Story & Photos by Cathy Gallivan, PhD
The raised feed alley in one of the barns.
In the 23 years I’ve been interviewing sheep farmers for Sheep Canada magazine, I’ve visited a few operations raising sheep in total confinement in converted pig barns. But I got a surprise when I visited Foothill Farm in Canning, Nova Scotia, the home of Coleman Ueffing and his wife, Drew Slaunwhite. If you didn’t know better, you’d never guess that the buildings where the sheep are housed hadn’t been purpose-built for them. They are as bright and airy as any sheep barns I’ve ever been in.
Coleman is the third generation of his family on the farm, which has at one time or another been home to pigs, chickens (broilers and layers), and even mink. The pig enterprise peaked in 2012 at 2200 sows, when they shipped 1,500 40-lb. weaners every other week. The pigs are gone now, as are the mink, but Coleman’s father still has chickens in three of the 10 barns on the premises.
Coleman Ueffing with a few market lambs
The 130 acres of land and the remaining buildings are available for Coleman and Drew to acquire gradually over a period of years as they build their own farm enterprise. They have been renting 40 acres of grassland and three of the barns, and are making arrangements to purchase those barns plus an additional 65 acres.
Coleman started acquiring sheep three years ago, with the purchase of 30 ewe lambs. He added another 50 six months later and 75 more the following year, to bring the flock up to the current 155. He plans to expand to 400 eventually.
Coleman demonstrating the padded piglet squeeze on this repurposed lambing cart.
Coleman and Drew both work off the farm, so for now they have to fit their farming in around their full-time jobs. Drew is a nurse and works at the Valley Regional Hospital in nearby Kentville. Coleman works for a friend who farms 1,000 acres and raises beef cattle only five minutes away. The proximity of the farm gives Coleman the flexibility to run home during the day if he needs to check on his sheep.
Coleman spent a year at the agricultural college in Truro before returning to the farm and worked in his father’s pig and chicken enterprises. He says he is gradually getting his head around the differences between ruminants and non-ruminants. He makes use of the services offered by Perennia, a provincial development agency based in Truro, and gets his rations balanced by Katie Trottier, a ruminant livestock specialist on the Perennia team.
An aerial shot of the farm, three of the barns have been renovated for the sheep operation.
The rations are based on corn and soybean meal, which are readily available in the area, and Coleman grows his own haylage and hay on the 40 acres of rented land. He plans to grow more of his own feed on the 65 acres they are purchasing. Rather than purchasing all the necessary equipment, he will pay the friend he works for to custom farm it for him, and will probably end up doing the work himself as part of his day job.
There are seven barns available to him as his operation grows, and Coleman has renovated three of them for use with his sheep.
As we walk through the first one, which measures 180×50’, I can see the work that has gone into its conversion. The sides have been opened up to let in light and air, and the cement partitions that made it a pig barn have been jackhammered out. The interior is divided in half lengthways by a raised feed alley, which is wide enough to allow round bales to be unrolled behind a tractor.
Mink cages serve as hay feeders and are used across pig penning that has a new life as claiming pens.
On the day I visited, the only animals in the barn were the rams, plus a couple of cows that belong to Coleman’s mother. The rams are Dorsets and Rideau Arcotts, breeds chosen for their ability to lamb out of season. The Dorsets were sourced from Ryan and Romy Schill in Ontario, and the Rideaus were acquired closer to home from Harry Elsinga on Prince Edward Island. There were also several bags of wool stored in this barn. Coleman hasn’t sold any wool yet, but he uses it for insulation in his barns.
The second and third barns that Coleman has renovated are 220x 50’ and 250×50’, and are connected to each other to form one long, continuous structure that is 470 feet long. The sides of each of these have also been opened up, and the interior concrete dividers removed.
The outside alleyway in one of the barns, complete with a modified pig feeder serving as a waterer.
The shorter barn houses the 155 ewes and the remainder of a recent lamb crop on either side of a raised, central feed alley. Narrow alleyways run the length of the outside walls, and are used to move or sort groups of sheep. Coleman uses a tractor to unroll round bales in this barn as well, and grain and other concentrates are fed by hand. But the alley is wide enough, and the roof high enough, for a TMR mixer that will be added when the flock is large enough to justify it.
The longer barn isn’t used for housing sheep yet but the walls have been opened up and the hard work of removing the concrete pen dividers has been done, leaving a huge, open space used to store round bales, as well as panels and equipment not currently in use. A permanent handling system is planned for this barn, at the end that opens to the barn where the sheep are.
Everywhere you look, you see equipment from previous enterprises that has been adapted for sheep. Pig feeders have been modified with floats, turning them into automatic waterers. Other pig feeders serve as mineral feeders. The storage area holds stacks of smooth white panels, once used for penning pigs, which turn into claiming pens at lambing time. The cages formerly used for mink work as hay feeders, spanning two claiming pens
A wheeled cart once used for processing piglets serves the same purpose for lambs.
Unlike other milk replacer machines, the Heatwave milk warmer doesn’t mix the milk replacer powder and water. The machine is designed to be filled with milk replacer, or whole milk, which it then keeps warm and delivers through tubes and nipples to lambs in one or more pens, so that lambs have 24/7 access to milk replacer without the need for frequent mixing and bottle feeding. Coleman uses a non-acidified milk replacer in the Heatwave.
Like the rams, the ewes are mostly Dorset and Rideau Arcott. Coleman alternates between Dorset and Rideau rams with each breeding season, so he always knows which breed sired each group of lambs.
Coleman is interested in accelerated lambing, and has lambed groups of ewes in the fall and winter, but has since decided that winter lambing is not for him. He has more than enough space to lamb all his ewes at once, and this spring decided to simplify things by exposing the whole flock, including some recently-weaned ones, for an August/September lambing. He relies on the ewes’ natural ability to breed out of season, but plans to add light control in the future. A second breeding in late summer will pick up any that fail to conceive for that lambing.
On the day I visited in mid-April, there were four Dorset rams in with the 155 ewes. The ewes, which are between one and three years of age, gave birth to about 1.8 lambs each in the last lambing, and weaned about 1.6. These numbers will increase as the ewes mature and reach their peak production years.
The lambs are grown out to 80–100 pounds, and most are sold to Oulton’s Meats in Windsor. Others go to the Maritime Cattle Market auction in Truro and from there to markets in Ontario. Coleman sells Easter lambs if he has them ready at the right time, but this market isn’t a priority for him.
The feed alleys in the barns are raised so the sheep don’t have to kneel to eat as the bedding pack builds in their pens.
Things are only going to get busier for Coleman and Drew, as they are expecting their first child at the end of July. But they have a unique opportunity to grow their flock at a pace that makes sense for them, with additional land and infrastructure in place and available for purchase as they need it.