By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Photos by Louise Liebenberg
I am always interested to hear how the sheep producers I meet came to be raising sheep. There are a few who grew up on sheep farms themselves, but more often there is some other livestock enterprise, or an off-farm job, that has been supplemented or replaced by sheep farming.
Louise Liebenberg’s story began in South Africa, where she was born and raised and where she got her first Border Collie at the age of 14. Although her family was not involved in farming they lived near a research station that had sheep, where she was able to work her dog. After graduating from university with a Bachelor of Science degree, she (and the dog) travelled the world until they ended up in the Netherlands. Here she met her former husband and together they ran a grazing company that employed up to five shepherds, grazing sheep on dikes, golf courses and military installations all over the country. As the demand for ecological grazing increased, they started a sheep grazing school in the Netherlands.
But Louise missed the wide-open spaces of South Africa and, after travelling extensively to explore where they wanted to live next, they moved to the High River area of northern Alberta in 2008.
Preferring to buy as many sheep as possible from a single source, they started out with 100 crossbred ewes of Rambouillet, Dorset and Suffolk breeding from the Twilight Hutterite Colony in Falher. Louise prefers the Dorset to the Rambouillet or Suffolk, and they are now the predominant breed in the flock. She also uses some Suffolk rams as terminal sires.
A year after purchasing the sheep, the family started to build their herd of Angus cattle. By the end of 2014, they had 50 cows and the sheep flock had grown to over 700 ewes.
But in January of 2015, a fire took their barn, their tractor, all of their equipment and tools, and about 30 ewes and lambs. It could have been worse. They had planned to put all the ewes in the barn the day before the fire. But because of a meeting that ran late, they decided to do it the next day. Although most of the ewes were saved, it was a disastrous situation: several hundred heavily pregnant ewes in a northern Alberta winter with no shelter.
With lambing about to begin and temperatures plummeting to -35 degrees C, the community responded. Neighbours parked stock trailers in the yard to house ewes with newborn lambs, a (roofless) shelter was constructed from round bales to provide protection from the worst of the wind, and a fabric-type shelter was provided at cost. Donations of feed, a small shed, and lambing pens were made. But even with all this help, the 2015 lambing was a stressful and difficult one, with higher than usual losses of lambs.
By 2016, a new barn (300’x80’x26’) with a dirt floor, trusses and metal siding had been constructed, there was a new tractor, and some of the tools and other equipment had been replaced. But in 2018, another setback occurred when Louise’s husband left her and the ranch. Their children (Jess and Roy Verstappen) stayed on the farm. The flock was downsized after the fire and is currently around 200 ewes, but the cow herd has grown to 125 head.
Jess (25) works for Cargill, and has been working from home since the pandemic began. She is more interested in the farm than her brother, particularly in the cattle. Roy (21) is back working full time off the farm as a woodworker, after being laid off early in the pandemic.
January is busy on the ranch, with most of the ewes and about 10 of the cows giving birth inside the barn. The early lambing lasts for just one month, which is as long as Louise wants to lamb during the cold, short days of January in northern Alberta. A smaller group of ewes that don’t catch for January lambing, plus any ewe lambs that are too small to breed early, lambs later in April. The late lambing also takes place inside, to free up corral space for the rest of the cows, which calve at the same time.
The lambing rate isn’t particularly high; the ewes drop around 150% and wean 130%. Louise has struggled with Chlamydia abortions in the past. She feels that problem is now under control, but she still prefers not to sell ewe lambs.
Most of the lamb losses come at 3-4 weeks of age and are caused by Clostridium perfringens Type A. This diagnosis was confirmed by sending dead lambs to the vet school in Saskatoon for post mortem examinations. The 8-way vaccines available in Canada contain Clostridium perfringens Types C and D, but not Clostridium perfringens Type A. There is a vaccine available in other countries however, which contains all three types. The Canadian Sheep Federation has been working with Merck and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to obtain some of this vaccine, Covexin-10, and hopes to have it in the hands of producers this fall.
Louise owns five quarters (160 acres each) and leases two more from the government. She rents another four quarters for putting up feed. That seems like a lot of land, even when the flock numbered 700 ewes. But the land is covered in spruce and aspen, in addition to grass, and the growing season at this latitude (55.4 degrees north) is short.
And then there is the drought. In contrast to the 18 inches of rain that fell in the area in 2020, they got only 3.5 inches this year over the summer. It has rained recently, but it came too late to help with this year’s pastures or forage crop.
About 650 acres are used for grazing the cattle and sheep. The cattle go to the grazing lease and some rented pastures; the sheep tend to stay closer to home.
Louise puts up forage on 550-600 acres, in a mix of hay, greenfeed, chopped silage and round bale silage; the proportions of each vary from year to year with the climate. She usually makes 1,000-1,500 round bales (1,450 lb.) of hay a year, plus 80-150 greenfeed bales. In wet years, more of the crop goes into silage. But some of her fields are 10+ km from home and that, plus the drought, made custom harvesting and trucking of silage impractical this year so most of the forage was put up as hay. About one-eighth of the feed goes into round silage bales, primarily to provide quality feed to the cows calving in April. The greenfeed is usually a mix of oats, wheat, barley and peas underseeded to alfalfa. This year’s greenfeed is straight oats.
Louise is likely to need every acre she has to obtain enough feed for her animals this year. She normally harvests 2.5 round bales per acre but this year that has dropped to 1-1.5 bales per acre. The federal and provincial governments are offering drought relief that will total $200 per cow and $40 per ewe but the problem may be in finding feed to buy, as everyone else in the area is in the same boat.
Louise tests everything she feeds and the sheep get the best forage; the cows clean up the rest, including silage from the edges of the pit. This year, Louise will be supplementing the forage she has with a forage pellet from Cargill.
Louise does most of the fieldwork herself, with the help of her son and daughter when they are available. She trades labour with one neighbour, who does all her baling, and another who is a mechanic and does the maintenance on all the equipment. The silage chopping and trucking is contracted out.
The feeding program is forage-based, with purchased barley and peas being fed at lambing time. Round bales of hay are fed along a fenceline feeder inside the barn, with round bale feeders for small groups such as the rams. Silage from the pit is brought into the barn using the tractor, and spread along the fenceline feeder.
The lambs born in January are weaned and sold before the grazing season begins. They get a pelleted creep feed by the time they are 10 days old, and a complete grower pellet after weaning at 10 weeks of age. These lambs will all be sold by mid-June, when Louise turns her attention to managing the summer grazing. The April-born lambs spend the summer grazing with the ewes. They get sold at the end of the summer after being weaned, vaccinated and wormed, and after becoming accustomed to eating grain.
The lambs are sold to Roger Albers in Stony Plain (east of Edmonton), who also takes any cull ewes. Louise finds it difficult to stay on top of the markets in central Alberta on a daily or weekly basis from her location in the north, and prefers to sell the lambs for a prearranged price rather than take a chance on the auction at Tofield. She makes the 5½ hour (one way) trip herself, with a trailer that can haul 45-50 lambs at a time, or 90 when it is double-decked.
Before the fire, most of the lambs produced on the ranch were sold as finished lambs, and they used to buy and finish lambs from other producers. But now Louise sells them earlier in the year at around 70 pounds, although that varies with the relative price of lighter or heavier lambs. Louise averaged about $180 on the lambs she shipped in June.
Most of the calves are kept over the winter. Louise sells bulls at two years of age, as well as yearling replacement heifers. She sold some freezer beef packs last year but found it time-consuming and is not sure if she will continue with it.
Much of the grazing is on marginal land, but because most of the ewes are open and dry during the summer they are able to get back into condition for breeding in August, and Louise doesn’t have to move the flock as often as she would if they all had lambs on them. But even with these efficiencies, grazing the sheep is a full-time job in the summer. The ewes are occasionally as far from the home place as 30 km, and Louise sees all of the sheep every day, as well as bringing them water and minerals. Some of the pastures are watered from dugouts, but many are not and have to be watered from tanks on the back of the pickup or pulled behind the tractor
Raising sheep extensively in northern Alberta means having a good predator control system, as there are bears, wolves and cougars in the area, in addition to coyotes. Louise relies on her livestock guardian dogs to keep her in business. Her experience grazing sheep in Europe, combined with her years in northern Alberta, have led to her writing a regular column on the use of livestock guardian dogs for an American sheep magazine; she has also been invited to speak on the subject at sheep industry conferences.
Louise’s passions include both wildlife and ranching, which would seem like a conflict to many. Rather than trying to eliminate all of the potential predators in the area, she uses her dogs to coexist with them, even in 2017 when a pack of wolves with seven pups were denning within sight of her barnyard. This approach has earned her a wildlife-friendly certification for her farm from an international organization (wildlifefriendly.org) that began in the US as a way for ranchers to market their wool as predator-friendly.
Louise’s breed of choice for guarding the sheep is the Šarplaninac, a breed that comes from Macedonia. She currently has seven of these dogs, five working and two retired, plus a new litter of puppies. There are also two working Border Collies and one that is retired, plus a ‘yard’ dog.
Prior to the fire, Louise had an extensive set of portable panels that could be assembled anywhere into a handling system. Since then, with the reduced size of the flock, she manages vaccinations and other treatments by crowding animals into an alleyway inside the barn that holds about 40 ewes at a time. Although she is pretty efficient at doing things by herself, she occasionally gets an assist from a local 4-H club looking for hands-on experience. The members of the club also visit the farm and even spend the night sometimes during the lambing season.
There was also a completely automated Shearwell handling and weighing system that Louise hasn’t been able to justify replacing, but she still uses the FarmWorks software that was purchased with the system to track her ewes and their production. The lambs are identified but not weighed individually, and most of her selection efforts are directed at identifying poor-doing lambs and ewes to be culled. She uses a cattle scale to weigh lambs in groups, to track their average weights and plan her loads south to the feedlot.
Louise says it’s hard to get a shearer in her area in the spring. She is thinking of transitioning to a fall shearing system that would make it easier to book someone and also reduce the condensation in the cold part of the barn during winter lambing. The farm’s wool has been sold to the Canadian Cooperative Wool Growers in the past, but this year’s wool is still waiting to be shipped.
Louise’s plans for the future include rebuilding to around 350 ewes. She is contemplating introducing another breed to the flock. She would like to sell more lambs, but like many sheep producers, she prefers twins to triplets. She doesn’t want to increase the prolificacy of the flock to an extent that would require a lot of extra labour or other major changes to her current production system.