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By Cathy Gallivan, PhD; Photos by James Blackie
Blackie Farm is located in the village of Florenceville in western New Brunswick, which is less than 15 km from the US border. This area is known for growing potatoes, and the village is home to the corporate headquarters of McCain Foods, the largest producer of French fries in the world.
The 200-acre farm was purchased in 1926 by James’ grandfather, Daniel Blackie. Daniel had three sons and two of them, including James’ father, went off to fight in the Second World War. The remaining son, James’ Uncle Donald, stayed home and ran the farm after Daniel died in 1940. The farm is long and narrow and climbs upward from the eastern bank of the Saint John River. James says there have been sheep on the farm as long as it has been in his family.
James grew up within a mile of the farm and spent most of his free time there, especially in the summers. His uncle raised potatoes and had a commercial flock that peaked at around 275 ewes in the early 1970’s. James remembers seeing his first lamb born when he was 10, and shearing his first sheep, a North Country Cheviot, at 12.
James graduated from high school in 1973 and went to the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro. There he met Cecile, a French Acadian girl from St Charles, on the eastern side of the province, and brought her to visit the farm the following summer. Uncle Donald was not exactly progressive in his thinking, being of the opinion that a woman’s place was in the home rather than out working with the animals. But while they were out on the pasture looking at the sheep, they needed to catch one for some reason and Cecile proved her mettle by grabbing it by a hind leg and not letting go. Uncle Donald didn’t say much, but never questioned Cecile working with the sheep again.
James finished his Bachelor’s degree in Animal Science at Macdonald College of McGill University in 1977 and he and Cecile were married the same year and began living in Truro. Cecile worked at the college there as a Chemistry Lab Technologist, and James sold feed for Shur-Gain.
In March of 1980, James got a job working for the New Brunswick Department of Agriculture in Wicklow, just across the river from his uncle’s farm. He and Cecile returned to Florenceville and built their own house on the farm. The next 10 years were a busy time. James helped his uncle on the farm and worked full time, while Cecile kept busy with the five children born to them during those years.
Uncle Donald died in 1994. It took a while for things to be settled but James and Cecile were able to buy the farm from his father and remaining uncle in 1998. James had always had sheep of his own within his uncle’s flock. After his uncle’s death these became the foundation of their own commercial flock, which peaked at around 100 ewes in the 1990’s.
The flock was managed traditionally. Lambs were born in March and pastured throughout the summer. Most were slaughtered at a small, local abattoir and delivered to freezer customers. The ‘tail-enders’ were put on a truck and sent to an auction in Quebec. James put up his own hay and fed it along with whole oats in the winter, the quantity of each depending on the quality of the hay. When the hay was poor, he fed more of it and allowed the sheep to pick through it and select the best parts.
Over the last 10 or 12 years, the purebred flock has gradually replaced the commercial ewes and today there are only registered Suffolks on the farm. The ewes still lamb in March; James says he and Cecile are too old to change their ways, and at least when the temperature falls to -30 Celsius in March they know April is just around the corner.
The feeding regime is also largely the same, consisting of their own hay supplemented by whole oats. Although his uncle grew potatoes on the farm, James found putting up around 3,500 small, square bales of hay and managing the sheep on pasture took as much time as he could spare from his full time job when he was working. He buys whole oats and an 18% crude protein creep ration with added Bovatec (for coccidiosis control), as well as second-cut hay for the creep feeder. Straw is purchased in the field from another farmer and James bales and hauls home about 700 small, square bales each year.
Since purchasing the purebred sheep, and especially since his retirement, James has increased his investment in the flock to improve its health status and performance. After several years of testing for genetic resistance to scrapie, all but one of the ewes are now AARRRR (resistant). Last fall the entire flock, including the lambs, were tested for Maedi-Visna and all of them came back negative. James plans to continue testing and hopes the flock will receive its “A” status on the Ontario Maedi-Visna Flock Status Program in the next year or two.
The flock is also registered on the GenOvis genetic evaluation program. Lambs are weighed at 50 and 100 days of age, and for the past six years a technician has come from Quebec to ultrasound them for fat and muscle depth. This allows James to select on the CARC (carcass) index when choosing rams and ewes for his flock, and also to provide that information to prospective buyers. The GenOvis report on pages 10-11 shows the 2019 production of the flock. The 2019 Lamb Report (21 pages, not shown) provides index results for each of the 83 lambs that were ultrasounded. The emphasis on the CARC index is noticeable: 14 of the 83 lambs are in the 99th percentile for the CARC index, and a further 15 are in the 98th percentile.
James participates in the All Canada Classic when the location and timing of the event allow, and his animals have been well received by buyers at the sale. But he prioritizes the production of a good terminal sire for the commercial producers he primarily sells to over success in the show ring.
One of the biggest challenges the Blackies have had to deal with over the years is parasitism. The barber pole worm is as big a problem here in western New Brunswick as it is in the rest of the country. They have also had problems with liver flukes, which they didn’t realize until they were alerted to it by the abattoir where their lambs are processed. The current protocol is to treat the ewes at lambing with Valbazen, and then worm both the ewes and lambs throughout the summer with Startect, starting three or four weeks after they go to pasture.
Coyotes are another potentially serious problem when pasturing ewes and lambs, but the Blackies have had good luck keeping them out with a combination of electric fencing and Nite Guards. The perimeter fence consists of 12.5-gauge wire. Temporary fences made from a lighter wire (17-gauge) subdivide the pasture into 1-acre paddocks for rotational grazing. The Nite Guards are solar-powered lights that flash red from dusk to dawn. The combination of electric fencing and the Nite Guards seems to be working and the sheep have been able to stay out at night in their paddocks for the last 10 years.
Among the many lessons learned over 40 years of raising sheep, James includes:
Make sure you spend the extra to get the ewes in great shape for breeding and for the winter, otherwise you are trying to catch up all winter. One tonne of grain costs as much as one lamb at most.
The single most important management item when pasturing sheep is to worm them and then know that the wormer is working, and to keep on top of your worming schedule; otherwise, a lot of effort is going down the drain.
Don’t put off getting a sheep handling system. If you decide to get one, spend the money to get a digital scale. The numbers are harder to make a mistake on, especially when your eyes aren’t as young as they used to be.
In addition to the sheep, James and Cecile have another farm enterprise, a market garden, which started in the early 90’s with their three sons at the end of the lane selling a barrel of potatoes. By 1995, they were selling more vegetables from the front of Uncle Donald’s old house, which was still standing in the yard. The enterprise has grown over the last 25 years and now 10 acres of the farm is dedicated to the vegetables, and a new market stand sits where the old house used to be. Crop residues are not a problem; the sheep happily consume the pea and bean vines, corn stalks and any vegetables that are not good enough to sell.
James and Cecile grow everything in the market garden, but are perhaps best known for their Awesome corn, which many local residents look forward to sampling as early as the August long weekend. Green peas are another big seller, and Cecile has a machine that will shell the peas for her customers after they are purchased.
Because the farm is located right in the village and right next to the McCain Foods plant and headquarters, Cecile is able to sell most of the vegetables right out of their yard, although she does attend a weekly farmers’ market in the nearby village of Bristol. A walk-in cooler in the market stand allows them to store and sell crops such as winter squash later in the season than before. One significant worry about the vegetable business is the way the sheep eye the peas, corn and other vegetables on their way out to the pasture, something that keeps James awake at night, wondering if he shut the gate.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic this spring, the Blackies thought about whether to plant vegetables this year or not. They decided to go ahead, knowing that they would have to make major changes in how they deal with the public to sell their produce.
James and Cecile work hard and make a good team. James says, “The sheep are an island where we tend to agree most of the time. I do the chores and Cecile does most of the paperwork. She is the midwife for any lambing problems we might have, and the one with the patience to get a stubborn Suffolk lamb to start sucking. She also helps with communication when French-speaking producers give us a call. I don’t really know what they say but it seems to work out.”
James told all of their children that if they didn’t go to university they might end up back on the farm with him. All five have university degrees and none are back yet. He credits Cecile for motivating them to further their education.
James and Cecile don’t know how many more years they’ll raise sheep or grow vegetables. James prefers the sheep, but acknowledges that the vegetables involve less physical wear and tear (on him). He jokes, “I tell everyone that when I climb up into the haymow every morning and night, all I have to do is miss one rung and I might be into early retirement.”
Editor’s Note: The villages of Florenceville and Bristol, New Brunswick, were amalgamated into the village of Florenceville-Bristol in 2008 but for simplicity have been referred to separately in this article.