Story & photos by Randy Eros
Brian Greaves and Karen Hill have been running Silverbend Ranch in western Manitoba for 25 years. Their 2¼ sections of land (1,600 acres) sit on the eastern bank of the Assiniboine River, just north of the small town of Miniota. They run a flock of Ile de France/Polypay cross ewes and a herd of Shaver Beef Blend cattle.
To say that they’ve come a long way since they met would be an understatement. Karen was teaching on the North Island of New Zealand when she met Brian, who was working as the property manager for an 8,500-acre training farm. It ran a two-year program with 10 students each year. The farm had 17,000 Romney ewes, 500 Black Angus cattle, 1,000 Angora cross goats, 350 breeding does and 80 horses. Each of the students also raised a pair of working dogs.
Karen was raised in Manitoba and when she and Brian were given the opportunity to buy and take over the operation of some family land in 1993, they made the move to Manitoba.
When they arrived, the land was not in the best of shape. As a light/sandy soil it had suffered under the traditional wheat/oats/summer fallow rotation of the prairies. Alfalfa had been included in the operation since 1988. “That was important,” says Brian, “there was nothing being done to improve the soil, it was still being mined of its nutrients, but at least with the perennial forage it wasn’t blowing away with the wind.”
Karen tells a lovely story of how the land came to her family. While her dad, Dave Hill, was serving in World War II, his mother was saving most of his pay. And when there was enough, she convinced her son that land would be a good investment. And, like all good sons, he agreed with his mother. But as it turned out, when Dave Hill finished his military career he chose not to farm, but went to university and, after graduation, became an Agricultural Rep for the Province of Manitoba.
“I didn’t grow up farming,” says Karen, “but, unlike my siblings, I did hear what Dad said about agriculture around the dinner table. It kind of stuck.”
Brian took a number of the practices that he had worked with on the training farm in New Zealand and applied them to the new ranch. Sheep, cattle and rotational grazing quickly became a part of the tool kit for renewing the land. Silverbend Ranch is a pasture-based operation and they graze, sow and bale all of their own forage. They purchase oats, which they roll for the calves. In the extreme cold of winter, the growing ewe lambs get one pound of whole oats every other day.
It has taken 25 years to get to where they are with their sheep genetics. Earlier work with Corriedale led them to the Polypay, and now with the conformation and fine wool of the Ile de France, they are seeing both lamb and wool weights that they really like. They tried purebred Targhees, but found the lambing percentage too low. Brian was quick to point out a new Dorset in the ram pen. “Always looking for improvement on what we’ve got.”
The ewe flock lambs out in two groups. One group of 40 select ewes is bred for an indoor March lambing. The rest of the flock lambs on pasture in May. The early group is all about selecting replacement rams. This group will produce about 40 ram lambs and out of those, six to 10 will be selected based on production (twins or triplets) and conformation. These rams will be overwintered and shorn in the spring. The rams with the best wool weight and quality will then be used to produce replacement ewe lambs.
The May lambing flock is put out onto a crested wheatgrass pasture and drifted through a few paddocks as they lamb. The ewes raise twins and any extra lambs are well started on colostrum and then sold at three days of age. The flock will be rotated onto alfalfa pasture as the plants mature and the risk of bloat is reduced. They are moved every two or three days, and followed by the cattle. Brian seeds a polycrop mix that he turns the lambs onto after weaning. The ewes are moved onto native grass paddocks for the rest of the grazing season.
The polycrop seeding is a mix of chicory (3 lb./acre), plantain (3 lb./acre), Italian rye grass (4 lb./acre) and sweet clover (½ lb./acre). This gets put in with a cover crop of oats and peas or soya beans. Brian uses a no-till double disc to seed. The polycrop will be taken off as silage bales in mid- to late July with the lambs moving onto the regrowth at weaning, near the end of August. They stay on the polycrop pasture until the snow cover is too deep.
The flock is run on a dozen 10-15 acre paddocks and, with a three-day rotation, they do not return to the same paddock for at least 30 days. Brian finds that moving the flock off of the pasture before it is grazed too short is critical in managing parasites. The lambs are dewormed at weaning and then again at freeze-up. The ewes are not normally dewormed. If one shows signs of a parasite infestation, she is treated and tagged for culling. They use a three-wire system on their sheep pastures (all live) but only a single wire on most of the cattle pastures. The sheep pastures are closest to the farmyard. The further west you go from the yard, the closer you get to the Assiniboine River and all the bush and trees and wildlife that go with it. Black bears and bald eagles have been part of the predator profile over the years, but the biggest threat is coyotes. They use Great Pyrenees dogs for livestock protection and have had as many as six when the flock was running at 400 ewes.
Livestock numbers have moved up and down over the years. This winter they are running 150 cattle and only 80 ewes. “Last summer was terribly dry and we had very little feed. We were able to sell 140 ewes at a very good price and that reduced our feed requirements. One of the great advantages of sheep is that you can rebound your ewe flock very quickly.”
Market lambs are sold on a live weight basis to a local buyer, and earn a premium because of their quality. If they need to be held off pasture, they will get baled silage or alfalfa hay. No grain is fed to the market lambs. Brian will take advantage of market demand and has held lambs back, or sold earlier than normal, to catch the ethnic market upswing. He has even shorn feeder lambs that were heading to an eastern feedlot. This made for a little more room on the truck and the faster gains on shorn lambs often bring a premium over the regular prices. This option is available to them because Brian does all his own shearing.
Brian and Karen don’t breed their replacement ewe lambs; the ewes lamb for the first time at two years of age. “We find the ewes last longer, and over their lifespan they will produce more lambs for us. And the high value of their wool clip helps to offset the cost of keeping them through their first winter.”
Wool is an important part of the New Zealand sheep industry, and Brian felt there was no reason that shouldn’t be the case in Canada. Their breeding goal is to have ewes that will wean a 200% lamb crop and, at the same time, to maximize the weight and quality of their wool. Brian describes his ideal ewe as being “short legged, stocky, with a fine, heavy fleece and two lambs.” The Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers (CCWG) wool statement for last year’s clip is a strong endorsement of the work that Brian and Karen have done in getting the most from their wool. The greatest portion of their clip paid out $2.30/lb. At 10 lb. per fleece, that goes a long way in paying for the ewe’s upkeep. They usually hold back the best 20 fleeces for direct sales to handcrafters, and those bring as much as $80 for the right fleece.
The March lambing group of ewes is sheared with a cover comb, so they’ve got a little protection if the spring weather turns cold. The rest of the flock is shorn in early May. The ewes are all vaccinated with Tasvax 8 prior to lambing.
Brian has been a director with the CCWG since 1999, and has run a number of shearing workshops over the years. Always looking to improve himself, Brian is now a trained shearing competition judge, and recently received his wool grader’s certificate.
Over the last two decades Brian and Karen have worked closely with the Upper Assiniboine River Conservation District. Their dugouts and sloughs are fenced and equipped with solar watering systems; they’ve also built berms to control runoff. They have provided the conservation district with an easement on 95 acres of land adjacent to the Assiniboine river. This is now public access land that boasts a beautiful five-mile hiking trail and a newly-planted riparian forest. These contributions to the environment were rewarded when they received the conservation district’s Farm Family of the Year award in 2009.
Over the years, Brian has served as a director on the Manitoba Sheep Association and the Canadian Sheep Federation. He was part of the working group that wrote the current Sheep Code of Practice, and is a member of the CSF’s Maedi-Visna working group. Brian also serves on the national Sheep Value Chain Roundtable, and its Meat and Carcass Quality subcommittee.
Karen works off-farm for Manitoba’s Agriculture in the Classroom. She started as a member of the board of directors in 2001, and has been on staff since 2008.
Brian and Karen have two children. Alison is 22 and in her last year of a five-year veterinary program at Massey University in Palmerston, New Zealand. Their son Mark is 19 and works at a local auction mart, as well as helping out on the farm. He is headed to Lakeland College in Alberta this fall.
There is a lot to learn from the Silverbend Ranch. By using a variety of land stewardship and livestock production techniques, Brian and Karen have guided their operation to become a modern, pasture-based system that is able to provide a good farm income and improve the land. When asked about advice for sheep producers, Brian shared this thought. “If you’ve got 100 ewes, breed your best 20 older ewes to a white-faced ram with good wool for replacements, and the rest to a terminal sire. If you use a blackfaced terminal sire, you won’t screw up on the record keeping and that Texel-cross ewe lamb won’t sneak into your breeding flock.”
Brian continues to mentor local producers by helping with their shearing, and answering production questions. It seems he hasn’t really left the New Zealand training farm all that far behind.
Randy Eros, and his wife, Solange Dusablon, own and operate Seine River Shepherds near Ste. Anne, Manitoba.