By Kathleen Raines
The only animals to be seen on the laneway leading up to Young Buck Farms are a pair of dogs and a couple of cats, but the immaculately-maintained barns and grain bins make it clear that this is a working farm. Michael and Vanessa Buck, along with Michael’s parents Judy and Garfield, are rapidly converting a grain farm into a thriving sheep enterprise. The Young Buck flock has grown from 30 head in 2013 to almost 300 this year, and the Bucks plan to double it again over the next year.
The farm is located near the tiny hamlet of Peers, in Yellowhead County, two hours west of Edmonton. Up until 2009, the livestock component of the farm was a 150-sow farrow-to-finish operation. Michael, who holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Alberta, was a self-described “over-educated trucker” working in the oil patch. He planned to work as a commodity trader. But life in the city did not appeal to this country boy, so he and Vanessa settled on family land across the road from the main farm site, shortly after his 2006 graduation.
After several years of reading and research, including meetings and visits with sheep industry partners across western Canada, Michael settled on lamb production to establish himself as a farmer. What drew Michael to the sheep industry was its market opportunities, the reasonable level of investment required, the potential to involve the whole family, and the ability to expand quickly from within. An added bonus was that the pig barns could be put to use again. As the slump in the oil patch deepened, Michael was laid off in 2016 and the sheep plan was fast tracked.
The first group of 30 ewes proved to be a mistake. These were quickly dispersed, and replaced in 2014 with purebred Romanov, and Charollais x Romanov, ewes from Ileana Wenger and Dan Sinclair of Bowden, Alberta. These productive, high-health, F1 females will be the core of the flock as it expands over the next four or five years toward the goal of 1,200 head. Michael’s mother, Judy, owns the Romanovs, which will be maintained as purebreds to produce replacements. The Charollais x Romanov ewes will be bred to Canadian Arcott rams to produce market lambs. Charollais and Canadian rams will be acquired from flocks with genetic evaluations, and high health status. Michael is excited by the carcass quality and growth rate of the market lambs they have produced over the last year.
This year’s lambing was split into two groups, with two-thirds of the ewes lambing in April. The rest, which are mostly ewe lambs, will follow in June. The April group was vaccinated with 8-way two weeks prior to lambing, then sorted into groups of 20 and moved into the barn a week later.
The old finishing barn is now the lambing barn, and Michael was especially appreciative of the space this spring during a long stretch of unseasonably wet and cold weather. Forty-five lambing jugs (most are 5’x5’), each with its own water bowl, line the walls of the barn, with a double row of larger (20’x20’) pens in the centre for groups of 20 pregnant, or 15 nursing, ewes. All of the barn equipment is easy to disassemble, so that facilities can be cleaned and disinfected between production stages. More conversions are planned to accommodate the growing flock. The old farrowing room will be converted to a loose housing area where ewes will drop their lambs in time for the next lambing season.
Lambs are weighed at birth, injected with Vitamins ADE and selenium, and have their tails banded. All lambs are double-tagged, with a CSIP tag and a second easy-to-read dangle tag. The dangle tags are colour-coded to distinguish purebred Romanov females from females sired by Romanov, Charollais or Canadian Arcott rams. Male lambs are castrated and all get the same colour tag. In addition to the FarmWorks by Shearwell program, “paper is backed up by paper”, Michael says. Communication is essential; lambing jugs are numbered, and a record sheet for each lambing hangs on the pen and moves with the ewe and her lambs to the group pen. Lambs have access to an 18% crude protein creep feed as soon as they leave the jugs. After leaving the hardening pens, ewes and lambs go outside to feedlot pens.
Ewes are only expected to raise two lambs, so managing bottle lambs is an important, round-the-clock job. Judy is in charge of the nursery, which occupies two of the barn’s six former weaner rooms, maintained at a steady 17 degrees Celsius. Rooms are subdivided into three sections, housing 15-20 lambs each, with milk replacer supplied by two Lac-Tek machines.
The Bucks farm about 2,000 acres and produce all their own feed. One quarter-section (160 acres) is seeded to hay and fenced with page wire. Garfield anticipates doubling the acres in forage this year, using the first cut for silage and pasturing the regrowth. Pasturing is not part of the long-term plan, however, as Garfield and Michael agree that keeping the sheep in dry lots is a more efficient use of their land base, eliminating concerns about parasites and predators, as well as the need to transport animals to and from the pasture. Two livestock guardian dogs patrol the farm and keep coyotes at a distance, but Michael related a very disturbing story about ravens preying on newborn lambs last year—a further incentive to lamb indoors.
A used feed truck and mixer, purchased from a neighbour, makes quick work of feeding the outside sheep. Dry, alfalfa-grass hay bales are tub ground by a custom operator and piled in the feed yard. At feeding time, the ground hay is mixed with bagged, alfalfa-grass silage, barley and a consultant-formulated vitamin/mineral premix. Michael has just purchased a used, walk-behind feed cart from Saskatchewan, and looks forward to being able to feed a consistent TMR blend to the inside sheep as well.
Lambs are weaned at eight weeks and then fed a mix of whole barley plus a consultant-formulated, 32% crude protein supplement. Nutritionist Dale Engstrom has worked with the Bucks to design custom mineral mixes; the lactation blend features added Vitamin E and a trace level of copper, based on testing of the farm’s feed. The Bucks are finalizing the blueprint for a new 64’x220’ grower barn, which will be built in 2018. This will allow them to house ewes and lambs inside until after weaning, and to grow lambs out to market weight under more controlled conditions.
The new facility will also house the handling system and a shearing station designed to meet the needs of the New Zealand shearing crew that travels through the area each spring. Michael would prefer to have the ewes shorn prior to lambing, but has had positive experiences over the last couple of years with the Kiwi shearers, who work quickly and independently and handle the sheep gently. That fact, combined with a scarcity of qualified local shearers, means he has no plans to alter the current system or to add shearing to his own resume. “Too hard on the back and knees!” he laughs.
Most of the Bucks’ lambs are marketed at around 80 pounds to a local feedlot operator, but a small number are finished and sold as freezer lambs. Completion of the new barn will allow the Bucks to finish all of their lambs, rather than selling feeders. Fifty to 100 of this year’s lambs will be sent to SunGold, and Garfield looks forward to analyzing carcass data to evaluate rams, and selecting for a more consistent, high-quality carcass animal. The farm has just been enrolled on GenOvis, which Judy admits is “a lot of work to start”, but which will be a valuable tool for selecting replacement stock.
Michael’s finance training comes in handy as he pencils out expansion plans. Once the flock has reached the target of 1,200 they will be “culled hard” to ensure a more consistent ewe type and market lamb crop. The Bucks plan to have 400 ewes lamb in each of November, March and June (ewes lambing once per year), with 2400+ lambs marketed annually after the top 10-15% are retained as replacements. This level of production will provide reasonable year-round work for hired help in the barns, accommodate the cropping season and allow Michael to take on more custom silage cutting. He and Garfield are investigating slaughter options with an eye to selling more freezer lambs, for which they receive more consistent prices. They are also interested in learning more about sheep dairying.
The flock certainly seems to have the prolificacy to meet the family’s goals. In 2016, 143 ewes lambed and gave birth to 335 lambs (234%), of which 230 were sold, 71 were retained for breeding and 35 died. So far this year, 194 ewes have given birth to 473 lambs (244%); a further 86 (mostly ewe lambs) are due to lamb in June.
Young Buck Farms have set themselves an ambitious plan and the multi-generational team working to make it succeed is knowledgeable, enthusiastic and dedicated. Michael and Judy handle the majority of the lambing checks and chores, while Garfield focuses on feeding, carcass composition, and machinery and facility repairs. Michael identifies Judy as “the hardest-working person on the farm”, with the nursery, record-keeping, book-keeping, and general house and yard duties. There are rare moments of peace, including what Michael describes as his favourite time of day in the barn—that quiet interval when the ewes are eating and the lambs race around the pens.
There have been setbacks, including 700 acres of crop (canola, wheat and barley) left in the field in 2016’s wet and snowy fall and still being harvested this spring. But the tagline on Michael’s business card—“Growing to feed the future”—shows every sign of becoming a reality for the Buck family and their contribution to the Alberta lamb industry.
You can follow the Bucks’ progress on Twitter @YoungBuckFarms.
Kathleen Raines breeds Rideau Arcott sheep near Markerville, Alberta.