harry puts out every third day. Starting in October, Harry flushes the ewes on better-quality forage and 1-1.5 lb. of corn each. He continues to feed in round bale feeders till about a month before lambing, when he switches to hand-feeding round bale silage and about one pound of concentrate in portable wooden feeders. The concentrate is a 60:20:20 mix of barley, oats and raw, whole soybeans. Lactating ewes get up to two pounds of concentrate a day and the best silage available. Ewes feeding two versus three lambs are penned separately, and Harry will reduce or eliminate the concentrate being fed to the ewes with two lambs if they are not losing weight during lactation.
Harry feeds a customized mineral premix, with 85 mg/kg of added selenium and no phosphorus. He feeds the salt and mineral free choice, and puts it out fresh in each of his pens and creep feeders daily. Removing the phosphorus helps maintain the calcium:phosphorus ratio at 2:1 or higher when animals are eating grain. During the summer months he reverts to a less expensive mineral, which does contain added phosphorus.
Once the lambs are safely delivered, they become Vicki’s responsibility. She makes sure they are up and getting enough to eat; any that are slow to stand and suck get reconstituted powdered ewe colostrum from a bottle within minutes of birth.
Mature ewes that give birth to three or more lambs raise two or three of them, while ewe lambs generally only keep two, unless the milk replacer machines are near to capacity.
While they are still in the claiming pen, Vicki eartags them, and uses a piece of software called Flock Hand on a Psion tag reader to record lambing data (including birth weights) for later downloading into EweByte. With daughter Madison’s help, she also paint-brands and docks the lambs, and administers Baycox to prevent any problems with coccidia.
After leaving the claiming pens, ewes go into separate group pens for those feeding two versus three lambs. Each group pen has a creep feeder with a custom creep ration that Harry brings in from the Sunderland Co-op in Ontario. The ration is medicated with Deccox and tetracycline, and contains added selenium at .3 mg/kg.
Vicki continues to watch the lambs closely after they leave the claiming pens, offering bottles and taking note of which lambs need extra milk. Some just need supplementing for a day or two until their mothers come into their milk; others get removed and put into the bottle pen. Harry says they hate making the decision to raise another lamb artificially, but they hate losing a lamb even more. And if they wait too long, the lambs go downhill very quickly.
The shed adjoining the barn is given over to the bottle lambs, which thrive on a Lak-Tek milk replacer machine and Mapleview Agri milk replacer (also from Ontario). Harry added a second milk replacer machine the week after we visited; he figures he can feed up to 80 lambs on one machine. Harry is in charge of maintaining the machines and cleaning them every day.
Bottle lambs get weighed every other day in a sling attached to a scale. They start off in the small bottle lamb pen and move to the big bottle lamb pen when they are doing well on the milk machine and can hold their own there. When they reach 22 lb. in the big bottle lamb pen, they get moved into a third pen where they are weaned. By weaning each lamb at a specific weight, rather than in large batches, Harry says he can raise three bottle lambs on a single bag of milk replacer. The bottle lamb pens are supplied with creep ration and fresh silage every day, which the lambs start to consume when they are only a few days old.
Lambs raised on ewes get their first vaccinations when they are weighed and weaned at 50 days of age. Male lambs are vaccinated with Tasvax and female lambs with Glanvac-6. Ewe lambs, and any ram lambs that will be kept or sold for breeding, get vaccinated again at 100 days of age, with Glanvac-6. Bottle lambs get vaccinated with Tasvax when they are two weeks old, and then are treated the same as the other lambs at 50 and 100 days of age.
After weaning, lambs continue to self-feed on their creep ration and the best round bale silage in the wooden feeders. The creep is gradually replaced with the barley, oats and soybeans mix until the lambs are consuming two pounds per head per day, when Harry starts feeding it by hand. He limits them to two pounds per day to encourage rumen development in the lambs and to avoid problems with acidosis and urinary calculi.
Vicky uses EweByte to track the ewes and lambs on the farm, and this information is uploaded electronically to the GenOvis genetic evaluation program, which provides EPDs and selection indexes to make selection decisions and facilitate breeding stock sales. Harry has been keeping the top 10% of females on the Maternal Index, but is also participating in a pilot project to test a new index being developed for Rideau breeders.
Harry has sold out of ewe lambs the last couple of years, and also sells a number of ram lambs. Lambs that are not sold as breeding stock go to the Northumberlamb Co-op in Truro, NS, a two-hour drive from the farm.
Harry is the PEI director on the Canadian Sheep Federation, and participated in a pilot project coordinated by the CSF earlier this year to test-drive a technology known as a blockchain. Harry is excited about the potential of blockchains and their application in the Canadian sheep industry and elsewhere
Harry and Vicki work hard for two months each year when the ewes are lambing, but their annual timetable allows a more balanced life the rest of the year. They have achieved an impressive level of production without going into debt for upgraded facilities. But they don’t hesitate to spend money on the feed, health care and equipment that makes their ewes produce at very high levels and keeps their lambs alive.
For more photos and updates on the flock, follow Brookwater Farms on Facebook.