James and Emilie Wilson’s operation, Wilson Acres Farms, is located in the gently rolling Buffalo Hills of south-central Alberta near the small town of Arrowwood. And though neither of them are new to agriculture they are relatively new to the Canadian sheep and lamb sector. My visit with this couple showed me that with the right attitude and hard work there are still ways for young folks to come into our industry.
They have been renting the property for three years and are running a flock of 150 ewes in an accelerated program; each group lambing 3 times in 2 years. The current operation is located on 12 acres with hopes to expand in the future. There is a 135’x60’ barn on the site that houses most of the flock. The few outside paddocks are used for rams and some breeding groups.
Folks who have been in the sheep business for a while will recognize the name Floyd Williams. This is the property where Floyd ran his lamb feeding operation for many years. Their ewe flock was sourced from the Birch Hills Hutterite Colony in Wanham, AB and is a mix of Dorset, Rideau and Suffolk. Emilie and James thought that for health reasons it was important to source the ewe flock from one farm. The rams, all purebred, are Polled Dorsets (McDermit Ranch, Southey, SK and Coyote Acres, Halkirk, AB) and Suffolk (Jordan Livestock, Rimbey, AB and Ashbacher Suffolks, Halkirk, AB).
The ewe flock is run in two groups, one of 100 and one of 50. Lambing is in March, June and November. The regular breeding protocol calls for CIDRs and a PMSG injection. For the late June breeding this year they are running an experiment with part of that group receiving the PMSG and some not. They have marked the ewes’ rumps with different coloured paint to monitor the breeding activity. The rams are turned in with the ewes for 18-20 days. Last year, in the larger group of 100 ewes, they used 5 rams and ended up with a 97% conception rate. Moving forward their breeding plans call for an increase in ram power. They will continue to purchase their male genetics from purebred breeders throughout Alberta.
Six weeks prior to lambing the ewes will be vaccinated with Glanvac 6, shorn and have their hooves trimmed. At 70-80 days post breeding their veterinarian service, the Highview Animal Clinic, will scan the ewes. Any open ewes will be moved into the next breeding group. The culling standard? Two strikes and you’re out.
The ewes lamb out in the barn and will usually spend 24 hours in the claiming jugs. The lambs are weighed, tagged, and the tails banded. Males are usually left intact. When they started, Emilie and James were giving selenium and AD&E vitamin injections to each lamb but have switched to an oral administration of Vitaferst-Care. Unlike many parts of Western Canada the local soil and the feeds they produce are not deficient in selenium. With triplets, one is removed and raised on milk replacer using a Pyon Heatwave Milk Warmer setup. All the newborn lambs have access to an 18% creep feed ration.
The winter group of ewes lambed out at 158% with the average weight for the lambs at 10.7 lb. The lambing rate for the June group was lower at 112% but had much higher birth weights, averaging 13.5 lb. The Animal Management program from Gallagher is used for data collection and they have a Ritchie scale in the sorting chute.
Weaning takes place at 8 weeks. The lambs are fed initially on an 18% ration eventually moving to 16% as they grow. Most of the lambs are marketed at 80-100 lb. directly to a Halal Butcher located 45 minutes from the farm. They also direct market to several Indian restaurants in Calgary. The majority of the March born lambs were already gone when I made my late June visit to the farm. This year’s plans call for more record keeping; 50 and 100 day weights.
All of the rations, except the 18% creep feed, are mixed on farm and fed using a self propelled Jay-Lor tub grinder. They have been working with livestock nutritionist Courtney Vriens to create the different TMRs needed to manage the ewe flock, the rams and the growing lambs. All of the feed inputs are purchased and include a variety of silages, dry hay, dried distillers grain and corn. James works off-farm as the farm manager of a 75,000 head cattle feed-ot and through those connections is able to find the most affordable feeds. They use different silages and a variety of hay types in the feed mixes always looking, as James put it, “ to get the best bang for our buck.” The feeding is done daily in bunk feeders that line the central alley of the barn. Five different ewe rations are formulated for maintenance, flushing, early gestation, late gestation and lactation. As well, grower rations are mixed and adjusted for lamb growth.
I took a ride with James to a nearby hay processing plant where they loaded his truck with 3 large square bales of 2nd cut alfalfa. The fact that they are close to all of their feed supplies helps make this farm work for Emilie and James.
I was surprised by how little machinery is required for their operation. The self-propelled tub grinder and a 25 horsepower JD tractor with a loader and grapple are all that is needed. It was with a nod of respect that I watched James unload the heavy alfalfa bales and move them into the barn with his small tractor. They do find it quicker to rent a skid steer when it comes time to clean out the barn between lambing groups. A pulley mounted to one of the beams in the barn allows for the unloading of the large tote bags of feed supplements and minerals.
James hails from Oxfordshire, England but has some Canadian roots; grandmother, Elaine, was born in BC before the family moved to England. He grew up around farming, his father, Simon, still works on the farm where James grew up. In his early 20’s James and a neighbour ran a small flock of sheep together. Realizing that his farming options in England were limited James made his way to Canada in 2014. He spent a year working on a farm near Rosetown, SK. On a trip home to England he met Emilie and together they made plans for Canada.
Emilie, who was born in Warwickshire, had spent a gap year traveling in Australia and New Zealand, funding her trip by working on a number of farms. Once home she went back to school and obtained a degree in Agricultural Business Management at the University of West Englands’s Hartpury College. When they met in England in 2014 she had graduated and was working on an outdoor organic pig farm.
They came to Canada in 2016 and settled in Shaunavon, SK for a few years before making the move to the farm in. They speak appreciatively of the Canadian Agricultural Loans Act Program (CALA) that has helped them finance the capital purchases needed to start up the farm. This program guarantees to the lending bank or credit union up to 95% of the loan. As they build their operation Emilie and James both work at off-farm jobs. James at the feed-lot and Emilie as the Financial Administrator for Trouw Nutrition. Emile is also very involved with the Alberta Lamb Producers (ALP). She has been on the Board of Directors since 2021 and is currently the vice-chair.
Increasing their flock and purchasing the farm along with some additional land are part of the future plans. The flock is relatively young but they are starting to develop criteria for replacement ewe selection. Dorset genetics seem to be the preferred direction, with Suffolk sires, to create good quality meat carcasses. James and Emilie have now added some purebred Texel to their operation and plan on using them in both the commercial operation and as show animals. They are looking at some British genetics as the Texel flock grows.
It was a treat to meet with this young couple. They see a real future in the sheep and lamb industry and with their energy and enthusiasm there is no doubt they’ll get there.