By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Photos courtesy of the Ernewein family
Meadowbrook Farm is the home of Steve and Lisa Ernewein, and their rapidly growing flock of sheep. The Erneweins started farming in May of 1997, with the purchase of their first farm, and got their first sheep a month later. Steve grew up on a hog and beef farm. Lisa lived in town but spent summer holidays with her grandparents who had sheep, which is where the idea of raising sheep started.
In 2012, they were able to expand by purchasing the farm where Steve grew up from his parents, making their children the fourth generation of Steve’s family to farm on that land. Steve and Lisa and their family still live on the original farm purchased in 1997, and Steve’s parents remain in the house on the family farm.
Steve and Lisa have five children. Emily (24) is married and lives in Pickering, and is in the final year of her training to be a chiropractor. Jordan (22) is doing an apprenticeship in carpentry but is invested in the farm and lives in a self-contained apartment in the basement of his grandparents’ home on the family farm. Aaron (19) just finished his first year studying Animal Science (remotely) at the University of Guelph, and will be working on the farm this summer. Lillian (16) and Ben (13) are still at home. Ben is a skilled videographer and uses his GoPro camera to create videos of life on the farm, which he uploads to his YouTube channel, Farming with Ben.
Lisa worked off the farm as a dental assistant until five years ago, when she was sidelined by a diagnosis of polymyositis and lupus. She runs the house and acts as what Steve calls his ‘ground rod’ for keeping everything running, but she is quite limited in what she can do on the farm, having “good days and bad weeks.” Lisa says their children have all stepped up since she became sick, and particularly notes the confidence that the two youngest have developed in the lambing barn, not hesitating to jump in and assist any ewe having trouble lambing.
The flock currently consists of about 700 meat-type ewes (including 200 ewe lambs from 2020). About a third are straightbred Dorsets, and the rest are crosses of Dorset, Rideau and Ile de France. In addition to the meat ewes, there is a flock of 100 dairy ewes of British Milk Sheep and Lacaune breeding, which were acquired just last year. The meat ewes are on an accelerated lambing program, while the dairy ewes will be lambing once a year, in April and May, to allow the milk to be produced under the very specific requirements (pasture-fed, non-GMO feeds) set out by the buyer. There are also 30-35 cows that consume lower-quality feed not suitable for the sheep and follow the sheep in the grazing cycle, cleaning up some of their parasites.
The 7,000 sq. ft. bank barn in Steve and Lisa’s yard is the lambing headquarters for the meat ewes. With the purchase of the family farm in 2012, they added some much-needed shelter in the form of a 4,000-sq.-ft. Coverall hay shed that now houses the dairy ewes, and a 7,000-sq.-ft. feedlot building, where dry ewes are kept and bred. With the dry ewes and rams out of the lambing barn, it can accommodate up to 225 ewes at a time, making it possible for him to move from his ‘homemade’ accelerated lambing program to the more demanding, 72-day STAR system he currently uses, with ewes giving birth in January, March, June, September and November each year. Steve exposes 250 ewes to rams at a time, and ends up lambing 175-225 of them, depending on the season.
Between the two farms, the Erneweins own 150 acres of arable land and rent a further 90 acres, all within a radius of 4-5 km. Between 80 and 100 acres is planted in a rotation of annual and perennial forage that involves breaking up 40 acres at a time and seeding it to triticale or fall rye, followed by sorghum sudangrass, before seeding it back to an 80-10-10 mix of alfalfa, timothy, and bromegrass.
Having each of these crops, with their different growing seasons and tolerance for wet or dry conditions, present on some part of the farm each year gives Steve flexibility to alternate between grazing it and harvesting it for winter feed, as conditions dictate. The hay is put up in big round bales of baleage or dry hay.
Some of the rented land is harder to make hay on, and doesn’t get broken up but kept in a mix of alfalfa, birdsfoot trefoil, clover and grass. This land is primarily used for grazing, but Steve will make hay on it when there is a surplus.
The Erneweins don’t lamb on pasture anymore, and the meat ewes stay in confinement until their lambs are weaned. Even then, there are five or six groups of grazing sheep (rams, ewe lambs, breeding ewes, pregnant ewes, dairy ewes and/or dairy ewe lambs) in the summer, plus two groups of cattle.
By alternating between grazing and haymaking in both the annual and perennial forage fields, and grazing the cows after the sheep, Steve can provide the sheep with clean grazing that means he rarely needs to worm anything. Adding dairy sheep to the mix requires a whole new level of forward planning because they can’t be wormed while they are milking. The plan is to have the dairy ewes never graze a field where the dry (meat) ewes have already been that year, but to follow the dairy ewes with the meat ewes and/or the cattle.
All of this flexibility comes at a cost in terms of the fencing and labour required to move the sheep every few days. Steve uses up to 50 rolls of electric netting to graze the ewes, with solar and battery-operated fencers on the rented land. There is about 10,000 ft. of water line on the two farms they own, and three portable water wagons for other areas.
In addition to forage, the sheep get fed corn grain, soybean meal and DDG (distillers’ dried grains). Steve planted his last crop of soybeans in 2019, and now buys all of the concentrates he feeds to the sheep. With only 240 acres, he doesn’t have the land base to grow his own, and with three elevators visible from the two farms, he doesn’t have any trouble obtaining the 15-18 tonnes of corn he feeds each month.
The farm goes through 500-600 big square bales of straw each year. Steve buys 100 acres or more and puts it up himself with his crew, along with a few small bales for the hard-to-reach corners of the lambing barn. Lambs are tagged, paint-branded and injected with selenium in the claiming pens. With so many ewes, and breeding groups, Steve relies on the EweManage system to keep track of all the animals and record his lambing and production data. He finds the program very flexible and appreciates the customized service he gets from the system’s tech support.
EweManage has developed a unique system for collecting data in the barn, which came in at just under $1,000. An Allflex LPR tag reader uses Bluetooth to send tag numbers to a 4 GB iPod Touch with a mobile version of the EweManage software. Steve points out that using an iPod instead of his cellphone for this purpose means that other people can tag and record lambs even when he and his cellphone are off the farm.
The same equipment is used when lambs are weighed. The scale head they have now doesn’t have the capacity to transmit the animals’ weights electronically, so each animal’s weight gets typed into the iPod as its ID is read and transmitted by the tag reader. But not having to read the lamb’s tags as they pass over the scale saves most of the time the job would otherwise take.
Lambing and weighing data is emailed from the iPod to the farm computer in the house and then uploaded to the GenOvis genetic evaluation program, which allows Steve to obtain EPDs for individual traits of economic importance, as well as indexes for making selection decisions. Steve relies on the Maternal Higher Prolificacy index to choose both rams and ewes. Rams, whether purchased or retained, have to be in the top 90th percentile. Ewe lambs in the 75-100th percentile are eligible for retention in the flock and those in the 50- 75th percentile can be sold for breeding stock.
As he expands the meat flock, Steve has suspended his use of terminal sires for the most part, preferring to use Dorset, Rideau and Ile de France rams. He does, however, breed the lower-EPD ewes to Southdown rams to produce lambs that are part of a direct marketing effort he is involved in with some friends. None of the Southdown-sired ewe lambs are retained in the flock.
Baby lambs have access to a textured creep, consisting of rolled corn and a protein supplement pellet. The pellet contains Deccox, which Steve prefers to dosing the lambs with Baycox. At 3 to 4 weeks of age, they transition to a lamb grower pellet prior to being weaned at 40-45 days of age. Steve says he could probably save $50-$100/tonne by mixing his own lamb feed, but he prefers to leave the job to the mill.
Lambs go to the OLEX auction in Kitchener (100-120 km away). Steve will sell new crop lambs at 65-70 lb., in the first six months of the year when barn space is short, and then ships heavier (90-110 lb.) lambs for the rest of the year. He also sells directly to packers, and even direct to consumers.
The dairy part of the operation is relatively new. The sheep and the 12-head milking parlour were purchased from the same operation in October of last year. The parlour was installed in a corner of the building in April, and milking started in May of this year. A pipeline moves the milk from the Coverall to a 300-litre tank in the milk house, which is a sea can shipping container located outside the barn. The milk house is equipped with a walk-in freezer and two chest freezers, where the milk is stored prior to being transported to the buyer.
The plan is for Steve to do the morning milking and Jordan, who lives in the yard where the dairy sheep are housed, to milk in the evenings. Although he works full-time in construction, Jordan owns 100 of the meat ewes and 50 of the dairy ewes and is buying into the farm operation with his labour. Steve sees the dairy operation as a way to capitalize on the Coverall barn they already had, as well as a way to expand the farm income to someday support two households.
Having invested in the setup to milk sheep, he also plans to try milking some of the Rideau-cross meat ewes for a month or two after their lambs are weaned. This should allow him to ship some extra milk, and also to see what the Rideau-cross ewes are capable of. Once they have had a chance to measure the milk production of both the dairy and non-dairy ewes, they will be able to make decisions about promoting meat ewes into the dairy ewe flock, and vice versa.
Like most new ventures, there have been growing pains as they have begun milking the sheep, but Steve expects they will soon be sorted out and the dairy enterprise will start to pay for itself and contribute to the farm income.
Steve has had a number of jobs in agriculture over the years, and has worked part-time and full-time in beef and hog feedlots, and most recently milking a herd of goats. But he has been full-time on the farm for a year now. Rather than continuing to split his time between off-farm work and his own operation, he chose to go big and go home, by acquiring the dairy ewes and expanding the meat flock. He plans to keep another 200-300 ewe lambs out of the meat flock this year and to build a new lambing barn on the home place next year to accommodate them.
With everything else going on in their lives, Steve and Lisa still make time to get involved in the industry, as leaders of the Ripley 4-H Sheep Club, and active members of the Western Ontario Lamb Producers Association. They also participate in a number of Facebook groups for sheep farmers where established producers answer questions for less experienced shepherds. Steve says it is a way of giving back or paying forward, for all the help they received when they were starting out nearly 25 years ago.