Story & Photos by Randy Eros

Owen and Jennifer Gentes’ operation, Gentes Ridge Ranch, is an hour and a half northwest of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan along the #16 highway and from there a short 15 minute drive south, past the town of Battleford.

The farmyard sits in the middle of 480 acres of rolling mixed prairie land. Seventy acres in hay and 175 acres split evenly for oats, green feed and barley with the rest forest and native grass. Owen and Jennifer purchased the land in 2012, it is now home to a flock of 300 Rideau Arcott, most of them registered purebreds. They have three children, Simon ,21 is at the University of Saskatchewan, Andrew, 19 is working in Saskatoon and their daughter Grace, 17 is in her last year of high school.

Owen was raised on a 300 acre beef farm near the small community of Corning, an hour and a half southeast of Regina. Owen jokes about it being the typical small prairie community; there was him and one other student in his high school graduating class. Jennifer was raised in Saskatoon but like many prairie kids there are some strong farm roots; her uncle still works the family farm near Duck Lake, Saskatchewan.

West side of the 38′ x 80′ hoop barn.

Owen and Jennifer’s first farm was a 160 acre parcel located east of Saskatoon. There they ran a few horses and their first sheep. They purchased a flock of 57 commercial Canadian Arcott from Richard Zubot that they ran with the kids for 4H programs. Their main farm activity at the time was the annual production and delivery of 16,000 small square hay bales for the acreage farms in the surrounding area.

Groups of ewes feeding in the central alley-way on the east side.

When they moved to the new farm, near Battelford, 10 years ago there was no infrastructure for the sheep. The house had been used as a lodge for a neighbouring hunt farm. At the time Owen and Jennifer both worked full time in Battleford, Jennifer teaching and Owen working in the hydraulic industry.

The transition to a bigger sheep operation on the new farm had a bit of a rough start. They expanded to 100 ewes and in that same year ran into a problem with a pelleted ration that had been made from grain with high levels of ergot infection. “That tainted feed reduced milk production and poor blood circulation caused frozen ears and feet, those were some of the problems” Owen recalled. They choose to sell off the flock and start again. Since that experience they have grown most of their own grains.

The livestock guardian dog, an essential part of prairie sheep management.

The following year, 2013, they started to repopulate the sheep flock, picking up 50 Rideau x Charollais ewes. That same year, the Saskatchewan branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) was called in to disperse the sheep flock from a large farm operation in southern Saskatchewan. Groups of purebred Registered Rideau ewes were tendered for sale and the Gentes were successful in purchasing a group of 250 young ewes. They sold off part of the group and ended up with just over 100 ewe lambs and one year old ewes. Owen remembers bringing them home “they were advertised as open ewes, but of course, more than a few of them lambed.”

A group of 2022 born ewe lambs.

They were initially lambing the mature flock in February and then the ewe lambs in April but as their flock expanded and Owen reduced his offfarm work, they changed their lambing program. They now run what Owen describes as a modified accelerated operation “Groups of 30 to 40 ewes are exposed to lamb almost year-round.” They don’t expose ewes for a May lambing in order to free up time for spring seeding, nor August or September to accommodate harvest. Besides their own crops Owen also helps his neighbours during seeding and harvest.

The operation that they built allows Owen to handle different groups of ewes and lambs with real efficiency. The only fully enclosed part of the operation is a 38’ x 80’ hoop barn that sits at the west end of a long central feeding alley. All of the pens, 11 in all, can access the alley for sorting and grain feeding. Grain is pail fed into wooden troughs in the alleyway and the selected group is allowed in to feed. When the group is finished with the grain Owen’s border collie, Kate, will run the sheep back into their pen, the gate is closed and the next group is fed. The dry ewes and replacement ewe lambs are fed whole oats while barley is fed to lactating ewes, bred ewes and young rams. The feeding system was made even more efficient a few years ago when Owen installed a grain shed on the south side of the alleyway. Now the grain is just a few feet from where he needs it. Hay is fed in collapsible round-bale feeders inside the pens. Several of the pens have access to larger areas and when I was at the farm in January two groups of ewes were being fed their hay and green feed on nearby stubble fields. Depending on the weather Owen will unroll this feed daily or every second day.

They put up their own 5’x 6’ round bales of alfalfa and oat green feed and usually grow all of their grain. Drought affected their region in 2021 and feed supplies were limited. Owen was happy to have some carry over from 2021 but still had to buy in some oats, barley and flax screenings.

Shearwell auto drafter with RFIDreader panels and a Bluetooth enabled scale.

The hoop barn plays a number of different roles. The sorting system is set on one end of the barn and includes a Shearwell automatic drafter with a Bluetooth scale and a Ritchie Combi Clamp. Owen is a big fan of the Bluetooth scale and the CSIP tags (Canadian Sheep Identification Program) “it would take me two hours to weigh 200 lambs now I can do it in 20 minutes, with no errors.” The automatic drafter comes with build in RFID reader panels making life a lot easier, “though both the panels and the gates will slow down a bit in our extreme cold weather.” He has used other holding crates but finds the Ritchie combi clamp works better for CIDRs, “fewer broken applicators and sore hands” he says. Owen feels that the better your handling system the more likely you are to use it.

The whole flock is sheared at the end of April. Laurie Reed, an Alberta based shearer, and his crew will have the work done in a day. The wool is bagged up and sold through Canadian Cooperative Wool Growers.

Small breeding pens.

The claiming pens are portable and get set up as needed for each group. As the lambing continues the space can be converted to a post lambing area for the ewes and young lambs.

The ewes are managed differently; depending on if they are to be bred in-season or “out-of season”. Owen considers in-season breeding for his Rideaus to be anytime between September and early February. No CIDRs (Controlled Intervaginal Drug Release) are used but the ewes will get a shot of Estrumate seven days prior to breeeding and then again when the rams are turned in. For out-of-season breeding with the mature ewes, CIDRs will be inserted 12 days prior to breeding and removed on the day of breeding. For in-season breeding of ewe lambs Owen will insert the CIDRs for six days prior to breeding. There is sufficient drugs remaining in the CIDRs to use them a second time when breeding the next group of ewe lambs.

Customized management tags.

Owen describes himself as “a big fan” of the GenOvis program. “We are not scanning for carcass traits yet but that may change.” Over the last few years they’ve brought in rams from Christian Beaudry at Agronovie in Granby, Québec. The Top Ram reports are what Owen looks to when choosing new rams. “I like the work they’ve done in Québec, they’re light years ahead with these genetic selection programs.”

As a breeder of purebred registered stock Owen is very careful with his breeding. After the CIDRs are removed the ewes are sorted into groups of five or six head and placed in small pens with a single purebred ram. The rams are in with the ewes for only three days. This tight breeding timeframe means that when the ewes are induced with Dexamethsone at 143 days the lambs are born within a three-day window. All ewes are vaccinated with Case-Bac, four weeks prior to lambing.

Moving from annual lambing to this accelerated system has dropped the average lambing percentage but not the overall number of lambs born each year. With annual lambing the ewes were averaging 2.87 lambs, now it varies, depending on the season, from 2.2 to 2.6 per lambing. Given that the ewes are now lambing more often it works out about the same and Owen finds he has fewer bottle lambs.

Ewes are usually left with 2 or 3 lambs and the extras are raised using a Grober machine. He has used a Lac-Tek in the past and find they both worked well for their operation. Owen called the milk replacer machines game changers “as the flock grew, we just didn’t have time for bottles.”

They have been on the GenOvis program for the last 6 years using Farmworks to capture their lambing data. The ewes and lambs will spend a day in the claiming pens where the lambs are weighed and a customized Shearwell management tag (non RFID) is applied. All of the lambs are docked and any commercial male lambs are castrated. They purchase an 18% creep ration for the preweaned lambs and also make sure that they are exposed to the mixed ration that will become their complete diet after weaning.

Lambs are weaned, weighed and given a Case-Bac vaccination at 50 days. One of the advantages of the tight lambing groups is the accuracy of the 50 day weight data; the lambs really are 50 days old. The ewe lambs and ram lambs will be given a Case-Bac booster four weeks later. The CSIP tags are also applied at weaning. The commercial lambs get a regular CSIP tag while the purebred lambs get the matched-set CSIP tags which work as an alternative to tattooing. The weaned lambs are fed an on farm mixed ration of barley and soya bean meal. Owen does his ration balancing with the SheepBytes program. A few years ago he tried replacing the soya bean meal with canola meal as a less expensive option but wasn’t happy with the results. “Palatability was the problem; the lambs wouldn’t eat it.” Feed for the weaned lambs is delivered through a long Flex Flow auger that fills a series of repurposed hog feeders. The feeders are hung on chains inside a south facing open sided shelter. The feeder heights can be adjusted to accommodate additional bedding. Minerals and vitamins are fed free choice to all the sheep using salvaged auger scoops, screwed to the shelter walls.

Market lambs are sold through the Saskatchewan Sheep Development Board (SSDB). The Saskatoon assembly yard is an hour and a half away. Registered Rideau ewe and ram lambs are usually in high demand with sales of 150 head per year. Things changed in 2022 with the collapse of the North American Lamb Company (NALCO). The dispersal of NALCO’s large flock had a negative effect on western Canadian breeding stock sales and the Gentes were not immune to this. Owen ended up wintering more ewe lambs this year. “This year we had quite a few folks back out of sales, they were taking advantage of NALCO’s dispersal, but the demand for good breeding stock will bounce back.”

The pen of registered Rideau rams. Opposite page left: ewes and lambs in the hoop barn. Right: Weaned lambs with the flex-auger fed feeders.

This visit with Owen and Jennifer showed me a new way of looking at year-round lambing. The fact that they can run this many sheep, in this many groups in a set up that is primarily out of doors was inspiring. Owen has spent time on the SSDB as well as on the board of the Canadian Sheep Federation. Through all that time he has seen more than a few sheep operations and he’s paid close attention. “I am a dreamer, when I see something that works, I wonder how I can take it home and use it”. Clearly a philosophy that has paid off.