The Willowdale Sheep & Lamb yard, as seen from the southeast. The longest wing of the barn, east of the outdoor pens, is the lambing area. Ewes with lambs move from the lambing area into the centre areas of the barn. The wing closest to the shop (farthest from the lambing area) houses the handling system and permanent shearing setup. Photo by Randy Eros.

By Randy Eros

It was a cool, cloudy January afternoon when I pulled into the parking area at Willowdale Sheep & Lamb, 10 minutes south of Steinbach, Manitoba. The farm sits on a ¼-section (160 acres) that is part of a larger operation owned by Apex Farms.

Harry Warkentin is the manager of the facility, and even before I met up with him I knew I was in for an enjoyable afternoon. As I stepped out of the truck I could hear the voices of the staff hard at work but clearly enjoying what they were doing—always a good sign in any operation. We started our visit in the farm office/staff room over a cup of coffee. From here you can keep an eye on the sheep through a system of cameras strategically placed throughout the barns.

L to R: Harry Warkentin and staff members Edwin Falk, Charity Dueck, Ethan Plett, Bethany Dueck (missing in the photo are Deb Wipf and Alina Fischer). Photo by Randy Eros.

The Willowdale barns are close to home for Harry and his wife, Lorna. They live on the ¼-section straight north of the sheep barns and used to own this one as well. This new venture has been up and running for just over two years, and is currently home to 1,800 ewes.

Like many sheep folks, the Warkentins have a long history in agriculture. They ran a dairy for 12 years and then moved to hogs, putting up the buildings that are now filled with sheep back in 1988. They got into sheep in 2011, and their flock grew to 400 head as they transitioned out of hogs. That flock was merged into what is now the Willowdale flock.

The Warkentins sold this quarter, with the hog barns, three years ago. The new owners wanted to diversify their livestock operations, and asked Harry and Lorna to develop and manage a new sheep operation for them.

This container outside the lambing barn receives the rations for the ewes from the TMR mixer. A conveyor belt carries it from the container into the lambing barn. Photo by Dale Engstrom.

TMR is fed off an overhead belt and into the feed bunks along the outside wall. Photo by Randy Eros.

The flock is mostly straight-bred Rideau Arcotts; there is also a small group of Canadians. The flock is divided into 12 breeding groups of 150 head each. Rams go in with the first group in mid-August, and more rams are added to new groups every two weeks until mid-January. Most (94%) of the ewes catch in the first cycle after being exposed to rams; the rest lamb later with the later breeding groups.

The Willowdale ewes lamb just once a year, but some of them do it out of season in October. Harry uses CIDRs on the ewes that are exposed for fall lambing. Last spring (2019), there were 250 ewes synchronised and exposed to rams, and 75% of them lambed last October.

More out-of-season lambings are planned for this fall, in September, October and November. Harry plans to move into accelerated lambing in 2020, by putting CIDRs in some ewes that lambed this winter, as soon as their lambs are weaned.

The ewes are grouped using a 4-colour tagging system and bred to unrelated groups of purebred Rideau Arcott rams, sourced from Phil and Liz Smith in Ontario. Harry looks for rams with good performance information but is also interested in the work the Smiths are doing with breeding for parasite resistance.

They currently have six ram groups, each with six rams, which are also colour-coded, making for an easy visual tracking system that prevents inbreeding. Lots of ram power is one of the keys to their successful breeding program.

Lambing rates run from 2.3–2.4 in the fall-lambing ewes, and around 3.0 for ewes lambing in season, for an overall rate of about 2.6. The flock is fairly young and these numbers are expected to increase as they mature. The target is to retain or market 2.2 of the 2.6 lambs dropped, and Harry looks forward to higher numbers as they move towards accelerated lambing.

Cameras in the lambing barn allow staff to monitor the action from the barn office. Photo by Randy Eros.

The original barn built for the hogs needed significant internal changes to adapt it for sheep. Pits were filled and all of the floors leveled with an additional layer of concrete. A local welding firm built the panels for pens, alleyways, and gates. The barn is nearly 30,000 square feet in area and consists of five interconnected sections. The lambing area is the largest and is broken up into drop pens that hold 25 ewes. The end of this section contains 39 lambing jugs and several nursery pens.

Attention to detail – this chart in the barn office shows information on each of the 12 lambing groups and tracks the movement of sheep through the barn, as well as helping determine what rations should be delivered where. Photo by Randy Eros.

Photo by Dale Engstrom.

Once the lambs are born and bonded, groups of ewes and lambs move to one of three indoor pens, each of which will house 150 ewes and their lambs, where they stay until weaning. These pens are fed using an automated conveyer belt that delivers a TMR twice daily to a central feed trough built to provide a foot of feeding space per ewe. Each pen includes a creep feeder for the lambs where they can access a custom, 18% crude protein crumble. Straw is used for bedding throughout the barns.

Ewes and lambs in one of three pens in the converted hog barn where they will stay until weaning. TMR is fed from above into a feeder in the centre of the pen. Photo by Dale Engstrom.

The fifth section of the barn contains the handling system and the shearing area. Garrick Reimer, a local shearer, comes in every two weeks from January to June as ewes approach lambing. There is an on-site hydraulic wool packer and full wool bags are shipped to Canadian Cooperative Wool Growers.

Fishing net used to catch lambs. Photo by Dale Engstrom.

Pails of milk in the nursery for lambs who don’t catch on to the nipple-feeding system right away. Photo by Dale Engstrom.

The New Rosedale Feedmill makes up two custom premixes for the farm; this one is fed to ewes in late pregnancy and lactation and contains 30 ppm of selenium. Photo by Randy Eros.

The Förster-Technik milk machine is connected to each of the nursery pens. Photo by Randy Eros.

Directly west of the barn, there are 12 newly built, outdoor paddocks with open-sided shelters that are 12 feet deep. Each paddock is 150 feet long by 70 feet deep. The fence line feeders run the length of the paddock with a 22-foot paved and sloped alleyway between the pens. The pavement extends 7 feet into the pens, giving the sheep solid footing at the feeders in wet weather.

The pens are 150’ long by 70’ wide; sheds running the length of the pens are 12’ deep. Photo by Dale Engstrom.

TMR feeder delivers feed to the outdoor pens every other day. Photo by Randy Eros.

Ewes in these pens are fed a TMR that is mixed and fed every second day. On alternate days, a blade is used to push the remaining feed back up against the feeders, a very efficient system. The ewes stay outside until a week before lambing, when they are brought into the barn and shorn, wormed, vaccinated with Glanvac 6, and treated with Vetolice.

Harry will tell you that a comprehensive nutrition program is essential. The bulk of the ewe ration is a mix of bagged corn silage and alfalfa haylage. The farmland adjacent to the barns has been seeded to alfalfa and the corn silage is harvested from nearby rented land. Barley and corn DDGS (dried distillers grains with solubles) supplement the energy and protein provided by the forage.

Dale Engstrom, a livestock nutritionist from Alberta, visits the farm twice a year and balances rations for ewes in each stage of production. Every new bag of hay silage is tested, and the TMR rations are tweaked accordingly.

Custom premixes, designed by Dale and made up by the New Rosedale Feedmill in Portage la Prairie, are added to the TMR to provide salt, mineral and vitamins for ewes in different stages of production. Selenium has been added to address the natural shortage of this trace mineral in our prairie soils. There is a ‘Dry’ ewe premix, which is fed to ewes in maintenance, but also to those being flushed and bred, and to those in early pregnancy. The ‘Lactating’ ewe premix has higher levels of vitamins ADE, as well as Bovatec for the prevention of coccidia, and is fed to ewes in the last six weeks of pregnancy and the first 6-8 weeks of lactation. Limestone is occasionally used to increase calcium content of the TMR. Having all of the required minerals and vitamins in the premix means fewer injections for newborn lambs and less work for the staff at lambing time.

Lambs are weighed, tagged and docked at birth, and also injected with ¼ cc of Tasvax and a ½ cc of penicillin. They are tagged with both a CSIP tag and a breeding group tag in the appropriate colour. Lambing information is recorded on the Shearwell FarmWorks program. Ewes and lambs get up to three days in the claiming pens, if there’s not too much lambing pressure. Ewes are left with two lambs and extra lambs are moved into nursery pens of about 15 head. These pens are all connected to a single Förster-Technik milk machine. A second machine, a Lak-Tek II, is kept at the Warkentin’s farm, where the lambs go to be grown out and finished after weaning. This allows for older nursery lambs to be moved over to the finishing yard if the regular nursery gets too crowded. The target for weaning nursery lambs is 30 days or 10 kg.

Lambs raised by the ewes are weaned at 8 weeks of age and taken on a short trailer ride to the Warkentin’s home yard for growing out and finishing. The original hog barn and adjacent hoop structure on this property are separated into several pens and feed is delivered through augers directly into self-feeders. The 16% crude protein ration is a mix of whole barley and a 32% custom crumble. The variable speed auger from the crumble bin allows the ration to be adjusted as needed. The lambs are vaccinated again shortly after weaning, ewe lambs with Glanvac 6 and male lambs with Tasvax.

After weaning, lambs are moved to the adjacent ¼-section to be grown out and finished in another former hog barn (above) and hoop barn (below), where a mix of barley and protein supplement is delivered through augers directly into self-feeders. Photos by Dale Engstrom.

Most of the finished lambs (60%) are marketed to SunGold Specialty Meats in Innisfail, Alberta, and the rest are sold through lamb buyers like Ian Deans of Newdale, Manitoba. Harry is keen to chase the market, saying, “If you don’t do it right, you’ll leave money on the table.”

Most of the lambs are marketed to SunGold Specialty Meats in Innisfail, Alberta, at a live weight of approximately 125 lb. Photo by Randy Eros.

Lambs sent to SunGold have a live weight target of 125 lb., which they reach at 5–6 months of age. An on-farm spreadsheet has been developed to calculate when lambs will meet this weight and help plan the shipping dates. It includes a number of variables including average daily gain, the percentage shrink on the trip to Alberta, and the historic carcass yield. All of this is done to optimize market returns based on SunGold’s preferred carcass weight of 26.7 kg. The lambs get weighed frequently, which is made easier with an electronic scale and Psion tag reader. The scale does not have Bluetooth capacity (yet), meaning that someone has to read the weight off the electronic scale and type it into a handheld computer/tag reader (Psion) as the lambs are weighed, but at least no one has to read eartags and no clipboard is required.

Harry keeps an eye on the square footage allocated for each lamb as pens are filled. With several people working in the operation, prominently posted written instructions make sure nothing gets missed. Photo by Dale Engstrom.

With the flock in expansion mode in recent years, Harry has been retaining most of their ewe lambs. Now that they are at capacity, he plans to start marketing replacements to other farms. Harry looks for ewe lambs from dams with a history of multiple births and good growth rates. He doesn’t keep replacements out of ewe lambs, preferring the proven performance of more experienced ewes. Ewes that can’t, or won’t, raise their lambs are culled along with their female offspring.

Although most of the focus of Willowdale Lamb is on the barn and outdoor pens, there is a grazing element to the operation. Apex Farms has a hog operation just outside the nearby town of Niverville, and part of the ewe flock grazes the 60 acres surrounding those barns. Another 60 acres of rotational grazing is available on the Warkentin quarter. Four livestock guard dogs accompany the ewes in the summer and keep coyotes at bay. Predation has not been a problem so far. Ewes get wormed when they come in off the pasture.

Even with all of the automation on the farm, lambing 1,800 ewes and keeping them and their lambs fed is a big job. Harry has two full-time and 2-4 part time (depending on the season) staff working with him. These employees handle the day-to-day work of feeding the stock, moving the ewes and lambs through pens, and processing lambs in the jugs.

A number of Manitoba hog barns have been repurposed into sheep barns over the last few decades as the hog industry here has consolidated. Harry and Lorna’s expertise has made the Willowdale operation into one of the best examples of how to do this. The buildings are comfortable, bright and well ventilated. The interior is smartly laid out, and the penning well made and more than adequate for the job. The outdoor pens are well designed for our prairie climate and provide a very efficient feed delivery setup.

As Harry and I discussed the operation, it was clear to me that the Warkentin’s experience in both the dairy and hog industries have added a lot to their understanding of how to make a sheep operation run efficiently.

Randy Eros, his wife, Solange Dusablon, and their son, Michel, own and operate Seine River Shepherds near Ste-Anne, Manitoba.