By Randy Eros
Graham Rannie and Janice Johnstone run two separate flocks of sheep on their farm near Binscarth, Manitoba, four hours northwest of Winnipeg. Janice has 125 Border Cheviot ewes (100 of which are registered), while Graham has 95 Rambouillet ewes (75 of which are registered), for a total of 220 ewes.
The farmyard sits in the middle of 160 acres of grazing land. The land is divided by permanent fencing into six paddocks of varying sizes. Portable electric fencing is used to further subdivide the paddocks as needed. The pastures are seeded with a variety of forage mixes that include: meadow brome, birdsfoot trefoil, tall fescue, alfalfa, creeping red fescue, orchardgrass and cicer milkvetch.
Graham is quite fond of the milkvetch, saying, “It starts growing in the spring about the same time as the alfalfa. But it’s non-bloating and retains its leaves well into October.”
Graham and Janice also own an adjacent 160 acres. One 30-acre field on this quarter is in alfalfa for hay, and 100 acres are rented out as cropland. The remaining 30 acres is one of the many sloughs that dot the northern reaches of the western prairies.
The land has been in Graham’s family for over a century now, as his grandparents bought it in 1919. The first sheep on the farm were 10 ‘experienced’ ewes that arrived in 1968, when Graham was just 13. He acquired his first registered sheep, four Suffolk ewes, in 1969. The Suffolk flock grew to 125 ewes before being dispersed in 1987, after which Graham kept only commercial ewes until 1994, when he leased a flock of registered Rambouillets with a deal that let him keep two-thirds of the lamb crop. By 2001 he had purchased four small Rambouillet flocks, including the original leased animals, and was on his way as a Rambouillet breeder.
Janice grew up in BC and was involved in the 4H community there. She was quite gifted at fitting out show animals and when asked what she would like for helping a Border Cheviot breeder with some animals, she asked for a bottle lamb. That ewe lamb was the start of her registered Border Cheviot flock, and she can still trace animals in the flock back to that one lamb.
Graham and Janice met, appropriately, at a sheep show in Chilliwack, BC, in 1997 and married in 2004. The shepherds are married, but their flocks aren’t. The two groups of ewes are kept separately all year, with the Border Cheviots shed lambing in April/May and the Rambouillets lambing on pasture in June. Each flock has three or four breeding groups, each bred with a single ram to allow them to register the offspring. Rams are pulled after 35 days of breeding. Breeding in the normal breeding season means that 90–95% of the ewes are covered in the first cycle for both breeds.
Graham and Janice use claiming pens for the Border Cheviot lambing, to give the ewes and lambs a few days to bond before they are combined into step-down groups of 6–8 ewes with their offspring. From there, they get moved into an open-sided shed until the lambing is finished. The lambs are paint branded at birth and docked. No routine injections are given, but animals get treated if they have a problem.
Registered Border Cheviot lambs are double-tagged when they are about a month old, as Janice finds the Shearwell tags too heavy for the small ears of newborn Border Cheviot lambs. The lambs have access to an 18% crude protein creep ration that is reduced to 14% as they grow, and replaced with whole barley after weaning at around 90 days. Once the pastures are up in late May, the flock is moved onto the paddocks for rotational grazing, with a move every four days.
After the Border Cheviots finish lambing there is a short break before the Rambouillets begin. The Rambouillet ewes lamb on pasture with the pregnant ewes being ‘drifted’ forward every two days, while the ewes with newborn lambs stay where they’ve lambed. These ewes with lambs are combined every four or five days, and held in groups of 40 ewes until the entire flock has given birth and the youngest lambs are at least two weeks old. The Rambouillet flock grazes separately from the Border Cheviots all summer, with the Rambouillet lambs having access to the same creep feed as the Border Cheviots.
Graham was quick to point out significant differences in breed behavior when it comes to lambing. The Border Cheviot lambs are quite vigorous and attach to the ewe immediately, “like Velcro”, making handling the lambs easy in a shed lambing setup. A camera in the lambing shed broadcasts images to the house and lets them know if they need to make a trip to the barn at night.
Lambing the Rambouillets is a bit more nuanced, the ewes will give birth and lick the lambs off, nurse them, lay them down and then go off to drink and eat. The fewer interventions in this situation, the better. Graham has learned to leave the flock alone from sunset to sunup; night-time checks just lead to orphan lambs. These pasture-born lambs will be caught with a fishing net by the time they are two days old, for tail docking and tagging.
All of the pastures have access to water, either through strategically placed waterers or hydrants and hoses. The pastures are grazed as late into October as the weather will allow, with hay used to supplement late season grazing.
The Border Cheviot flock is weaned in August and the Rambouillets in September. Once the Rambouillets have been weaned, the lambs from both breeds are combined, and males are separated from females. When I visited the farm in mid-February, there were five different groups on the farm: bred Rambouillet ewes, bred Border Cheviot ewes, mature rams of both breeds, young rams of both breeds, and a single group of ewe lambs and retired ewes of both breeds.
The sheep consume both native grass bales and alfalfa bales in the winter months; most of it is baled by Graham but some of it is purchased. Breeding groups get hay unrolled in the wintering yards, while the other groups are fed in collapsible, round bale feeders. The native grass bales are run through a shredder for the ewes, while the alfalfa is simply unrolled to prevent leaf loss.
The breeding ewes get a flushing ration of whole grain for four weeks before and after breeding. This winter, the native grass hay didn’t test out very well and the ewes are also getting a half-pound of barley every day, all winter long. The winter grain ration is purchased; Graham uses either barley, oats or corn, depending on price and availability. Ration balancing is done with SheepBytes, paying close attention to copper and molybdenum levels. The native grass hay generally tests out with very low copper, so Graham feeds both sheep and cattle minerals to get the appropriate levels.
With only one mature dog and two yearlings, the farm is a little understaffed when it comes to livestock guardian dogs right now. Graham likes to run four or five mature dogs, and will be adding to the group this year. Coyotes are the main challenge, but there are also cougars, wolves and bears in the area.
Graham and Janice have invested in the Ritchie Combi Clamp sheep handling system, and use FarmWorks software for their data management. The Combi Clamp is great for recording weights, and has also made tagging, vaccinating (Glanvac), hoof trimming and sorting all a lot easier. “I figure I’ll be able to keep handling sheep well into my 80’s, no early retirement here,” jokes Graham.
The animals are selected for a number of criteria including average daily gain, conformation, wool quality and breed character. Graham and Janice aim to select the top 10% of the ram lambs and top 30% of the ewe lambs for sale or retention in the flock.
Both flocks have attended and done well at the annual All Canada Sheep Classics, most recently in Humboldt, Saskatchewan in 2019.
Ewe lambs of both breeds are bred to lamb for the first time at two years of age. Graham and Janice find they grow out better this way, and feel that their overall production balances out over the six or seven lambings that most ewes average. The two breeds have similar levels of prolificacy, and lamb out at 160–180%. If enough ewes have triplets, they will create a separate group for them that is run on select pastures and fed a bit of grain. This is the only time when ewes and lambs of both breeds graze together.
Lambs that don’t make the cut for breeding are marketed through livestock auction yards in Virden, Manitoba or Yorkton, Saskatchewan, both of which are about 75 minutes away. The Border Cheviot lambs finish at 90–110 pounds; the larger-framed Rambouillets can go much higher. But lately Graham has been selecting Rambouillet rams for a lighter mature weight, somewhere around 250–325 pounds, in order to produce finished lambs that are better suited to the Canadian market.
Over the last 20 years, two-thirds of the Rambouillet rams that Graham has used have come out of the US; a few have been sourced in Canada and the rest retained from within the flock. Finding registered Border Cheviot rams to bring into the flock is more difficult. Janice has the largest registered flock in the country and has sold rams coast to coast; finding new, unrelated, genetics can be a challenge. They are working with their local vet to explore the possibility of importing semen for an AI program.
Wool quality is an important factor in the selection process for the Rambouillets. Graham’s interest in wool is a reflection of his time as a roustabout in shearing sheds on the other side of the world. Fresh out of high school, he worked on a mixed farm on New Zealand’s North Island, where the one-man operation ran 2,000 ewes, 1,600 hoggets, 300 feeder cattle and 60 breeding cows. In his words, “it exposed this prairie kid to a whole different type of farming.”
From there he went on to spend the next three years working for shearing crews in both New Zealand and Australia. He learned to shear by doing the bellies and crutching, and finishing up the last few sheep in a run. His first real day of shearing came when one of the shearers showed up late and told Graham he was welcome to get started. There was some discussion at the end of the day whether his count was 99 or 101; either way it was a good day’s work that set him up for some custom shearing back home in Canada. A nagging shoulder injury forced Graham to get a shearer in to help out this year, a new thing as he has always done his own before now.
Graham has done some interesting work improving the quality and quantity of wool produced by the Rambouillets. He sends samples to Lisa Surber, of LM Livestock Services in the US, for fibre diameter analysis. The results from the 2021 clip off the yearling ewes are impressive. The average micron count for the 20 samples was 19.40, with the finest measuring 17.48. In Graham’s experience, the count will go up by 1 micron as the animals get older. The fibre diameter for the flock falls between 21 and 23 microns.
Selection for fleece weight is another important consideration. In 2007, Graham imported a South Dakota ram that added significantly to the fleece weights by increasing both staple length and fibre density. The mature ewes will shear a 12-pound fleece that will skirt down to 7–8 pounds of good wool. The staple length on the yearling samples runs 3–4 inches.
A few years ago Graham purchased some coloured, commercial ewes. By breeding them to his Rambouillet rams he has created a small group of commercial ewes with rich-coloured, well-crimped, fine wool that is perfect for hand spinners and felters. The Rambouillet wool is sold to a number of small mills across the prairies, with some of the best fleeces held back for the craft market. While most producers are struggling to cover the cost of shearing with their wool sales, Graham figures the sale of the Rambouillet wool represents as much as 20% of the income generated from the flock.
Managing any purebred sheep flock is a lot of work. The feeding, lambing, record-keeping, shearing, selection and marketing are only a few of the tasks that need to be done. These two shepherds have a wealth of knowledge and no shortage of experience. Graham notes that between the two of them they’ve been shepherds for over a century, and they’re still going.
Randy Eros and Solange Dusablon and their son Michel own and operate Seine River Shepherds near Ste.-Anne, Manitoba.