Story By Randy Eros. Photos by Sheep Canada & Brooke Aitken

Brooke Aitken and Chris Howard’s farm, Loch Lomond Livestock Ltd., is a 45-minute drive from the Trans-Canada highway. I turned north at Moose Jaw and drove through what can best be described as ‘the middle of the Canadian prairie.’ Section after section of flat, open fields, waiting patiently for warm weather and spring seeding.

I followed Brooke’s detailed instructions (turn left at the gravel piles), and as I approached the farm there was a subtle change in the land. After miles of grain and oil seed fields I started to see a few fences. A little rise and fall to the land and again more fences. The power to the farms in this area is all trenched in, there are no power poles to block the view of the prairie landscape. Saskatchewan’s licence plate motto, Land of Living Skies, came to mind.

Top: Chris Howard and Brooke Aitken take a minute with the dogs after feeding the flock. Above: Brooke hauling two bales for the ewe flock’s daily feeding.

Fences, pastures and hay land dominated the landscape as I followed another grid road and pulled up to the farm. A welcoming committee of curious livestock guardian dogs kept me entertained while I waited for Brooke and Chris to come across the yard with the tractor carrying two hay bales for the ewe flock.

The flock of 280 ewes and 70 ewe lambs is mostly Clun Forest and Clun Forest cross. The cross bred ewes have Dorset, Romney, Blue Faced Leicester and Dorper influences. Brooke and Chris also run a herd of 120 Angus cross cow/calf pairs.

The operation runs on 26 quarters of land or 4,160 acres. It is all grazing and hay land with six of the quarters leased from the Nature Conservancy. Brooke is the third generation in her family to farm this land. “My grandparents, Bruce and Lorna Aitkin bought the farm in 1942, my folks John and Sandra took over in 1969. We farmed with my folks till 2021 when they retired and moved off the farm, although they are still involved and help out, especially in the busy season ” For Brooke, sheep have always been part of the farm. “Mom and Dad started with them in the 70’s and I remember getting my first five ewes when I was five years old.”

Brooke went to the University of Saskatchewan and has a Bachelor’s degree in Animal Science with a Master’s studying maternal behaviours in beef cows. When I asked Brooke why she chose to study cows and not sheep, her response “Not enough research money in sheep, but there is in cattle.” She came back to the farm in 2010. Chris is a fifth-generation farmer growing up on a local grain farm. After high school he worked with heavy equipment in the oil industry but has been on the farm full time since 2020.

Brooke expanded the sheep flock by sourcing stock from several breeders over the years. “Mary Dobson, from Herbert, SK sold us some very nice Cluns in 2013 and in 2021 we picked up all of Glynn Brooks purebred stock in Lethbridge, AB. The following year we brought some more Clun Forest in from BC out of Dennis Lapierre’s flock.”

The 35′ x 65′ hoop barn on shearing day.

Most of the rams are Clun Forest with Canadian Arcott. There are Blue Faced Leicester and coloured Romney to add some fleece variety. While they will keep some ram lambs, both for breeding and for sale, they wait till they’re yearlings to make their selections. Brooke explained; “The lambs that look best in the fall are usually the singles, but a few months on pasture can really show what they’re made of, the one I liked best in the fall is not always the one I like best the following spring.”

Individual fleeces, all labelled with the ewe’s name and ready to go.

Brooke and Chris have worked with Dr. Lynn Tait of OC Flock Management to help them introduce some new genetics. They have sourced UK semen through Heritage Sheep Reproduction in the US and had Dr. Tait come and do the laparoscopic insemination at their local veterinary clinic. “There are a limited number of registered Clun Forest animals in Canada, this helps to diversify the genetics,” said Brooke, adding “you can see the differences in our 2nd generation British Cluns, smaller ears and darker faces.”

The ewe flock winters on an open 160-acre pasture adjacent to the farmyard. Wooden wind breaks provide shelter and the sheep have hay bales unrolled daily. The winter water source for the sheep is piped underground and delivered using Stockboss energy free waterers. The ewe lambs are in a separate, adjacent field. The flock grazes year-round but they start feeding hay by November in most years. The ewe lambs will each get a pound of oats per day. This year they have added a small amount of flax screenings. As a pasture and hay-based operation the sheep and cattle numbers can vary depending on moisture levels. “The sheep numbers are down a bit right now because we’ve seen some drought the last few years”, Brooke shared. “We need to put up 1300 bales a year for winter feed and that really depends on the rain.” Lamb prices and available feed will influence the size of their flock.

The flock is sheared in early April and makes use of the only sheep building on the farm. The 35’ x 65’ hoop structure is the centre of the day’s activity. Lorrie Reed, a Saskatchewan shearer and his crew of three to six get the whole flock done in one very busy day. “Lots of help needed that day” says Brooke, “We have three skirting tables and even then, it’s a bit of a challenge to keep up with the shearers.” The fleeces are skirted and as many as 70 will be packed and labelled individually for direct sale to fibre artists across Canada. Brooke is quite happy with the scope of the fleece sales, “We’ve sold fleeces into every province, still working on the territories.”

Brooke’s pack with all the tools needed for pasture lambing.

Each of the 350 sheep in the Loch Lomond flock has a name and the select fleeces are labelled and sold under the ewe’s name. This marketing technique brings some real customer loyalty with return customers looking for the same fleeces year after year. In one case a fleece was spun and woven into a blanket by a fibre artist as a gift for her father, an elderly man living with dementia. He can’t remember the names of his nurses but he knows the name of the sheep his wool blanket comes from. Brooke sent him pictures of the ewe.

The ‘ewe-haul’ is a way for Brooke to easily bring a ewe and her lambs back to the yard if they need extra care.

They will send some wool to Custom Woolen Mills in Carstairs, AB to be spun into yarn and made into quilting batts and roving. These are marketed directly from the farm and through retail operations in Saskatoon, Regina and Outlook. The remaining wool has been stockpiled for the last three years waiting for commercial prices to improve.

The rams are turned in on December 17th, with the start of lambing targeted for May 10th. The ewe lambs and ewes are combined into one flock and lambed out on pasture. They follow a ‘drift lambing’ process. The group is moved forward in the pasture every one to three days. The newly lambed ewes will stay with their lambs while the un-lambed ewes drift to the next pasture. The next move will repeat the process. Every few days the groups of lambed ewes will be combined. There are usually 3 different groups: unlambed, newly lambed and ewes with older lambs.

Early 2024, lush summer pasture. A welcome change from last year’s drought.

Brooke uses the Shearwell Management System for her record keeping. The lambs are processed, usually between 12 and 36 hours of age. They are tagged, have rings put on their tails and the crossbred males are castrated with rings. Each lamb gets a CSIP tag but the process differs for purebred and crossbred lambs. All purebred lambs are tagged with the double CSIP tags and their birth weights are recorded. Crossbred ewe lambs will get a single CSIP tag and a management tag, the crossbred wethers just get the single CSIP tag. Each lamb has the last 2 digits of the CSIP tag sprayed on their side, this makes it easier to manage lambs in the field and know where they belong. Changing the paint colour every 100 lambs makes it easier to keep track of the lambs’ ages.

Ewe lambs that are retained for breeding will get an additional management tag later on. This is when Brooke has the fun of naming the ewes. She follows the Canadian Livestock Records Corporation’s (CLRC) letter protocols. Ewe lambs from this spring’s lamb crop, if they are kept for breeding, will all have names that begin with M. The management tag is large enough to write the ewe’s name and number as well as her dam’s name.

One of six LGDs that protect the flock.

They follow the same process for tagging the calves. Brooke and Chris certainly help each other out, but they have found it works best to split the spring responsibilities. Brooke does most of the work with lambing while Chris is the lead with calving.

The flock average is hovering around 1.6 lambs/ewe, a little lower for the ewe lambs. Brooke speculated on improving that number. “I would like to move up a little, 1.7 maybe 1.8, anything above that is going to mean too many triplets, we want to keep bottle lambs to a minimum.” The few extra lambs they have, are raised on free-choice milk replacer with pails and nipples.

Once lambing is finished the flock will spend the rest of the growing season rotating through the farm’s many pastures. With lambs at foot the flock will run near 800 head. Pasture sizes range from 20 to 80 acres and they move the flock every 5 to 10 days depending on the available feed. There is a mix of new and old fences throughout the farm. Older barbed wire fence will have hi-tensile hot wires added. Any new fencing for the sheep is 4 strand hitensile, all hot. Cross fencing of pastures is done with 2 strands of hot wire set up on rebar posts. They offer loose, chelated minerals to the grazing flock in covered tubs.

They use Speedrite energizers to charge the fences, a large plug-in unit at the farmyard and several 12 volt/ solar charged units throughout the pastures. “We often water near the electric fence to keep the sheep trained” said Brooke, “Ewes that don’t respect fences are kept separate and culled at the earliest opportunity, we don’t want bad habits to spread.”

Water is either piped or trucked to the pastures.

Water is supplied to many of the pastures through a shallow, buried pipeline. Where they don’t have access to the piped water they use a 1250-gallon tank in the back of an old grain truck. The tank is either filled from a dugout or at the Municipal well a few miles from their yard.

The cattle are rotated through pastures in the same way. Chris commented “We haven’t been moving them as often as the sheep but we’re headed that way. Quicker rotations seem to make better use of the grass.”

Livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) and herding dogs are part of the operation. There are six LGDs in total including a Kangal, Komondor/Pyrenees and Maremmas. Coyotes are part of the landscape and have been a challenge in the past. Chris talked about the current situation: “Not a real issue right now, one of our dogs, Odin has been very effective, no losses of late.” They have a GPS tracking collar they will use to occasionally monitor a dog’s activities. In a 24-hr period one of the dogs travelled a total of 18 km, all within a km of the farmyard. “This really keeps the coyotes at a distance.” The five herding dogs include four Border Collies and a ¾ Kelpie cross. Using a full bag of dog food each week is a real expense; they buy theirs by the pallet load. Chris and Brooke both gave a nod of appreciation to Jared Epp, a Saskatchewan dog trainer. He sold them two of their herding dogs and they came with lots of help and advice. This has made moving and handling the flock a lot smoother.

Internal parasites are managed through rotational grazing. The sheep are only dewormed if they need to be treated for something. Ewes will be culled for parasite susceptibility. “We participated in a parasite research study several years ago, back then we would deworm the flock regularly, we’ve gotten away from that,” said Brooke. Chris added, “one of the few good things about the recent drought years is the lack of worms. Less moisture has us moving the flock more often, just to chase the grass, and that also helps with parasite control.”

Lambs on pasture under Saskatchewan’s ‘Living Skies’

The ewes and rams are vaccinated with Glanvac 6 after shearing, three to four weeks before lambing. The lambs will get vaccinated with Glanvac 6 towards the end of July and then boosted at weaning. For the last two years they have added a pneumonia vaccine for the ewes at the same time as their initial pre-lambing Glanvac 6 injection. The lambs receive the same pneumonia vaccine when they are getting their first dose of Glanvac 6. Replacement ewe lambs get an initial chlamydia vaccine in mid-October with all the breeding females getting booster in mid-November.

While the flock is grazing there is hay to be made. Central Saskatchewan is dry and usually yields just one cut of hay each year. They put up 1300 bales each summer to feed the sheep and cattle. The 5’ x 6’ bales are dry hay and weigh between 1300 and 1400 lb. There is both native grass and seeded hay. The seeded fields are a mix of brome, alfalfa, cicer milkvetch and sainfoin. They are using a 16-foot MacDon mower conditioner on an 85 hp Massey Ferguson tractor to cut their hay. Their 135 hp Kubota pulls double duty; both baling the hay in the summer and unrolling it in the winter.

The lambs are weaned in September and marketed as feeder lambs, averaging 75 lb. They have sold the lambs through the Saskatchewan Sheep Development Board for the last five years. Brooke talked about some of the advantages in doing it this way, “The lambs get picked up as one load, which is nice. The buyers are bidding on the lambs and if we’re not happy with what’s offered we can pass and wait for better prices. We did that last fall, held on to the lambs until December when the prices came up.”

A farm sign from Nature Saskatchewan recognizing Loch Lomond Livestock Ltd. and their commitment to the environment.

Because of the low prices in 2023 they held back and exposed an extra 115 ewe lambs. They had their veterinarian, Dr. Rhonda Heinrichs of the Living Skies Veterinary Clinic come out and pregnancy check the ewe lambs. They were able to sell the open ones as lambs into the Easter market at a premium.

As grassland farmers, Brooke and Chris are very conscientious of their environment. They partner with Nature Saskatchewan, a non-profit organization working with land owners to conserve Saskatchewan’s natural environment.

The size of their operation is working well. Life is always easier on a pasture-based operation when you get the moisture you need and, like everyone else, when the lamb prices are up. Their willingness to work with the land and grow or shrink the flock is part of what makes the farm work. Value adding fleeces also adds extra income. I asked Brooke how the farm got its name, Loch Lomond Livestock. “The Aitken’s family originally comes from Scotland” she said “and we had an uncle who called our camping spot Loch Lomond, it just sort of stuck.”