There are many breeds of sheep, ’tis true, says Jay Lennox. However, in reality, there are far more breeds of sheep producers than sheep breeds.
Saying this as part of a panel of three sheep producers speaking on “Breed Selection and Success” it was clear Jay was alluding to personal preference as one of the main factors when choosing a sheep breed and how to manage it.
His fellow panelist, Dr. Chris Buschbeck of WoolDrift Farm near Markdale agreed. “I tell people to choose whatever makes you happy. You can probably make every breed of sheep work for you, but in the end, the ones you like are the ones that stick around.”
Keith Todd, of Todd Sheep Co. near Lucknow, said he, his father, and grandfather have tried all the breeds during three generations of being sheep farmers. Currently raising Ile-de-France, Suffolk and Southdowns, he said he is really happy with these breeds although he may introduce Dorset in the future.
Listening to each panelist speak, it was clear each farmer has found their own method of differentiating themselves from the flock. Whether it be milking sheep, record-keeping, or focusing on breeding stock, the trio revealed success comes when you are passionate about what you do.
Here are their stories:
As already stated, the main breeds at Todd Sheep are Ile-de-France (50 ewes), Southdown (50 ewes) and Suffolk (75) with an additional 300 commercial ewes consisting of Rideau and Ile-de-France crosses.
Ewes are pastured and fed a TMR ration in winter with corn silage, baleage, dry hay and corn distiller grain (if needed) when the ewes are nursing. The flocks graze on cover crops as well.
“I don’t think we will need to use distillers this year as the baleage quality was excellent,” said Keith.
The main goal at Todd Sheep Co., is to produce top-end breeding stock using a balanced genetic approach. Keith looks for animals to pass to their offspring a high level of repeatability both phenotypically and genetically.
When it comes to female traits, he looks for ewes to be easy fleshing and highly reproductive. Also, he wants sound feet, legs, udders and teats. “There is nothing worse than having a ewe that is four years old, nothing wrong structurally except that her udder is blown out,” says Keith. Ewes need to last longer than four years to make money and make the most use of their genetics in the herd.
Desired male traits include a level rump, structurally sound, easy fleshing, above-average muscle growth and an aggressive breeding nature.
“We breed animals that must work for both a purebred and commercial operation because eventually they all end up hanging by their hocks,” he said. “My philosophy is that all animals have to work. If they can’t work in a commercial operation they should not work in a purebred one.”
Furthermore, Keith wants to breed medium-sized animals. “Too small or too large is not beneficial for the industry, long-term,” he says.
In terms of the individual breeds, Keith likes the Southdowns for their excellently carcassed, highly-marbled meat. Southdowns originated from the same place as Angus cattle and have the same meat appeal. “Anyone who sells lamb out of freezer or at a farmer’s market will know Southdown is very beneficial because of the high level of tender, quality meat.”
Keith believes Suffolks are the fastest-growing breed in the country. His Ile-de-France rams are used on Rideau ewes to increase hardiness, muscling and parasite resistance. “They will increase carcass yield dramatically on Rideaus but they do reduce lamb percentage. Ewes have a 1.7 to 1.8 lamp drop but the lambs are big, robust animals.”
When it comes to measuring success, Keith shared that Todd Sheep Co. was a recent winner of the Genovis Award for Highest Flock Improvement (as featured in the December 2018 issue of The Rural Voice). Farm statistics indicate his Suffolk flock weaned .13 more lambs that the average and lambs weighed five kilograms more at 100 days than the average. “That translates into 14.2 kilograms more lamb marketed per ewe at 100 days. With an average market price of $2.50 last year, that amounts to $78.25 more profit per ewe per year.”
Similarly, he estimates his Ile-de-France lambs weighed six kilograms more at 100 days resulting in more than $90 profit per ewe over the average.
To specialize and increase profits, Keith started the Certified Southdown Lambs brand with Beverly Creek Farms of Millbank to develop a niche market.
Ultimately, said Keith, his goal is to breed the “perfect” sheep. “I know there are no perfect animals but that is what I aspire to.”
Having raised sheep for 25 years and milked sheep almost as long, Dr. Chris Buschbeck of WoolDrift Farm near Markdale came to the panel with an experienced person’s perspective.
“We have downsized a little as we got older,” she said of herself and husband Axel Meister and their two sons. Starting as lamb producers in 1989 with Rideau and Dorset breeds, the couple decided to get into milking sheep. For that, they needed a new breed.
They were the first to import East Friesian sheep embryos into Canada and establish a closed, purebred herd. “We are the largest East Friesian breeders which isn’t hard in North America,” she jokes.
The breed originates in Holland and Germany and is the highest-producing dairy breed.
“In Germany, they call these sheep ‘fruchtbar, fruhreif and frohwuchsig’ which means fertile, early maturing and fast-growing. I think they are also friendly which adds another F,” said Chris.
She might have added the word “fecundity” given how early they will breed. “They think nothing of breeding at five months if you let them so you have to sort the rams and ewes early.”
The kids do go through a lanky phase as they grow which decreases their value as meat lambs. However, they have “fantastic udders.” All ewes not used as breeding stock are exposed to a Texel ram to increase their marketability as commerical lambs.
The flock was closed in 1994 to maintain a high health status. No live animals were introduced after that time and new genetics are brought in via embryo transfer and semen.
Genetically, Chris likes to focus on soundness, frame, feet, teeth, udders and testicles.
“When we select, we go with our records first. If you go to the barn and pick your future breeders on what they look like, you will pick one that looks pretty but might be a dud as far as milk production goes. So I go to the papers first to see the numbers. Then I make a shortlist. Then I go to the barn and look ONLY at those animals so I do not get sidetracked by the others who do not have the same genetics,” explains Chris.
The challenge on their farm is the narrow genetic base. They need to keep a lot of rams for breeding stock and sourcing semen is difficult. They find most of their outcrosses in Holland or Britain. Detailed record keeping becomes very important in these situations.
When it comes to record keeping, Chris says they record data on paper and then input it into Ewe Bytes and Genovis software. Daily milk volume is recorded and once a month, each milking ewe is metered to record her milk production for the day. A sample is tested for fat, protein and somatic cell count. Genovis supplies the genetic potential of each sheep.
With all this information, Chris’s husband tried to put an hourly value on labour. “When you work for $2 an hour you think, shit, we should do something different,” laughs Chris. “We did get up to $15 an hour last year.”
If measuring success by hourly income hasn’t always been particularly rewarding, Chris says their milk production and reproduction levels have.
One area of struggle is pre- and post-weaning mortality. The ewes’ udders are really large and it can be hard for newborns to latch on. All lambs get colostrum from their mothers tubed in.
Also, East Friesians are more prone to pneumonia.
Chris really enjoys the cuteness factor of the East Friesian/Texel- cross lambs. “The Friesians need grain year round to make milk but the Texels you have to beat back with a stick or they get too fat. But boy, do they make cracker market lambs!”
Coming from the youthful spectrum of farming, it was interesting to hear Jay Lennox included lifestyle considerations in his choice of sheep breed and management style.
“Success to me includes profitability with pride and happiness,” says Jay. “It won’t go well if I don’t enjoy going to the barn. My dad has been accused of having fat sheep but we don’t like skinny sheep and you’ve got to like what you are looking at.”
In his early 20s, Jay is a full-time agronomist who recently purchased his father’s purebred herd of Canadian Arcott sheep. Kim and Grace Lennox established the flock in 1980 and the farm is supplemented with cash crop and beef cows.
Jay will continue his father’s legacy by promoting and marketing the Canadian Arcott rams as ideal terminal cross for maternal breeds. He admits taking over an established breed is convenient but they have many attributes he likes, oOne being their lambing percentage. The ewes are good mothers but don’t handle triplets well. When triplets are born, Jay will take away the outlier – if one is big and two small, they take away the big one.
“They average about 180 per cent for mature lambs. With lower lambing, we have a lower death loss which is a boost for your morale. That makes going to the barn more enjoyable and that is important.”
He also appreciates how Canadian Arcott lambs look good from lambing to finish, making them easier to market.
The sheep are fed a TMR ration and only the mature ewes get pasture time during the summer. “They only get three weeks but that bit of exercise makes a big difference,” says Jay.
Breeding stock is selected on conformation with a focus on tight fleece, feet, legs and teeth. “Tightness of the fleece is really important to us. Also, the topline, because Canadian Arcotts tend to have a drop in their shoulders which can reduce longevity.”
To Jay, success is measured by profitability in combination with pride and happiness. “I won’t do well if I don’t enjoy going to the barn,” he says.
Some management techniques they employ include feeding acidified milk to the orphans which has worked well. They use a 40-foot, insulated, reefer container to raise the lambs. The acidified milk is fed cold in self-designed feeders. “It takes a day of effort to train them and we don’t generally use them as replacements,” says Jay.
Following the presentation by each panelist, the audience was given a chance to ask questions. During this time, the issue of breeding days, succession planning, and equipment preferences came up.
Technology and Equipment: Jay hopes to start using RFID readers and software to combine all data into one program while Keith countered that he has used the program in the past and found it non-user-friendly.
Chris says the best pieces of equipment on her farm are Prattley mobile sheep gates. “At our farm, it was ‘should we get a good handling system or get divorced’,” jokes Chris. “They are the best gates ever. I love them.”
Breeding Ages: Chris said her sheep have longevity with her oldest ewe turning 14 this year. She breeds any ewe over seven months old. “If I can keep them back that long,” she sighed. East Friesians are aggressively fertile. She shared a story of one night when a ram got out. “He bred 15 ewes in one night and he was only seven months old!”
Keith said ewe lambs are bred at nine to 10 months old at Todd Sheep Company. Lambing rate was a little lower last year which he attributes to less sunshine and a poorer pasture quality.
The Canadian Arcotts at Jay’s farm are bred between eight and nine months. They like to lamb in March. Jokingly, he added that he tags all lambs at two days. “Spending that money on tag technology drives me to keep them alive...that is one way I assess my success – by how many RFID tags I have buried.”
Sheep breeds: Jay reiterated that while Canadian Arcotts are their breed of choice, in many ways they would be suited to a more prolific breed. However, their position in the market place as breeders sets them up to be successful and he’s reluctant to lose that niche.
Chris said she really does like the Texels. “They are totally the wrong breed for us because they do not need grain,” she added. However, she admired their meaty bodies and how well they serve as a cross breed.
Keith says as a farmer who has lived and breathed sheep his whole life, raising all the breeds available, he believes he has found the breeds he wants to stick with. ◊