At a farm meeting, our head shepherd Christopher asked “should we keep our ram lambs intact”? We had already started raising a small group of Suffolk rams for our own breeding use, as we had difficulty locating high-quality rams that had been pasture-raised. Barn-raised rams are not sufficiently hardy for our farm.
We’re always seeking ways to increase feed efficiency and reduce costs so the discussion raised the following points, for and against:
Keeping testicles on ensures:
• Less stress for the males not being neuteured
• Better physical growth, as testosterone results in leaner meat; more rapid growth
• Better efficiency and lower costs – it takes less time, less grain to get the animal ‘market ready’ or ‘finished’.
• Not much added labour for chores as we’ve always kept a small number of intact males in the flock. Feeding 400 is not much more difficult than feeding 20.
• Less labour during the very busy lambing season, as care must be taken for each male ringed
However, there are downsides of keeping ram lambs intact:
• Unwanted pregnancies – (it is really hard to find the males with small balls. We’ve checked the entire lamb flock about 5 times)
• Our butcher at Pig and Olive won’t take them for private sales, wanting only females and neuteured males – just his preference.
• The need for much more secure fencing – difficult in a dry fall with electric fences and abundant pasture. The dry ground reduces connectivity; the abundant pastures lure them elsewhere.
• Our concern to avoid seldom successful mid-winter births.
• Feisty stubborn teenage male behavior when trying to move the ‘boys’ to other pasture.
Ian called Brian, the ringmaster at Ontario Stockyards who has firsthand knowledge of market demand. Brian said there would be no negative effect on prices with intact males; there just might be an increased price offered during Muslim high holidays or with other special cultural interest groups.
So we are experimenting this year.
From about 1350 lambs, we’ve kept about 400 ram lambs intact.
These include all the Border Cheviots from the ewe lambs (generally smaller animals) and the half or quarter Rideau lamb rams. We’ve ringed the faster-growing Suffolk Cross males for the freezer trade, except those we might keep on the farm.
So we are in the midst of one of those challenging experiences.
“May you live in interesting times”!
“As former farmers we know how much work goes into a great piece of meat. Your lamb is tender, succulent, and flavourful. Perfect.”
– Jean and Ray, Bath, ON, November, 2014
This time of year is dominated by two activities on a sheep farm: keeping track of the readiness of each lamb to go to market, and preparing the breeding cycle to start again.
All species yearn to procreate.
Shepherds just learn to manage that urge. We want each lamb to be born in spring on greening pastures, so we have to count back to decide when the boys go in with the girls.
Animals are healthier if they live on pasture year ’round.
Ours live outdoors with the dogs year-round, but of course their food must be supplemented with hay, baleage and sometimes grain and soy beans in the late fall and winter months.
Each week or so the market lambs move through the chutes in the barn where Christopher checks whether each lamb is ‘finished’. He feels along the backbone by the loin to find the ridge not too boney(not ready yet) just perceptible (meat has filled in) but not disappeared (oops, too fatty).
Great lamb comes from healthy happy animals.
We sell yummy lamb to about 300 to private customers from Toronto to Ottawa and to local butchers. Most of our lamb-lovers come from the Kingston area, and they pick up their order of lamb at the Pig and Olive, where ‘Aussi Al’ knows how to cut. A phone call to the farm (613 389-3444/888 287-3157) can get a person all the details.
The rest of the 1000 lambs chosen for market will travel the high seas (across the ferry) by truck and will travel to The Ontario Stockyards north of Toronto where they attract the gourmet butchers and the top prices.
Meanwhile, the cycle must continue. The ewes must be on a steadily improving diet, so their systems decide it’s ok to ovulate more – ‘this is going to be a good year’. The rams (32 of them for about 1300 ewes) must be in top condition, especially their feet which get very tired during breeding. The teaser rams (those with a vasectomy) are now at the starting gate.
Since we also market our wool products, we scramble to prepare booths for pre-Christmas shows, keep track of inventory, knit more items, and try to keep our books organized.
It isn’t a dull time of the year, down on the farm.
“Just wanted to let you know how much we are enjoying the pasture-raised Ontario lamb. The sausage is to die for, and tomorrow we’re having burgers with pine nuts, herbs and blue cheese…and the dogs are LOVING the organ meat.”
– Janet, Fenlon Falls, ON, February, 2013