fresh frozen Canadian lamb

Lamb Shanks or Necks Make Great Soup

Buying a half lamb for the first time, with lamb shanks or necks included, can be a challenge to those who usually cook only chops or roasts. (Shanks are the upper part of front legs.)

Lamb Shanks or Necks make Great Soup

lamb cuts poster

One of our lamb customers presented us with this fine recipe, great for winter comfort.

“DOCTOR DOUG’S “CANADIAN” SCOTCH BROTH using lamb shanks or necks

2 meaty lamb shanks or necks
8 to 10 whole cardamon seeds
1 tbsp summer savoury
About 10 litres of cold water
2 medium Vidalia onions, diced
1 medium red onion, diced
About 4 cups of cubed potatoes
6 to 8 cups cubed carrots
6 stalks celery, diced
2 cups pearled barley
Your own broth or 950 ml Campbell’s Beef Broth
¼ tsp celery salt
2 tsp seasoning salt
Fresh ground pepper

In a large covered stock pot, place the first four ingredients and bring to a good simmer for about three hours. You want the broth to be as rich as possible, and you want the meat to fall off the bones.

Remove all of the solids from the broth using a skimmer, strainer, whatever, and put these on a raised cookie sheet or roasting pan, etc to cool.

Sample the great-tasting broth.

Add more water if you wish at this point. I do. Add the remaining ingredients to the broth, bring to a boil (stirring frequently), then back to a simmer, covered, for at least half an hour. In the meantime, remove the meat from the bones, cut it into small pieces about 1 cm cubed or so, and discard the bones and cardamon seeds. Add the meat back into the pot and let the whole soup simmer for another twenty to thirty minutes. The barley can stick to the pot, especially if your stock pot does not have a good thick bottom, so be mindful to stir the pot frequently after adding the barley.

Correct the seasonings (chances are you will need more salt) and serve.Lamb Shanks or Necks make Great Soup

Notes to Chef: all measurements HIGHLY approximate. If you spell cardamon with an M at the end please feel free to use that alternate spelling. And if you like turnip, which I consider a disgusting excuse for a vegetable, by all means throw some in and ruin your pot of soup. The traditional recipe does call for turnip, but what do those folks know!!! Enjoy!”

Lamb Shanks or Necks make Great Soups

Delivering Lamb to Toronto in crammed Freezer Truck

Buy pasture-raised meat year round.  Topsy offers fresh frozen lamb by order from November through early March, providing delivery options once a year to Ottawa and Toronto, and to Guelph. Customers order yearling for late June (grass-fed, about 1 1/4 years old, so no longer lamb). Mutton can be ordered at certain times of the year; young for home eating, or older for nutritious food for dogs. Hallal requests are welcomed.

Subscribe to Interest in Lamb Meat on any page of our website for direct mailing information, seasonally.

Creating Yummy Lamb

 

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.

Rams, building their strength

  Rams, building their strength

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. 

Ewes are waiting

Ewes are waiting

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.

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.
___________

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.

 

 

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.”

Our 40 Year History

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.

In front of barn, August, 1972: David, Dylan (on Dick's shoulder), Dick, Joanna, Alice, Marilyn, Randi in front of Ian and Ross. Photo by Bill

In front of barn, August, 1972: David, Dylan (on Dick’s shoulder), Dick, Joanna, Alice, Marilyn, Randi in front of Ian and Ross. Photo by Bill

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.

In the snow, February, 1973: Joanna, Dick, Dylan (upside down) Judy with Shannon, Ian, Kitsy, Bill, Alice and Alan. In front is Randi with Leah, and David. Photo by Patrick

In the snow, February, 1973: Joanna, Dick, Dylan (upside down) Judy with Shannon, Ian, Kitsy, Bill, Alice and Alan. In front is Randi with Leah, and David. Photo by Patrick

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.

Moving through the woods to wintering grounds photo by Don Tubb

Moving through the woods to wintering grounds
photo by Don Tubb

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.

Local Food Plus

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.

Hormones

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.

Loading the hay wagons, one bale at a time

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.

Gathering 2 bales

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.

preparing to load a bale

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.

In positionWagons almost loaded

 

 

 


When Things Don’t Work

When the farm was first started in the early 70′s, the members had very little money and no credit.

We had to learn to make do.

We developed the skills needed to repair, patch our patches – both figuratively and literally – and that was a useful pattern to establish. We are still in that mode of thinking (although now allowing ourselves more than an inch of water in a bathtub and a few other ‘luxuries’).

When things don’t work, we really aren’t surprised.

We don’t take systems for granted.

We build in redundancy, so that when one tractor breaks down (one spectacularly broke an axle last week, sending Jacob leaping for safety) we have another that can make do.

We have also developed a range of ‘fixit’ skills, that aren’t pretty but generally work. Christopher has become a skilled vet substitute, and an able mechanic; Ian calls himself a ‘chain saw carpenter’; Don keeps systems for house and farm working, and is an able carpenter. Sally is good at darning and patching; Dianne is a great organizer, and sets limits to our ‘someday it’ll come in handy’ extremes. Jacob has started as an apprentice officially this spring, during our urgent time of year. He brings a fresh perspective, and the wide range of skills he has developed working for his own company (called Turvy, natch). Kyle works hard and fast, and fills in where needed, with fencing, barn work, and other chores. The most important skill for all is an attitude that says ‘well there’s a problem here; probably I can figure out how to fix it.’

The propane hot water tank in the Frame House (where Ian, Don, Kyle and Sally live) stopped working last week – the day before the hydro went out for about 30 hours. We scrambled with generators, having previously set up a wiring system that can minimally keep the freezers cold and water pumped to the flock. Our generator was working poorly, so we were able to take it to the Island mechanic and borrow two generators to provide the temporary power we needed. Pails of water from the lake flushed toilets. Sally’s feeding machine worked by battery the first night, and a neighbour whose hydro still functioned made his power available to recharge the battery.

That Island cooperation is deeply valued and something we nurture and to which we contribute.

The hot water was out for 10 days – a new thermostat had to be ordered – so we were temporarily back to the one inch baths, hauling the hot. But no one got very upset by the snafus, because we don’t assume an entitlement to services. Ian spent his first 5 years on a farm in P.E.I. with no running water, phone or hydro, and learned from his dad the pleasure of systems that work – when they work.

We were fortunate that the sheep didn’t notice the power was out in the electric fences (we kept good pasture in front of them so they weren’t testing their limits.) Neither did the coyotes. We have rechargeable batteries for some of our fences, but not nearly enough for the miles (sorry, kilometers) we use.

We put all our energies towards maintaining a healthy flock of sheep, producing great lamb and wool. (Products available on-line and at the Wool Shed.)

And we are back to clean clothes and deep baths. (Photo of that censored.)

Today I’m a mechanic, yesterday a vet.
The storm is coming closer, 60% chance of getting wet.
Tomorrow it’s construction, repairing that old barn.
Every day is something different, when you wake up on a farm.

Jacob Murray

THE OLD LOADER AS EXAMPLE

About 1973, the farm acquired two Allis-Chalmers WD45 tractors, a ’53 and a ’52. One was bought from Islander Edwin MacDonald (Garnet’s father. Garnet died recently in his 80′s). The other, with a broken motor, was purchased from an acquaintance, Lloyd Claire, new to the Island. We bought another engine from a wrecker and ran it for awhile, but eventually combined the two, switching the first engine into the second because it had a loader.

The front end was scrounged from an Allis-Chalmers D17, and George Gavlas (Island mechanic) and Christopher put that on because it had power steering not “armstrong steering”. (George says now he’d never tackle such a tricky job again. Its still working.)

The roll bar Chris made from scrounged metal. Noel McCormick welded it for him.

The external hydraulics and the 3 point hitch and adaptor came new from Princess Auto.

The fenders came from two old stone boats, cut and bolted on, to replace the rusted originals.

The old loader continues as an important part of our ‘fleet.

Wrapping Bailage Bales

Bailage is hay cut earlier in the season, when conditions are still too wet to dry the cut for hay.  It allows the farmers to get out on the land when they are chomping at the bit to get started, but forecasts are not yet for sufficient hot, dry weather.

But because of the moisture, it is vulnerable to rot.  The bales once made are immediately transported to Christopher, who is demonstrating below the technique for wrapping bailage bales.

Bailage bales must stay clean and anaerobic, allowing fermentation.

The sheep consider it a huge treat in the fall and winter, and it saves us needing to purchase grain. Thus we continue to produce excellent lamb for private sale, and quality wool products, through our on-line store, and our at home outlet, the Wool Shed.

photos by Jacob

 

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.

Wrapping up Haying

Ian has been wrapping up haying, working to bring home the bales from all the far-flung fields that we rent, while Don and Chris have been working hard on sheep handling (checking feet, separating those that need any treatment, vaccinating, keeping a daily eye on all flocks, watching the pasture they are in and having a checkerboard plan of the next move to greener eating, keeping water available at all times etc.)

Ian can move 29 bales at a time, stacked two wide and two high on two wagons.

On a very rare day when nothing is pushing him for finances, house, me, The Wool Shed, laundry etc, he can manage 3 loads. With over 1400 bales out there, that’s a LOT of hauling to get the haying finished.

Yesterday, Chris was able to join him for part of the day (his wagon holds 23) and plans to again today, while Don does the dirty job of cleaning out one of our huge grain bins, to ensure that it contains only the fresh grain mixed appropriately for our lambs. At first they don’t like the grain much and have some difficulty digesting it. We purposely give them oats, their least favorite so they just nibble, and gradually adjust their digestive systems. In another month, we’ll be changing the ‘mix’ of the grains they receive but cautiously as there is such a thing as ‘grain overload’ which will make them very ill. It doesn’t seem possible with Canadian conditions to ‘finish’ a pasture-born lamb without some additional nutrition as the pasture fades. This year we will be adding our ‘baleage’ to the mix for the first time, so we’ll have a learning curve there too. We are hoping it is easier for their digestion, and also that our costs will be less (eventually).

We aim to produce top quality lamb as well as wool products on-line and at our farm’s Wool Shed. Keeping all animals healthy and calm is the best approach.

I helped with my first big sheep drive in ages.

We were taking the lambs from the corner called Emerald, where the Front Rd turns to gravel and there’s a turnoff, south. They were in McCrimmon’s pasture there, but had run out of grass. We took them south to the first corner at the Second Concession then turned them east quite a long way to get to the ‘Beehive Field’ about 4.5 kms. We had our 3 men on ATV’s and a neighbour on his; Carl joined us on his bike, and I was in my car. One severe danger is the blind hill that approaches that intersection. I parked my car with flashers on at the verge near the top, then stood in the middle of the road where a driver would see my head first – also where I could help turn the sheep at right angles along the Second.

It all went smoothly. We started at 6:30 – not wanting to move them in the heat of the day – as a solid red ball of rising sun was trying to cut through the mist. Everything was dew wet and shimmery. The small hills and curves of land around the homes were so lovely. The sheep were eager for fresh grass, and kept trying to cut through someone’s lawn or open laneway or sagging fencing to grab mouthfuls. (Before the ATVs we used to have an army of kids on lousy bikes.) It was a deep pleasure to be a part of it all again; by driving in the back, I freed Christopher to take off on the ATV, skirting the herd, chasing in the most adventurous. I stopped off at Shirley and Keith Miller’s for a brief visit.

Meanwhile, Ian’s meat chickens have been suffering badly between a very clever raccoon and the heat. Some years we’ve actually processed more chickens than the 225 three week old chicks we’d purchased (they count generously.) It won’t happen this year. They’ll go to the butcher this Friday and next. Meanwhile, I’ve been contacting our list of customers, as we try to sell as many of the first load of 150 as we can, to make freezer room for the rest. Somehow, Ian’ll have to find time to defrost all 3 freezers in the next few days…

The Wool Shed had a really good month in August, despite our only going to the Sheep Dog Trials – not a weekly Farmer’s Market. Just didn’t have the people power. I get bothered some times, when folks show up during my 2 hours off in the morning or the brief lovely evening time I’m not hooked up. On the other hand, we’ll miss their income next month. Ian will start the Queen’s Farmer’s Market in Sept sometime.

Christopher is on a government advisory committee – I think this is his 6th minister of Agriculture, and is very active in the provincial sheep marketing agency (OSMA). He’ll be off to England again in Sept to visit his mom. Don’s off next week to see his folks on their anniversary, but only for 3 days.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to set up our big private lamb marketing organization. We’ve over 300 names on our list now, that I contact annually, most of whom I talk to 3 or 4 times each. All potential new customers take a long time to advise, so they can get what is most appropriate for them. It keeps me occupied as my beloved garden winds down.

Right now its utterly lovely. We’ve bees and hummingbirds and butterflies abounding, as well as scads of flowers and lots and lots of veg. I’ve done a deal with the newly reopened Café in the village. They get weekly bouquets and tomatoes, and my kids get a credit to spend at the café. And I get to feel a part of it all.

I wish you all could be here. I’ve just gotten a good start on a garden veg soup – potato, onion, scarlet runner beans, broccoli, zuc, tomatoes, basil, oregano carrots, kale – all of which I picked this am. I’ll add in the lamb stew Ian made a couple of days ago with garlic, wild mushroom and a bit of other frig stuff, and it should be good. Smells it.

Sally

Foster Lambs Story Continued

One of the rather glorious aspects of being the caregiver for foster lambs, is that it requires me to sit quietly outside, morning and evening and just take in the world. (The daytime feedings are often more hectic with lots of visitors or events on the go.)

At six in the morning, during this stretch of high pressure calm weather, the birds are trying to outdo each other with the mating calls and rituals. We have at least two nesting orioles and two nesting house wrens, and their music alone is spectacular. Yesterday, a loon calling in the lake nearby brought me quietly down to watch 3 young loons, diving and skittering on the surface, and already showing an impressive capacity for underwater time and distance. Then a big water disturbance in the cove proved to be very large carp, mating.

The foster lambing experience this year has been quite different.

The warm calm days are magnificent for tiny wet lamb survival – although it is creating nightmares for the farmers who are increasingly concerned about pastures and hay production.

So, we’ve so far had way fewer fosters than in any previous year I can remember. (One rather over prolific year, with triplets the norm and quads and even surviving quints not unknown, I had 162 foster lambs to raise.) So far, I’ve handled 5 lambs, of whom three found adoptive ewe mamas. That of course is the ideal. If the lamb isn’t raised by a sheep, it doesn’t know the flock behaviours, and just won’t thrive if returned to the flock.

The lambs raised for meat must be top quality, so they will have been raised by their mamas, not by me.

Our policy has always been to find potential homes for them first, then set that limit to the number we could raise. (In the foster lambalanche year, we had a goat farmer who weaned her kids just in time to pick up our lambs to be raised by the goats. That worked beautifully.) This year, we have had requests for 14 lambs, and it doesn’t look as though I’ll be able to meet that number. That of course, is good news for our flock – that most are being raised by the ewes.

There is such a variation in the skills shown by each lamb.

It has to adjust to the foreignness of rubber nipple, powdered milk (designed for their digestion), and being held. (It would be better for the lamb to learn to eat standing on its own feet, but my back can’t cope with that.) I try to move gently and speak softly around the little guys, warm the ‘milk’ just so, and snuggle them up. I hold them comfortably under my left arm, with my left hand supporting the chin and if necessary opening his mouth (just by sliding my finger in the corner of his mouth a bit). My right hand guides the nipple in, and supports the chin, so the milk flow is all lined up. For some, that first warm taste of food is enough – they are sucking eagerly, if inefficiently. (I had to change a nipple for a much smaller opening for one scrawny little guy, who was trying to drown or choke, he was so eager.) In other cases, I have to gently squeeze the nose to push in a few drops, stroke the throat, tickle rub the back of his back (the area a nursing ewe can reach.) One female took an hour to consume less than 2 oz. Occasionally, the ewes can detect that there is just some developmental problem in the one of the three they reject, and we are slower to discover that difficulty.

The ewe and twins who are living in the front yard are pleasant company for the fosters, who live in a smaller cage (so I don’t have to chase them) inside the much larger penned yard area. The ewe will emit her soft nicker when I first bring them outside in the morning, will check them out, but knows they aren’t her responsibility. Her twins were almost certainly sired by two rams. One is very Suffolk-y – with lovely patch brown/black markings all over. The other, almost for sure, is Canadian Arcott. (That name is derived from Agricultural Research Centre, Ottawa). The former tend to be calm steady mothers; both have excellent meat conformation. Anyway, they are feeling full of the joys of spring; in the morning and evening especially, they cavort, boinging straight up, all 4 legs stiff, leaping and tumbling occasionally and just expressing the joy of being alive.

Nous vous invitons à communiquer avec nous en français à info@topsyfarms.com, ou par téléphone: 1-888-287-3157. Demandez à parler à Sally.