Story by Stuart Chutter; All photos by Arlette Seib
Arlette Seib is a shepherd I admire. Before my visit for this interview, I had the opportunity to meet Arlette, and hear her speak, at a number of conferences and other industry events. Her common sense, and philosophy of management aligned with nature, reduce or remove many of the stresses of small ruminant production. Discussions about production problems or industry issues naturally lead to simple and manageable solutions.
On my own farm, I am often very short-sighted. I am a millennial—I want it all and all now. Arlette is the opposite. She is a patient artist, both literally and figuratively. She creates art pieces with her wool and camera, but she is also an artist in how she farms and lives.
“Land and livestock are linked, and I am glad I have parked myself at their intersection. I have time to take a walk every day in the company of my dogs, cutting across the prairie in any direction I like. I walk in sun, rain, wind and snow, in heat and cold. Sometimes I come across favourite sitting stones and sit for a spell, pondering the life I lead. All the walking and pondering results in my soul being pretty tied up in this land and livestock life.” (Arlette’s blog, Ranching with Sheep, November 2017)
Arlette and her husband, Allen, run roughly 575 ewes on 1,600 acres near Watrous, Saskatchewan, about an hour east of Saskatoon. They started in 2005, with just a few ewes to work their stock dogs. By 2009, they were ready for Arlette to leave her job in a soil microbiology lab at the University of Saskatchewan in order to expand the flock. Allen works full-time off the farm as a machinist and millwright; the sheep are Arlette’s passion and enterprise. The low-input production style allows management of a large flock by one person and a team of reliable dogs. But Allen’s schedule is flexible, allowing him to share some of the workload, especially the big jobs.
The flock lambs on pasture, starting in mid-May when the grass is coming and the weather is more favourable. The ewes are of predominately Clun Forest and Corriedale breeding, selected for maternal efficiencies and easy keeping on a forage-only feeding program. The ewes drop about 1.6 lambs each, and remain productive until they are seven, eight or even nine years old. Arlette reports that they lamb easily and are attentive mothers, critical for pasture lambing.
Lambing interventions are kept to a minimum; oversight, tagging, banding and paper record-keeping are the main management practices at this time. CSIP tags are applied when lambs are shipped, and paper records are limited to only the most vital: litter size and keep/cull comments.
Arlette used to do regular drift lambing. Drift lambing is a pasture lambing system where the flock is moved frequently from one small paddock to another, with the pregnant ewes moving ahead and newly-lambed ewes and lambs staying behind. This system allows newborns to mother up in small groups behind the main flock. That system worked well with a smaller flock and electric netting. But wet, flooding springs and no power to the current lambing fields means Arlette now does longer rotations through four paddocks every few days. The new lambs still get left behind with their mothers, but the moves are less frequent. The system is based on healthy, fit, maternal ewes with manageable litter sizes, lambing in tune with nature.
“Sometimes I come in from the pasture with a grin and savour how smooth it is, other times I come in cussing and/or with tears streaming. There is always one breakdown into tears every lambing. At least one fall-apart moment every year because there isn’t a birthing season that doesn’t offer up some huge injustice of life and purpose and let you know without a doubt that you hold no control over some matters.” (Arlette’s Blog, Ranching with Sheep, May 2018)
The pastures are a mix of tame and native forages. The nutrient-dense, native stands are often stockpiled for winter and early-spring grazing, and are an important part of the plan to limit winter feeding to 110 days or less.
The tame grasses are largely bromes, quackgrass and a very healthy stand of milkvetch. The milkvetch was introduced to the pastures by seeding in a tame forage mix. Arlette has found that having the seed pass through the sheep gut helps with its establishment elsewhere by scratching the seed coating. She is now adding seed to sheep mineral mixes for any fields that need better legume establishment. The success of this strategy was particularly evident in one field that had been previously used for crop production and never seeded to grass. After the last annual crop, the field was left undisturbed apart from sheep feeding and grazing. It is now a healthy stand of grasses and legumes, with only patches of broadleaf weeds here and there.
The flock stays out grazing as long as forage of adequate quality remains available and accessible. Ewes winter in a feeding area closer to the yard, with thick brush and trees and protection from the wind. The winter hay supply is home-grown, dry hay, custom baled by a local farmer. Bales are unrolled in the field to spread manure and nutrients, and allow feed waste for bedding.
Parasites are not a big problem at Dog Tale Ranch, possibly because of the size of the land base. Arlette hasn’t wormed the whole flock at once since 2007. She now relies on selective worming and culling to control parasites and has hardly wormed anything for the last two years. Her last purchase of a dewormer in 2016 expired before it was used up; she has the same problem with antibiotic purchases. The only routine flock treatments are annual 8-way vaccinations and treatment for keds that pop up every three or four years. The only purchased feed is salt and mineral mixes.
The standard stories of problems with coyotes apply to this pasture-based flock as well. The summer of 2010 was one of devastating losses. Despite a coordinated effort to thin the coyote population with predator specialists, hunters and trappers, the losses continued and frustrations escalated. Pushed to the verge of dispersing the flock, Arlette pulled the traplines, stepped up the dog numbers and routinely night-penned the sheep. With the objective changed from removing coyotes to preventive management, she began to see fewer losses. Since then, page wire, perimeter and crossfencing has been expanded, and Corriedale breeding has led to tighter flocking while grazing. This integrated and proactive approach to predator management is working at Dog Tale Ranch.
“I believe a rancher has the right to manage problem animals and secure the safety of livestock. But I am also well aware of what balance and coexistence feel like.” (Arlette’s Blog, Ranching with Sheep, February, 2018)
The guard dogs are a mixed pack of Anatolian, Maremma, Great Pyrenees and Akbash. Herding dogs also play a huge role in the management and enjoyment of the ranch. Australian Kelpies are used to move and sort the sheep for practical farm work, and when Arlette hosts or attends stock dog clinics.
Weaning and marketing often happen at the same time. The flock is handled minimally and weaning is one of only four times a year that sheep pass through the handling system. Market lambs are sorted off and CSIP-tagged, while replacements and ewes return to grass. For the past few years, lambs have been marketed through the Saskatoon Livestock Sales’ Presort Sheep and Lamb Sale, held this year on September 22nd. Arlette finds the auction commands the highest bid from a relatively limited pool of western lamb buyers. She also feels it is important for large flocks to support these sales as the volume attracts buyers, and when large flocks consign all producers benefit. For the past two seasons, prices at the auction, compared to on-farm bids from buyers, have justified the expenses of trucking and commission.
As with most Canadian sheep farmers, wool is a secondary product. But wool plays a significant role in Arlette’s life. Several pencil drawings hang in her studio, but fibre art is now her passion. Select fleeces from her Corriedales are retained and combined with dyed wool bought or traded from other fibre artists to create beautiful wall hangings. A detailed piece may take up to 40 hours, from washing and felting the base to designing and creating the image applied to it.
Shearing is another time when the sheep go through the handling system. Five to eight shearers arrive in April for a busy day of shearing, with the whole flock being done in one day. A bugle system into a long raceway inside a coverall building leads up to a permanent shearing area. The wooden shearing floor is covered and protected for the rest of the year, and Allen welded a hanging frame from the rafters for shearing stands and equipment. Arlette’s connections in the fibre art world have been particularly helpful for recruiting shearing day help. She was shocked to learn how many fibre artists had never attended a shearing; she now invites a few each year and gives them jobs. They appreciate seeing the full story of the wool production, and are happy to work for the experience and a nice fleece or two.
“Yesterday was shearing day…Early this morning I sat at my desk as usual, but instead of doing artwork I sat there soaking quietly in a heap of deep thankfulness for the 30-odd friends and strangers who showed up to lend a hand. People just kept showing up. It snowed all day long but stayed just warm enough so that it became soupy, soupy, muddy outside. While that presented challenges and a whole lot of mess, inside the shearing shed was a beehive of activity and chatter.” (Arlette’s blog, Ranching with Sheep, April 2018)
I asked Arlette about the inspiration for her holistic philosophies on agriculture, animal care and land management—did she have a mentor, did it happen at a conference or did she just have some sort of ‘aha’ moment? She couldn’t think of a specific moment; it has been a continual journey from a conventional, commodity-trading farm to one where more value is placed on what nature has to offer. Arlette is an avid reader, and books did play a large role in her thinking, including Gene Logsdon’s books All Flesh is Grass and At Nature’s Pace, Grass: The Forgiveness of Nature by Charles Walerts, Jr., and More Sheep, More Grass, More Money by Peter Schroedter.
I also asked Arlette what worries she has for her farm business in the future. It took coaxing because her initial answer was one of general satisfaction with the way things are and a lack of worry in her life. Drought and limited marketing options are two things largely out of her control. But then we got into a discussion on the emotional burnout that can occur when things go wrong and wrecks are devastating. The dependence on nature in the day-to-day of farm life is generally enriching for the soul, but when it is not it can be very taxing.
“I’m squeezing in felting and writing time wherever I’m able, and as I work with wool and words the concern over things I cannot control dissipates and my land and livestock perspective lines up once again.” (Arlette’s blog, Ranching with Sheep, May 2018)
Arlette has served for several years on the boards of both the Saskatchewan Sheep Development Board and the Canadian Sheep Federation, and we spoke briefly about the benefits of industry engagement, board volunteerism, and the learning and social benefits to be had at sheep conferences. But sometimes she leaves these events discouraged. The technology, impressive infrastructure and large lamb crops highlighted at these events leave her wondering if she needs to embrace new practices. But it only takes a few days back on the farm to reassert her focus on land and nature, healthy sheep and lifestyle enjoyment.
“Instead of pushing for maximum production, we are letting production be what occurs when we look after our animals and land. I operate my place in this way and it works well. We do not have to sacrifice land and animals to have ample production. There is a point where we can say we produce well, we produce enough, and enough is all we need.” (Arlette’s blog, Ranching with Sheep, November 2017)
On my way home, I was once again inspired by my visit with Arlette. On my farm, the exhausting to-do list, the short-sighted desire for perfection and the need for productivity and profitability lead to moments of burnout. Being a small ruminant producer is for me a deep passion. Arlette’s philosophies provide ideas on how to fulfill the passion with balance, peacefulness and time for other interests.
Arlette is a true artist; her drawings and wool art are infused with dogs and sheep. But what she is creating on her farm with her dogs and sheep is a skilled art as well.
“The ewes seem to go precisely where they need to go, but it seldom feels like they planned to go there. Not every animal follows the other when they head out for the day. More often small groups of ewes branch out on finger trails. Yet each group is taking the path of least resistance, flowing and curving with the land, knowing that the most natural way to travel through the day is to find the flow and go with it.” (Arlette’s blog, Ranching with Sheep, November 2017)
Editor’s Note: Readers can follow Arlette’s blog, photography and artwork at woolstoneprairie.com.
Stuart Chutter is a meat goat producer and custom grazier living near Gull Lake, Saskatchewan.