Monthly Archives: December 2011

Serious Play Time – Breeding

It is breeding time at Topsy Farms – the boys go in with the girls. We have 4 teaser rams (those with vasectomies), 5 very young Suffolk rams of our own breeding, and 22 rams in their prime. We have 413 first year ewes and a mature flock of 820. We don’t want to put the rams to more than about 50 ewes each, increasing the probability that every ewe will be pregnant in the spring.

Christopher says that it takes 4 months 3 weeks and 4 days to complete gestation.

Last year, spring was awfully cold and wet and late, and we are calculating when to put the boys in with the girls, based on probabilities about the weather and pasture growth in early May.

In order to encourage ovulation, the teaser rams have been in with the first year potential mamas, the ‘replacement’ flock. All the hormones are stirred up and the young females are more prepared to stand to be bred.

The farmers have been working steadily in preparation for breeding time, checking each member of the flock for readiness and well-being, and putting new ear tags in the yearlings who lambed this spring for the first time. All the females had to be divided into several different groupings so each smaller group is with the appropriate rams.

Two Border Cheviots, gathering their strength, waiting.

Two Border Cheviots, gathering their strength, waiting.

The first year girls are bred by Border Cheviots, whose lambs are smaller, and have feisty self-sufficient ‘survivability’ characteristics. They also tend to have lower prolificacy (fewer lambs). We hope for an average of one healthy lamb per first year mama. We don’t want them to be strained by bearing or raising too many or too large lambs.

a Suffolk ram, watching the ewes parade by.  Eager.

a Suffolk ram, watching the ewes parade by. Eager.

The mature ewes are divided according to their dominant breed characteristics. The primarily North Country Cheviots (good pasture sheep, big framed and hardy) will be bred by Suffolk Rams (good meat characteristics). The rest of the flock (Suffolk, Dorset, Hampshire, and Rideau Arcott strains still in the mix) will be bred by our North Country Cheviot rams. Three new ones were purchased this year from Quebec. We will subdivide in about 6 groups. Those groups plus the animals in the barnyard make a lot of chores in the next few weeks, and increased challenge for the guardian dogs.

The heat cycle for breeding lasts just 16 to 18 days. After that, almost all of the ewes should be bred. The groups will then be amalgamated and the action, though abated, continues. One of the ways the rams can show overwork is by damaging their front feet as they ‘dismount’ onto hard frozen ground. Their back feet get sore too.

By next spring there will be more pure wool from shearing for our on-line store products and through our Wool Shed on the farm. By next fall, there will be more delicious lamb available for private sales.

We hope for no wild blizzards during that period putting the rams off their stride so to speak.

Recording or Keeping track of who’s who

In the “good old days”, we had a card for each ewe in the flock, recording the number of lambs she’d had all her breeding years. It involved a lot of labour and trying hard to minimize human error while completing the card information during long tiring lambing days.

We used to lamb using the barns to shelter each small family for a few days in individual pens, enabling us to check udders and the wellbeing of each lamb. Two day-old healthy lambs would get an ear tag and tail elastic (and the males would have testicles ringed). The mamas would hopefully have their metal tag from birth, and would get more ear jewellery, a plastic coloured tag in the other ear. (The earlier plastic tags were very breakable, later replaced by others that didn’t self destruct as frequently.) All tags have an alphabetic or colour code identifying year, and a numeric series identifying each individual. Twins or triplets would also have a (washable) colour paint brand that matched their dam’s, so accidental runaways who got lost could be returned home. Recording that data was a part of the daily job.

Christopher can remember long days in the chutes when the animals were older, trying to read the information off the tag, wearing a lamp headset to try to see well worn numbers, licking his thumb to try to wash off enough mud/manure to read the data. One cold person would wait at a table, sorting through the card file to read off that ewe’s history. (That’s if the card could be found.) Others kept the sheep flowing through.

Times change.

Christopher successfully applied to be part of a government of Canada Pilot Project testing electronic ear tags RFID or EID (Radio Frequency Identification, or Electronic I.D.). We also received help to purchase the wand that reads the data.

A poor quality picture (sorry) but showing Christopher checking an udder, Jacob reading wand, and Ian seeking data on the computer.

The pictures were taken in early December, showing Ian on computer and Jacob and Christopher working the chutes.

No more card files, keeping lamb records.

No more licking unspeakably dirty thumbs. This process, while by no means foolproof, is much faster and easier to use, and probably more accurate for recording data. While in the chutes, each ewe is checked for any lumps or abnormalities in her udder, signs of ill health or poor teeth that might indicate a difficulty in raising lambs next season. The wand reading is called out, the computer equivalent found and cross-checked by reading the number in the other ear. The data is entered. Glitches happen, errors occur, tags go missing. But it is a big improvement.

Clear numbers on the wand. The ewe is keeping an eye on Jake.

We have been pasture-lambing for awhile, not using the barns, so we no longer know how many lambs each ewe has birthed. That is a regrettable loss of data, but the ease of this system recommends it.

The goal, as always, is to produce healthy happy sheep and lambs for great wool for our on-line store and Wool Shed, and for our custom lamb sales.

And knowing who’s who? Any great shepherd really does know his flock and the individuals in it.

Jacob and the ewe, communing. Ewes waiting to exit in background.

Belly Wool

When our flock is shorn each spring, the skilled shearers follow the same routine with each sheep. First the ewe is positioned on her bottom, leaning back and looking very relaxed, while the electric shears clean off her belly wool and the area around her udder. That wool tends to be contaminated by fecal matter, soil, burrs etc so is tossed in a separate place by the wall, before the rest of the fleece is removed, all in one piece. When the roustabouts gather the wool and sweep the area, the belly wool is moved and bagged separately. The fleece is flung onto a skirting table and any chaff-filled or mucky bits are removed and tossed towards the belly wool bag.

When we ship all our best fleeces – packed in eight foot bags – to P.E.I, the poorer-quality belly wool stays in the barn taking up space.

Frankly it is a nuisance.

I’ve used a good quantity of it for outdoor mulch in areas where I don’t plan to turn over the soil. It is great under hedges and beside the Wool Shed entrance, under flower pots. Nesting birds in the spring appreciate it greatly. We haven’t otherwise found use for it.

Once a year, it’s just a necessary clean-out barn chore to haul the belly wool to The Canadian Wool Growers in Carleton Place (near Ottawa). I believe they sell it for felting and carpets. The wool bags that filled the trailer and truck contained 1593 lbs of wool. Christopher says we will be paid enough to cover mileage.

As you see by the photo, we haven’t yet taken the brute strength and lugging out of all our farm chores. Don upstairs dragged the bags to the edge then lowered them to Ian and Chris who packed them carefully into Jacob’s truck and the farm trailer. Once well tied, they made the trip safely.

So, we are now all cleaned out and ready to do it again.

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