Story & photos by Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Marg Zillig is a busy woman; once part of a family farm, she now carries on alone. Marg’s parents, Gernot and Edith, purchased the home farm (175 acres) back in 1958, shortly after they emigrated from Germany, and added another 100 acres a few years later. Determining early on that the heavy clay soil and local climate were not suitable for crop production, they decided on a mixed livestock operation and a philosophy of not having all their eggs in one basket.
Marg and her brother, Manfred, grew up on the farm, which at its peak in the early 1990s included 350–400 ewes, a 45–sow farrow-to-weaning operation (with breeding stock sales), and 6–10 Jersey cows raising veal calves and baby beef. The family also produced and processed around 100 geese and 100 ducks each year. Gernot usually had some off-farm work as well, and Edith brought in extra money tanning sheepskins and creating crafts from their wool.
Marg left the farm long enough to obtain an associate degree in education from the NS Teachers College and a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Macdonald College of McGill University in Québec. Over the years, she has worked off-farm at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College (now Dalhousie University Faculty of Agriculture), the NS Department of Agriculture, and the federal research station in Lethbridge, Alberta.
Marg’s father died unexpectedly in 1992. Marg and her mother ran the farm together until Edith’s death in 2009, with the number and variety of livestock gradually being reduced. Today there are no pigs or cattle, and the flock has shrunk to around 100 ewes. Manfred has participated in some aspects of the farm, but with his own farm and off-farm employment, he now has little time to be involved on the home place.
The flock consists primarily of registered Polled Dorsets, which Marg’s parents chose in the early 1960s for their extended breeding season and carcass characteristics. The family preferred the traditional style of Dorset to the show-ring type; the flock was founded on stock from the late Eleanor and Jack Gartshore, of Dundas, Ontario. Marg still finds the Dorsets a good fit for her purposes, as they provide good muscling and finish over a wide range of live weights (50-95 lb.).
Since the mid 1990s, there has been significant investment in genetics, using semen imported from the UK, Québec and Australia. Breeding stock sales from the Zillig flock are limited, but Marg usually sends a few animals to the annual Atlantic Sheep Sale in Truro.
Both Gernot and Marg have used performance records to make their selection decisions. The flock was enrolled in the old federal-provincial Record of Performance (ROP) program, and was one of the first in Nova Scotia to sign onto GenOvis when it became available outside of Québec. Marg even served as the GenOvis resource person for the Atlantic region during the initial years of the program’s expansion.
Ram and ewe lamb replacements are chosen using GenOvis EPD indexes, in addition to their conformation and pedigrees. Last year, thanks to a visit by technicians from Québec, Marg was able to get ultrasound fat and muscle depths on her lambs, and now has EPDs for carcass traits in addition to those for growth and maternal characteristics.
Not all of the ewes are purebred Dorsets; Marg has also used AI to add East Friesian genetics to the flock. She likes the temperament of the crossbred ewes and is happy with their performance in raising triplet lambs. A Suffolk sire is sometimes used also, to separate breedings from successive Dorset rams and produce heavy market lambs.
Half of the flock lambs in early to midwinter, and the rest follow in the spring. This allows Marg to split the workload into two manageable blocks, but the main reason for having a winter lambing is to supply her Greek customers in Halifax with a lamb for their Easter celebrations. The Zillig farm has been providing Easter lambs since the late 1950s, and many of their original customers still want that all-important lamb each spring.
In the 1970s, the family would sell up to 125 (whole) Easter lambs each year, butchered on the farm. Marg now sells 30–40 per year, at 10-12 weeks of age. The breeding and feeding are both timed to produce lambs that weigh 50–70 pounds by the week before the Greek Easter. This is more difficult in years when the ewes give birth to more singles and triplets and fewer twins, or when lambing is delayed due to temporary summer infertility in a ram.
Most of the Easter lambs are now killed at a local abattoir, although a few are still done on the farm. On-farm butchering is permitted in Nova Scotia, as long as the lamb is sold directly to the consumer rather than through a middleman. In 2015, the average price for Marg’s Easter lambs was $3.10/lb., based on their live weight.
Early lambs that are too big or small for the Easter market are weaned and grown out. Some go as freezer lambs, but Marg’s customers are not usually interested in stocking their freezers at this time of year. Some are sold to Oulton’s Meats in Windsor, others to the NorthumberLamb Co-op in Bible Hill (where the Zilligs have been members since its start in 1982). Seldom, if ever, does Marg find it necessary to ship lambs to the stockyards in Truro.
The spring lambing takes place after the Easter lambs are gone, in April or May; these lambs have traditionally been raised on grass. There is about 25 acres of permanent pasture on the farm, and Marg also grazes hay aftermath in late summer and fall, depending on when the first cut is made. Ewes and lambs are brought in each night to avoid losses from predators, and lambs have access to creep feed overnight. Ewes and lambs are normally left together until 100-day weights (for GenOvis) are taken, at which time the ram lambs are weaned and housed for feeding up to market weight, while the ewe lambs stay on pasture with the ewes a bit longer.
But in recent years, management of the spring lambing flock has become much more challenging due to Haemonchus contortus, the barber pole worm. The nursing ewes are particularly affected, and if not watched carefully can become anemic and die without much warning. Access to creep feed in the barn at night, along with strategic weaning, seems to largely diminish the parasite problem for the lambs.
Marg has tried a number of strategies, including keeping the ewes and lambs in the barn later into the summer, continuing to supplement the ewes with concentrate after turnout onto pasture, and attempting to monitor anemia in the ewes and selectively worm them. This last method she found time-consuming, even for a small flock, and ended up treating most of the ewes anyway.
In July of last year, Marg tried a new strategy: she weaned about half the lambs at approximately 60 days of age, and sent the ewes to pasture with only one lamb each, thereby reducing their workload. The lambs that were kept in the barn adapted to their early weaning very well. Those on passture also grew well until the 100-day weighing, and then tapered off.
Spring-born lambs are sold to freezer customers at carcass weights up to 55 pounds. Like many direct marketers, Marg has to be flexible about when and where the lambs are butchered. With no complete service available in her area nowadays, the lambs are killed at one provincially inspected abattoir and cut up at another. Freezer lambs in 2015 averaged $4.75/lb., based on the carcass weight, with the customer paying for the killing ($30) and cutting ($35 flat fee, irrespective of carcass weight).
When it comes to pricing, the lessons Marg learned from her father were twofold: increase by small increments and try not to go backward, even when the market price for lambs is down.
Marg served as the director to the Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers, Ltd., for the Atlantic region from 2004 to 2015, and most of the wool from her flock is sold to them. She occasionally sends a small amount to MacAusland’s Woollen Mills in Bloomfield, PEI, to exchange for yarn and blankets, which she also sells from the farm.
Like her mother, Marg tans the hides of lambs killed on the farm, as well as any usable ones recovered from her lambs at abattoirs. She uses two different tanning processes: an alum and salt method (see page 38) and a kit (Rittel’s E-Z 100) from the US, which produces a washable, environmentally-friendly product.
Nothing is wasted and no opportunities are overlooked; Marg also sells composted sheep manure for $5 a bag at the farm, or $6 delivered. The slatted floor on one side of the sheep barn produces an especially pure product for this purpose.
Sheep are not the only livestock at the Zillig farm. Marg still raises geese and ducks each year, and sells duck eggs (in season), goose egg shells (for craft projects) and goose butter (rendered goose fat for use in cooking), in addition to the dressed birds.
Marg’s relationships with her customers are, in some cases, more like those between friends, or even family members. Some of her customers have been getting lamb or goose from Marg or her parents for over 50 years and, in some instances, the business is now with the second generation of both families.
The sheep and poultry operations are complemented by a wide variety of products from the garden originally established by Marg’s parents to provide for the family. These include home-grown garlic, vegetables (squash, carrots and pumpkins), fruit (pears and quince), six kinds of jam, a further six kinds of jelly, pumpkin and citrus marmalade, pear compote, five kinds of juice, and tomato puree. The order sheet is sent out to her customers, they place their orders and Marg packs their boxes and delivers them to one of two ‘depots’ in Halifax and Dartmouth for pickup. She also makes a few home deliveries, in special cases.
New customers come by word of mouth. Marg has noticed increased interest from people who want to know where or how their food is produced, or who support the concept of buying local.
Every sheep operation has its own unique challenges and the Zillig farm is no exception. In early April of 2013, four lambs were taken from the barn annex, killed and removed from the farm. The annex is some distance from the house. Marg doesn’t know if the lambs were taken during the day when she was out, or during the night when she (and her English Shepherd, Belle) were asleep inside.
Marg has taken steps to reduce the possibility of a recurrence by installing motion sensor lights and a camera in the area where the lambs were taken. A Maremma x Great Pyrenees guardian dog, Anna, has also been acquired and now keeps watch for two-legged predators, should they ever return.
Many readers will be wondering how Marg finds enough hours in the day to get all the work done. Marg readily admits that there is a lot of work, and wishes she had more free time. But for now she plans to continue living on the farm, honouring her parents’ memory by maintaining and building on what they created there, and selling high-quality food to customers who appreciate it.