By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Schuyler Farms Limited, located near Simcoe, Ontario, consists of 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans, 700 acres of apples, 550 acres of sour (pie) cherries, and 400 acres of pasture and woodlot. The farm is run by brothers Brett and Ryan Schuyler, who are in the eighth year of a 10-year transition from their father, Marshall, and uncle, Drew Schuyler. The brothers have clearly-defined responsibilities: Brett is in charge of field management for the corn, soybeans, apples and cherries, and of the staff, including seasonal workers and eight full-time people. Ryan is in charge of the administrative side, looking after the finances, paperwork and food safety requirements.
Carrie Woolley is married to Brett Schuyler, and the mother of Emma (2) and Elliott (8 months). Carrie grew up in the area on a dairy farm, and she, as well as Brett and Ryan, all attended the University of Guelph, graduating in 2007(Ryan), 2008(Brett), and 2011(Carrie). After her undergraduate degree, Carrie stayed on in Guelph to complete a Master’s degree in Animal Behaviour and Welfare (working with dairy cattle), which she completed in 2013.
While she was working on her Master’s degree, Carrie was considering how to add livestock to the other operations at Schuyler Farms. The seeds of a sheep operation were planted in 2011, when a friend from New Zealand suggested grazing sheep between the rows of trees in the orchards, rather than mowing them. For the first two years, the Schuylers custom-grazed a neighbour’s sheep, using portable electric netting, to test out the concept. That arrangement lasted for two summers, ending just as Carrie was returning from Guelph, at which point she and Brett decided to acquire their own sheep.
The flock started small, with the purchase of a dozen North Country Cheviots and five Shetlands. Then Carrie met up with Mark Ritchie and Cherry Allen of Footflats Farm on Amherst Island (see Fall 2012 issue of Sheep Canada), who became her mentors as she started her own flock. At Footflats Farm, Carrie saw a production system that she could adapt to her own situation, one based on easy-care but relatively productive crossbred ewes (a mix of Border Cheviot, Romanov and Coopworth), which were housed outside, lambed once a year, and handled very little. Today, Carrie is managing 600 ewes.
In addition to the orchards, Carrie also has access to about 300 acres of permanent pasture on marginal land. The flock lambs there in May each year. The cherries are harvested in July, after which the lambs are weaned onto the cherry orchards in August.
Schuyler Farms shares ownership of a cherry processing facility (Norfolk Cherry Company) with one of their neighbours. The cherries are harvested by machines, then immersed in cold water for 24 hours, sorted, pitted, packaged and frozen for future sale.
Apple picking takes place in September and October. The process is much more labour-intensive, requiring 150 temporary labourers from Trinidad and Tobago, who are housed on the farm during their stay. The 10-12 different varieties of apples are packed and sold through the Norfolk Fruit Growers’ Association.
As the sheep flock expands, so does the need for more pasture. In addition to the marginal land already being used, there are 250 acres of low value woodlot. For the last four or five years, the woodlot has been developed through a practice known as silvopasture (see sidebar page 9), in which enough of the tree canopy is removed to allow sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor, encouraging the growth of grass and other plants to support grazing by the sheep. The process involved having a professional forester mark trees to be removed by loggers, after which a forestry mulcher was brought in to clean up the understory. The area has now been aerially seeded to a mix of orchardgrass, birdsfoot trefoil, red and white clovers and ryegrass.
The perimeters of the permanent pastures (including the silvopasture) are fenced with Electrolock, an electrified Gallagher product that looks like pagewire, which is left up year-round. There is an additional live wire under the Electrolock, and one offset wire on the outside of the fence. Between the electric fence and a team of 13 livestock guardian dogs, Carrie hasn’t had much trouble with predation so far, although she does get the odd coyote kill.
In addition to grazing in pastures and orchards, the sheep also clean up crop residues such as corn stover. The climate is pretty mild in this southern part of Ontario (42.8° N), with very little snow, which means the sheep don’t require any harvested feeds before the end of the year.
By the new year, the flock is back on the permanent pastures and silvopasture, where they get fed round bales of silage or dry hay, depending on the year. Most of this hay is made in the early part of the summer in the cherry orchards, where the rows between the trees have been seeded with pasture mixes containing alfalfa and clovers. This is in sharp contrast to the days before the arrival of the sheep, when the rows between the trees were kept mowed “like golf courses.” Between the haying and grazing in the orchards, the farm now saves $20,000-$30,000 per year in mowing costs.
The apple trees normally last 40-50 years, while the cherry trees average only 30, partly because of the shaking they endure from the harvesters. I asked if the sheep cause any damage to the trees and Carrie told me that the sheep don’t damage mature cherry trees, but the apple trees have to be handled a little more carefully. Only the lambs graze near the apple trees, and only trees that are more than four years old. The lambs also consume apples that fall to the ground under the trees.
With 25% each of Border Cheviot and Romanov in the commercial ewes, the flock is relatively productive, dropping about 1.7 lambs per ewe on average. The ewes are bred in one of two groups, each with several Coopworth rams. The ewe lambs are in their own group with Border Cheviot rams. Lambing takes place in May. The ewes and lambs stay in the same groups from before lambing until August when they are weaned. Carrie interferes with them very little during lambing, only going out to check for dead or ‘orphan’ lambs. Ewes that need help in this system get culled and orphans get sold as bottle lambs.
When I asked Carrie how she chose her ewe lamb replacements given that the sires and dams are not recorded, she told me that all the ewes are scanned during pregnancy to determine if they are carrying one or more lambs, and then separated into lambing groups based on their scan results. This allows Carrie to give the ewes carrying two or more lambs the best, and most sheltered, lambing pastures. It also allows her to select lambs that are born as twins or triplets simply by restricting her selections to lambs born in that group/pasture.
For managing the flock, Carrie uses a piece of software from Gallagher called APS, and speaks favourably of the company’s willingness to work with her to make needed changes to the software. If a lamb that has been treated walks across the scale, its tag is scanned and a reminder pops up to make sure it doesn’t get shipped before it should.
With sheep grazing in up to seven different locations at once, Carrie needs several energizers and watering systems. She also has a Prattley yard and an Hdale squeeze chute that can clamp animals for vaccinating and other procedures. The chute feeds into an electronic scale and Prattley autosorter.
Carrie kept 200 ewe lamb replacements in 2018. Another 500 went to a feedlot near Holstein at the end of the summer grazing season, at 50-70 lb.
A further 300 were sold as freezer lambs. These were her fastest-growing slaughter lambs, and were processed at a local abattoir (VG Meats) at 80-100 lb., in late October or early November. The frozen lamb is stored in the freezers at Norfolk Cherry Company for sale throughout the next year.
Most of the customers are restaurants, which buy specific cuts such as racks, rather than individual households buying single lambs for their freezer, and VG Meats handles most of the arrangements once the lambs have been delivered to the plant. As a local product with a unique story/brand (orchard grazing), Woolley’s Lamb is popular with restaurants that focus on local food, such as David’s Restaurant in Port Dover, which serves their lamb with a cherry chutney.
Carrie plans to expand her breeding flock of 50 purebred Coopworth ewes, and to use AI to breed them with semen from New Zealand sires selected for parasite resistance. She plans to increase the size of the commercial flock until they have about 1,000 ewes in total. Although she appreciates the vigour and productivity that the Border Cheviot and Romanov offer, she is considering increasing the percentage of Coopworth breeding in the ewes from the current level of 50%, in order to get a slightly larger lamb carcass.
After only seven years of owning her own sheep, Carrie has taken the management system she learned from Mark and Cherry at Footflats Farm and put her own stamp on it, by integrating the flock into the other operations at Schuyler Farms, and maximizing the use of resources already owned by the farm.