By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Photos by Katrina Joy Photography
Peter and Elly van der Veen emigrated from the Netherlands in 2002 with six children under 15 years of age. Another son, Peterje, died before they left the Netherlands. Twenty years later, the three oldest girls live on dairy farms in Shawville, Quebec (Eline), Barrhead, Alberta (Lisa), and Berwick, Ontario (Marleen), each with families of their own. Marleen took some ewes with her and still has a flock of Rideaus today. Another daughter, Ilze, and son, Pieter, live and work elsewhere in Ontario.
Harold, now 22, is the youngest of the children born in the Netherlands. He lives and works on the farm, and plans to take it over someday. Roy (17) was born after the family arrived in Canada, and is still in school.
Upon their arrival in Canada, the van der Veens purchased a 215-acre farm with an old house and a bank barn in Grand Valley. The land base has since grown to 525 acres, with a further 175 acres of rented land. There are four Coverall barns that are 50’ wide and 100-154’ long, as well as a 40×200’ pole barn. Peter and Elly built a new house shortly after purchasing the farm, and Harold and his girlfriend, Alyssa Teeuwissen, now live in the old house.
The family started off raising sheep and finishing pigs on straw. But the prices received for the pigs made that enterprise unprofitable, so they decided to concentrate on sheep farming. In 2008, they shipped their last pigs and started filling the barns with Rideau Arcott sheep. From there, the flock grew rapidly to 1,000 ewes lambing on an accelerated (STAR) system.
Further expansion of the flock would have required more land and buildings, so Peter and Elly started thinking about getting more income from the same number of animals by selling milk as well as meat. Rather than compromising the health status of the flock by purchasing outside ewes, they decided to raise their own by crossing dairy breed rams onto the Rideaus. After researching the available breeds, they settled on the British Milk Sheep, and in 2017 obtained rams from Eric & Elisabeth Bzikot in Conn, Ontario. These rams were bred to the calmest Rideau ewes with the best udders, to produce their first dairy ewes. A second dairy breed, the Lacaune, was added later and mated to the British Milk Sheep x Rideau crosses. Today there are about 300 pure Rideaus on the farm and another 600 ewes with at least 50% dairy sheep breeding.
A milking parlour with room for 16 ewes on each side was installed in 2018, and later expanded to milk 24 on each side. As they waited for the first British Milk Sheep crosses to lamb, the van der Veens starting milking the Rideaus. Peter recalls that it took about two hours to get 100 Rideaus to just walk through the parlour for the first time, without even being milked. But they learned quickly, no doubt aided by the grain fed every time they came into the parlour. Peter says the dairy sheep crosses adapt to the parlour more readily than the Rideaus, which makes sense given that their British Milk Sheep and Lacaune sires came from flocks where animals were selected for milking performance in a parlour.
The ewes are bred to lamb throughout the year, and there are 300-400 being milked at any given time. The milking takes about two hours for two people. Harold is the main milker, assisted by Peter, Elly, Alyssa, or other family members when they are around. The milk is sold to Shepherd Gourmet Dairy (Saputo) in St. Marys, and is picked up every few days.
In their first year of milking, the flock produced about 40,000 litres of milk for sale. By 2021, the output had grown to 105,000 litres. Peter points out that their sheep dairy enterprise is a work in progress. The flock includes 300 Rideaus, which produce less milk per day than the dairy cross ewes, and are milked for a shorter period of time after weaning their lambs. And both the Rideaus and the dairy cross ewes raise their lambs for 34 days before getting milked in the parlour. As they continue to refine their selection and management, Peter expects to add another 30,000 litres per year to the current production.
A big part of that improvement will come when they are able to measure and record the milk production of each ewe at every milking. The parlour came with 16 milk meters, which are used occasionally to determine when a ewe should be dried off. But milking 300-400 ewes takes long enough without reading milk meters and writing down the milk produced by each ewe. The van der Veens want to use their RFID tags and other available technology to record this data automatically, but incompatibilities between the RFID tags currently in use in Canada and the ones used by milk recording equipment have so far prevented them from doing this.
Once these data collection issues are resolved, the family will have more accurate information about the relative production of each of their breeds and crosses, and will be able to further refine their selection and culling of individual ewes. What they have found so far is that the Rideaus produce about a litre of milk per day, while the British Milk Sheep or Lacaune cross ewes yield around 2 litres per day.
But there is a lot of variation within the breeds and crosses; one of the British Milk Sheep crosses produces as much as 5 litres per day, and they have ¾-Lacaune ewes giving 2.5 litres per day after lambing for the first time. Peter says the British Milk Sheep ewes have the greatest potential for milk production in their flock. But he likes the body and strength of the Lacaune ewes, and thinks they will probably last longer.
The van der Veens plan to continue keeping 300 Rideau ewes. The Rideaus have larger litters than the dairy sheep, particularly when they lamb in season, and this can lead to more work and higher death losses. But the large litters provide significant numbers of market lambs, as well as ewe lambs sold as breeding stock. They also have good longevity; some of the Rideau ewes on the farm are 12 years old.
And even though they produce less milk than the dairy sheep, the van der Veens find it worthwhile to milk the Rideaus as well as the dairy ewes. It costs 43 cents per day to feed a dry ewe and only 44 cents more (87 cents per day) for a lactating Rideau. The price they receive for a litre of milk depends on the protein content, but has recently been around $2.30 per litre, so even when a ewe produces as little as a half-litre of milk per day, she still nets 72 cents per day over her additional feeding cost.
There are other benefits to milking the Rideaus as well. Before they started milking, the Rideaus were culled on the number and weight of lambs they weaned. But going through the milking parlour twice a day means they can be culled directly for milk production, as well as udder size and shape. Rideaus that survive this culling make better mothers at lambing time, and this benefit gets passed on to the flocks that purchase ewe lambs from the van der Veens.
Most of the ewes raise their lambs for 34 days after lambing, before the lambs are weaned and the ewe begins milking in the parlour. Rideau ewes dry off earlier than the dairy ewes; they usually get milked for 60-90 days, compared to 150-200 days for the dairy ewes. The dairy ewes could probably milk even longer, but rebreeding and drying them off earlier allows them to produce more lambs than if they were milked for a longer period.
Lambing and milking year-round means the ewes are bred while they are still milking in the parlour. Before they started milking, Peter and Elly used MGA to induce out-of-season lambing, but they had to switch from MGA to CIDRs when they started selling milk for human consumption. The timing of CIDR insertion depends on the breed, with Rideau ewes getting a CIDR 40-50 days after lambing and the dairy breed ewes a bit later at 70-80 days. CIDRs are only used outside the normal breeding season. Rams go in with the ewes for 34 days at a time, followed by two weeks with no ram exposure, to allow for the lambing barns to empty out and be cleaned before the next lambing begins.
An ultrasound technician visits monthly to scan potentially pregnant ewes. Ewes get dried off 35-40 days before they are due to lamb again, or when their daily milk production measures less than half a litre.
A Grober milk replacer machine, and the lambs raised on it, are housed in an addition that connects the two lambing barns, along with a warming/recovery room and an office. The prolificacy of the Rideaus made the purchase of the machine a worthwhile investment even before the family began milking sheep. But since then it has become even more useful, as it provides the option of putting a ewe that gives birth to a single directly into the milking group and raising her lamb on milk replacer.
Raising a single lamb on milk replacer seems counterintuitive to most sheep producers, but the amount of milk a ewe produces depends to some extent on how much milk her lambs remove from her udder. The more the lambs drink, the more the ewe produces, so ewes with multiple lambs produce more milk than when they have single lambs.
By the time a single lamb is weaned at 34 days of age, the milk production potential of the ewe has already been set at a lower level than if she had been feeding multiple lambs. Milking her in the parlour and raising her lamb on milk replacer removes more milk from her udder in the first month of lactation, and results in a higher daily production. It also means that she gets milked for 30 days longer than if she first raises her lamb.
A ewe that produces a litre of milk a day, for an additional 30 days (all ewes feed their lambs for the first day or two), will produce an extra $74 worth of milk, which is more than twice what it costs to raise her lamb on milk replacer ($35).
Not all ewes giving birth to singles will go directly to the milking parlour. The Grober milk replacer machine has a capacity of 100 lambs at a time, so whether a ewe raises her single lamb or not depends on the space available on the machine, and on how much they need the extra milk in the tank at the time.
With ewes being fed, bred, lambed and milked year-round, there is no shortage of work, and the summers are even busier, with 100 acres of forage to harvest and cash crops to manage. The grass is cut four, or sometimes five, times a year and put up as haylage in a pit or (very rarely) baled as dry hay and sold. There is no alfalfa in the mix, but one field of orchardgrass is now in its 18th year of production. Cash crops include 180 acres of soybeans, 140 acres of wheat and 270 acres of corn, 40 of which will be harvested as silage.
Dry ewes are grazed on the forage land in between cuttings. Milking ewes need to be close to the parlour, and can’t be wormed when they are being milked. The grazing ewes are moved nearly every day, and only return to a previously grazed area when at least three weeks has elapsed. Worming is kept to a minimum, with regular worming of the entire flock having been replaced by selective worming of only the animals that need it, when they are in the handling system for other purposes.
Sheep in the barns are fed total mixed rations (TMRs) in feed alleys once a day. The rations are formulated by Courtney Vriens, an independent nutritionist who specializes in small ruminants. The TMRs contain corn silage, haylage and corn grain, all grown on the farm, as well as purchased protein, vitamin and mineral supplements. The sheep consume 180-200 tonnes of the corn each year. The corn is rolled before being added to the rations to keep the dominant ewes, who eat first, from sorting and eating it all.
Between Rideaus and dairy ewes, and sheep in different stages of pregnancy and lactation, there are five different TMRs to be mixed and fed each day (see table on page 9), which takes about two hours. In addition to the TMRs fed in the barns, the ewes get 80 grams of a parlour supplement (160 grams/day) on each trip through the parlour.
Coyotes were a problem in the past when the family had only one or two guardian dogs; one year they lost 50 lambs. Since increasing to three or four guardian dogs, they haven’t had any kills in the last two years. Ravens have been more of a problem in recent years. Not only do the ravens attack the lambs inside the barns (which are open on the ends), Peter blames them for stressing out the ewes and rams at breeding time and reducing their conception rates.
The van der Veen farm has come a long way in 20 years. With new milk meters on order, the next big development should be the ability to automatically record the milk production of each ewe at each milking, and to use this data to improve their selection for higher levels of milk production. And with Harold’s commitment to the farm operation, Peter and Elly can look forward to retiring someday and seeing what they have built continued by future generations of their family.