By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Photos by Allison Taylor, PhD
At a time when more producers than ever are turning to accelerated lambing, one couple who tried it for eight years has made the decision to go back to lambing once a year.
John and Eadie Steele have been raising sheep near Norwood, Ontario, since 1991. The farm has been in Eadie’s family for generations, and was a dairy farm prior to the introduction of the sheep. John is from Worcestershire, in the English Midlands, where his family raised Suffolk and commercial crossbred sheep.
Like a lot of people trying to assemble a large flock quickly, the Steeles started off with a mix of ewes from a number of sources. Then, in 1998, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the University of Guelph and the Ontario Sheep Marketing Agnecy started the Ontario Lamb Improvement Breeding Strategy (OLIBS), with the objective of sourcing, multiplying and distributing large numbers of healthy, highly-productive ewes to the industry. The OLIBS ewes were a cross of Rideau Arcott and Dorset. Both breeds were known to lamb out of season, and the Rideau also milked well. The goal was a ewe that could produce several lambs more often than once a year, and also be able to feed them.
The OLIBS ewes were the foundation of the current flock of 2,200, but John and Eadie have made further developments. British Milk Sheep genetics were introduced to some family lines at one point, in order to get more milk. More recently (2010), they have imported Coopworth and TEFROM (a composite of Texel, East Friesian and Romney) semen from performance-tested New Zealand rams with a demonstrated genetic resistance to worms.
The health status of the flock is maintained through biosecurity measures, regular vet checks and blood testing. The flock has been on the Ontario Sheep Marketing Agency’s Flock Health Program since 1999, has attained an “A” rating on the Ontario Maedi Visna Flock Status Program, and was enrolled on the Voluntary Scrapie Certification program for five years.
Tracking the performance of such a large flock can’t be done with a clipboard. The Steeles were early adopters of RFID technology, buying the chips and installing them into plastic tags themselves before RFID sheep tags were available. Today, they use Shearwell SET tags, plus tag readers, electronic scales, and EweByte software to make everyday tasks such as weighing, sorting and culling as efficient as possible.
But the selection doesn’t stop there. Animals with favourable performance information are subjected to a physical inspection every year. On the day I visited, John and their full-time employee, Camron Murphy, were putting a group of weaned ewes through the handling system to check their teeth and udders, drench and condition score them. They were doing this job in one of the best handling systems I’ve ever seen. The ‘bugle’ shaped system and associated yards are located under cover and have a capacity of 1,200 ewes at one time. There are two curved, side-by-side chutes that ewes flow through readily.
But as impressive as the facility was, what really caught my attention was how they were using the RFID technology to find 30 individual ewes out of all the animals they put through the system that day. These were ewes that John had decided to cull earlier in the year, but had to keep until after they had weaned their lambs, so they were running with the rest of the flock. But nobody was reading ear tag numbers or calling them out to someone else to find on a written list – with the ID numbers of the 30 culls in his hand-held tag reader, all John had to do was wave it over each group of ewes as they came through the chute; if any of those 30 animals were in the group, the tag reader would beep and let him know.
The Steeles realize further efficiency by restricting full performance testing of the flock to an elite group of 600 maternal line ewes, plus the registered Texels. These ewes lamb inside in April, and their performance information is entered into EweByte on the computer and forwarded on to the Ontario Sheep Flock Improvement Program (now GenOvis) for calculation of indexes and EPDs. This information is used to select flock replacements, as well as ewe lambs available for sale. The rest of the ewes lamb in May, out on the pasture.
John and Eadie own 300 acres and rent another 700 close to home. They grow all of their own forage as well as some mixed grain that they plant as a cover crop, but most of the concentrate fed to the ewes and lambs is purchased.
All of the ewes are grazed with their lambs during the summer. Lambs are weaned in groups starting in August, and pastured separately to add frame size until they are around 85 pounds. They are then brought into the finishing barn and fed a total mixed ration for approximately four weeks until they are finished at 100-110 pounds. With so many lambs, and the ability to vary their weaning dates, time on pasture, and rations fed, the Steeles are able to ship lambs to the Ontario Stockyards at Cookstown each week from October to March. This allows them to achieve the average price at the market over the entire season, rather than taking a chance on selling a large portion of their lambs in a single week when the price might take a sudden drop.
Like most grass-based sheep farmers, John and Eadie put a lot of their management efforts into predator control. They use a combination of pagewire and electric fences, along with guardian dogs and shooting, to deal with coyotes. They have lost about 20 animals so far this year – a relatively small percentage of the nearly 4,000 lambs they will sell.
Parasites, particularly Haemonchus contortus (barber pole worm), are an even bigger problem. In addition to rotating their pastures, the Steeles drench animals as strategically as possible. Three different drench families are used, and rotated annually in an attempt to minimize the development of resistance. With such a large flock, knowing when animals really need to be drenched, instead of just doing it at regular intervals, can save money and time. John and Eadie have purchased a microscope and McMaster slides, so that they can do their own fecal egg counts as often as necessary. When fecal tests indicate that worming is necessary, they weigh a representative sample of the ewes, to calculate the proper dosage. They are hopeful that the importation of the parasite-resistant Coopworth and TEXFROM genetics from New Zealand will provide a more long-term solution to the problem of internal parasites.
In addition to the feeder barn, the farm has ten greenhouse-type barns where the entire flock lambed when they were on the accelerated program. During January lambings, they used propane brooder heaters to keep the temperature in these buildings at 1-2 degrees Celsius. Since the return to once a year lambing, the only ewes that give birth inside are the 800 that lamb in April, which frees up seven of the greenhouse barns for storage of hay and straw. The entire flock spends the majority of the winter out on the land, where they are fed corn silage and/or round bales of hay, supplemented with wet distillers grains or shelled corn as required. John and Camron condition score the flock throughout the winter. Thin ewes are brought inside for extra feed and those that gain too much are sent back out.
John and Eadie made the decision to go back to once a year lambing in order to better control their cost of production. Lambing 1,000+ ewes in January in the greenhouse barns came at a high cost in propane, but also in terms of labour to lamb that many ewes in barns where the temperature was just barely above freezing, as well as labour to deliver feed to the ewes in the barns.
The ewes did produce more lambs each year but, between unpredictable fertility in the fall lambing and fewer lambs born per lambing, lambing ewes 1.5 times per year did not result in 1.5 times as many lambs. John says the best result they got during the eight years they were on the accelerated program was 2.2 lambs weaned per ewe per year, compared to the 1.8 they have achieved lambing once a year. These figures include the Texel ewes, which wean about 1.2 lambs per ewe per year.
Lambing the sheep in April and May, just as the grass is coming on, allows the Steeles to work with their ewes’ natural breeding season and maximize the use of their pastures. The ewes are kept out on the land during the winter, where the nutrients they recycle are deposited directly onto the land, saving the time and expense involved in cleaning barns, stockpiling manure on concrete and running equipment to spread it.
With so many ewes and lambs, there is no shortage of work. Neither John nor Eadie work off the farm and, in addition to Camron, they hire summer or exchange student help each year. But everywhere I looked on my visit, I saw well-designed structures and innovative ideas that take much of the drudgery out of running so many sheep. And who knows, if they hadn’t accelerated the flock for so many years, perhaps they wouldn’t have developed all of the time- and labour-saving techniques that make running their once-a-year-lambing flock more workable today.