Story & photos by Stuart Chutter
Martin and Louise Catto farmed in Scotland prior to moving to Canada almost 15 years ago. Although their principal enterprise was dairy farming, they would purchase 500 ewes each year in the fall, lamb them out in the spring and then sell them with lambs at foot. That all changed in 1999 when they moved to Lipton, Saskatchewan.
The move to Canada was largely prompted by better farming opportunities here. European regulation and land prices limited any farm growth in Scotland. Martin mentions that when they moved to Saskatchewan, the cost to buy an acre of land here was roughly equivalent to the cost of renting an acre in Scotland. The couple pencilled out several farming enterprises in Canada, including a dairy, but the cost of quota ruled out milking cows and the decision was made for a mixed grain and sheep operation.
The first group of 80 ewes arrived on the farm before any sheep fencing had been prepared. A Border Collie that came over from Scotland with the family herded the sheep while fencing and basic facilities were put in place. Additions to the flock were hard to come by at that time, as large groups were rarely available. The Cattos limited themselves to buying complete flock dispersals, to reduce the risk of disease and make sure they were buying good quality, functional ewes.
From those early days the flock has grown to over 2,500 ewes in 2013, and is one of the largest flocks on the prairies. Lambing started in February and will be done in three batches: the February group, another in March just before shearing, and the last group, which includes the ewe lambs, in June. The April/May break allows Martin to get out of the barn and into the shop to prepare for seeding. Martin points out that a lot of their sheep flock management has to be planned around the grain operation, and that there are tradeoffs between what is ideal for sheep production and what is manageable for a mixed farming operation.
All of the ewes go through jugs, where the lambs are docked and tagged and their navels dipped. Males are not castrated, as marketing is done direct to processors and the Cattos have enough lambs to keep males and females of various weights in separate feedlot pens. While in the jugs, the lambs are also scanned into the FarmWorks flock management program.
The Cattos were enrolled on the national RFID pilot project and credit RFID as a primary driver in their flock improvement. Louise is quick to point out that there was a learning process with electronic management. She laughs as she tells me that there are three different types of pneumonia on their farm, because of three different spellings used when the farm computer was originally set up! The RFID management system consists of a handheld Psion tag reader/portable computer, paired with an electronic scale and Racewell drafting system. Automating these procedures has dramatically reduced the labour of managing their flock.
Of particular note to me was the fact that this large group of lambing ewes had so far produced only one orphan lamb. For me this is a lambing dream; the Cattos credit it to strict culling, adequate time in the jugs and a non-prolific yet highly maternal ewe base. The flock is largely Texel and Cheviot breeding, so litter sizes are manageable for the ewes. Louise says that in an average year they usually have only about 20 orphan lambs.
In the beginning the Cattos lambed out on pasture, but coyotes quickly put an end to that. Martin credits the barns as one of the best investments on the farm. With an increase in lambs weaned per ewe from roughly 1.3 when lambing on pasture to 1.7 when lambing in the barn, Martin is confident that the extra labour and infrastructure are adequately rewarded.
The increased weaning percentage can also be attributed to the attention the Cattos give to their advanced and precise feeding program. Scientific rationale is behind every feeding decision, from breeding to marketing. Every feed ingredient is tested and rations adjusted accordingly.
Flushing is done while the ewes are grazing corn. Martin’s anecdotal evidence supports corn grazing over alfalfa forage for increased ovulation rate. They have recently switched to a variety that matures in a shorter period of time, a decision that goes against most forage-based philosophy. They made this decision because it allows the option of harvesting the corn for higher-value grain sales instead of grazing it. Even if the crop is combined, the stubble provides quality grazing for flushing.
Winter feeding consists of a total mixed ration (TMR) delivered with a vertical mixer wagon. The Cattos use the SheepBytes ration balancer developed in Alberta, and feel that the annual subscription fee was recovered in the first week of feeding. Rations can be balanced for each stage of production and adjusted daily based on how much is left over at the feed bunk. Prior to using SheepBytes, all feeding had to be completed by one person so that rations were consistent and mistakes avoided. The SheepBytes printouts provide ration ‘cook books’, with easy to follow weights and adjustment factors. With this new system, the winter feeding chores for 3,000+ animals in 12 pens with four or five different rations are all finished within two hours, and can be done by anyone on the farm team.
Winter feed is provided in homemade feed bunks inside each pen, rather than a fence line feeder from outside. Although extra labour is required to lock the sheep up prior to feeding in each pen, nursing lambs can’t wander out of one pen and back into a different one, creating mixups and potential losses. The lack of waste in this system was incredible. I could not figure out what it was about these feed bunks (feeder angle, spacing or height) that made them work so well, but there was virtually no waste outside the bunks.
TMR ingredients include alfalfa silage, hay, grain, salt and mineral. They don’t make any corn silage because if it isn’t good enough to combine, the corn can be grazed with no associated harvest cost. Most of the on-farm forage is made into silage, because it can all be harvested, packed and covered within about two weeks. Martin feels the time required to put the forage up as hay would be unmanageable. There is some hay added to the TMR, but only as much as needed to decrease the moisture content. Hay is put through a bale shredder before it goes in the mixer wagon to decrease waste and ease mixing. The Cattos have yet to experience any notable Listeria problems with this silage-based feeding program and credit that to the care they take to properly pack, line and cover the pits.
The only element I could think of that might be missing from their nutrition program is scanning and sorting ewes by the number of lambs they are carrying, in order to feed them separately. Martin concedes this would allow even more precise feeding of the flock, but he does not have enough confidence in scanning equipment or operators to put this into practice. In such a remote prairie location, a reliable and experienced scanning practitioner is not readily or affordably available. They have tried scanning ewes in the past and later been surprised when ‘open’ ewes have lambed.
For the past several years, the early-lambing ewes have been shipped after weaning to the Elbow Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) multi-species grazing project in central Saskatchewan. This federal pasture uses sheep to manage leafy spurge on thousands of acres of publicly-owned grazing land. The flock is herded daily by a shepherd or two, and penned at night with electric netting and a pack of guard dogs. Leafy spurge is a noxious weed of growing concern among the prairie provinces and in many remote and environmentally sensitive areas sheep grazing is the best and/or only management tool.
Unfortunately, with the recent federal announcement that PFRA lands will be transferred to the respective provinces, special projects like sheep grazing have been cancelled to ease the transition. For the Cattos, this means the loss of affordable grazing for roughly 1,200 ewes on relatively short notice. The saving grace is their mixed farming model. Among their grain land there is marginal land such as bush and sloughs which, in addition to stubble grazing potential, can be fenced to make up the PFRA grazing loss. The side benefit of this change is that the ewe flock can now be closed to eliminate the health risks they had to live with when using community pasture.
Most of the Catto’s lambs end up out east, but their marketing program changes every year depending on pricing and opportunity. Their biggest problem is having enough lambs hit prime condition at the same time to fill a liner. In spite of this, they have been pleased with the results when their lambs have sold on a rail grade basis. But rather than credit genetics or feeding, Martin and Louise believe carcass index success requires shipping decisions based on weight and body condition, rather than weight alone as a market-ready indicator.
Most obvious to me during my visit to the Catto farm was how every process in the production chain has modern and scientific thinking behind it. Nothing is done because “that’s how my father did it” or “we’ve always done it like that”. Every process was built on relevant logic and if that logic is challenged with new ideas, the process gets improved.
As a young farmer myself, I am building my flock and trying to improve productivity every year. But I still have a long way to go and progress often feels slow. So I specifically asked Martin and Louise how long it took them to get their flock to their desired level of production. Martin quickly retorted that there is never an ideal flock and improvement must always be continuous.
“You can’t sit back and think that you have achieved it,” Martin says, “there is always something to change for next year.”
Stuart Chutter is a commercial sheep and meat goat producer in south western Saskatchewan.