Ontario sheep farm
“I believe that any animal product I use must come from an animal that is treated with respect and honor and your farm is exemplary! “
“I believe that any animal product I use must come from an animal that is treated with respect and honor and your farm is exemplary! Your communication is personal I feel like I am talking to my neighbor just down a province or two. Your farm is truly a Canadian gem!
Cheers look forward to receiving the products of your passion and would love to help out with a review.”
– Barb, Alberta, April, 2015
I was asked what I’d do if I won the lottery. The answer came readily – I would find life’s balance by continuing to live and work at Topsy Farms.
I can’t imagine living anywhere else. The land, animals, and very air are as much a part of me as my skin and fingernails.
Driving our ATV every morning through the woods doing chores is the best part of my day.
There is utter peace and stillness inside and out. You can’t put a price on that. This small Ontario sheep farm life doesn’t fit into any neat box that any career counselor could understand. I get bored too easily by static routine; I wasn’t designed to sit in an office. Here, every day there is something different:
Today I’m a mechanic, yesterday a vet
The storm is getting closer, 60% chance of getting wet
Tomorrow its construction; repairing the old barn
Everyday is a little different, when you wake up on a farm
I saw a Dodge commercial the other day that featured a Paul Harvey monologue. I dare you to watch that and not want to work the land – it’s a powerful piece.
We are surrounded by the things we fixed the day before. That’s a potent thing, a reason farmers keep getting up and digging out of snowstorms or rebuilding machines that others have discarded.
As my farm apprenticeship continues, I get more independent, picking my own tasks and timing, which increases my ability to lose myself in a job.
There have been no hassles with the generation relations, probably a tribute to them. I feel I am respected as a man now; and for skills learned elsewhere. The older farmers are surprised and amused when I know how to do something they didn’t expect.
However, ultimately I struggle with idea of struggling – a small independent sheep farm will never make a decent return on labour. It makes me wonder, can a small farm be profitable?
Can I find life’s balance on a farm?
Some folks may continue a mindless struggle all the time, working 10 -12 hrs/day and never getting ahead financially. I need to seek a way to balance living and work; to find a better business model that isn’t just dependent on numbers of sheep or blankets sold. I want the mental freedom, life’s balance, of occasionally playing golf or going to a concert. I need not to feel that a dollar spent on myself is a dollar less for the animals.
It’s such a huge commitment. I won’t consider taking on the farm without my brother’s involvement and at the moment the farm can’t afford to pay us both. The decision to become a farmer feels sort of like joining a monastery: giving up most of my worldly possessions for the betterment of mankind. Lots of days I don’t feel that generous.
And yet, I want to raise my boys the way I was raised. There is zen in this as we improve the land and the buildings and the animals and machinery – they improve us.
Jacob Murray is the son of Topsy Farms’ owner, Ian Murray, and was raised on this independent sheep farm on Amherst Island, considered local to Napanee and Kingston, Ontario. Topsy Farms produces beautiful wool products including sheepskins, pure wool blankets, sheepskin mittens, cotton-encased wool bedding, and some of the finest local lamb in Ontario. Natural farming methods without pesticides, growth hormones, chemicals, or animal by-products, produce animals of the highest quality. The lambs, finished with grain, are available for private sale from early November through February.
Most of our 41 summers farming on Amherst Island have been dry. The summers of 2008-2011 were a pleasant exception – no Islanders could remember 3 green summers in a row and 4 in a row still seem miraculous.
For us, the driest summer was in 1988. We had to buy some poor quality hay and quite a bit of grain to get the sheep flock through to the next spring.
It was a near squeak that year to pay the bills.
Once again this year we have had a tough spring/early summer with high temperatures and very little moisture. The August rains enjoyed by some have managed to miss us almost entirely. But we are in quite a bit better position than we were in 1988.
Our equipment isn’t quite so ancient and is less prone to breaking down when urgently needed. Hay can be made more quickly. We now have the equipment and experience to make baleage early in the Ontario growing season which enables us to harvest good quality forage while encouraging re-growth for pasture, and at least slightly reduce our dependence on increasingly expensive grain. The sheep are rotated from pasture to pasture. We try always to trim the completed pastures to remove plants that the sheep didn’t eat. (We don’t want the least favourite to reseed, coming to dominate the pasture.)
Christopher, wrapping a baleage bale.
High soil quality helps the farm through drought.
We roll the hay out in the fall and winter, spreading it on the ground. That is the most efficient way for all sheep to have equal access to the fresh hay. It also leaves tiny hay fragments which, combined with the sheep droppings, increase the organic matter in the soil. We have less manure to spread as we now use the barns less, but still stockpile the barnyard gleanings and spread on the fields when we can. This increases the ’tilth’ of the earth, draws earthworms (which add their own castings) and other small organisms, which helps hold moisture if we do get any rain. The first year we unrolled hay on poor pasture, we could clearly see the green stripes in the ground, where the more lush grasses were growing thanks to the increased organic matter.
Don unrolling hay to newly shorn sheep, early spring
Last year was a good year – we harvested as much hay as possible and were able to build up a surplus – called ‘drought hay’ – which we are already feeding during the weaning process (5 large round bales/day plus supplement). Last year we made over 1700 round bales and didn’t start feeding until November; this year, we were able to make just over 1100 bales, and have had to start feeding during the summer. That is a big difference.
Ian loading bales onto wagons for transport
Consequently, culling animals that are not productive for the farm is a much higher priority this year. A first year ewe-lamb who didn’t get pregnant is unfortunately sent to market. Older ewes unable to raise lambs once more would normally be culled in the fall, but this year, they are going in the summer. We just can’t feed them.
Tough decisions. We need to enhance the core of our flock, feeding them well, rather than giving everyone skimpy rations.
So, now our soil is improved. Our techniques are improved. Equipment is in better shape. We just need to perfect our rain dance techniques.
The quality of food the sheep receive is reflected in the quality of the lamb we produce.
The sheep on Topsy Farm seem to think the quality is excellent. Our partner, Don does most of the morning chores (and takes all of the great photos). Here are his pictures of morning chores in seasons when the grass does not grow.
He gives them 4 large round bales of hay first thing in the morning and then Christopher comes up and gives them some grain. So at first you can see the sheep content with their feed of hay..
..that is until Chris shows up when the flock does what flocks do best, and flock toward the ATV.
This escalates to a general swarming of 800+ ewes encasing it – loudly demanding their ration.
The end result is a long line of ewes feeding pretty noisily on their grain – no more calling… just molars crunching corn and soya beans.
The 5 dogs in the field have learned (the hard way) to keep well clear of the flock during this operation or they will be mercilessly trampled. At any other time, the dogs hold pre-eminence… dog wants to drink, the ewes gives it room… the dog wants to lie on this hay, the ewes eat somewhere else. Not so with grain.
Readers, you will have to come to visit to get the audio.
Don Tubb does all the layout for the Amherst Island Beacon, a monthly newsletter published by our extended family for over 30 years. Ian and I were away when Don was working to deadline so this is when he wrote the above text.
All photos © Don Tubb 2012.
Topsy Farms produces beautiful washable wool products including sheepskins, six point wool blankets, wool for knitting and felting, and some of the finest local lamb in Ontario.
What I love about your Ontario sheep farm operation is the wonderful interaction between all of the family, especially children…”
“What I love about your Ontario sheep farm operation… is the wonderful interaction between all of the family, especially in that it includes the children from such early ages. They will grow up with these wonderful instincts of knowing exactly what to do in each situation … Call it “common sense.” Talk about a “family farm”––… it definitely is priceless.”
In the spring of 2009, Sherri (an avid knitter) came to see us just after the lambs were born and took some photos of her visit. Her Topsy Farms flickr album can be found here.
Our pure wool yarn is soap-washed only to retain lanolin and to avoid chemicals. It is available at the Wool Shed, our at home store, or on-line. We also have fleeces, roving both natural and coloured, cheeses of pencil roving and knitted wool items for sale. Come visit, on line or in person, and take a look.
When Jacob was three years old, I took him out in my lovely canoe along the shore of Lake Ontario. He wore his life jacket and his hat, and was eager and interested and already showing his great knack for balance. We went out a few times that summer, and he gained a sense of how to hold the paddle and the basic idea of paddling. The next summer, we’d barely launched when he pointed out with excitement that a huge hunk of the rock wall nearby had fallen over the winter. I carry lovely images of my son when he was older, out alone at sunset, peaceful with his fishing rod.
When Kyle was three, he had his first experience in the canoe too, following tradition. Also a natural athlete, his balance was easy, and both boys learned quickly to alternate sides, watching for fish or interesting lake bottom items. We tried fishing from the canoe that year and the next few – not entirely a success, as one or the other line constantly needed untangling. When Jacob hooked a big one, I insisted he was on bottom (wrong) and then we were all periously leaning over the same side. He landed the fish safely and I learned another humble lesson.
When our dog, Lucky turned three, she’d calmed down enough to learn her canoe lessons too. She loved it, learned quickly to recognize the word (as distinct from bike, walk, car etc) but would insist on riding awhile, then running the shoreline for awhile, then riding again.
Canoe lessons, age 3, tradition maintained.
When grandson Nathan turned three, I wasn’t in as good condition. However, it was important to me to do something special, just the two of us, and to maintain the tradition, so with help from my grown sons to launch, out we went. The Murray genes made it easy for him and he was intrigued by the strokes and the steering. The summer Nathan was four, Kyle’s pontoon boat was in the water, and he and I paddled out a couple of times, with my comfy chair as baggage, and had a picnic in the evening on the boat. The next summer he was allowed out on the end of a very long rope by himself, paddling and puttering and experimenting.
Now this summer, Nathan’s brother Mike has had his first time in the canoe, again when he was thrrrrreeee. (He has practised that lately.) He was not at all eager, but he wanted to do whatever Nathan and Nana were doing, and we were heading out. So, cautiously he joined us at my feet, sitting on a life jacket on the floor, wearing his own, while Nathan did most of the paddling. Nathan was generously willing to trade his seat in the bow – they passed each other like dancers, so easily balanced. Mike reveled in his position up front, and declared himself quite eager for another outing.
All four boys, and our dog, celebrating new freedoms, age three.
Farmers need flexibility. They plan constantly, but a tree limb down on a fence, an unpredicted brief rain, a tractor breakdown, An Emergency First Response call for Jacob, will put crimps in what appeared to be a clear plan for a day.
Take a recent day for example; Friday July 8th. The 3 full time workers at Topsy, Ian Chris and Don, meet every morning at 7 for about half an hour to pool ideas and discuss priorities for the day. They are now trying to make the best use of the remaining pasture within the Predator Control Fence, as the useful rains appear to have stopped for a time, and the pasture is no longer growing. We hope to keep the lambs protected inside the enclosure, which might mean an earlier than usual weaning, to move the ewes on to other summer pasture. Or not. Another factor is the need to intensively graze a field before it is left to regenerate. Otherwise, the sheep eat the favorite plants first, leaving the least favorite to reseed and take over the area. The need for prolonged rain is already strongly felt.
They are also juggling where to cut hay next, how much, and when. The priority is to cut first within fenced areas that may regrow later pasture. Ian calculates another 11 hours of cutting will accomplish that step.
We don’t want too much recently cut hay ‘on the ground’ when the weather is unsettled, as it has been often, this season. (It will be spoiled if rained on.) The hay must dry to below 20% moisture content, to slow or prevent growth of mould and bacteria. They calculate about 8 hours of cutting will require about 4 ½ hours of raking (turning the drying hay over to hasten the drying process and line it up for the bailer) then between 4 to 5 hours of baling.
So on Friday, Christopher planned, after checking the flock and feeding dogs, to rotovate (like a big rototiller behind a tractor) a field for one of our landlords and plant buckwheat, as per agreement. However he discovered that one of the large back tires on the tractor he was to use was flat. Several calls to repair or replace ensued. He was also struggling with the computer on the baler. Ian urged him to get help with that – looked out, and saw one of the sheep groups trampling a fence, moving themselves elsewhere. Time out to resettle those girls. Flexibility in thinking required.
Ian and Jacob had two haybines going, cutting hard and as fast as possible, as the nutritional quality of the forage will not be improving. Jake had a breakdown, tried to diagnose but had to call his dad who was also stumped. They towed that haybine to George our barefoot Island mechanic who made the repair – a new problem that had never before arisen. Later, Jake had to stop in time for one of his other jobs, organizing the first Waterside concert of world class caliber music of the season. He got his kids from the sitter, Ian came back for an hour with them before their mom came home from work in Kingston, while Chris took over cutting. After supper, Ian returned to cut til almost 9 pm. Again.
Meanwhile, Don continued his day of battling the burdocks and other noxious weeds, postponed his planned trip to town to get machine parts until the tire needs were solved, sorted out some discord within the group of guard dogs, and stole a couple of hours to finish the layout of the Island Beacon, a monthly newsletter published from our home for over 30 years.
We are about half way though haying, with 180, twelve hundred pound baleage bales made, and 750 hay bales, each weighing about 800 lb.
On Saturday, July 16th, just after the machinery dealer closed at noon, a bearing went out on our round baler. Sunday morning we rented a tractor and baler from a neighbour and, after about 130 bales Christopher smelled smoke as he ejected a bale. He started looking for the fire extinguisher but our neighbour didn’t have one on either tractor or baler – he hadn’t transferred our hefty extinguisher onto the rented baler. He phoned 9-1-1 and headed for our fire hall which was about ½ mile away. The fire was put out easily and we now have 2 balers to repair – the parts just got here Monday morning.
On Sunday, Jacob, a member of the fire department, got a text message from another fire fighter who is also on the road crew, saying that one of our hay bales was burning. The road crew helped Jacob put water into a couple of the fire department’s grass fighting back packs and also helped him put the fire out. Chris brought the bale home later – we’ll feed out what’s left. We can only assume that the fire was caused by lightning during the thunder storm that rolled through here at dawn.
Two fire incidents in 2 days – pretty low probability. Flexibility once again called for.
The snapping turtle below was the climax moment of the Derby Girls visit. Never seen one here, before or since. We herded all people WELL away. A fascinating visitor.
Walking our roads in the past few weeks has been, well, interesting. The gravel seems to have been entirely swamped by mud, alternating with ice and ruts. It is hard to watch my feet though, as there is so much to see and hear and smell right now.
The cold weather until recently caused the ice on the lake to continue its booming, vibrating expansion. There was the occasional loud zing, as another pressure crack provided more room. Two weeks later however, the colour is changing rapidly from silver to dark grey and it no longer looks safe. The next big wind may give us liquid waterfront once again.
The Robins and Redwing Blackbirds arrived in hoards heralding spring.
The males come first, battling and complaining. They joined the squawking legions of Blue Jays and the nearly silent, diffident Mourning Doves near our feeder. The Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers (Don is convinced we have an ‘Uppy’ too) enjoy our homemade suet cakes from range-fed pork fat, as does my grandsons’ dog Diego, who comes to lick the bottom of the container on rainy days. I get chills from the wilderness sound of the geese gossiping in their V’s overhead; spring returnees.
The deer regularly come near the roadways, gleaning food.
We occasionally have grain spills on the north side of the barn, when we auger our grain mixture from various bins into the hopper on the tractor, or the ‘snacker’ pulled by the ATV. (That’s a royal ‘we’ there – Don and Chris do almost all of the grain feeding.)
Each morning Christopher reports deer, fox and rabbit tracks in the snow – now in the mud.
One morning I was about to set off for a walk, but paused, so as not to scare the 3 deer, calmly enjoying the treats of a grain spill. Soon they will disappear again, as more food become available in the woods.
As I’m writing this, a pheasant just took a stroll across our yard, then posed peacefully under our grapevine. (I tried to sneak up behind our old sauna to get a picture, but no luck.)
Drainage here in spring is a constant problem. We’ve put in a lot of labour and money, trying to deal with the fact that the gardens and barn and barnyards and our shop are downhill from the land.
The wool and sheepskin products in the Wool Shed (also available on-line) are threatened by the spring flooding.
I’m told that the culvert is frozen solid, so our careful drainage efforts have resulted in water flowing in the south door of the barn, mainly freezing solid, then trickling out the north door. Don has rigged an ingenious siphon, which has made quite a difference. Sump pumps in basements are working overtime.
The sheep and dogs are thriving this winter. We just brought the main flock of ewes back through the woods from the wintering grounds. We constantly battle hoof rot, so want them to be on higher, dryer ground. Hopefully they are all pregnant, due to birth starting the first week of May. We’ll be shearing all the sheep on the farm in the last week of April. More on that later.
The scent of warming earth stirs the yearning for the garden within me, giving the necessary boot to get me sorting last year’s seeds, putting in a new seed order, and starting the first flat of ‘plant them indoors and early’ types. Finding indoor space for them all will be the next pleasant dilemma.
Meanwhile the snowdrops are in full bloom.