Story & photos by Cathy Gallivan, PhD
I met with Fred and Anne Hamilton on a sunny day in early July, on the farm that has been in Fred’s family since the expulsion of the Acadians in 1760. The original land grant was 1,000 acres. By 1802, the family had eight heirs and the farm was subdivided; in 2013, 500 acres of the original farm remain.
Like many sheep farmers, Fred acquired his first ewes, a flock of 40 culls, to support his Border Collie habit. But when BSE came to Canada ten years ago, the Hamiltons sold their beef herd and restocked with commercial Rideau Arcotts. The flock now stands at 250 head.
About 90% of the Rideau ewes are bred to Texel terminal sires, with the rest bred to Rideau rams to produce replacement ewes. There are also 12 purebred Texel ewes that son Fabian (21), a recent graduate of the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University (formerly the Nova Scotia Agricultural College) in Truro, enjoys showing. Daughter Andrea (19) seems set to continue the family’s agricultural tradition, as she is currently enrolled at the same institution.
In addition to the 250 ewes, the Hamiltons also milk 40 head of Holsteins and put up corn silage, haylage, and two (or three, in a good year) cuts of hay. The farm has 150 acres of pasture (70 fenced for sheep) and 35 acres are planted for corn silage each year. The rest, including 200 acres of productive marshland, is harvested for hay and haylage. Both the corn silage and the haylage are piled on the ground and covered with plastic, with earth heaped up on the edges to form a tight seal.
Cows are fed a 75:25 mix of haylage and corn silage and the ewe flock gets the same mix. Like most flocks feeding silage to sheep, there is some incidence of listeriosis, which they minimize by feeding the best quality silage to the sheep.
When I visited in July, a group of lambs had been weaned a week or so earlier, and were being self-fed on corn silage and 1-1¼ lb. of a concentrate ration per day. Prior to weaning the lambs had been on pasture with their dams, but were creep fed in the corrals each night.
The flock is divided into three groups, which lamb in December, February and May. The ewes are not accelerated – they just lamb at different times of year. This strategy allows the family to run a larger flock than they could accommodate in their lambing barn all at once. It also lets them lamb a manageable number of ewes around other farm activities, and sell lambs year-round.
The conception rate on the fall lambing is around 80%. In 2012, the Hamiltons moved the fall lambing back to November, but got fewer ewes lambing than in December in previous years, so have gone back to December for this year. The ewes are synchronized with CIDRs in batches of 30 a week apart, with eight rams per group.
Conception rates are nearly 100% for the February and May lambings, where the mature ewes drop an average of 250%. There are lots of triplets and the ewes rear many of them, but when they don’t, there is a ready supply of cow colostrum and milk for them. Ewe lambs that give birth to triplets are only allowed to raise two.
Ewe lamb replacements are chosen from those born in February and lamb for the first time in November, when they are nearly two years old.
One of the reasons for moving the fall lambing to November is that in December Fred and Anne run horse-drawn sleigh rides on the farm, using three Belgian and two Clydesdale draft horses (two teams plus a spare). Sleigh rides are followed by parties at the camp on the farm, with chili or beans and brown bread on the menu.
When not milking, lambing or driving horses, Fred gives herding demonstrations with his Border Collies. All of the animals on this farm appear to have jobs – even one of the cats, which had a cameo appearance in a movie filmed in the area.
On the day I visited, Anne and Fabian were running the ewe flock through the handling system and checking the ewes to see if they needed to be wormed. This was done primarily by examining their eyes for signs of anemia, but thin ewes, as well as those with dirty rear ends, also came in for special attention. On this occasion, 20 out of 250 ewes were treated with normectin. By worming selectively, rather than just worming all the ewes, the Hamiltons save money on worming products but, more importantly, hope to prevent the development of resistant worms.
Before the end of summer, this process was repeated twice more, with a larger number of ewes treated each time. Fecal samples were collected from individual ewes two weeks after each run-through, and submitted to a research project examining parasite resistance in the province.
Predators are not a huge problem for the Hamiltons. In a bad year, they might lose three or four lambs, but have not lost any so far this year. A local trapper controls coyote populations in the area, and they bring the ewes and lambs in from the pasture each night. When I spoke to Fred again in early September, he mentioned that they had a group of 80 ewes and five rams grazing inside electric netting down on marsh (across the road from the farm). For additional protection, he is using two Foxlights, situated 100 feet apart. These are a new predator deterrent product from Australia, sold by the Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers Ltd.
The Hamiltons are members of the nearby Northumberland Lamb Marketing Co-op (Northumberlamb), which is only 10 or 15 minutes from the farm. By lambing three times a year, they are able to ship lambs in the winter and spring when there is no waiting, and receive a premium price. And in the summer and fall, when everyone has lambs ready, producers who ship in the winter and spring are given priority.
The Texel-Rideau cross lambs ship at 100-105 lb. to meet the requirements of the co-op for carcasses between 42 and 54 pounds, with GR measurements from 4 mm for a 42 lb. lamb up to 15 mm for a 54 lb. lamb, and acceptable carcass conformation. They also have to be clean. Lambs that have excessive mud or manure may be assessed a financial penalty and producers with consistently dirty lambs risk being taken off the list of approved suppliers.
After my visit with the Hamiltons, I took a short drive to the Brookside Abbatoir, home of Northumberlamb, and visited Michael Isenor, who has been the co-op’s General Manager since its inception in 1982. The co-op buys nearly 6,000 lambs per year from about 100 farms in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Whole carcasses and retail cuts are delivered to restaurants and grocery stores all over Nova Scotia each week.
When I visited in early July, the Northumberlamb base price was $3.50/lb. This was about a dollar off the price for the same time last year. Like many lamb processors, Michael mentioned that the last two years of extremely high lamb prices, while good for sheep producers, have been somewhat less beneficial for processors. This includes the co-op, which can sell (and buy) more lamb when prices are more moderate.
At the time of my visit, the co-op was awaiting a visit from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), to see if the recent expansion and upgrade of the plant will qualify it for federal inspection. The 30 members of the co-op have invested nearly $600,000 into the project. If it is approved for federal inspection, the co-op will qualify to supply lamb to Atlantic warehouses, to be shipped outside Nova Scotia. This should allow them to sell more lamb; the hope is to expand the kill to 10,000+ lambs per year. As I write this in early September, the co-op has had one inspection from CFIA and is awaiting word on another.
Editor’s Note: Information on Foxlights night predator deterrent, as well as prices of dressed lambs at Northumberlamb, are available online here.