Ontario sheep farming
One of our ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) – the 2004 Suzuki Eiger – has just gone over 40,075km. That is the distance around the Earth at the equator. Not bad, considering all but perhaps one kilometre was done on Amherst Island. The kilometre-age(!) is actually higher because the speedometer cable was broken for a few months. Also when the machine is in reverse, the metre runs backwards.
We currently have 4 ATVs (all Suzukis)… 2 Eigers, one smaller King Quad, and one larger something-or-other. The total distance travelled on these and our previous ATVs would total over 200,000kms. The ATVs are absolutely vital in allowing us to farm as we do. We check sheep in several fields, and feed the guardian dogs daily (and I mean daily… come rain, shine, snow, sleet, hail, ice storms… you name it). Depending on the season they may be in up to 8 fields, often distant from each other. Some winters we feed the sheep grain, towing a self-unloading grain cart with 800 lbs of corn. (We used to do that by hand from bags.)
We do sheep drives, build and maintain fences, control weeds, and haul firewood plus a lot of day-to-day activities. Even doing basic repairs around the buildings, the first tool you reach for is the ATV because the other tools are up in the shop and you’re going to forget something.
Now it’s not all sweetness and light with these machines… during our peak usage period, one or more breaks down or is thinking about it. And, repairs are not cheap! We do most of our tractor repairs, but these ATV motors are specialized. We ordered repair manuals for all, and deliver them to our Island barefoot mechanic for fixing. Most of the year, all four are in basic running order. They are fabulous machines and make virtually everything more efficient… for example: long, long ago (in the ‘good old days’), we used to do sheep drives on bicycles! ATVs are faster, can handle rougher terrain, and you’re not as likely to be wounded or winded at the end of a long drive.
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.
In the autumn, our focus includes marketing lambs.
They were weaned in the third week of August, giving their moms a much needed rest. The lambs blatted for a bit; the ewes gave one token call then bent to graze, a look of relief on their faces. As the lambs were rapidly catching up to their moms in size, and many ewes were still nursing twins, the physical demands were becoming too much.
In September, the lambs were very gradually introduced to grain, starting with the oats that they like least. That means they just nibble a bit here and there, very gradually adapting their digestive systems to grain. Since we were blessed with such gentle weather in October and November, the grazing continued abundant, there was no loss of body heat due to cold and wet, and the lambs grew beautifully. In the first week of November, all the lambs traveled to our barn and moved through the chutes, so our shepherd Christopher could assess their condition, and look for any health concerns. He feels the loins (the backbone area behind the ribs) of those who appear close to market weight, wanting to be able to feel the backbone (not too fatty) but not a great ridge of backbone (not yet ‘finished’). Then they are weighed and if appropriate, marked with paint. The lambs get very used to this routine, as they travel through the chutes weekly from November through March and appear not in the least stressed by the activity.
We’ve been challenged this fall by the fact that our ferry has been sent to Wolfe Island from Thanksgiving to the end of December, while their ferry is overhauled. That means we use the very much smaller Glenora ferry, which in turn greatly limits the size of trucking or trailer vehicles allowed on deck. Once we tried on a Sunday morning loading a larger trailer, pushing it on with a truck on the Island, unhooking, then unloading with another truck previously parked on the mainland. That was not a great success, delayed other traffic and wasn’t repeated. We make do with smaller vehicles. In the big winds of early December the ferry was tied up for much of three days (we considered the rest of the world was cut off, not us). We’ll all rejoice when our big sturdy boat returns to us before freeze-up.
We’ve had over 500 lambs this season deemed likely to grow to over 100 lbs weight. With the increasing interest in eating locally, we hope to sell most of them privately or to local butchers in the Ottawa/Kingston/Toronto area. Another hundred or so will be sent live weight to Toronto, where Topsy lamb always gets premium price.
In the second week of December, the ‘teaser ram’ was put in with the ewes. (That means a male with a vasectomy.) This makes the ewes come into heat more rapidly, tend to ovulate two or more eggs and to do so in greater sync. Next week the 19 rams will join the over 900 ewes (in carefully selected sub-groupings) and the process will be repeated.