There’s a lot of history at Maple Meadow Farms in Osgoode, Ontario. Colleen Acres, her husband Dwayne Bazinet and their sons Mitchell, Taylor and Kieran have been running the operation since 2007, but the farm’s story starts several decades earlier. Sitting around the kitchen table with Colleen and Dwayne, along with Colleen’s parents, Dwayne and Laura Acres, we went over the long history of the farm. Later, a tour of the farm demonstrated what it looks like today.
The farm, 45 minutes south of Ottawa, was purchased in 1923 by George William Acres (Colleen’s great-grandfather) as one of four 100 acre lots to help his four sons start their own farms. Colleen’s grandfather, Cecil, was one of those four young men. Cecil Acres ran hogs and a dairy operation as well as registered Hampshire, Southdown and Cheviot sheep. Through the 1950’s and 60’s Dwayne Acres recalls spending a lot of time at fall fairs throughout the region. Those fairs were a big part of farming and critical in getting your name out there if you wanted to sell breeding stock. Dwayne remembers getting $17/head for 100 lb slaughter lambs when he shipped them to Canada Packers in Hull Québec back in 1956. He is confident that the Maple Meadow Farms Hampshire are the longest continuous registered Hampshire flock in Canada.
The farm was still operating as a mixed farm when Dwayne and Laura got married in 1962. They took over the operation in 1964 and continued to run the dairy operation, registered Yorkshire, Tamworth and Hampshire swine and the registered sheep flocks. The dairy herd was switched over to beef in 2001. Though the farm is now run by the younger generations Laura and Dwayne Acres are still part of the operation. Their home is just down the road from the farmyard and they keep an eye on groups of ewes grazing the adjacent pastures.
Dwayne Bazinet wasn’t a newcomer to farming when he married into the Acres family. He and Colleen met at a Junior Farmers event. Though he was raised in Montreal, his maternal
grandfather ran a dairy farm south of the Acres farm and his paternal grandfather farmed on the east side of Ottawa. Last year, Dwayne’s father, Larry, moved to the nearby town of Winchester, only a few miles away. To say that Larry is retired would be a bit of a stretch; while the rest of us sat around the kitchen table chatting about the farm, he was out in the yard with his tractor gathering and splitting wood for the boiler that heats the house and the lambing sections of the barns.
Colleen and Dwayne started farming in 1995 on a 55 acre farm that was part of her grandfather’s original farm property. They raised purebred Dorset and gradually added 100 commercial ewes which they housed on a nearby rental property. They purchased the home farm, Maple Meadows, from her mom and dad in 2007. Colleen left a position with the Canadian Seed Trade Association in 2005 to farm full time and Dwayne made the decision to leave his off-farm work with a local fuel supply company in 2015. Their eldest son, Mitchell, studied Agriculture at MacDonald College in Montreal and has now been home farming full time with his parents since 2019. Taylor, the middle son still lives at home and is working off-farm as a heavy equipment operator while the youngest, Kieran, is in his last year of high-school.
Though sheep and cropping are the main operations, there are 20 head of beef cattle and seasonal poultry. The current sheep flock is made up of both commercial and registered ewes. The 370 commercial ewes are mostly a Suffolk/Rideau cross with a few Polled Dorset cross as well. The remainder of the ewe flock are registered animals: 90 Rideau Arcott, 20 Hampshire,25 Suffolk and 15 Polled Dorset. The farm also grows and sells grain corn, soybeans and usually has some surplus barley and hay to sell as well.
The flock is bred for four different lambing groups during the year. The registered animals lamb in January/ February. The commercial ewes lamb in March and the ewe lambs have their turn in May at 14 months of age. They re-expose the March lambing group after weaning for an October/November lambing. They use CIDRs on this group. At the same time, they re-expose the purebred Dorset sheep and some of the Rideaus to a natural breeding, relying on their out-of-season breeding advantage.
The ewes lamb out in either the 42’ x 120’ hoop barn or a retrofitted dairy barn with the lambing pens set up on one end. Of the 1000 or so lambs that are born on the farm each year about half end up as market lambs. The rest are either sold as breeding stock, both cross-bred and registered, or retained as replacements for their own flock. Normal replacement for their flock runs between 16 and 18%.
The Rideau and Rideau cross ewes are the most prolific, averaging 270%. The Suffolk flock runs at 200% and the Dorset and Hampshire ewes at 165%.
Breeding stock sales are a very important part of their operation and Colleen and Dwayne have continued the family tradition of producing high quality animals. The they were introduced to the industry in the early 1960s.
The current program, GenOvis, allows them to track a wide variety of traits in both the terminal and maternal breeds. Lambs are tagged at birth using Canadian Sheep Identification Program (CSIP) tags. The lambing information is entered into the FarmWorks data management program. They have been using the FarmWorks program since their involvement in RFID tag trials for the CSIP. As lambs grow their 50 and 100 day weights are added to the program. All purebred registered animals will have ultrasound measurements taken at 100 days for both loin depth and fat cover. There is significant work involved in the collection and management of the GenOvis data but Colleen and Dwayne feel the payoff is worth it for both their own flock improvement and for shepherds who choose Maple Meadow Farms for breeding stock. Along with their CSIP tag, the registered stock are also tattooed and have an additional tag with the year letter and animal number applied for easy visual identification.
Ewes and lambs will spend a day or two in a claiming pen before being moved into the larger group of lambed ewes. They use a Grober automatic milk mixing machine for extra lambs. Ewes are expected to raise as many as three lambs and they will set up special pens for ewes with quads. The ewes with quads require extra feed and careful attention but Colleen and Dwayne feel it balances out with a reduced demand for milk replacer and allows the Rideau ewes to fully express the maternal traits for which they were developed. Lambs are weaned at 60 days and will be raised in one of the barns with the ewes headed outside.
None of the market lambs will go to the auction markets. Market lambs are generally finished to 100 to 120 lb live weight and the goal is to reach that weight within 120-150 days. They do some marketing of freezer lambs but the bulk of the lambs go as direct sales to local provincially inspected processors and as whole lambs to retail butcher shops. These are well finished 55 to 60 lb carcasses. Colleen talks about the feedback they get from the butchers and processors, saying “we hear directly from the folks who are buying our market lambs and this feedback is important as we work to create higher quality lambs”.
The flock is fed a variety of rations depending on the animal’s stage of production. They have maintenance, breeding, early and late gestation and a lactation ration for the ewes and grower rations for the lambs. Julie Lortie, an animal nutritionist with a local co-op, helps balance the rations. The farm owns a total of 500 acres and rents a further 20 acres. This supplies the bulk of the feed for these rations. The grain corn and the soybeans are used in the rations and also sold as cash crops. Barley is grown primarily for feed. Both corn silage and alfalfa silage are put up for the livestock. The silage is put into ag bags, tower silos and silage bunkers.
They have two custom mineral mixes. One with a coccidiostat and one without. Ewes get the coccidiostat mineral 2 weeks prior to lambing and throughout the lactation period. They have a mix mill and the “grain mix” used in the rations is ⅔ barley and ⅓ corn. The rations are mixed and usually fed along fence-line feeders both outside and in the barns.
The bunk silage is carefully managed. The open face of the silage is fed to the cows, leaving the fresh cut silage to be fed to the ewes. They do the cutting and raking of the hay but have a custom large square baler put up the dry hay. The alfalfa and corn silage is harvested with Maple Meadows’ own equipment and labour. They have been using corn silage for the last five years. They now put up 12 to 13 acres of corn silage a year. They have the large square dry hay bales chopped and blown into the end of the hay shed, usually 20-30 at a time. The increased cost of land has certainly changed how they feed the flock. Dwayne figures that 7 acres of corn silage produces the equivalent of 40 acres of hay.
The feed is all tested as part of the ration balancing. A few years ago they ran into a problem with pregnancy toxemia in the Rideau and Rideau cross animals and now add liquid molasses to the ration to provide the necessary energy for the prolific ewes.
Dwayne is currently doing all of the shearing. The ewes are sheared a month before lambing, along with vaccination (Glanvac-6) and hoof trimming. They will be dewormed if the faecal counts call for it. While a few fleeces are sold locally most of the wool is shipped to Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers in Carleton place, an hour’s drive away.
Colleen and Dwayne are careful about how they source their new genetics. They have been using artificial insemination as a way of safely sourcing new genetics and have their own semen storage tank. Ewes are sent to Sherbrooke, Québec where veterinarians, Dr. Richard Bourassa and Dr. Sylvain Rémy do the laparoscopic insemination. GenOvis evaluations, genotyping for scrapie resistance and flock health status are key factors in making decisions on any live ram purchases. With the recent loosening of border restrictions there is more interest from US producers in breeding stock. This in turn means that scrapie resistant genetics will become increasingly important. When choosing replacement rams the GenOvis Carcass Index (which includes gain) is used for the terminal breeds, the maternal index for Rideaus. The maternal/prolificacy index is used for the Dorset to increase both number born and number raised.
With a century of operations at Maple Meadow Farms it seemed appropriate to ask what has changed in farming. Dwayne Acres talked about the changes in feeding, saying that back then, it was “cheap labour, mostly our own. Everything was fed by pail.” As for genetics, there are now “new breeds like Rideau, Texel, Charolais and Ile de France where it used to be just Hampshire, Suffolk and Dorset.” Everyone agreed that there is a lot more science and technology on the farm. Computer balanced rations, feed tests, TMR machines with weigh scales to monitor the amounts fed, RFID readers tied via Bluetooth to weigh scales and GPS on tractors were not part of farming in Dwayne Acres’ youth.
Colleen has seen some significant changes even in then last 20 years. “More documentation and regulations like the CSIP, animal transport and concerns for welfare and biosecurity have all changed how we document things”.
Many years of flock wide blood sampling for Maedi Visna (ovine progressive pneumonia) ensures no positive carriers are in the flock. The rams are genotyped for scrapie resistance and they will test for Q fever and Johne’s if breeders require it. Industry concerns for animal health and on-farm biosecurity programs have changed how the farm’s genetics are promoted. They no longer participate in the circuit of rural livestock shows that was a big part of her growing up. A farm website and emails with photos or videos along with data support the farm’s marketing efforts. Scheduled on-farm visits to make final selections or just to visit and talk sheep are always welcome. “Involvement in 4-H has been an important part of my life and for our boys too,” says Colleen. “We supply ewe lambs and market lambs for the program and I have led the local 4-H sheep club for over 20 years.”
There has also been significant change in both the access to and the ownership of the local lamb processing plants. There are fewer plants and you need to book processing dates as much as a year ahead of time.
Through all of this talk about the farm and farming it was obvious to me that some things haven’t changed. The commitment to both the sheep industry and local community have remained as strong as ever. Dwayne Acres served the sheep industry for many years on both local boards and as Chair of the CSBA and the Canada Sheep Council (the predecessor to the Canadian Sheep Federation). He and Laura worked with local fairs and community organizations all through their farming careers. Now Colleen and Dwayne Bazinet are doing the same. Their commitment to farming doesn’t stop at the farm gate. Colleen is a past director of the Ontario Sheep Farmers board, sat on the CSBA board for six years and is a member of her local sheep district committee. Dwayne has been a fair volunteer and continues to supports the local hockey association either as an on-ice helper, team trainer or timekeeper. And now with another generation on board, things look very positive for a second century of sheep farming at Maple Meadow Farms.