By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Stacey White and his sister, Tara Giesbrecht, are living their dream of being sheep farmers. Four years ago, Stacey was living and working as a vet in Toronto. Tara was living with her husband and three children on an acreage near Bentley, Alberta, and working part-time on a dairy farm. That all changed in 2012 when they bought a quarter-section (160 acres) in west-central Alberta and brought home 100 ½-Romanov ewe lambs. Then they moved a second house onto the quarter, so that both of them could live on-site and be directly involved in the daily care of the sheep. The farm has about 120 acres of grassland, with 60 acres fenced for elk or (as it turns out) sheep and divided into four large paddocks. The remaining 60 acres is too wet and rough for haymaking, but is fenced for the horses that Tara’s family brought with them. This summer, Stacey and Tara hope to make more of the remaining 60 acres safe for the sheep to graze, at least during the day.
The dream seems to include a lot of work. Stacey works two days a week at a vet clinic in nearby Bluffton, and three days a week as the General Manager of the Canadian Sheep Breeders’ Association (CSBA). Tara homeschooled her daughter Journey (16) until she was in the tenth grade, and still homeschools her son, Graylin (14), and daughter, Sheraton (12). Tara’s husband Roger works full time as a chiropractor.
The flock has grown from the original 100 to 150 ewes, plus 33 ewe lambs. In addition to the ½-Romanovs, there are ¾-Romanovs and a few ¾-Rideau Arcotts. Their ideal ewe is ½ highly prolific and ½ East Friesian. The ewe lambs are all half East Friesian, and Tara and Stacey are eagerly anticipating their first lambing.
Both Stacey and Tara want a bigger flock, but the drought in Alberta last year forced them to sell most of their ewe lambs and cull heavily. The dream of a thousand ewes is still alive, but on hold until the facilities can be expanded, Stacey can cut back his off-farm work, and Tara’s children require less of her time.
The sheep work hard too, lambing every eight months in January, September and May. Because the lambing barn can only accommodate 50 ewes for winter lambing, Stacey and Tara lamb 50 in January and again in September, with the rest (100 ewes) lambing in between, in May. This larger group is then re-exposed in August to lamb again in January of the following year (along with any that failed to conceive in April). In order to limit the number of ewes lambing in the winter, however, the rams are removed after 50 ewes have been marked. The remainder of this larger group (50+ ewes) join the smaller September-lambing group for breeding in December and lamb in May of the next year.
Ewes are flushed in August and April, but Stacey and Tara have learned that flushing doesn’t affect prolificacy in their flock for the May lambing, when the problem tends to be one of too many, rather than too few, lambs.
Teaser rams are used in all three breeding seasons (August, December and April) to get the ewes cycling prior to the introduction of the intact rams. Rams are kept some distance from the dry ewes, to get the best response once the teasers go in (ram effect). The breeding season lasts only 17 days after introduction of the intact rams, so it’s important to have as many ewes cycling as possible at that point. Stacey finds the use of the teaser rams most important for the August mating, as the ewes bred in August are synchronised and those bred in December have been cycling for months by the time the rams go in.
Stacey and Tara have discovered that few of their ewes will cycle in April without the use of a CIDR, although Stacey acknowledges that more of them might if they hadn’t just lambed in January and been weaned at the end of March. CIDRs are inserted for 12 days, with PMSG injected at CIDR removal; the ewes are expected to breed 24-48 hours later.
The first year they tried this program (2014), 20 out of 20 ewes were marked; one turned up open and another was culled for mastitis. In 2015, 47 ewes were marked, but only 35 subsequently lambed.
Tara and Stacey have also learned that some of their rams won’t breed in April. The farm has a lot of rams relative to the size of the flock (9, plus the teaser). This is partly because they use different breeds to sire replacement ewes and terminal lambs, but also so each ram has only five ewes to breed in April. In addition to Romanovs and a Rideau, there are terminal sires (Charollais and Canadian Arcott), an East Friesian and an Ile de France x Rideau cross. The Romanovs and the Rideau ram do well in the spring, as do the Charollais and the Canadian; the East Friesian and the crossbred ram are less successful.
This year, for the first time, they used CIDRs on 33 replacements, in an effort to have more sheep lambing in September. These ‘ewe lambs’ were born in May of 2015 and will, hopefully, be lambing this fall at 18 months of age. Stacey says their ewe lambs often have triplets and, although they mother them well, they don’t always have enough milk for the job. They are hoping that letting them grow a few months longer will allow more of them to raise three lambs.
Stacey says they’re learning all the time, and I get the impression that being able to try new ideas and see how they work is a big part of what he and Tara enjoy about being sheep farmers. They both love the constant activity of multiple breedings and lambings, and challenging the ewes to see how much they can produce. Lambing frequently allows them to get the most out of their small lambing barn and available pasture, and to take advantage of better prices at the SunGold plant in Innisfail for “less seasonal” lambs. Although it creates more work than lambing once a year, it makes it easier because the work is spaced out over the year.
Even with the limitations of their small barn, there have been 599 lambings on the farm since April of 2013, with 1,536 lambs born. To keep track of all these animals and monitor their performance, Stacey and Tara invested early in a Psion handheld tag reader/computer and a (used) Model 250 Reliable electronic scale, which allows for quick and easy data collection in the barn and transfer to a desktop computer in the office.
Record-keeping starts with the breeding season; marking harnesses indicate dates of service so they know when each ewe should lamb. At lambing, they record the sire and dam ID, the lambing date and litter size (including stillborn lambs), as well as the ID of each lamb, its birth weight, 50- and 100-day weights and market weight. Although FarmWorks does a good job of collecting data and sorting sheep into management groups, Stacey uses the GenOvis system for making selection and culling decisions. And now that FarmWorks is compatible with GenOvis, he can upload flock data without having to re-enter it online.
All of Stacey and Tara’s animals are on GenOvis, and they don’t buy rams that don’t have GenOvis evaluations. Because most of their replacement ewe lambs score very high on the maternal index (90th percentile or higher), they refine their choices by looking for ewe lambs that are also in the 75th percentile or higher for growth. Once ewe lambs with this combination have been identified, they are subject to further culling for conformation, and those whose dams have had lambing problems or that have poor udder conformation are also culled, regardless of how good their numbers are.
Because the flock is young, Tara and Stacey haven’t had to cull much for production yet. But they do expect every ewe to be able to raise decent triplets (triplets that can’t be told from twins at 50-day weighing), without supplemental feeding of colostrum or extra care at birth. They regularly foster orphan lambs onto twin-bearing ewes, and cull ewes that can’t raise three lambs. The farm has a Lac-Tek automatic milk replacer feeder, but Stacey and Tara do everything they can to avoid raising lambs artificially, even selling some as bottle lambs.
With everyone on the farm having other jobs and roles, clearly-defined job descriptions are important. Tara does all the morning chores, hauls animals to market, does the book-keeping and uses FarmWorks to keep track of animals on the computer. Stacey feeds in the evening, balances rations, makes selection decisions and does the vet work. They coordinate times to weigh lambs, fill feeders, clean barns, move sheep, etc., and Graylin and Sheraton also help out.
Everyone pitches in during lambing. With ewes giving birth to so many lambs, Stacey checks the sheep every two hours from late afternoon till 2 am; Tara comes on at 4 am and works till mid-afternoon.
Tara’s husband, Roger, is in charge of mechanics, and his parents bought a skid steer for the farm. Stacey and Tara’s parents, Wayne and Brenda, recently moved from Saskatchewan to a house in Rimbey. Their strength has been in getting facilities ready; they took charge of renovations on both Stacey’s and Tara’s homes as well as a rebuild of the barn.
Stacey and Tara have achieved remarkable results with their young flock (see GenOvis chart), both in terms of the number of lambs born and their negligible death loss. Lambs that are born alive tend to stay that way, but they have been plagued with a higher-than-expected number of deformed, stillborn and/or mummified lambs. Stacey has worked hard to solve the problem, consulting nutritionists and other veterinarians. Infectious causes of abortion have been ruled out by repeated testing through Alberta’s Small Ruminant Abortion program. In May of this year, they increased the level of selenium/Vitamin E injected into the ewes prior to lambing, and had only one deformed lamb out of 289. But they still got some stillborn and mummified lambs, all in the last week of lambing, so are now considering another round of injections for ewes that lamb later in the cycle. Ergot has also been suggested, and they did reduce the grain fed this year, so it is hard to say which change, if either, made the difference.
Dry ewes spend the winter on round bales. Stacey and Tara buy all of their hay and, with ewes giving birth to so many lambs so often, they don’t take chances; all of the hay is tested each year. Although it’s hard to limit the consumption of ewes on round bales, they use condition scoring to determine when to start feeding grain. Tara and Stacey have been lucky to obtain large square bales of dairy-quality hay the last few years, which is reserved for late gestation and lactation. Ewes feeding triplets are supplemented with dried distillers grains (DDG) added to their barley.
Stacey relies heavily on SheepBytes to do his initial ration formulations; then he condition scores a few quiet ewes every day and adjusts the rations as required.
January-born lambs get a commercial creep crumble with added Deccox to limit coccidiosis. Lambs born in May or September get a combination of barley and DDG, which is continued after weaning. May-born lambs are pastured with the ewes but are also creep fed on pasture, which Stacey says is important for the triplet lambs, and allows for a seamless weaning at 60 days of age. Weaned lambs stay on pasture with their creep for a week after weaning, and then move to a drylot.
For the past two years, all of the lambs have been forward contracted to SunGold at market weight. Getting carcass data back on the lambs helps Tara and Stacey manage their feeding, marketing and genetics to produce even better lambs in the future.
Stacey shared a report from SunGold with me, on a group of 51 lambs shipped in December. The printout shows the CSIP number, GR measurement, hot carcass weight, premium (or deduction) and rail grade price for each lamb individually. The 51 lambs averaged 114.2 lb. live, and had hot carcass weights that ranged from 48 to 63 lb., with an average of 54.4 lb.
Most of the lambs were Yield Grade 1 or 2; two were a bit fatter (YG3), and two were underfinished (YGC). The base price that day was 3.50/lb. on the rail, which would have earned Tara and Stacey an average of $190.40 per lamb, but the printout also shows premiums on individual lambs for desirable hot weights and fat covers, which ranged from $1.16 to $11.40 (not counting the two underfinished lambs, which had deductions rather than premiums), and a further premium of $.02/lb. on the entire group because the lambs were clean when they arrived at the plant. With the premiums (and the two deductions) included, the 51 lambs averaged $199.24 or $3.66/lb. on the rail. The current payment grid at SunGold can be seen on the company website at sungoldmeats.com, under the ‘For Producers’ tab.
I asked Stacey for some closing thoughts on the farm and their plans for the future:
“Having the farm has been a dream come true, for both Tara and I. We came at it with some farm experience, but we know we’ll always be learning and the sheep will always find new ways of surprising us.
“Our story has lots of embarrassing mistakes, but we hope it will inspire other city-dwellers or dreamers to take a leap of faith. We recommend developing a support network to take the leap with you! Our families have been dedicated to our dream, and we couldn’t do any of this without them.
“We were also very lucky to start with healthy, productive genetics from long term producers who devoted hours of their time to showing us the ropes.
“Neither Tara nor I plan on moving again. The farm is our home and the sheep our retirement plan. We hope they keep us active as seniors, and we would both rather spend January in the barn than someplace sunny further south…at least at this point in our lives”