Monthly Archives: March 2012

Winter on an Ontario Farm: Yes, the Sheep Are in the Field All Year

Ewes avoiding the big puddle in the laneway though the woods on Lot 64.

Our sheep stay outside all year.

They are actually their healthiest in the cold weather – no flies, and internal parasites are not an issue. Not to mention, wool is both an excellent insulator and wool also dries out quickly, which is good for the sheep and excellent for our made in Canada wool blankets. We roll out large round bales of hay and silage every day for them. There are always a few days above freezing when there is a bit of mud but it’s not usually a problem. It is different when warmer weather arrives.

Nathan and Michael waiting for their grandfather to put away the camera and get mobile again. Christopher coming along behind.

The frost coming out of the ground in late winter or early spring is the best of times and the worst of times. The best is the hope of spring in the air: warmth; frogs revving up; ducks and geese on the lake; snakes coming out of the ground; clothes on the line. The worst is the MUD. The time when the ground softens as the ground water turns from solid to liquid is always a problem. Until the ground is too soft, the feeding tractor carries a bale on the front and the back. The distance from where the hay is stored to where it is unrolled can be up to 600 ft. Feeding 6 bales a day and carrying 2 at a time takes a while. With soft ground, we can’t carry a bale on the front without getting stuck; so 3 trips becomes 6 trips. All the ruts have to be levelled out when the ground dries enough or the haying equipment takes a beating. The frost coming out also means that it is harder to find dry areas in which to unroll the hay.

The ewes, in their new home, can be seen on the far left. These are ruts that we don’t want to make worse. The hoof prints of over 800 sheep can be seen.

When the serious mud arrives and the fields are mostly wet, it is time to move the sheep to a drier field much nearer hay so there’ll be fewer ruts. So, on March 18th, it was time to move the mature flock from their wintering grounds on Lot 64 back to the home farm – Field 4-2. Christopher, Don, Nathan, Michael and Ian on 3 ATVs herded the sheep on the Lot 4 laneway through the woods and 4 fields to the field where they will stay until the pastures have grown enough for them to start grazing.

These are the ONLY RUTS that we’ll have to go through to feed the sheep . We hope that there will be some dry weather – but not too dry. The farm house and farm buildings can be seen in the background. Note the mud on the ATV’s tires. The ATV is in front of some of the hay that will be fed to the ewes in the next few weeks.

It was a beautiful morning and everything went as well as we could have hoped. The only wrinkle in this operation was the sheep moving off the laneway to avoid a large puddle of water – sheep do not like to get their feet wet.

Story and photos by Ian

Topsy Farms is located on scenic Amherst Island, west of Kingston, in Lake Ontario. Our sheep farm has been owned and operated for over 35 years by 5 shareholders, and involves 3 generations of the Murray family. Our flock of about 2500 sheep graze on tree-shaded pastures, protected by over 20 miles of fence and numerous guard dogs. Natural farming methods without spraying pesticides, or using growth hormones, chemicals, or animal by-products, produce animals of the highest quality.

Our Dogs Who Protect the Sheep Flock

Marcus and Mike (then age 3) having a visit

Marcus and Mike (then age 3) having a visit

The workers at Topsy Farms very much include its dogs. They are members of the team who work to care for and protect our flock. At present we have one Border Collie and 8 Guardian dogs.

We’ve had several beloved collies over time. They utterly live to work the sheep. Unfortunately, they aren’t needed often enough. One consequence of not working regularly is their tendency to think they know rather better than the shepherd what is required. They are not, unfortunately, candidates for sheep-dog-trial-precision work. Belle is our present worker. This picture is my favorite of one of our former dogs, Sam, after a particularly pleasing sheep drive. He’s cooling his tummy in a mud puddle, and grinning.


Sam, cooling his tummy, grinning

Sam, cooling his tummy

We have tried a variety of breeds of guardian dogs, to protect the flock from coyotes and other predators. We’ve found the best breed for our circumstances are Akbash (Turkish), though we’ve had two Komondores (Hungarian) and several Maremmas (Italian) – one was half Great Pyrenees.

We want the dogs to be attached to the sheep more than people.

They must also be willing to be handled by the two-legged help. We want their instincts to be more defensive than aggressive, so that people cycling past the flock on the road are not threatened. They must be hardy and quite comfortable living outside year ’round with the sheep.

This picture of ‘Peter Guarding the Flock’ shows his skill in grouping his girls behind him in a tight bunch while he faces the intruder. (When they work in pairs, one will stay back with the flock while the other moves towards the threat, barking loudly.) The coyotes are getting larger, working more in packs, and becoming even more wily. Our dogs try to meet the challenge.

Peter, guarding the flock

Peter, guarding the flock

Here’s a photo of Trixie’s first litter of puppies bred on our farm. We’ve decided, cute as they are, to leave dog breeding and initial rearing work to others. One of these pups, Blackie, is still with the farm. Others have been purchased by sheep farmers elsewhere.

Trixi's pups

Trixi’s pups

The final photo shows Christopher with several of the dogs, getting treats in the evening. The dogs are rarely grouped together in such numbers. We were experiencing severe coyote predation, and were moving the sheep to the barnyard every evening for protection.

l to R Marcus, Pollux, Lucy, Blackie, Nichola, Tweedle-Dum and someone else.

l to R Marcus, Pollux, Lucy, Blackie, Nichola, Tweedle-Dum and someone else.

The guardian dogs are always with the sheep; caring protective companions.


all photos by Don Tubb


“How much we enjoyed the half lamb that we had from Topsy Farms last year.”

                                                                                 Cutting Options for half lamb
How much we enjoyed the half lamb that we had from Topsy Farms last year.“I’m just cooking up the 1st packet of lamb chops from this year’s half lamb order, & I  can’t remember if we ever  told you how very much we enjoyed the half lamb from Topsy Farms last year & this year, it’s the best lamb we’ve ever tasted, far far superior to the New Zealand lamb we used to buy in the grocery store.  And we’re very happy with how it’s all portioned & wrapped for 2 people.”
– Jean and Paul Krepps, Bath, ON, March, 2012
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