At a farm meeting, our head shepherd Christopher asked “should we keep our ram lambs intact”? We had already started raising a small group of Suffolk rams for our own breeding use, as we had difficulty locating high-quality rams that had been pasture-raised. Barn-raised rams are not sufficiently hardy for our farm.
We’re always seeking ways to increase feed efficiency and reduce costs so the discussion raised the following points, for and against:
Keeping testicles on ensures:
• Less stress for the males not being neuteured
• Better physical growth, as testosterone results in leaner meat; more rapid growth
• Better efficiency and lower costs – it takes less time, less grain to get the animal ‘market ready’ or ‘finished’.
• Not much added labour for chores as we’ve always kept a small number of intact males in the flock. Feeding 400 is not much more difficult than feeding 20.
• Less labour during the very busy lambing season, as care must be taken for each male ringed
However, there are downsides of keeping ram lambs intact:
• Unwanted pregnancies – (it is really hard to find the males with small balls. We’ve checked the entire lamb flock about 5 times)
• Our butcher at Pig and Olive won’t take them for private sales, wanting only females and neuteured males – just his preference.
• The need for much more secure fencing – difficult in a dry fall with electric fences and abundant pasture. The dry ground reduces connectivity; the abundant pastures lure them elsewhere.
• Our concern to avoid seldom successful mid-winter births.
• Feisty stubborn teenage male behavior when trying to move the ‘boys’ to other pasture.
Ian called Brian, the ringmaster at Ontario Stockyards who has firsthand knowledge of market demand. Brian said there would be no negative effect on prices with intact males; there just might be an increased price offered during Muslim high holidays or with other special cultural interest groups.
So we are experimenting this year.
From about 1350 lambs, we’ve kept about 400 ram lambs intact.
These include all the Border Cheviots from the ewe lambs (generally smaller animals) and the half or quarter Rideau lamb rams. We’ve ringed the faster-growing Suffolk Cross males for the freezer trade, except those we might keep on the farm.
So we are in the midst of one of those challenging experiences.
“May you live in interesting times”!
Canada 150 Plus recognizes that the history of First Nations, Métis and Inuit, predates confederation by millennia. Topsy Farms is proud to have its products used and valued by many First Nations groups and individuals, as well as in events that celebrate Canada’s heritage since 1867.
We are fund-raising for the www.downie/wenjack.ca fund to help heal residential school survivors, to celebrate Canada 150 Plus.
The fund honours the memory of Chaney Wenjack, who died while trying to find his way home. Topsy designed a sock scarf similar to the ones worn by Gord in his 2016 series of concerts across Canada. $15 from each sale – $10 from the purchaser and $5 from Topsy Farms – is donated to the fund. We pay most of the shipping costs; coupon word GORD.
We have paid for services from native healers in the traditional way, with a gift of a blanket and tobacco. We provided bouquets for a big wedding, requesting a donation to a First Nations healing group in B.C. in return. Our Throws and Lap Robes have also been used at the South-west Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre, Chippawa.
A neighbour on Amherst Island was taught traditional leather hand stitching and beading by her grandmother on the reserve. Using our crafting shearling sheepskins, she has created magnificent mukluks and gauntlets for members of her family. She uses hides, prepared by people on the reserve in Deseronto.
For many years, Topsy has gathered and donated fresh food produce from Amherst Island gardeners to the hungry in Kingston, through the Partners in Mission Food Bank then more recently, through Loving Spoonful. Once our donation included elderberries, delivered to the Friendship Centre in Kingston. A maker of traditional medicines was delighted to receive them and to use them. That started a relationship with medicine makers from the reserve in Deseronto.
We will give seed corn for Three Sisters to anyone asking, who visits, to celebrate Canada 150 Plus.
Learning from native gardeners over eons, we plant a Three Sisters garden, using traditional corn and beans, though our own squash and pumpkin. The corn, provides height and structure for the Rattlesnake beans, which climb the stalks, and replenish the soil with much-needed nitrogen. We plant the squash and pumpkins in alternate hills to the other two foods, cover ground, controlling weeds and providing shade to the roots, helping moisture retention. These foods complement each other, providing a balanced diet we consume all winter.
Several of our products have been used in activities celebrating the 150 years of Confederation.
Here are two examples using pure wool yarn from Topsy:
Kate Munn created the Margaret’s Gift sweater for Canada’s 150th, using all natural pure wool yarn from Topsy Farms. There is a wonderful story behind this sweater design, described here.
The Ontario Science Centre is producing a coverlet using an historic Jacquard loom once owned by John Campbell. (photo) Volunteers are weaving one of John Campbell’s patterns that has not been woven for over 100 years on his loom that dates back to the 1840’s. The warp is of white cotton; the weft is a combination of white cotton and Topsy Farms red yarn. If you wish to see more of the process, there is a brief video here that describes the awesome complexity of the planning and setup, starting at minute 6. The overlet weaving progress may be viewed all summer at the Science Centre in Toronto.
We applied for Green Tourism Canada Certification this winter.
A branch of Green Tourism International, Green Tourism Canada promotes ecotourism by :
• Encouraging tourist-oriented organizations to examine and improve their carbon footprint.
• Helping eco-minded travelers locate and choose their destinations.
The Canadian organization, http://www.greentourismcanada.ca/, is determined to create a sustainable industry that welcomes visitors across the country.
Topsy Farms worked with Green Tourism Canada for a few months, supplying initial data, participating in telephone interviews, then providing documentary and photographic proof of claims.
There were 5 required criteria:
• Sustainability commitment
• Risk management standards especially regarding disposal of toxic substances
• That we know and evaluate our energy consumption, waste disposal, water use, and money spending patterns
• That we establish a Green Policy regarding environmental, economic and social issues
• Creation of a Green Management file, documenting problems and solutions
There are 140 possible measurements of strengths and problems, but the evaluator applied only about 60 appropriate ones to Topsy Farms. We were scored 0 – 5 on each to be evaluated for Green Canada Tourism certification.
The interviewer was supportive and encouraging. The 5 to 6 hours of interviews by phone were both stimulating and exhausting, with a free flow of information both ways.
The staff at Green Tourism Canada was impressed by many things already happening at Topsy Farms:
- commitment to permaculture with the land
- efforts to assist Syrian refugees, First Nations healing, local schools
- support of our local community, including the donation of a lambskin to each Island newborn; producing the Amherst Island newspaper, The Beacon, for over 30 years; participation in First Response since inception; gathering fresh food from Island gardens for Kingston shelters
- welcome extended to the public to visit our shearing and foster lamb operations, educating families about eco-farming practices
- recycling materials used on the farm; repurposing others. (One example: 7 miles of wood retrieved from a derelict grain elevator we took down built the second floor of our barn – now our shearing floor.)
- support of our environment with gardens, Monarch Way Station certification, raising bees and producing honey, mulching with belly wool.
- no chemicals at all are used in the production of our roving, yarn and blankets.
We learned a great deal about ourselves as well as developing ideas for improvement.
We were fascinated by the exercise of drawing a geographical chart, showing where our money was spent in 2016. The pie chart summarizes our proud results. Topsy paid 72% of last year’s goods and services within Ontario, mainly locally. Only 5% was spent outside Canada and we hope to reduce that!
We received a report suggesting areas of vulnerability, making practical recommendations, and stimulating new ideas.
We are proud to announce…
On Earth Day, Topsy Farms was awarded the Gold Classification for Green Tourism Canada.
It is the highest possible standard that a tourism business can receive regarding ecological sustainability.
Of 110 businesses classified in Canada, Topsy Farms is the FIRST farm – one of a very few agribusinesses including vineyards – to receive Green Tourism Canada Certification.
We are deeply gratified that our efforts, our values have been acknowledged. Our wool products are the most sustainable, environmentally friendly anywhere.
We can also clearly see new ways to improve our practices to be even more ecologically friendly.
Do walk or cycle this pathway with us.
We practice permaculture at Topsy Farms because it makes sense. The shallow land and Island context sets limits to what works without damage or erosion.
The farm we bought in 1971 is located on the west end of Amherst Island in Lake Ontario. The shallow, drought-prone soil is best used for forage. We keep the sod cover intact, not ploughing, using the sun and moisture-retaining soil to turn the natural grass and legume forage into meat. The farm is wooded with mixed trees, naturally self-planting.
Permaculture means we work to enhance what exists here, naturally.
We’ve deepened low-lying areas, making ponds for the sheep flock in many of the fields.
Living on an Island, we have easy access to a great volume of water.
It is our job to ensure we keep it clean.
We either pump water from the lake or a deep well, through the people and animals, then back into the soil.
Our woodlot is about 100 acres – more than enough to supply firewood and some fence posts without ever cutting a live tree. We burn fallen and dead trees in the wood furnace, the primary source of heat of our main house,
We’ve made some lumber from standing dead timber, using a rented portable small saw mill on the farm. Even the off-cuts aren’t wasted – we use them for the structures of our compost piles.
We harvest wild mushrooms, nuts, nettles and other wild edibles. Each house grows most of its own fresh food, and we consume mainly our own meat chickens and lamb or young mutton. We also eat venison, taken by license on our own property.
We’ve inherited and enhanced good fence rows – trees and bushes that separate fields. We planted a hedge of spruces (those most likely to survive here) that provides winter windbreak and summer shade.
All our properties have fruit trees, and some deciduous trees that we’ve planted. Our grandsons are involved in the gathering, making, and consuming quantities of pears and pear and apple sauce, and elderberries from our prolific bush, frozen, then eaten all winter.
We trim pastures rather than spraying for weed control. We do not plow.
Our farm has improved soil quality over the years by unrolling hay bales on the fields – “sheet composting” – which spreads the manure naturally. This technique feeds the soil’s earthworms and microorganisms. We also gather and compost manure from barnyards, then spread it on the fields.
We mulch under bushes and near our Wool Shop with belly wool – a waste byproduct of shearing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3v0WTZLrpk Some garden areas are mulched by unrolling old hay bales, no longer desirable for the sheep. This provides a very effective thick ground cover, adding nutrients for the soil as it breaks down and aiding moisture retention.
The shearing area on the second floor of the barn was built of wood salvaged when we were asked to demolish an old Island grain elevator. Seven miles of wood went far.
We make products from our yarn; the leftover bits form the core of dryer balls, the small tads cut off are added to the nesting materials, combined with belly wool, for birds in spring. Everything is used.
Raising sheep was a logical decision, given the shallow soil. Originally chosen as a source of meat sales, family food and revenue, we couldn’t make a living for 2 families. The lamb, yearling and mutton is in high demand, but the prices aren’t. We turned the health necessity of annual shearing into revenue by having the raw wool processed in PEI. We now provide almost 1/3 of the farm income through sales of pure wool blankets, wool bedding, yarn, sheepskins and other wool products. Our honey bees thrive in the pollen-producing environment, giving tasty, healthy honey.
Our desire is to improve the farm’s finances to enable the next generation to take the farm over and to have a good life.
Fortunately wool is warm and waterproof. The December ice storm descended on the second day of breeding season. The lamb count next spring will tell us whether the breeding action was affected. We suspect the rams’ footing might have been dicey. Otherwise, the sheep seemed content, with their ice-coated coats clanking like out-of-tune bells.
But the farmers struggled somewhat. Jake set off the first morning with a baseball bat, a bag of kitty litter, and a razor. He needed them all.
The men bashed the rolling doors of the workshop with shovels to remove thick layers of ice that
prevented rolling.The perimeter of the door then had to be excavated. Finally, access to the plugged-in machinery which started, thankfully. Unfortunately the tractors had virtually no traction. A large round bale set on the back was needed but getting up the lane way to the stored hay was tricky. Speed and momentum were necessary to gain access to the bales despite drifting sideways, and pushing a tree and branches out of the way.
Every bale was massively coated in ice on top and sides; difficult to break loose and to lift. Christopher and Jake smashed the ice to get at the recyclable plastic wrapping; Chris used a metal pipe while Jake wielded his baseball bat. Removing the wrap proved a challenge, as the outer layer of hay glued itself to the wrap. The farmers kept lifting and dropping the bale, moving forward and back to get the huge wad of ice, snow, and plastic wrap to separate. This labourious process was repeated with each of the fourteen bales fed that day.
Getting through the first gate was another challenge. All gates between the fields needed to be bashed to move the cedar poles at the bottom that weighs the paige wire down. The baseball bat and shovel continued to be the most frequently needed tools. Even the knotted plastic ropes, normally requiring seconds to undo, were difficult to manage with their thick layers of ice.
Gravity and friction are needed in order to unroll a bale in the field. However, with the ice coating there was no friction so the bales were sliding. Jake had to continually maneouvre back and forth to get the hay to start unrolling. Tires spun as the extra drag caused a loss of traction.
After the first bale was fed, there was not enough traction to get up the lane way to hoist the next. Jake spread his bag of non-clumping kitty litter on the ice. The frozen sand pile under the frozen tarp was no alternative. Driving the tractor at speed up the lane way, slip-sliding sideways, was dicey with parked cars too close.
Freezing rain was constant that morning. Jake’s hood froze into a solid ice helmet. It was rigid, allowing no peripheral vision. He couldn’t rotate his body or head to see anything. Fortunately he was wearing layers, feeling grateful that wool is warm. He dragged one bale for awhile, thinking it was unrolling then discovered it was still a solid lump. The tractor windshields were icing up on 3 sides so he couldn’t see. The squeegee had no effect. He used a razor utility knife to carve a hole in the windshield ice, shaving the window like an old style barber; each opening lasting only 10 – 15 minutes.
Chores should have required about 2 1/2 hrs for 2 people. That day it took easily twice that time – over 5 hours.
Topsy sheep, with their well-insulated wool and lanolin, and their shining armour of ice, continued in breeding mode or peacefully eating among the crystal fields and sheltering hedgerows. Topsy men, however, struggled to achieve this peaceful vision.
This time of year is dominated by two activities on a sheep farm: keeping track of the readiness of each lamb to go to market, and preparing the breeding cycle to start again.
All species yearn to procreate.
Shepherds just learn to manage that urge. We want each lamb to be born in spring on greening pastures, so we have to count back to decide when the boys go in with the girls.
Animals are healthier if they live on pasture year ’round.
Ours live outdoors with the dogs year-round, but of course their food must be supplemented with hay, baleage and sometimes grain and soy beans in the late fall and winter months.
Each week or so the market lambs move through the chutes in the barn where Christopher checks whether each lamb is ‘finished’. He feels along the backbone by the loin to find the ridge not too boney(not ready yet) just perceptible (meat has filled in) but not disappeared (oops, too fatty).
Great lamb comes from healthy happy animals.
We sell yummy lamb to about 300 to private customers from Toronto to Ottawa and to local butchers. Most of our lamb-lovers come from the Kingston area, and they pick up their order of lamb at the Pig and Olive, where ‘Aussi Al’ knows how to cut. A phone call to the farm (613 389-3444/888 287-3157) can get a person all the details.
The rest of the 1000 lambs chosen for market will travel the high seas (across the ferry) by truck and will travel to The Ontario Stockyards north of Toronto where they attract the gourmet butchers and the top prices.
Meanwhile, the cycle must continue. The ewes must be on a steadily improving diet, so their systems decide it’s ok to ovulate more – ‘this is going to be a good year’. The rams (32 of them for about 1300 ewes) must be in top condition, especially their feet which get very tired during breeding. The teaser rams (those with a vasectomy) are now at the starting gate.
Since we also market our wool products, we scramble to prepare booths for pre-Christmas shows, keep track of inventory, knit more items, and try to keep our books organized.
It isn’t a dull time of the year, down on the farm.
Our parents were kids during the Depression, and the examples they set fit right in to today’s philosophy of recycle and reuse and don’t waste.
Sometimes we do that on a fairly large scale. Our men were offered the job of taking down the two story grain elevator in Emerald in exchange for the wood. Since it had been built flat board on flat board (instead of edge on edge) we gleaned something like six MILES of mainly useable boards. We re-floored the second story of our barn, able to reuse most of the wood, and then built a very useful shearing area. Mezzanines were built which immediately filled with ‘stuff that will come in useful someday’. The shearing area is storage for our Wool Shed products 360 days/year, and emptied for shearing for 5 days of shearing.
Our boys learned basic carpentry, being allowed to reuse the broken or too short pieces building tree forts and platforms.
When Jake rebuilt the barn this spring, there was not one significant purchase needed. Virtually everything was scrounged.
A portable saw mill was hired to cut our own logs into boards for our use. It was satisfying to discover how to reuse the off-cuts to make effective compost containment, turning dead plants, weeds and roots into great compost to feed the garden.
A horse-drawn milk wagon became a tow-able warm-up shack for construction (with an old pizza oven for warmth). Parked in our back yard it was reused as a duck brooder, a boys’ clubhouse, then rebuilt into a sauna with scrounged cedar wood lining and another reused wood stove.
Our Wool Shed was once a milk/ice house, then was farm storage, candle production shed, ATV shed, boys’ music room, and now a neat little outlet shop.
One loader tractor is an amalgamation of two elderly tractors. We are now scavenging an ATV and another tractor for parts to reuse.
Scrap bits of metal have been stored for years, then found to be just the thing for some patch job, welded on. The pole for our Purple Martin house was made out of a grain auger tube.
But sometimes we get ridiculous. Each bale of yarn for the Wool Shed is wrapped with double thicknesses of string. For some years, we’ve painstakingly saved those, wrapping them in a knot-filled ball, used for tying newspapers, tomato plants, bundling herbs etc.
Our depression-era parents would be proud.
The barn at Topsy Farms was built in three stages, starting a long time ago with the most recent work done in the 50’s.
Over the past half century, the concrete foundation at the N-W corner has shifted outwards because of inadequate weight-bearing base and possibly, the pressure of the materials inside, pushing out. The foundation shifting has caused the vertical siding boards to shift too, curving out at the bottom. When the rain comes off the end of the barn roof it soaks the boards which leach the moisture through to the big old hand-hewn wooden beams. As they rot the barn settles more and the process accelerates.
The N-W sides of the barn – toward the prevailing winds – were the worst areas. We needed to do the best job possible; accomplish the most repairs for the least cost, effort and time. In the end, we scrounged virtually all the materials – almost nothing was purchased. “Someday it might come in handy” actually works.
Jacob first tore the worst of the siding off by hand and just studied the damage for a few weeks, contemplating the rot, forming a plan, knowing the look of it would drive his Virgo sensibilities crazy. The timing was good; the end of winter before the lambing pressure ramped up. Still, the work had to be done in fragments of time.
First job was to tackle the concrete foundation repair. Where the cement had cracked and separated, he filled the space with wire mesh and injected concrete with special adhesive properties, mixed in a wheelbarrow. That was all trowelled smooth, to prevent water getting in further.
The beams were next; they needed to be jacked up and repaired. It was a challenge to locate stable points for the jacks inside and out. It was necessary to get the beam high enough to remove the old, rotted material with scraper, chisel, chainsaw and wire brush. These larger gaps were replaced by segments of new/recovered material already in storage – 2 to 3 six foot chunks. The beams less badly eroded were patched by sandwiching in good wood, using metal plates, screws, bolts and ingenuity.
Flashing was next – it is thin metal cut to length, about 8 inches wide, nailed to the top of the beam. That was placed onto the beam, overlapping the top of the concrete foundation to direct the flow of any water/ice outwards.
The siding was all salvaged boards we’d stored when one of our houses changed to metal siding. The old stain had faded to pink so those boards are on inside out. The windows were also reframed and flashed, so they are shaped to actually hold a window.
With reasonable conditions, this repair should extend the life of the barn for another half century.
Of course, there is still work to be done…
We did pregnancy testing for our ‘ewe lambs’, those who were born May, 2012. Among the approximately 1400 lambs born last spring, we chose the 300 best females to be put to the rams in December.
However, we know not all of them have been bred. We want to keep only those females who are pregnant, and to sell the others in time for Greek Orthodox Easter, May 5th. It costs us too much to keep non-productive animals – it doesn’t pay to be coy when the rams arrive.
Our goal is always to produce great quality lamb.
Also it is important for us to cull any lambs that are not bred at one year of age, as those are the genetics we seek. After 38 years of selective culling, we are much closer to achieving the ideal Topsy ewe.
The pregnancy testing process is pretty interesting. We use an ultrasound machine which will emit a different sound when sound waves bounce off amniotic fluid in the uterus. (We have to make sure the lambs have empty bladders so as not to confuse the machine.)
Our shepherd Christopher needs good wand contact on the lamb’s belly so he squirts it with cooking oil. When contact is good he hears a regular beep. The machine emits a continuous note if the amniotic fluid is detected.
Ideally the pregnancy testing is done before 90 days of pregnancy, when the fetus is not yet too large.
Of course there are no guarantees, and we want to keep all who are carrying, so all the lambs which did not show pregnant were retested after two weeks, in hopes of catching others.
The first test showed 225 out of 300 appear to be bred. It took three people 6 hours to complete the first process.
The second pregnancy testing, 2 weeks later found an additional 22, probably bred later.
Just before shipping, all the lambs apparently not pregnant were tipped up on their bottoms to check udders, a third test, which may indicate a few more carrying fetuses that the machine did not detect. We found 3 pretty definite and a couple of other maybe’s.
So they will stay too, and hopefully will contribute their share to the frolic of lambs we anticipate very soon.
(Sorry, barn photos of this process didn’t work well so here are frolic photos by Don Tubb instead.)
I was asked what I’d do if I won the lottery. The answer came readily – I would find life’s balance by continuing to live and work at Topsy Farms.
I can’t imagine living anywhere else. The land, animals, and very air are as much a part of me as my skin and fingernails.
Driving our ATV every morning through the woods doing chores is the best part of my day.
There is utter peace and stillness inside and out. You can’t put a price on that. This small Ontario sheep farm life doesn’t fit into any neat box that any career counselor could understand. I get bored too easily by static routine; I wasn’t designed to sit in an office. Here, every day there is something different:
Today I’m a mechanic, yesterday a vet
The storm is getting closer, 60% chance of getting wet
Tomorrow its construction; repairing the old barn
Everyday is a little different, when you wake up on a farm
I saw a Dodge commercial the other day that featured a Paul Harvey monologue. I dare you to watch that and not want to work the land – it’s a powerful piece.
We are surrounded by the things we fixed the day before. That’s a potent thing, a reason farmers keep getting up and digging out of snowstorms or rebuilding machines that others have discarded.
As my farm apprenticeship continues, I get more independent, picking my own tasks and timing, which increases my ability to lose myself in a job.
There have been no hassles with the generation relations, probably a tribute to them. I feel I am respected as a man now; and for skills learned elsewhere. The older farmers are surprised and amused when I know how to do something they didn’t expect.
However, ultimately I struggle with idea of struggling – a small independent sheep farm will never make a decent return on labour. It makes me wonder, can a small farm be profitable?
Can I find life’s balance on a farm?
Some folks may continue a mindless struggle all the time, working 10 -12 hrs/day and never getting ahead financially. I need to seek a way to balance living and work; to find a better business model that isn’t just dependent on numbers of sheep or blankets sold. I want the mental freedom, life’s balance, of occasionally playing golf or going to a concert. I need not to feel that a dollar spent on myself is a dollar less for the animals.
It’s such a huge commitment. I won’t consider taking on the farm without my brother’s involvement and at the moment the farm can’t afford to pay us both. The decision to become a farmer feels sort of like joining a monastery: giving up most of my worldly possessions for the betterment of mankind. Lots of days I don’t feel that generous.
And yet, I want to raise my boys the way I was raised. There is zen in this as we improve the land and the buildings and the animals and machinery – they improve us.
Jacob Murray is the son of Topsy Farms’ owner, Ian Murray, and was raised on this independent sheep farm on Amherst Island, considered local to Napanee and Kingston, Ontario. Topsy Farms produces beautiful wool products including sheepskins, pure wool blankets, sheepskin mittens, cotton-encased wool bedding, and some of the finest local lamb in Ontario. Natural farming methods without pesticides, growth hormones, chemicals, or animal by-products, produce animals of the highest quality. The lambs, finished with grain, are available for private sale from early November through February.
One of our ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) – the 2004 Suzuki Eiger – has just gone over 40,075km. That is the distance around the Earth at the equator. Not bad, considering all but perhaps one kilometre was done on Amherst Island. The kilometre-age(!) is actually higher because the speedometer cable was broken for a few months. Also when the machine is in reverse, the metre runs backwards.
We currently have 4 ATVs (all Suzukis)… 2 Eigers, one smaller King Quad, and one larger something-or-other. The total distance travelled on these and our previous ATVs would total over 200,000kms. The ATVs are absolutely vital in allowing us to farm as we do. We check sheep in several fields, and feed the guardian dogs daily (and I mean daily… come rain, shine, snow, sleet, hail, ice storms… you name it). Depending on the season they may be in up to 8 fields, often distant from each other. Some winters we feed the sheep grain, towing a self-unloading grain cart with 800 lbs of corn. (We used to do that by hand from bags.)
We do sheep drives, build and maintain fences, control weeds, and haul firewood plus a lot of day-to-day activities. Even doing basic repairs around the buildings, the first tool you reach for is the ATV because the other tools are up in the shop and you’re going to forget something.
Now it’s not all sweetness and light with these machines… during our peak usage period, one or more breaks down or is thinking about it. And, repairs are not cheap! We do most of our tractor repairs, but these ATV motors are specialized. We ordered repair manuals for all, and deliver them to our Island barefoot mechanic for fixing. Most of the year, all four are in basic running order. They are fabulous machines and make virtually everything more efficient… for example: long, long ago (in the ‘good old days’), we used to do sheep drives on bicycles! ATVs are faster, can handle rougher terrain, and you’re not as likely to be wounded or winded at the end of a long drive.
Breeding sheep can be complicated. Four months, three weeks and four days, or 142 – 148 days: that is the gestation period of a lamb. Our shepherd, Christopher, uses that calculation to determine when to put the rams into the flock. We want our ewes to start to birth their lambs the second week of May, when the pastures should have sufficient green growth to support the ewes. It is much warmer and dryer for the newborns to plop onto grass in the fields, rather than in muddy barnyards.
In the late fall, Chris works to ensure a ‘rising plane of well-being’ for the ewes, calculating the quality and quantity of the food they receive so that their bodies are confident that all is well. This increases the probability of more ova being made available for fertilization; thus multiple births. We aim for an average of two lambs per mature ewe and one lamb per first year mama (known as “ewe lambs”). There are of course many additional factors in fertility, including genetics.
Our goal is always to create great-tasting lamb.
We now use mainly North Country Cheviot and Suffolk purebred rams to breed the ewes. They are put to 5 groupings of females: 2 larger groups of mature ewes totaling close to 800 (with 21 rams); 2 much smaller groups of purebred Suffolks, mature and young ones, to be bred by 2 Suffolks; then the Border Cheviot (a much smaller breed) rams will join the 300 ewe lambs. The latter produce a smaller, feisty lamb with a high drive for survival (which helps their inexperienced moms).
The two Teaser Rams (those with vasectomies) have finished their work to get the ewes in the mood by December 17th this year, the date the 25 intact rams head eagerly into the fields.
The 5 groupings of sheep are protected carefully by our 9 Maremma and Akbash guardian dogs. We hope to keep stress to a minimum, from predators and from weather – the latter of which of course we can’t control at all.
Healthy, happy lambs make great sheep and wool.
Our cycle begins again.
Topsy Farms produces beautiful washable wool products including sheepskins, six point wool blankets, wool for knitting and felting, and some of the finest local lamb in Ontario.
We decided we needed an upgraded haybine for cutting hay, as our oldies had been patched again and again, and just were not up to the job. We use them constantly during haying to feed a growing flock, and also to keep pastures trimmed.
(New for us means anything made after 1950.)
Our farm reuses and recycles equipment.
Christopher found a New Holland Hydraswing haybine that was only 15 or 20 years old and bought it. This style (which we term “Gooseneck”) can cut on either side of the tractor, enabling the operator to work up and down each row, and in 12 foot swaths instead of the previous 9 foot. The longer windrows make the raking and baling more efficient too. The challenge was to get it home, considering the dealer delivered to a site relatively near our ferry on the mainland.
Men and machines assembled on mainland, preparing to lift the machinery onto wagon for transport.
Christopher crossed with one tractor on the 9 am Amherst Island ferry, traveled to the site and towing our new purchase along the road to a large township space to meet Ian and Don. They had crossed on the 10 am ferry with two more tractors, one towing an empty wagon. The haybine is too large to tow onto the ferry; it had to be loaded on its side with the swing arm out of the way onto the wagon to be towed home.
The photos show some of the steps involved in unloading. Three men, 3 tractors, one wagon and ingenuity, but our new haybine was home by 2 pm.
Welcome to our newest Topsy addition. May it last into the next generation.
Most of our 41 summers farming on Amherst Island have been dry. The summers of 2008-2011 were a pleasant exception – no Islanders could remember 3 green summers in a row and 4 in a row still seem miraculous.
For us, the driest summer was in 1988. We had to buy some poor quality hay and quite a bit of grain to get the sheep flock through to the next spring.
It was a near squeak that year to pay the bills.
Once again this year we have had a tough spring/early summer with high temperatures and very little moisture. The August rains enjoyed by some have managed to miss us almost entirely. But we are in quite a bit better position than we were in 1988.
Our equipment isn’t quite so ancient and is less prone to breaking down when urgently needed. Hay can be made more quickly. We now have the equipment and experience to make baleage early in the Ontario growing season which enables us to harvest good quality forage while encouraging re-growth for pasture, and at least slightly reduce our dependence on increasingly expensive grain. The sheep are rotated from pasture to pasture. We try always to trim the completed pastures to remove plants that the sheep didn’t eat. (We don’t want the least favourite to reseed, coming to dominate the pasture.)
Christopher, wrapping a baleage bale.
High soil quality helps the farm through drought.
We roll the hay out in the fall and winter, spreading it on the ground. That is the most efficient way for all sheep to have equal access to the fresh hay. It also leaves tiny hay fragments which, combined with the sheep droppings, increase the organic matter in the soil. We have less manure to spread as we now use the barns less, but still stockpile the barnyard gleanings and spread on the fields when we can. This increases the ’tilth’ of the earth, draws earthworms (which add their own castings) and other small organisms, which helps hold moisture if we do get any rain. The first year we unrolled hay on poor pasture, we could clearly see the green stripes in the ground, where the more lush grasses were growing thanks to the increased organic matter.
Don unrolling hay to newly shorn sheep, early spring
Last year was a good year – we harvested as much hay as possible and were able to build up a surplus – called ‘drought hay’ – which we are already feeding during the weaning process (5 large round bales/day plus supplement). Last year we made over 1700 round bales and didn’t start feeding until November; this year, we were able to make just over 1100 bales, and have had to start feeding during the summer. That is a big difference.
Ian loading bales onto wagons for transport
Consequently, culling animals that are not productive for the farm is a much higher priority this year. A first year ewe-lamb who didn’t get pregnant is unfortunately sent to market. Older ewes unable to raise lambs once more would normally be culled in the fall, but this year, they are going in the summer. We just can’t feed them.
Tough decisions. We need to enhance the core of our flock, feeding them well, rather than giving everyone skimpy rations.
So, now our soil is improved. Our techniques are improved. Equipment is in better shape. We just need to perfect our rain dance techniques.
How many disparaging phrases have you heard about sheep? “Led like sheep to the slaughter”; “The black sheep of the family”; “A wolf in sheep’s clothing”…
“Not fair” says our shepherd Christopher, and we agree.
Sheep’s instinct to herd is their protection.
Lacking speed, teeth or claws, hiding in a group is smart. It follows that when shepherds want them to go into a pen or through a narrow gate, the sheep understandably feel less safe, and simply don’t want the same thing the people do. That does not mean they are dumb.
They are individuals. A stranger looking at a flock might think they are all alike, but those of us close to the animals can clearly see their personal characteristics. There are mothers more skilled than others; confident leaders and obedient followers; ones who know the guardian dogs are to be obeyed fast while others are mavericks; the steeplechase jumpers who challenge all fences…
Some breeds have certain predictable traits. A black-faced Suffolk ewe or lamb will be more calm and steady, whereas a lamb bred by a Border Cheviot will be feisty, almost high strung, with great ‘survivability’ skills.
Personalities vary also. We fostered twins from one hour old, and one was far more skilled than the other at finding the food source. It was first born, probably by just a few minutes, and was more playful and clearly the leader of the two.
Lambs being fostered have a high learning curve. Their instincts say to go under a warm belly and feel for a firm warm teat, then drink milk of a certain flavour. When they are fostered, they have to learn quickly to seek a hard black rubber nipple up high, with reconstituted powdered milk that doesn’t taste quite right. A lamb who has been with a ewe for a few days will initially say ‘ptooey’ to the taste. However, survival instincts rule, and usually by the second feeding they will move toward not away from the person with the bottle, thumping energetically at knees, seeking food.
Our two older foster lambs know “go for a walk” and “into your pen”. (They like the first.) I started to save the last bit of milk in the bottle to reinforce the latter directive. After one repeat they knew what to expect, and now enter eagerly.
The next time you hear someone disparage sheep, do challenge it. Come and visit Topsy Farms and see for yourself.
by Meghan Balogh, Napanee Guide Newspaper
A short ferry ride from Millhaven has the potential to transport you to another world.
On Amherst Island, a 16-by-seven kilometre piece of land in Lake Ontario, life moves by at a different pace.
The rolling farmland on the edge of the water is dotted with houses and small farms, and you can feel the sense of community that binds the island’s little population of 450.
That sense of community can be found in a more tightly-knit group of shareholders a few kilometres east of the ferry dock on Topsy Farms, a multi-family-run endeavour that brings together a group of people interested in a different way of life.
Topsy Farms is one of two large sheep operations that can be found on Amherst Island. In fact, once lambing season is over, the island’s human population is outnumbered by sheep 12 to one, or more.
In the early 1970s, five original owners purchased the island property that is Topsy Farms today. They were joined by friends interested in communal living.
The commune didn’t last, and some original shareholders moved on and were bought out and replaced by the five people who own and operate the sheep farm today.
Those five include Ian Murray and Sally Bowen, Christopher Kennedy and his wife Dianne, and Don Tubb.
Each shareholder brings their own skills to the farm, Ian and Sally running the marketing end of things while Christopher lends his expert knowledge of flock management. Don is a skilled photographer.
Today, Topsy Farms is home to the five shareholders and their family members, including Ian and Sally’s sons Jacob and Kyle Murray, and Jacob’s wife and two sons.
It’s also home to a flock of 1,100 breeding ewes, multiple rams, and seven guardian dogs.
In May and June, the ewes will begin their lambing process out in the hundreds of acres of pasture that Topsy Farms owns or rents, adding more than 1,000 new lambs to the flock to be raised mostly for the lamb meat market.
Everyone pitches in with the daily chores, from feeding sheep to fixing machinery, checking fences, assisting the flock with lambing, and maintaining the barns, paddocks and pastures that house the livestock. Sally is a green thumb and oversees five gardens. She also co-ordinates knitters and does some knitting herself to fill The Wool Shed, the farm’s on-site shop, with homemade wool products for sale to the public.
Sally lives with Lyme Disease and has to get her sustenance via feeding tube, but this has not dampened her enthusiasm for rural living.
The Wool Shed also features other Canadian-made products including sheepskins, yarn, bedding, apparel, and more. Most items are also sold on line.
“It just felt like an environment in which people supported and cared for each other and were trying to do something good,” says Sally of her initial attraction to the idea of a farm owned and operated by families together, on a small island in eastern Ontario. Sally grew up in Toronto.
“It’s been a whole lot of hard work and not a lot of money, but the fact that all three of our children, Ian’s daughter and our two boys, have had enough education to move elsewhere and experience the wider world they’ve all chosen to come back.
There’s a sense of community and wholeness about this world that is difficult to create nowadays.”
The sons, Jacob and Kyle, have returned to more thoroughly learn the business so that one day they can carry on the farm. But it can be a woolly way of life.
“What it really comes down to is that if me and Jake are ever going to take the place over we’ve got a hell of a lot to learn,” says Kyle, 28. “You can’t help but learn by being here, but you really need to actively try with things like fixing tractors, or making breeding selection choices.
“It’s a weird thing having a species sort of enslaved, but we’ve got a nice symbiotic relationship where we treat them as well as we can and they sustain us. I like it here, to put it simply. It’s a better life than most. It’s not an easy life, but it’s closer to nature and more wholesome.”
Jacob and his wife decided to return to the farm when their first child was born. Now they have two boys, ages seven and four, and would not want them growing up anywhere else.
He wants to make a life out of sheep farming, just like his parents have done.
“It’s a good way for kids to grow up,” says Jacob. “It’s a very pure way of living, but not easy. So the struggle is how do you do it and not be poor.”
The struggle is a reality that everyone at Topsy Farms has had to come to terms with, especially after a government-mandated cull that took their flock from 1,400 down to 670 animals in 2008 after a sheep tested positive for scrapie. It hit them hard, but they are are nearing their original numbers again.
But the ins and outs of farming can never be depended upon to run smoothly all of the time, and while Kyle and Jacob are doggedly determined to keep farming sheep, they understand it will never be easy sailing.
“It helps because my brother and I have grown up here, we know what we’re getting into, we know the sacrifice that it is,” says Jacob. “And it is like a sacrifice. Essentially it’s like joining the clergy or becoming a nun. You’re taking a vow of poverty, for the betterment of others in a lot of ways. Unfortunately, that’s the reality of it.”
The commitment of time, effort, and sweat equity are never more apparent than at shearing time on Topsy Farms. This past weekend three hired shearers and all farm hands worked dawn until dusk for three days, shearing the entire flock’s year’s worth of wool, “skirting” the fleeces and removing the worst parts to head to Woolgrowers in Carleton Place, and the top quality portions to MacAusland’s Woolen Mills on Prince Edward Island.
Despite the hard work, Jacob says there are moments that make it all worthwhile.
“Being out in the field at seven in the morning, when the mist is just coming off, and looking over the lake,” he says, describing one of those moments. “And just knowing that this land is ours and we’ve made it better. I just can’t imagine this land, this place being in the hands of anyone else.”
The quality of food the sheep receive is reflected in the quality of the lamb we produce.
The sheep on Topsy Farm seem to think the quality is excellent. Our partner, Don does most of the morning chores (and takes all of the great photos). Here are his pictures of morning chores in seasons when the grass does not grow.
He gives them 4 large round bales of hay first thing in the morning and then Christopher comes up and gives them some grain. So at first you can see the sheep content with their feed of hay..
..that is until Chris shows up when the flock does what flocks do best, and flock toward the ATV.
This escalates to a general swarming of 800+ ewes encasing it – loudly demanding their ration.
The end result is a long line of ewes feeding pretty noisily on their grain – no more calling… just molars crunching corn and soya beans.
The 5 dogs in the field have learned (the hard way) to keep well clear of the flock during this operation or they will be mercilessly trampled. At any other time, the dogs hold pre-eminence… dog wants to drink, the ewes gives it room… the dog wants to lie on this hay, the ewes eat somewhere else. Not so with grain.
Readers, you will have to come to visit to get the audio.
Don Tubb does all the layout for the Amherst Island Beacon, a monthly newsletter published by our extended family for over 30 years. Ian and I were away when Don was working to deadline so this is when he wrote the above text.
All photos © Don Tubb 2012.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
The guardian dogs are always with the sheep; caring protective companions.
all photos by Don Tubb
At Christmas, long weekends and other holidays, farmers don’t take much time off. The animals need daily attention. Always. On Christmas Day, two men each spent about 2 ½ hours in the morning doing chores, then 3 men worked in the barn in the afternoon for a few hours too. We don’t resent it – it is just part of the rhythm of our days.
Here is a picture of the daily chores, autumn through spring.
This applies to the three main groups of sheep. (Chores become far more extensive during the breeding season, with 6 or 7 groupings).
The 3 men meet at 7 am in our home for a half hour or so to discuss weather, problems, plans, concerns, goals, finances and ideas. Each has his area of special knowledge, and they pool thoughts. Then they head out for about 4 man hours/day.
Christopher typically visits every group of sheep every day, checking for any issues or problems. If a sheep needs attention he’ll deal with it there if he can, or will mark her so she can be found readily. (The other day he found a lamb standing knee deep in a stream, with her head thoroughly stuck in the paige wire! The water was wetter on the other side?…) He’ll visit with every guard dog (8 at the moment) and will feed them. He’ll load grain into our ‘snacker’, pulled by the ATV, and will run a trail of corn out on the snow for the replacement lambs, due to birth for the first time next spring. That gives them extra energy.
Meanwhile, Don visits every group of sheep. He’ll unroll round bales of hay on the ground, spreading it out so all can eat at the same time. Then he unrolls baleage bales for the breeding flock. It has a sweetish fresh damp grass odour, and the sheep love it. Unrolling the hay and baleage feeds the land as well as the sheep. The uneaten remnants and the sheep faeces fertilize the fields (and feed the earthworms). Don also keeps an eye out for any problems with the animals; he has a special affinity with the dogs. He’ll take a tractor with a grain bin out to keep the grain feeders filled for the market lambs that need the extra protein and energy help to grow during our winters.
One of our survival secrets at Topsy Farms is that we don’t purchase new and efficient – and expensive – farm equipment.
We make do and recycle the old.
That translates to all the workers, but especially Christopher who has most machinery know-how, spending hours and hours patching and rebuilding and scavenging parts to eke out ‘just one more year’. One cost of that is occasional breakdowns during haying season, and the frantic rush for repairs and parts. (They never break in winter.)
We are now officially retiring two very-well used machines – the oldest of our old farm equipment. Every bit will be recycled. The combine was purchased from an elderly neighbour. Garnet and his father bought it new in 1950, and was state of the art at the time. We traded hay baling for it years ago. But our shallow-soil sheep pasture just isn’t good grain -growing soil, and we’ve seldom been able to harvest a decent crop. We tried to give this combine away two years ago, but its 10 foot width and the ferry limitations and distance and hauling costs meant it was too expensive as a free gift.
Our first round baler did wondrous service. Ian remembers it arrived when I showed up, over 30 years ago. (I’m not sure which was the most noteworthy event.) We kept it going at least 5 years after it was pretty much worn out. We also wanted to switch to a machine that could use net wrap (that we recycle) on our hay bales. It is well adapted for making silage bales also. The old baler has been retired for awhile now. We salvaged parts we might be able to reuse including the PTO drive train, springs, tongue, wheels, stub axles, and the hydraulic cylinders.
So, we ordered a dumpster, which has a width of 8 feet, to accommodate both – plus other metal flotsam. One form of honourable retirement: every bit will be recycled, and will generate at least a little welcome cash.
An oxyacetylene torch was used to cut parts off the combine so it could fit, and two tractors manoevered it into position then pushed it in with almost 2 inches to spare on each side. Later, Kyle positioned, pushed and lifted to somersault the baler in front of the combine. Nice fit. Ian had first salvaged the grain-storage bin from the combine with the intention of using it in his new, improved hen house (to protect the grain from scavengers).
The processes for tidying up activities on the farm are a bit different from in your home. However, as everywhere, it feels good to have storage space increased and clutter reduced.
Leah, Ian and Randi’s daughter, is probably the reason our history began. When she was on her way, her parents wanted her to be raised by an extended family; by a tribe. However, relatives were scattered, and they had other friends who were interested in living communally, so on December 31st, 1971, some of our property was purchased for the unheard of Island sum of $40,000 by five original owners.
A significant amount of work was done to make the house habitable, and by spring, 1972, massive gardens were prepared and planted and mulched with old hay from the barn, and ambitious plans were debated. The original thought of tearing down the barn and using the wood to build a geodesic dome was discouraged by an Islander, disturbed by the proposal of destroying a sturdy, hand built structure. He also just happened to have several heifers to sell. Someone else had a tractor we could buy.
That began the ‘slippery slope’ of farming.
By this time there were a number of members and more visitors, and lots of enthusiastic labour. Thus, the early days of our history.
Then Christopher arrived, seeking to emigrate from Britain, to a place where he could raise sheep and eat well. For a time the farm had both cattle and sheep then chose to focus on the latter. We started with a flock of 50 head of sheep from Manitoulin Island.
When the commune broke up, reasonably amicably, on June 30, 1975, those who stayed were determined to repay debts as quickly as possible to those who left. The latter were kind enough to wait for repayment, allowing the farm to survive. We are still in touch with many of those who left, and they are still our friends. We are proud of that part of our history.
Over the next 36 years, we have been creative in finding new ways to make mistakes, but we’ve learned from them. Our five shareholders: Ian, Christopher, Don, Dianne and Sally each contribute as we are able, and have found an amicable tolerance for each others’ foibles, and respect for each others’ strengths. We raised another barn and children and now contribute in raising their children. We have 4 gardens and are starting a fifth. We and our children now live in 5 homes on the Island. We started the Wool Shed and this website store to use our wool byproduct more productively and that is growing too. We have sold lamb privately to satisfied customers for over 35 years.
We contribute to our community in a wide variety of ways, especially with the production of the Island Beacon, our monthly newsletter, which just recently passed the 400th edition.
The flock has increased from the original 50 to a breeding flock of 1100 and 1300 lambs in 2011. We were whammied by Scrapie in 2008, having the government ‘harvest’ all but 670 pregnant ewes in order to remove those who were potentially ill. (There is no live animal test.) We are recovering from that, though the financial picture still is difficult.
But we are still proudly here with a good reputation. In farming, that’s a success story.
Photos courtesy of Don Tubb.
Our two-and-a-half story “Frame House” at Topsy Farms is heated primarily by a wood furnace in the basement.
That’s a huge improvement over the early years, when we had only one wood stove in the living room, where everyone and the laundry hung out. Each time we filled that less-than-airtight stove, it would belch ash and dust into the room. We shared an elderly vacuum between two houses, and getting it meant dressing two toddlers to drive the km each way, so the house was cleaned too seldom. Our boys were active early, so we built a frame around the stove, to pen it rather than our explorers.
Kyle has been the primary wood gatherer for some years, backed up by his dad, Ian. The goal is to have this year’s wood stored in the open-sided shed adjacent to the basement door, and next year’s wood already cut and drying in the back lot. Part of the winter’s work is to begin to cut and gather the wood for the third year. The quantity required varies a lot from one year to the next.
This autumn, before leaf fall, Kyle marked the dead trees. Unfortunately, there seems to be a bottomless supply. Many of the dead elms have been taken down, but with the ash borer threatening, the somewhat overcrowded conditions in our bush, the limbs that threaten our perimeter fence, there is no lack of dead wood to be trimmed.
Some of the pathways through the bush were established years ago, when the sugar shack was in active use. An early wonderful gift from Ian was the clearing and extension of those for Sally and friends to cross country ski, and to give us access to this lovely wooded area. Since we have shallow soil, many of the trees are Eastern Red Cedar, but deeper pockets of soil also support oaks, Beech, maples, Ironwood, Shagbark Hickories, White Pine and spruce. There is also a disturbing amount of Prickly Ash and Garlic Mustard. Sadly, the deer have grazed most of the trilliums and young saplings.
Ian organized a chainsaw safety training session in our home for the extended family a few years ago, so they have certificates of safety. Patience with sharpening the chains, with recalcitrant motors on cold days, and just dealing with the perversity of inanimate objects is required.
Most days the men take an armload of wood into the basement storage area as they come in from work to shed their duds. Fortunately Don is up early and Kyle stays up late, so the fire in the furnace rarely goes out.
Our home smells and feels good too. We’re even less grubby.
Our son Jake wrote this song last year.
These pictures show his dad Ian, and his sons, Nathan and Michael, on this year’s Christmas tree outing down our laneway. This lovely tree gave us two sturdy six foot fenceposts, a few pieces of firewood that may also be used for our aeromatic red cedar squares for storing woolens, and a floor to ceiling tree, perfuming our livingroom.
Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year to all from the Topsy Farms folk.
SCRUFFY RED CEDAR
G Em D C
DECEMBER, MY FAMILY, TROMPING THROUGH THE SNOW
MY DAD HAS THE CHAINSAW, MOMMA HAS MY BROTHER AND ME IN TOW
I’M 9 YEARS OLD, AND I’M COLD, BUT IT DOES NOT BOTHER ME (hang on G)
D C G
THIS IS MY SPECIAL MEMORY, FINDING THE PERFECT CHRISTMAS TREE
D C G
THAT SCRUFFY RED CEDAR, MY FAMILY CHRISTMAS TREE
WE FINALLY PICK ONE OUT AND DRAG IT HOME, BUT IT’S MUCH TOO TALL
THIS OLD FARM HOUSE, MY HOME, HAS ONLY 8-FOOT WALLS
THE EXTRA, DAD LOPS OFF, IT’LL BE A FENCE POST IN THE SPRING (hang on G)
THAT SCRUFFY RED CEDAR, MY FAMILY CHRISTMAS TREE
OUR TREE DOES NOT LOOK LIKE ONE YOU MIGHT BUY IN A STORE
SURE IT’S A LITTLE ‘CHARLIE BROWN’, THE CEDAR SMELL I ADORE
WE GET OUT THE OLD STAR, THAT GRAM AND GRANDPA PASSED TO ME (hang G)
D C G
TONIGHT WE PUT THAT GOLD STAR UP ON TOP, OF A SCRUFFY CEDAR TREE
THAT SCRUFFY RED CEDAR, MY FAMILY CHRISTMAS TREE
A GOOD TWENTY YEARS HAS PASSED BY, NOW I’M A GROWN UP MAN
THIS TIME OF YEAR IS CRAZY, MY WIFE AND I DO THE BEST WE CAN
THIS YEAR FOR DECORATING, NO SPRUCE OF PINE WILL OUR 2 BOYS SEE (hang G)
D C G
WE’LL TAKE A SAW AND THE TOBOGGAN, FIND A SCRUFFY CEDAR TREE
THAT SCRUFFY RED CEDAR, MY FAMILY CHRISTMAS TREE X 2
(OUTRO) G D C
TROMPING THROUGH THE SNOW, LOW, LOW, LOW, LOW x 4
© Jacob Murray 2009
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And knowing who’s who? Any great shepherd really does know his flock and the individuals in it.
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.
Local Food Plus is a non-profit organization dedicated to “Nurturing regional food economies by certifying farmers and processors for local sustainable food production and helping them connect with buyers of all types and sizes.” Their site is www.localfoodplus.ca.
Topsy Farms passed their rigorous screening with flying colours. We answered about 30 pages of questionnaires which thoroughly investigated our philosophy and practise with regard to land and animals and people and the environment. A representative spent a full day visiting and investigating to ensure we practised what we preach. Now they are doing as they claim, helping us to link with potential customers for our lamb and our wool products.
Here is their blog entry with a recipe for lamb meatballs, and an introduction to Topsy Farms.
November 9th was positively balmy. Ian left on the 7 am ferry, headed for Queen’s University Farmer’s Market. Don was watching the weather reports before heading out to do chores; Christopher was dealing with Ontario Sheep Marketing business. I went for a walk with my grandsons’ dog, Diego.
There were flocks of ducks and geese on the lake, gabbling and gossiping and apparently deciding that migrating wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. A Loon call vibrated down my spine. The grass is still vividly green and the hay bales perfumed the air as I passed. (For recent information on Island birds see this blog.)
The fields are once again populated with our sheep.
They are in carefully separated sub-flocks. I walked the kilometer or so of roadway west to the end of the road, where our other house is located. I could see the Beacon light flashing and the Picton headland through the mist. I was lucky enough to join Chris as he went for a walk back towards our house. He explained about the flock groupings we passed.
The first bunch were 21 mature rams, resting and fattening up for their mighty task ahead of tupping the ewes. In an adjacent field young ram lambs were grazing, especially bred from our own Suffolk rams and ewes. Their characteristics include really good mothering, and good meat. We intend to keep the best four of the group of 30 or so; will sell one to a neighbour; two will become ‘teaser’ rams with vasectomies and the others will join the market flock.
There are three new rams on the farm, recently purchased from Quebec. Newcomers have to be kept separate from the other rams until they are put with the ewes in season (and much too distracted to battle for position). They are North Country Cheviot rams, purchased to increase that breed strain in our flock. (They came originally from the Cheviot hills in England. During “the clearances”, some were taken north to Scotland, were bred to be larger, and become the “North Country Cheviots”. The ones who stayed are called Border Cheviots. The Borders are generally a smaller ram, and are put to the first year girls. Their lambs have a feisty ‘survivability’ and do well on pasture.)
We expect to develop excellent quality of lamb for customers, and a resilient medium-staple wool with minimum chaff for weavers, spinners, felters and all who enjoy our wool products available through our on-line store.
The ewe lambs that will be bred this fall for the first time are grazing a few fields back, nearer our woods. The mature ewes are still ‘down the road’ getting low on pasture in the rented fields where they have been for a few weeks. They have just started to need hay to supplement the grasses.
As we neared the Frame house, the good sight of the market lambs spread out over a couple of fields, quietly grazing, was pleasing to the eye and the heart.
At Topsy Farms, we are caretakers of our land.
We work in many small ways to save resources and protect animals, people and the environment.
You’ve already heard the story of changing tractor tires, and of our old Allis-Chalmers tractor, rebuilt from many scrounged bits. Here are some other miscellaneous activities.
Living and working as a co-operative for over 35 years, with five adults (in two houses) is an efficient way to pool skills and thinking. The fact that three of the next generation have chosen to live here, and contribute their abilities helps enormously. The grandsons (3rd generation) already help wind wool skeins, herd sheep, talk with farm visitors and dig and delve in the gardens.
The Wool Shed and the on-line store were conceived as an attempt to cover the rapidly rising costs of shearing in the face of the very low price of raw wool. It accomplished that long ago, and now helps to contribute to the good name of our farm. We sell woolen products , created from our own fleece, as well as cotton-encased wool bedding and sheepskin products. We have also sold top quality fresh-frozen lamb by order for over 35 years.
Our three-story farm house is heated almost entirely with a wood furnace in the basement. All wood is harvested from our own farm, culling dead or dying trees only.
The farm uses a very small pickup truck, and wherever possible we drive the ATV’s rather than tractors or other vehicles, as they are far more fuel efficient.
We have our own egg-laying hens, which consume the kitchen garbage from three houses, produce enough for us to sell the excess in the summertime, and for our consumption during the months with less light. We barter our eggs, receiving homemade bagels and yoghurt from Ian’s daughter Leah’s home.
Our meat poultry is raised free-range, and we sell the extras to more than cover the costs.
The string that binds our bundles of yarn from MacAusland’s Woolen Mills yarn is saved and used for many purposes, including tying up newspapers for recycling or staking energetic tomato plants.
Our yard is certified as a Monarch Way Station by the University of Kansas, which encourages the planting of a variety of host and nectar plants enjoyed by the Monarch and other butterflies. This growing season the sufficient rain has produced an abundance of milkweed in the fields.
I grow a ‘green screen’ on the large south-facing window of my room. The intense summer heat is reduced, so I rarely need a fan. The hummingbirds and bees cluster to the Scarlet Runner Bean flowers. We eat some beans, and save the seed for next year. We eat some beans, and save the seed for next year.
Both homes grow significant gardens, and preserve the produce, contributing extras to Kingston’s soup kitchen, Martha’s Table, or as trade to the local café, for credit for snacks.
We are certified by Local Food Plus, a group that establishes extremely high standards for care of environment, people and animals, while producing healthy local food. A 40 page questionnaire and an all day on-site investigation were rigorous, but we easily qualified for their endorsement.
We started very poor, needing to save money and resources. By tackling problems and learning to repair and to ‘make do’, we’ve avoided much waste. By caring deeply about our animals and wanting our partnership to succeed, we became caretakers of our land.
Kyle, building the next compost pile frame
Putting seeds in good soil and watching them grow is deeply satisfying to me. Any day when I have soil under my nails and earth stains on the knees of my pants is a good day.
Our part of Amherst Island is primarily limestone and rock-hard clay soil, requiring a great deal of organic matter to improve tilth. That’s where our good sheep by-product comes in. We started gardening with old manure laid on top of the clay, gradually working on the soil quality and texture. Ian double dug the increasing number of raised beds one back-breaking spring. That made a big difference, working the good soil deeper so roots could stretch.
I found I was weeding the pathways too much so tried mulching with old hay. We quickly discovered that was an invitation to all the voles in the neighbourhood to a free lunch. Plastic looked awful, so my sons and I gradually gathered rocks to cover it. Years later, we have a healthy organic garden, overflowing with flowers and vegetables and herbs and fruit, the raised beds separated by stone walkways. (Now both sons are occasionally employed, building beautiful walls and walkways with stone.)
We put heavy hay mulch in a waste area near the parking area, burrowed, filled with compost and old manure, and planted mini tomatoes and cucumbers for our Wool Shed visitors to pick, as the plants climbed a fence erected for that purpose. Turns out I’d crossed labels so I have climbing pumpkins as well.
The old raspberry bed was out of control for weeds and being drowned by spring runoff. We laid a layer of thick cardboard (boxes from MacAusland’s Woollen Mills used for shipping our wool transformed into blankets, yarn and thows) then unrolled an entire hay bale for mulch to stop the canes regrowing. This year we added compost (from the barn scrapings from shearing plus old hay) and more manure. The bed is at least a foot higher and very fertile for gardening as the squash mountain picture shows.
Our Island chiropractor, carpenter and beekeeper has some of his hives in nearby fields. It is a lovely symbiotic arrangement, as his bees pollinate the garden and fruit trees, and we sell his entirely organic honey in our Wool Shed: essence of my garden.
The ewes are getting feisty and the rams are banging foreheads – sure signs of increased hormones.
In the spring, the females are “anoestrus”, i.e. they do not ovulate. About 6 to 8 weeks after the summer solstice as the days get shorter, the cycles start again. They cycle every 16 to 18 days, and are fertile for about one day each time.
The rams meanwhile, have been building up strength all spring and summer. Their hormones too are preparing them for breeding season. Purebred rams are chosen for their breed characteristics to produce great lamb on pasture. Of course healthy happy sheep also produce high quality wool. Our wool products are available on line and at the Wool Shed at the farm.
Gestation takes 4 months, three weeks and four days … approximately. Since we want our ewes to start lambing in early May, once the pastures are greening, the rams will go into the flock groupings on a selected date in December.
Meanwhile, the cooler weather adds to their bounce too.
The ewes are getting feisty and the rams are banging foreheads – sure signs of increased hormones.
In the spring, the females are “anoestrus”, i.e. they do not ovulate. About 6 to 8 weeks after the summer solstice as the days get shorter, the cycles start again. They cycle every 16 to 18 days, and are fertile for about one day each time.
The rams meanwhile, have been building up strength all spring and summer. Their hormones too are preparing them for breeding season.
Gestation takes 4 months, three weeks and four days … approximately. Since we want our ewes to start lambing in early May, once the pastures are greening, the rams will go into the flock groupings on a selected date in December.
Meanwhile, the cooler weather adds to their bounce too.
Jacob and Ian unloading hay bales up the laneway behind Topsy’s Frame House and Grey Barn. (Kyle’s pontoon boat in background, left.)
Jacob and Ian unloading hay
bales up the laneway behind Topsy’s Frame House and Grey Barn. (Kyle’s pontoon boat in background, left.)
Topsy Farms was able to make about 1750 large round hay bales this year, each weighing between 800 to 1000 lbs. Each one is plopped in the field where the baler rolled it out, so they are scattered over about 40 fields, varying from 3 to almost 70 acres.
All the bales have to come home.
Ian takes two wagons, hitched in tandem behind the tractor, to the field he’s about to clear.
His tractor, the Allis-Chalmers 185 cab loader, now with decent tires on the rear wheels, has two spikes in the front and tines in the rear, enabling him to pick up two hay bales at a time. First he reverses, lowering the tines, to pick up a hay bale in the back. Then he shifts to forward gear, raising the rear hydraulics. It is difficult (until one has done thousands) to line up the top spike centrally, at reasonable speed, aiming for the mid-point on the bale that can not be seen from the driver’s seat. The second smaller spike keeps the bale from spinning as the hydraulic arms lift the bale. The tractor then takes the two hay bales to the wagons, parked centrally in the field to minimize travel distance.
The picture below shows that all fields are not conveniently flat. The low swale Ian is travelling through, would bog him down in wet weather, so this field is high on the list for early clearance.
Ian is able to transport 29 round bales of hay at a time from the fields to where they are to be stored. He puts 28 on the wagons, two abreast and two high, and one on the rear tractor tines.
He locates the wagons in a field on high ground (as we’ve had a fair amount of rain lately, and it takes a lot of traction to pull that weight). As described in the previous set of pictures, he approaches the wagons with two bales of hay. He drops the rear one, lifts the front one, then places it carefully and accurately in position. It only looks easy. He then reverses, shifts forward, picks up the hay bale from the rear tines, and adjusts that in place too. He then goes back out in the field, seeking two more.
Use your imagination – we have about 1750 bales scattered over a good part of 2/3rds of the Island; Ian can haul 29 at a time; if he’s fortunate he’ll manage two loads a day. Once or twice a season, he manages three. If he’s less fortunate, and becomes stuck, he has to unload until there is sufficient traction to pull the wagons through the low area. The men are working on repairing another wagon in hopes that we can get a tractor freed and the labour to get someone else hauling.
The sheep will be fed. The lambs will thrive. Our fresh-frozen lamb will be eagerly sought after 35 years experience. Our quality wool products will continue to be available on-line and at the Wool Shed. All thanks to the hay.
Life on a farm.
Ian is sniffing a melon in Jacob and Sue’s garden – the ultimate test for ripeness.
The lambs have been weaned from the ewes. They no longer need the milk and they can be rough on the mamas.
The ewes need a break.
They need to have some peaceful grazing, to rebuild their strength before starting the cycle again.
Lambs being driven from the Grey Barn to west of the New Barn to get them as far from their mothers as we can so as few as possible drift back.
Large rear tractor tires are really expensive, especially when it involves hiring a truck to come to the Island to repair or replace. Over $2000 just isn’t in the budget for items that aren’t crucial.
We decided to switch the tires on two tractors.
The “Straight Pipe”, had reasonably good tires but it is not often used in the autumn; the “Cab Loader” we really need for hauling bales but its tires were nearly bald. They weigh roughly 1000 lbs each, so it isn’t lightly done.
Christopher reasoned that the grippers we use to move baleage bales would do the trick, working like big hands.
First, one tire was removed from each machine. In the picture below, Ian is bracing, Chris is removing nuts with a rotating wrench, while Jacob stabilizes the bolts with a wrench.
Ian giving Chris hand signals since he can’t see from the tractor seat, as the grippers line up and close firmly.
The grippers are comfortably able to handle the weight, crossing to the waiting tractor.
Chris has his eyes glued on Ian, as he has to line up as close as possible with the 8 studs, both vertically and horizontally, working, in effect, blind.
Ian’s signal tells Chris to lower just a fraction more. It worked. The final adjustments were made by rolling the tire a touch while adjusting the jack.
We’re mobile again.
Our friend and Island neighbour invested in a set of solar power panels, then had urgent need for a paige wire fence. The panels were erected in the midst of a field used for cattle grazing. Cows are curious creatures who like to rub, and who seek shade.
It was vital to get a protective fence erected fast.
Kyle took on the job, and his dad Ian agreed to help.
Kyle had previously cut and trimmed the main cedar poles for the posts, and for the braced corner posts. Digging the holes to sink these a minimum 3 feet deep took time. They used a chain saw to notch the corner posts for the fence to brace them securely, then tightened them with a wire, and ‘twitch’ – the smaller piece of wood used to twist the wire. [Good scrabble word]. They unrolled the fencing on the ground, then put an iron pry bar vertically woven through the end of the wire. This was attached to the tractor, then gradually tightened to gain sufficient tension. Metal U-shaped fence staples were then hammered into each post, over each wire, to hold that in place. The fencing was cut a few feet too long intentionally, and each individual wire trimmed, then wound around the corner posts.
The photo above shows Ian’s hand, using a handy tool – a piece of metal with a hole in it – that is perfect for winding the taut wire end around itself.
Our grandsons were with us for the evening, and did a great job, absorbing the action and entertaining themselves.
Cedar Waxwing beauties love elderberries, but so do we.
Lunch bags protect our share of the elderberries as they ripen.
It works – first picking of elderberries.
We share these with a medicine woman on the nearby reserve, who makes traditional medicines from elderberries.
The carrots have grown wonderfully with the abundant rains – my grandsons are preparing to chomp.