canadian wool products

Family-built Wool Shed

family-built-wool-shed

Extended family and community gave support

Our family-built Wool Shed is complete and open for visitors. Success!

This example shines, in an increasingly ‘big box’, mass-produced world. Rural communities are eroding, farms disappearing.

Support from our friends, neighbours, municipalities and province has cheered on the family-built Wool Shed.

family-built-wool-shed

Old Ice House (former Wool Shed) on the move

They loaned money, muscle, expertise and moral support. Customers have written of their joy in our products from many countries and every province in Canada, loving the authenticity of who we are; what we do.

Completing the project by our deadline was a near thing. Our old Wool Shed was doomed by road-widening bulldozers; our efforts to build the new one challenged by the need to also be lambing, haying, doing sheep work; careful budgeting and challenges of ferry and Amherst Island logistics.

family-built-wool-shed

Interior and display almost complete

Once Noel McCormick, Island artist-with-a-backhoe, poured the concrete pads we dived in.

Jake evolved the basic design, working with Home Hardware, our building supplier. He worked longer hours in the fields with Christopher, freeing the other two men. Just before opening he designed and built a gorgeous setting for our sign, using a giant stump and careful dry wall work.

family-built-wool-shed

Jake created this setting for our sign

Will and Kyle worked long hours with Island foreman Rob, doing all the building and basic electrical work, with help from Carl. The skylights took a lot of extra time to install well, but their light is wonderful. Perry gave us hours of labour.

Peggy did the design and planning of the interior, purchasing, and coordinating with Rob, and finalized display and layout.

Ian paid the bills, helped co-ordinate with permits and worried a lot.

Sally recorded the action, fed exhausted workers, did landscaping and PR and kept craft items replenished, with the help of 10 piece workers.

family-built-wool-shed

PR for Island’s Christmas Shopping event

Leah established order in the office, paying bills, helping Ian with shipping & receiving and sorting inventory. She and her mom worked wonders with Peggy on display and layout.

Ali finished interior display units and ceiling boards with environmentally friendly materials, and joined sheep drives and barn work.

Noel successfully managed to expose, support, lift then drag our century-old Ice House/Milk House to its new location behind the new Wool Shed. It will serve as shipping and receiving, replacing our living and dining room floors and table. This will be its 7th or 8th incarnation.

We hooked up the inspected, approved structure and electricity Friday night, before the Saturday official opening (no stress involved!). We were a part of the Amherst Island Christmas shopping event in our family-built Wool Shed.

family-built-wool-shed

New Shed joined by former Shed/Ice House

The grandsons were involved that day also, with Nathan and Mike helping people find items they sought, chatting about the products and the farm, and taking cash.

We had our best day ever.

Customers left with bags full of yarn; armloads of blankets and throws; wool comforters and sheepskins; hand-made gifts chosen. A portion of the flock watched, serenely.

family-built-wool-shed

View from door of new Wool Shed.

A 70th birthday dinner for Sally that evening became a true family celebration of all we had accomplished on our family-built Wool Shed – together.

Thanks to each person who has helped make this small shop on a farm, on a dead-end dirt road on an Island become an example of what we can all do in our home communities, working as a team. Buy local, wherever you live.

Please come visit.

Adventure at Topsy Farms on Amherst Island

Our neighbours and friends had quite an adventure at Topsy Farms recently.

Adventure at Topsy Farms

Gord and Lynn are outnumbered

We have about 1000 ewes and over 1200 lambs now after lambing (with one or two waddling pregnant ewes still holding back). So many mouths require lots of food, and we were running out of pasture on the home farm.

Moving the mature girls with their lambs through the woods to fresh pasture was easy. They just know what they are doing.

However, herding 600 one- and two-year old ewes plus about 750 new lambs presented a challenge, creating an adventure at Topsy Farms.

We had to move them more than a kilometer, down our gravel road past flower beds, lanes, enticing bush and other lamb traps to our next quality pasture.

Adventure at Topsy Farms

Setting out with lots of helpers

We sent out an appeal to those householders (keep the dogs in, bring all the visitors out) a family new to the Island, and a few other Island friends. 38 adults and a pack of kids joined us for a brief pep talk and to be assigned yards and flower beds to protect. Several people were chosen to walk behind, carrying 8 ft. burlap wool bags, creating a ‘wall’ to encourage forward momentum and with fleet runners at both sides to turn back escapees.

Ewes want to move forward, seeking fresh grass. Lambs want to move backwards to where they last saw mama. It can be a tough combination.

Our farmers erected temporary fences wherever they could along the route but everyone from a babe in arms to a septuagenarian visitor jogged along, reinforced by our ATVs, to keep the pack moving.

Adventure at Topsy Farms

Later – more people and lambs towards the back

Adventure at Topsy Farms

Oh-Oh – People and sheep going in both directions

One group of over 200 mavericks managed to outmanoeuvre everyone and head towards home. It was an adventure at Topsy Farms to head ‘em off at the pass. The photo (left) shows most sheep and lambs headed to the left; with a ewe and lamb heading right. People are heading in both directions. About 200 more of the pack followed that ewe.

Our desire always is to produce high quality wool products and meat. Our customers value our wool products year round (available here) and the wonderful quality of lamb and yearling. The most important factor in achieving that goal is to provide good pasture for happy healthy animals protected by guardian dogs.

Sometimes it can be an adventure to get there.

Topsy Farms Invites you to Come to Us on Amherst Island

Why visit Amherst Island? There are lots of places to stay, to feast, to laugh, to walk or bike or sail, and there are harbours for your boat or for your soul. Topsy Farms invites you to come.

Coloured skin on white sheepskin

Coloured Lambskin on Two White Sheepskins

What To Do On Amherst Island? Come to Topsy Farms.

It is a large sheep farm with an at-home store, the Wool Shed, which offers pure wool and sheepskin products for sale.

We pay the tax on items purchased at the store, saving you not only the HST but also the extra costs of urban retail outlets. The wool is processed in a traditional manner, using only soaps, not chemicals, so people who seek true quality are pleased.

Topsy Farms invites you to come to shearing events at the farm in March and April.

Child with Topsy Hat Nuzzled by Orphan Lamb
Child with Topsy Hat Nuzzled by Orphan Lamb

Topsy Farms invites you to help nurture our orphan lambs in May and June, a fully accessible activity.

Kids carrying Wool and Knit Topsy sign

Canada Day parade, Topsy ‘float’

Tamed foster lambs interact with visitors throughout the summer, and participate in playful Island events like the Canada Day parade.

We publish the Amherst Island Beacon monthly and have done so for almost 40 years. Many Island resources and activities are listed at amherstisland.on.ca .The advertisements at the back of the Beacon include information about rental accommodation available in addition to The Lodge and Poplar Dell. For those choosing to rent housekeeping options, we sell individual lamb cuts at the Wool Shed. There are fresh food sources at the weekly market, and sometimes at Topsy. We intend to offer fresh cut bouquets this year for your table.

Red Lilies

Red Oriental Lilies in Topsy Farms’ garden

Island women’s pies are reputed to be the best you can eat, available through the Presbyterian Women at the annual Garden Party, or from the Women’s Institute on the Fridays of long weekends at the corner in the village.

Another fine source of information is the radio station CJAI 92.1FM, ‘radio in the barn’ which helps keep people informed through their live morning broadcasts, their website, and their facebook site. The Presbyterian Church maintains a calendar of events on Island, and they and the Anglican Church welcome Sunday worshipers.

Jar of Liquid Honey

750 ml jar of Topsy Farms Raw Honey

Topsy Farms is a certified Monarch Way Station. To those who care about the environment as we do, we give out free samples of seeds for nectar flowers which are supportive of honey bees. The raw natural honey at the Wool Shed is gathered by our Island chiropractor and one of our sons.

For those who care about birds, we sell nesting materials – belly wool with colourful scraps of yarn at cost. The Island abounds with wonderful land and water birds, and many folks will advise you of some of the best viewing options.

Topsy has some wonderful examples of new and traditional dry stone walls. This year September 27 – 29 there will be an Irish-Canadian Dry Stone Festival on the Island, with free music and activities for kids and adults. We are honouring our heritage by linking with Ireland, the source of many of our original settlers.

Mauve, Purple and Pink throw woven using Topsy Farms yarn

Woven Throw by Pat Frontini with Topsy yarn and mohair

The creativity doesn’t end there. Samples of creative work of our writers, our weavers, needle felters and potters are available for sale at the Wool Shed, most using materials from Topsy Farms. The Weasel and Easel is another outlet for Island creative skills, open seasonally in the village of Stella.

Music abounds. Our older son is stage manager for the Waterside Music Festival and has contributed to the Emerald Music Festival. An earlier incarnation of our Wool Shed housed our younger son’s band.

We have an Island rich in people and natural resources. Topsy Farms invites you to come to visit us and our community.

Wool Bedding Promotes Sleep

Sleeping on wool bedding, cotton-covered, is as close to sleeping on a cloud as you’re ever likely to experience.

Why does wool bedding help you sleep?

  • cool in summer, warm in winter
  • hypoallergenic; chemical-free
  • natural resilience gives cushiony comfort
 Wool Bedding (pillows, mattress pads and comforters) promotes sleep

Wool Bedding at at Topsy Farms’ Wool Shed

It has such a natural resilience, that it does its own fluffing. All the fibres trap masses of air pockets making the insulation factor amazing. Somehow, wool keeps you cooler in summer (akin to switching to a cotton instead of nylon shirt). It breathes. It also wicks moisture away from a person’s body – no sweaty boggy feel. It is gently warm in winter, not requiring many layers or the press of weight. Each of those characteristics in our wool bedding promotes sleep.

The cotton covering is unbleached, with a thread count of approximately 200. It is cotton “sheeting” which breathes better than ticking (a higher thread count.) It provides the casing for the pillows, mattress pads and comforters.

Cotton-covered Wool Mattress Pad promotes sleep

Cotton-covered Wool Mattress Pad

The wool bedding uses prairie wool, cleaned without using sulphuric acid, fire retardant or bug repellant.

There is no need for that toxic stuff.

The natural lanolin that remains in the wool after washing acts as a deterrent to dust mites and other microscopic ‘critturs’ that can proliferate in bedding. An added bonus is that wool is fire resistant – you can’t burn it. It is also hypoallergenic, and as renewable a resource as you could get. Topsy Farms is able to offer a special service of vinegar rinsing products for people with extreme sensitivities.

Instead of sleeping on a petroleum by-product as in all artificial fibres, your body will relax into sleep more readily if sleeping on an unbleached cotton-covered wool mattress pad.  Just click for more details or to purchase this on line.  The mattress pad has been stitched in such a way that the wool cannot shift, even after many washings. The wide elastics firmly stitched at the corners keep the mattress pad in place.

A high density wool pillow interior - the bedding promotes sleep

A cross-section of a high density wool pillow interior

 Cotton-Covered Wool Pillows promote sleep

Two standard-sized, Cotton-covered Wool Pillows

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then at the Topsy on-line store, add to your cart the pleasure of a cotton-covered wool pillow. For a comfortable sleep you need to be able to keep your spine aligned when on your side, with your neck not pushed up or sagging down. Topsy has two choices of density for those with big shoulders or for those who prefer a firmer feel. Both are available in Queen as well as Standard dimensions too.

Then top it off with a cotton-covered wool comforter  also at the store. The comforter is comfortably warm, but not hot or sweaty. The amount of wool has been determined as the ideal volume to drape over you softly. Any more filling would make it stiffer, creating cold air pockets.
All these products are washable, using Eucalan and Topsy’s  “Care and Feeding” instructions .

A great sleep is a gift.

“My Canadian wool blanket came today, opened it up and wow!”

“My Canadian wool blanket came today, opened it up and wow! I have it on the couch now, it’s amazing how big it is and how good it looks! Can’t wait to show my girlfriend. My mum wants a blanket as well now…”

– Glenn, Kelowna, BC, January, 2015

 

My Canadian wool blanket came today, opened it up and wow!.

Dogs enjoy throws too

Needle Felting Kits

 Topsy-smNow available:
Needle Felting Kits

Needle Felting Kit showing pad, 2 needles, white and dark natural wool fleece

Needle Felting Kit

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Each Needle Felting Kit Includes:

  • 1.5 ounces of washed and carded wool,
    natural white and dark grey
  • 2 – 38 gauge triangular needles
  • 1 high density foam pad
  • 1 wooden skewer

 

Sample Card displaying coloured Felting Wool available

Felting Wool Colour Sample card

http://store.topsyfarms.com/index.php?route=product/category&path=96_106_110

Cost is $15.00 plus tax and mailing

For more information, or to order, please contact:

  • (613) 389-3444
  • 888-287-3157
  • info@topsyfarms.com

Coloured wool is available in 12 colours;

$2.00 an ounce

 

Breeding Sheep Season

 

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.

Rams building up their strength. Photo by Don Tubb

Rams building up their strength. Photo by Don Tubb

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.

Ewes heading for the breeding grounds. Photo by Don Tubb

Ewes heading for the breeding grounds. Photo by Don Tubb

Our cycle begins again.
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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.

 

 

A “New” Haybine for the sheep farm

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 haybine onto wagon

Men and machines assembled on mainland, preparing to lift haybine onto wagon

Men and machines assembled on mainland, preparing to lift the machinery onto wagon for transport.

Chris and Ian rolling wagon underneath

Chris and Ian rolling wagon underneath

Chris heading to the ferry, towing wagon with haybine chained firmly

Chris heading to the ferry, towing wagon with haybine chained firmly

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.

Chris, directing 2 tractors as they lift haybine.

Chris, directing 2 tractors as they lift haybine.

Chris, pulling wagon out from under haybine

Chris, pulling wagon out from under haybine

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.

Christopher, Don and Ian under the swing arm of the ‘new’ haybine

Christopher, Don and Ian under the swing arm of the ‘new’ haybine

Welcome to our newest Topsy addition. May it last into the next generation.

Surviving a Drought Year on Amherst Island

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.)

Topsy Farms

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.

Topsy Farms sheep

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.

Topsy farms bales

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.

Sheep Have Bad Press

 

Lambs waiting to return to mama

Lambs waiting to return to mama

 

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.

A gang of lambs

A gang of lambs

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.

On the road - photo by Audra

On the road – photo by Audra

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.

Full tummies

Full tummies

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.

Foster Lambs, 2012

First Foster Lamb, "Adventure Lamb, 2012

First Foster Lamb, “Adventure Lamb, 2012

 

First foster lamb eager for a warm, full tummy

Lambing on pasture is natural but can be fraught with difficulties that can result in foster lambs,  so we check the several fields of ewes four times a day.  Often we discover a small problem that could become serious if not caught soon enough:  a ‘cast’ ewe (flat on her back); a ewe whose udders are so swollen the lambs can’t get their first suck; a newborn who has gotten though an impossibly tiny hole in the fence and can’t find mom.  Rescues are deeply satisfying.

No longer solitary

No longer solit

Jake found two very hungry lambs in his noon checking.  Apparently a ewe birthed twins and simply lost track of one – or possibly chose to reject one.   One of the foster lambs was still strong enough to stand and suck, and took readily to the lamb replacement formula that we feed.  (We use stubby beer bottles, as they can fit in the microwave for quick reheating. We buy black rubber nipples designed for lambs.)

 

 

 

Friends feeding Loudmouth and Adventure Lamb

Friends feeding Loudmouth and Adventure Lamb

 

The other foster lamb couldn’t even lift its head.  It’s a pretty black and white marked baby, and was just a few hours old.  I milked the nipple, dribbling a few drops at a time down its throat.  A few hours later he was up and yelling for more. This year’s Lazarus.

No longer hungry lamb, stretching

No longer hungry lamb, stretching

Another possible reason a lamb might become fostered is if a ewe has triplets and the smallest one can’t compete.

Feeding four at once

Feeding four at once

 

When possible Christopher sets up an adoption with a ewe if she’s lost a lamb at birth – but so far we’ve had few of those.  Otherwise, we send them to a new home where they’ll be raised.  We just got a report that one of last year’s foster lambs birthed a lamb last week.  Our other potential home has a child with ADD, and the farming parents want the nurturing, tactile experience for the child.  It’ll be lovely for the lamb too.

We’ve had 8 foster lambs so far with 6 already in their new home. We have a few weeks to go yet.

A woolly way of life for Amherst Islanders

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.

Sally and Ian - photo by Meghan Balogh

Sally and Ian – photo by Meghan Balogh

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.”

Shearing Season on the Sheep Farm

"Traffic Jam"

“Traffic Jam”

 

These pregnant ewes are on their way to the barn to be shorn. Their instincts to protect their young lambs from bad weather is enhanced by mamas having thin coats too. Shearing time is the most challenging few days of the year for our farm: we can’t shear wet sheep. The weather can be dry (as it has been this spring) for weeks on end, but lo and behold, when the inflexible shearing dates approach the forecasts are full of wet and cold doom and gloom. Why is this such a challenge? The shearers we hire to do the job are popular guys this time of year: they are booked solid in advance and shearing must happen, regardless of weather.

Do sheep have to lose their coats? Yes, ewes have to be shorn yearly for their health and well-being. We believe that the best time is in the spring, just before they lamb, when (hopefully) the weather is warming, but before the lambs are born. That way, after they have babies in tow, they’ll seek shelter if it is windy or cold. They don’t feel the weather if their coats are still on.

We invite families to visit shearing.

It rained steadily all Saturday, and despite our best efforts, 68 of the 1250 sheep to be shorn got wet. Fortunately the shearers are finishing a job elsewhere on the Island, so will return on Tuesday. There is a glory in the teamwork activity however. There are 3 shearers and 6 “roustabouts” working in the upstairs barn shearing area, with another three people backing them up.

Three shearers and 'roustabout'

Three shearers and ‘roustabout’

The ‘rousies’ pick up and fling and skirt fleeces, and sweep floors. The space is purposefully snug, so people and animals aren’t travelling more than necessary. There is an almost ballet-like quality to the flow of action, with people keeping an eye on what is needed and who else is moving where, as they back each other up. The shearers finish each fleece in about 2 ½ minutes; nudge the animal out one gap so they can descend a ramp to the outside; click a counter to keep track of numbers; get their next ewe or lamb from their individual holding pen and start again. Meanwhile someone has to pick up the fleece in just the right way so it can be flung, right side up, on the skirting table. Someone else has to sweep the area so it is cleared for the next fleece, while not interrupting the movement of the shearer. It’s a dance. In the adjacent space, the fleece on the table is “skirted” with any dirty bits removed, then roughly bundled and put into an 8 ft hanging burlap bag, that is being solidly packed, then sewn and hauled up by block and tackle, then replaced by an empty one. A metal frame with ladder and a suspended bag takes the flow of fleeces while this is happening. Jacob or Kyle have been doing (or helping with) this job since they were about 5 or 6 years old. Meanwhile, Dianne prepares breakfast, lunch and dinner at her place and hauls hot water, coffee, tea, and snacks to the barn for mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks.

These are the ‘Bare-Naked Ladies – a variation on the theme – after shearing. Don and Ian keep the flock fed as well as moving unshorn sheep up the ramp into the holding pens on the second floor of the barn. They also moved the shorn sheep down the road to the shelter of our new barn. The action starts each day about 6:30 am. On the final night the men finished at 8:15 pm. Today, as forecast, there is rain and wind, mixed with snow – just an additional challenge. We do the best we can, providing barn shelter and wind-protected fields, and all the food they want.

Post shearing food and relaxation

Post shearing food and relaxation

____

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.

Morning Feeding on the Sheep Farm

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.

Enjoying the hay

Enjoying the hay

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.

Yearning toward the 'snacker', delivering grain

Yearning toward the ‘snacker’, delivering grain

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.

Military line ups... or grain on the ground.

Military line ups… or grain on the ground.

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.
___________________________

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.

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.

Time to Recycle Old Farm Equipment

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.)

Chris, deciding where to cut

Chris, deciding where to cut

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.

The trimmed down machine just barely fits

The trimmed down machine just barely fits

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).

tight squeeze

tight squeeze

Kyle is lifting the baler with the forks, to flip it upside down into the bin.

Kyle is lifting the baler with the forks, to flip it upside down into the bin.

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.

Lots more room for smaller, metal items destined for recycling.

Lots more room for smaller, metal items destined for recycling.

Lots more room for smaller, metal items destined for recycling.

Keeping Warm with Wood Heat

Our two-and-a-half story “Frame House” at Topsy Farms is heated primarily by a wood furnace in the basement.

"Super Skid" on the tractor, carrying a load - note the muddy tires. It is easy to get stuck before the ground freezes.

“Super Skid” on the tractor, carrying a load – note the muddy tires. It is easy to get stuck before the ground freezes.

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.

Kyle in the wood shed, handing a manageable log to Mike, younger grandson, who helps fill the wheelbarrow destined for the basement.

Kyle in the wood shed, handing a manageable log to Mike, younger grandson, who helps fill the wheelbarrow destined for the basement.

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.

Christmas tree outing – Topsy Farms style

 

Red cedar will make fence posts, with the top a scruffy Christmas tree

Red cedar will make fence posts, with the top a scruffy Christmas tree

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.

pleased grandsons

pleased grandsons

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

Serious Play Time – Breeding

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

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

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

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

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

Two Border Cheviots, gathering their strength, waiting.

Two Border Cheviots, gathering their strength, waiting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recording or Keeping track of who’s who

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

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

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

Times change.

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

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

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

No more card files, keeping lamb records.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We enjoyed our visit to your delightful little store to buy woollen hats and gloves…

We enjoyed our visit to your delightful little store to buy woollen hats and gloves...

                   Woollen hats and gloves

 

“Jennifer and I so enjoyed our visit to your delightful little store to buy woollen hats and gloves, and choosing wool from amongst the glorious colours to do our own knitting. And we were so lucky to see the sheep being herded! Topsy Farms is a unique gem of a place and you are such a gracious host! A day to remember and treasure.”

– Audrey Hadfield, November, 2011

Going for a walk

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.)

Weaned lambs grazing in the Wintering Grounds. © Don Tubb 2011

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.

Caretakers of our land

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.

100_0658

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.

100_1743

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

100_0761

 

Gardening

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.

Herding the Sheep Flock

About 1300 ewes and lambs, starting out on the road.

Sheep keep eating pasture; shepherds must keep it available for them. For us, it has been a great growing season. (We know a sheep farmer east of here who hasn’t had measurable rain in over two months who has to start selling some of the flock.)

We own land, and we lease a great deal more land, much of which we’ve fenced; all of which we’ve improved. We want a field to be thoroughly grazed, so not just the favorite grasses and legumes are taken, leaving less favorite plants to reseed, but we don’t want them hungry.

We have to move our flock regularly.

Not all the leased fields are adjacent. Thus, sheep drives, as the fields are often only accessible via the roads.

We used to use an army of kids and adults on bicycles and on foot, asking our neighbours to keep dogs in and to stand at their laneway or flowerbeds to help us protect their space, reinforcing the temporary fencing we erect then tear down. Often we’re the best entertainment in town, and folks will pile out in their jammies, holding coffee and cell phones to take videos of the action. Now we are able to afford ATVs, (which handle ditches and fields rather better than did bicycles) but still we need the people.

Our goal is to maintain a flock of healthy happy sheep, living outdoors year round. This produces great lamb and also quality wool which we sell on-line and at the Wool Shed.

We avoid the heat of the day to lessen stress on the sheep. We time our planned departure according to the ferry schedule, not wanting to delay a neighbour’s rush to the boat. We send the ATVs around the back of the field, to try to gently move the flock towards the exit gate, hopefully keeping ewes and lambs together. (The lamb’s instinct is to circle back to where they last saw mama, and they are difficult to herd, alone.)

One drive recently, of about 1300, got half the flock out on the road, 2 ATVs went ahead, and the other two shepherds couldn’t get the rest of the group out of the trees. After several futile attempts, we closed the gate, took the first group a km up the road, then went back for the second bunch. The neighbours and visiting artists from the Lodge loved it; sheep and farmers were glad that move was done.

Some mavericks found an escape route, but are returning to the road

After weaning we moved the entire flock of lambs across about 5 fields to the safety of the Predator Resistant Fence. They don’t herd, they whirlpool. It took an hour and a half and much patience, but the job got done. Everyone is eating, safe and content.

All safely in the new field, watched by our crew of volunteer helpers.

“Thank you for the gift of the Eucalan. You know we will take good care of the sheepskin, the lambskin and wool blanket.”

Thank you for the gift of the Eucalan. You know we will take good care of the sheepskin, the lambskin and wool blanket.

Dark lambskin on white sheepskin

“We were blown away that … you opened up The Wool Shed for us tardy Torontonians, showing up 2 hours after closing. We truly enjoyed … learning more about my favourite “miracle fabric of nature”.

Thank you for the gift of the Eucalan. You know we will take good care of the sheepskin, the lambskin and wool blanket (my favourite type of blanket)… very classic style.
Thanks also for the peas, we ate them on the ferry. They were sweet and they did tide us over till we got to Kingston.
Thank you for the story of the new lambs of spring.”
– Mike, July, 2011

Guardian Dogs at Topsy Farms

We need our guardian dogs at Topsy.  There’s a bumper sticker that says ‘Eat Canadian Lamb: 10,000 coyotes can’t be wrong.” Some seasons it feels as though most of those coyotes have found their way, over the winter ice to Amherst Island. We have three significantly large sheep farms here, and lamb is a favorite food.

When sheep are not stressed and fearful, they are far more healthy and calm. This results in the production of quality lamb and wool for our products, offered on-line and at the farm’s Wool Shed.

We have a variety of methods to try to counteract predation.

Our guardian dogs help keep coyote predation losses down.

We tried donkeys some years ago. We gather they are useful for very small flocks that don’t move often. For us, Golda (named after G. Meir) was harder to herd than the entire flock and a huge hassle when she needed her hooves trimmed.

After trying one very large Komondor dog, Bear, we decided that the long dredlocks were just not suitable for fields with burrs and brambles. Until his old age, he wanted to be a lap dog – not always convenient during picnics. He smelled in his old age.

We’ve tried Akbash and Maremma breeds, liking their general attitude of defensiveness, rather than aggression. There’s lots of variation within each breed of course – lots of individuality. We’re now moving mainly to Akbash, as their coats are shorter, and have less knots and burrs. They live with the sheep year ’round, being fed and patted once a day.

At the moment we have 10 Guardian dogs:

Lucy was given to us, as she was rough on cats in the suburban area where she was first raised. She’s an older dog, somewhat skittish and matronly. She chums with…

Pollux. According to Christopher our shepherd, he’s a ‘portly old gent’. He’s stable and enjoys Lucy’s company.

Marcus is a lovely big, handsome, affectionate dog. We’ll have to watch his food intake as he’ll have a tendency to get too large.

Marcus and Michael

Nichola spends time with Marcus – her brother. She’s much more skittish. We bought both from another sheep farmer. She raised one litter which included Mr. Purple. Don has seen her jump the perimeter fence (over 5 feet).

Leo is an older, quietly affectionate dog – Chris considers him our most useful dog.

Blackie is a much younger dog, bred here on our farm. He’s already reliable at not yet 2 years old, spending lots of time with Leo.

Trixie birthed 2 litters for us, before we decided she should be spayed. She’s the mother of Blackie and Tweedledum.

Tweedledum is a promising young dog who has been slowed somewhat an unfortunate injury last year, breaking a back leg badly, when jumping a fence. The vet bills were impressive.

Jack is Trixie’s brother. He is now top dog. Despite his size, it took quite q while to assume that roll from Marcus.

Mr. Purple is our youngest pup-in-training. He used to sneak bites of food from the older dogs who tolerated it until just recently, when they gave him a sound lesson in manners.

Young pups are patted regularly, though we are cautious to ensure they are more attached to sheep than people. They spend time first with rams who teach them basic manners. Each dog in the field is patted daily when fed, though most are somewhat shy. Their greatest dread is the annual trip to the vet clinic. They are also somewhat uneasy when we move the flock to different pastures. Their ‘backyard’ is now the 250 fenced acres of the home farm.

Our guardian dogs are important workers on Topsy Farms, doing their best to help protect our flock from the coyote predators.

Queens Farmers Market

Ian took a van load of our products to the Queens Farmers Market at Queen’s University in Kingston. This once-a-month market was requested by some students last fall and has been pretty successful. We were invited to set up a booth for the January event and did ok. The 2 things Ian learned in January were: make sure people know that we can take Mastercard and VISA; and there quite a few young people knitting. So this time Ian put up the charge card signage and brought lots of yarn. Sold 42 skeins of yarn and made 3 credit card sales. All the natural – white, brown, light grey and dark grey – were bought. Three young women, representing a group called “No Sweat” as in no more sweat shops, bought the last of the natural yarn. They intend to learn some knitting skills for empathic reasons, I think. It was nice change from sitting on a tractor and rolling out hay. Don got to do all the chores so he had a busy morning.

Contact Us Today:
Email: info@topsyfarms.com

Local: (613)389-3444
Toll Free: 888-287-3157

14775 Front Road, Stella, ON K0H 2S0

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