Story by Kathleen Raines
Photos courtesy of the Brinkmann family.
When Ute and Gerrit Brinkmann immigrated to Canada from Germany with their two young children in 1988, their dream was to farm. Although they hadn’t grown up on farms, both had a background in animal production and experience as farm apprentices. They purchased land near New Norway in central Alberta’s parkland region and established a pig operation that peaked at 400 sows. The Hanoverian horses they brought with them as a hobby grew to be a significant part of the farm business over the years. The farm is home to 30 horses including two stallions standing at stud. Canadian Equestrian Team member and 2008 Olympic silver medalist Jill Henselwood competes internationally on an Equitop stallion, Quidam Blue.
As the horses were building Equitop’s reputation and contributing to the bottom line, the challenges of pork production—low prices, record-high input costs and competition from the oil and gas sector for labour—led to a decision to liquidate the pig operation in 2010. That left four barns totaling 25,000 square feet empty, and had the couple exploring options to use the space in a way that would complement the horse business.
During this period of farm business adjustment, a mutual friend introduced the Brinkmanns to Deb and Ian Clark of Medicine Ridge Farm. The Clarks were exploring a transition from fulltime shepherds to semi-retirement. It was a fortuitous meeting that led to the formation of a partnership whereby the Brinkmanns purchased half of the Medicine Ridge flock of four pure breeds: Charollais, Ile de France, Canadian and Rideau Arcotts. Deb and Ian provided hands-on assistance as Ute and Gerrit “learned sheep”, coaching them through their first couple of lambings and advising on genetics and selection criteria.
The core production principles the Brinkmanns successfully applied to their hog operation—genetics, nutrition, facilities, health and management—have served them well as sheep producers. A strict bio-security protocol, part of the Medicine Ridge regime since the flock’s inception in 1988, has been maintained, along with full certification in the Voluntary Scrapie Flock Certification Program.
Medicine Ridge Ovine has been a very good fit with the Brinkmanns’ facilities and farm operation. Gerrit stripped the pig equipment from three of the four barns, filling in the gutters and opening up doorways to improve airflow and accommodate a skid loader. Round hay bales are spaced down a centre corridor and hand-forked into fenceline feed bunks on each side. Portable panels are used to adjust pen sizes, depending on production stage.
To the north of the barns and well sheltered by a row of trees are four ewe pens. They open onto a central feeding area where each group takes its turn at the grain troughs. Hay is provided at fenceline bunks, although Gerrit is hoping that the new Hay Boss feeder he’s trying will reduce feed waste and allow him to eliminate feeding hay by hand in these pens.
The flock currently numbers 330 ewes split between the four breeds. Over the last two years the traditional spring lambing has been changing into a system where smaller groups lamb every three months. The March-lambing group is still the largest, and most of the ewe lambs are bred to lamb in June. CIDRs and prostaglandin are used to synchronize the September and December lambing groups, which are exposed to rams for three days, and subsequently lamb in a single week. When I visited the farm in mid-February, the 80 lambs born in December had just been weaned. Gerrit feels the winter lambs do especially well: “They’re clean, no diarrhea, really healthy”.
Within each breeding cycle, rams are introduced in stages according to the average gestation of the breed. The Ile de France rams go in first, the Canadian Arcott and Charollais rams three days later, and the Rideau Arcott rams another three days later.
After lambing, ewes and lambs are sorted into groups based on the number of lambs being reared. Extra colostrum is kept on hand for small and weak lambs, and an automatic milk replacer feeder supplies the “bottle lamb” group of orphans and those from larger Rideau litters. Ewes are weaned when the lambs average 50 days of age to allow time for them to regain condition for breeding on a nine-month cycle; those that don’t conceive on the modified schedule drop back into a once-a-year cycle, although the goal is four evenly-sized breeding groups. Gerrit sees a number of advantages to this accelerated system including a better use of their facilities and a more even workload and cash flow. It also offers the potential to reduce price fluctuations, and enhances their ability to meet customer demand for year-round freezer lamb and out-of-season breeding stock, especially valued by more intensive sheep producers.
Detailed, meticulous record keeping is essential for performance-based selection. FarmWorks software is used for flock management and inventory, and Ewe Byte to calculate within-flock performance indexes. The flock is also enrolled on GenOvis for calculation of between-flock Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs). All of this gives Gerrit a wealth of relevant data for his own use, and also to share with prospective breeding stock customers who range from small acreage operators to large-scale intensive producers.
Asked to list the relative advantages of the four breeds on the farm, Gerrit diplomatically attests that “each has its benefits and purpose”. By offering a range of types from the maternal Rideaus through to the terminal Canadian, Charollais and Ile de France, the Brinkmanns can satisfy a variety of customer needs. In order to maintain a wide range of bloodlines within each breed, the mature ram pen numbers 45 animals. Each ram is used for one season only, increasing the rate of genetic improvement in the flock.
Having two livestock enterprises makes it easier to provide the necessary labour. A local helper handles the morning sheep chores, and students who ride and work in the stables after school can be mobilized for bigger sheep projects such as weighing, vaccinating and sorting. Word-of-mouth brings European students to the farm on a regular basis, including the German veterinary student set to arrive for a practicum this spring.
Ute sees tremendous potential in the variety of viable production models in the sheep industry, in marked contrast to their experience as pork producers. Many of their customers are new entrants to the industry whose goals are relatively modest: raising 50–100 ewes on small land holdings, supplementing an off-farm job or diversifying an existing farm operation. Many, like the Brinkmanns, are seeking to utilize empty hog barns.
While the flock goal is to maximize breeding stock sales, over 50% of the lambs are sold for slaughter, either to a local buyer or through private sales of freezer lambs. The latter are processed at a number of provincially-inspected plants in the area, and Ute enjoys providing quality local food to customers. As the year-round lamb supply becomes more consistent, the Brinkmanns will be able to assemble and ship larger groups of lambs and provide more efficient deliveries.
The Brinkmanns own four quarters (640 acres) of land. The cropland is rented and a neighbour puts up hay on a share basis, limiting the farm’s equipment needs to a small tractor and skid loader. Hay fields are a mix of timothy, alfalfa, brome and orchardgrass in varying stages of production. With both horses and sheep to be fed, the Brinkmann’s are able to maximize the use of their forage crops and pasture. All feeds are tested and rations are formulated using SheepBytes. Barley and 32% protein supplement are sourced locally and mixed according to production status; an 18% crumbled creep ration is also purchased. Trace-mineralized salt is fed, along with a commercial sheep mineral with added ammonium chloride to prevent urinary calculi in the rams.
Fencing is a work in progress and is one area where the differing needs of the sheep and horses present a challenge. A field across the road from the farm site has electric fence around the perimeter and electric netting, moved once a week, was used for rotational grazing of the ewes last summer. Although the Pyrenees guardian dog was kept close to the barns, there were no predator problems on pasture.
Entering its fifth year, Medicine Ridge Ovine has built on the success of its founders as solid producers of healthy breeding stock. Gerrit and Ute agree that the sheep fit much better with their vision of family farming in Canada than did the pigs. Ute laughs as she admits that “getting rich with sheep” might not be the most realistic goal, but she and Gerrit plan to convert more of their existing barns and further increase the size of the flock.
Kathleen Raines raises Rideau Arcott sheep near Innisfail, Alberta.