Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Worm Wars

A number of years ago I was at a Crop Seminar on alternate methods for weed control.  I went there thinking that I would find some alternate pest management strategies such as rotation, permaculture, green manures etc.  Instead I listened to a lecture on tank mixes of various herbicides.  

Our use and in some cases overuse and abuse of chemical herbicides has resulted in a vast number of weed species that are resistant to these chemicals.  The response has been to bring out stronger and new chemicals and now tank mixes of a mixture of chemicals to combat weedy species.  

We have a number of invasive weeds here on the farm that are resitant to any number of chemical herbicides and we don't even try to go after them with these methods.  Now we are mowing before they go to seed, using competitive exclusion etc. Since we have seldom used herbicides on this farm it is unlikely that we created the resistance on site.  The resistant species have invaded on the wind or tagging along with wildlife or tires.

So what does this have to do with worms, that is internal parasites of our sheep and horses?  Like with weeds, over this summer we have found that the internal parasites in our sheep are resistant to two of the main products used to eliminate these parasites ie Valbazen and Ivomec.  The choices for alternate products here in Canada are very limited.  And are we alone?  No, a recent U. of Guelph study showed that about 80% of the farms they tested had some level of resistance to these products.

Are we at fault for the resistance problem on our farm?  Probably but no more so than any other shepherd trying to reduce the parasite burden within their flock.  Some resistance we probably imported from farms where we sourced animals and some was probably developed on this farm with our deworming practices.

With all our technology we just can't beat good old fashioned natural selection.  By using a drug that is lethal to the organism being controlled we have very strong selective pressure to organisms that are resistant to that drug.  With random mutations occuring in an organism all the time, some of these mutations will by chance confir resistance to the drug.  Put very strong selective pressure on that population of organisms and only the resistant  organisms survive.

The purists say that there are natural dewormers.  Maybe they work if the burden is low or work to prevent acquiring the organisms in the first place but as treatment for a serious burden in reality most do not work.  Been there, tried that, tested that.  Apple cider vinegar - doesn't work.  Diatomaceous earth - doesn't work.  Garlic- doesn't work.  Pumpkin seeds - doesn't work.  Willow leaves and black walnut leaves - might work to an extent.  Bird's foot trefoil in pasture - might work.  Elevated bypass protein- probably helps.  Rapid pasture rotation and long pasture rests between  grazing- probably works.  So the solution is not so much drugs but fencing and seeding.

Our ewe flock that is rotated through pastures with high concentrations of bird's foot trefoil, crown vetch and some willow are almost completely clear of parasites.

We have also been monitoring ewe and ram families and are selecting for resistant lines.  These unfortunately are not necessarily our most productive lines.  However heavy parasite burden reduces production so it is a trade off.

Are we out of the dark regarding parasite control?  No but we are working on strategies and testing those strategies. I do not think that it is a goal to be totally rid of parasites but to be able to co-exist with them without having an effect on production.


Monday, September 10, 2012

It Ain't Easy Being Green - or why register your animals

Many of our purebred lambs look like they have been in a paintball fight with green splotches all over their heads and a few hand marks on their bodies.  We just went through the exercise of tattooing the youngsters that will be kept or sold as breeding stock and the cross-bred ewe lambs that we are keeping for our commercial flock.  

Why do we tattoo?  First, we need a permanent, non-removable identifier on all animals for traceability and record keeping, and second,  tattoos are required for registration of purebred animals.  Only animals that we consider of sufficient quality to be breeding animals are tattooed whether they be purebreds or not.

We have often been asked if we will sell a purebred animal for breeding without registration papers for less than a registered purebred and the answer is no.  We feel that  purebred registries are critical for tracking bloodlines and keeping data on purebred animals especially for the rare breeds.  It is only through that information can we ensure that much needed genetic diversity within a breed is maintained. 

If our purebred sheep are of sufficient quality to be used as breeding stock they will be registered.  If they are not of sufficient quality to be used as breeding stock they will be sold as freezer lamb.  Period.

When I see advertisements for registered animals at $400 and unregistered animals at $200, I really scratch my head for the reasoning for the price difference.  Registration fees are negligible in the total cost of an animal.  For example it costs me $10 to register a lamb under 18 months of age.  The only reason for the price difference is either the quality of unregistered animal is greatly inferior to that of the registered animal or the unregistered animal is either not pure or is unregisterable. Any other reason such as the breeder can't be bothered is just straight bad economics or possibly deception.

An unregistered purebred animal is known as a grade animal in the livestock world.  There is nothing wrong with grade animals and there are some exceptional specimens in grades. Same as there is nothing wrong with crossbreds. However it is a false sense of economy to buy a grade animal with the assumption that you will be able to register it sometime in the future. I have seen more than one beginning breeder get burned by that assumption. If you want a registered animal, buy a registered animal from a reputable breeder. Have a sale contract stating that the animal is registered and the registration papers will be transferred.  If you buy an unregistered animal, make the assumption that you never will be able to register it.

If you are breeding animals become a member of the appropriate breed association.  Administrative fees such as registration and transfers are less expensive for members. Know the breed standards, breed within the standards and register your animals.

Why should you buy registered animals?  Registration papers are as close to a guarantee as possible that the animal that you have purchased is purebred and is recognized by the breed association.  You also have an extended record of the animal's ancestry.  I was able to trace the ancestry for one of my mares back over 100 years.  While that exercise was interesting knowledge of the more recent ancestry is necessary to knowledgably breed your animal.

In an earlier post, I talked about heterosis and the healthy mutt.  Heterosis works best if you cross two purebred lines.  So in order to have that advantage you need to maintain purebred lines as well as crossbreds.

At Hawk Hill we register our best quality purebred animals, we follow the breed standards and we are members of the appropriate breed associations. If you buy a purebred animal from us, you will be buying a registered purebred. No unregistered, purebred bargains here.



Thursday, September 6, 2012

Livestock Guardian Dog Registry Needed

We live in coyote country and raise sheep. The best ways to protect your sheep from predators is good fences, bringing them in at dark and IMO livestock guardian dogs (LGD). However the quality of LGD is really vulnerable in Ontario and probably Canada.

Every summer we all see the same ads: Guardian Dog pups for sale, working lines, $300 no shots - protect your sheep.

We have bought three pups and been burned thrice. The first dog (and a number of his sibs) have severe skin conditions. He would develop horrendous hot spots within days that cost us a fortune in drugs to partially clear. It was only by putting him on very expensive food, omega 3 and zinc supplements were we able to clear up the problem.

Pup Number 2. Bought without shots because the two tiered pricing was way out of line for the cost of the shots. Vet check by our vet showed a major heart murmur that would probably not resolve with age. The vet's opinion is this would not make a suitable working animal. While the breeder took the pup back, he was planning to rebreed the same pair.

Shame on me for getting burned twice but I thought it would not happen again.  Wrong.  We went to a "reputable" breeder, paid a lot of money but got a health guarantee.  So far so good.  After 6 months the pup went lame: diagnosis, severe elbow dysplasia.  Contacted the breeder, got a reply saying poor dog, send me the xrays (which had already been sent).  Then silence.  A few month later, the dog was seriously lame in the back end: diagnosis - bilateral hip dysplasia.  Sent the xrays to the breeder.  Dead silence.  Despite several letters, and the occasional promise to replace the pup by the breeder more than a year has passed and it is obvious this "reputable" breeder has no intention of honouring her guarantee.  So after hundreds of dollars of vet bills, I have an expensive dog that is lame, will have a very short life and we will be left with an unprotected flock.

The genetic pool of LGD is probably closer to a genetic puddle. I am guessing that there is severe inbreeding in LGD.

We need a LGD registry in Ontario and probably Canada. We need to know the ancestory of these dogs to prevent inbreeding and as shepherds looking for working animals we need a registry of reputable breeders that will stand behind their dogs. This does not need to be a purebred registry since some crosses will work as well as purebreds. It does need to be a registry of bloodlines, animals need to be tatooed, records need to be kept and health and working status needs to be recorded. Breeders need to be willing to follow a Code of Conduct regarding their breeding practices, offer health guarantees and be willing to remove inferior animals from the breeding population either by culling or neutering.

Our ability to protect our sheep will be impaired unless we have strong, healthy, well bred LGD. Will well bred dogs cost more?  Probably but my vet bills are a whole lot more than the initial cost of a well bred dog.


Eastern Ontario Drought

After years of having greater than average rainfall, last year and this we have experienced a drought in this region.  The stress on the fields and pastures is even worse this year because of a lack of snow over the previous winter.  And the impact on Hawk Hill Farm has been huge.

1. While we got a decent first cut of hay, the hay stopped growing just after harvest and we have no second cut at all.  We have put the lambs out on the front hay fields to allow them to harvest what hay is there.

2.  Our pastures are not regrowing after the first pass of grazing.  As a result we have had to supplement with hay as early as July.  A bit of rain early in August has brought some pasture back but the sheep are going through it fast.

3. Leaf hoppers have invaded our hay fields and have killed off the alfalfa.

4. Because of poor pasture quality this year the growth rates of our lambs is way down.  That means they will probably take another month or more to reach market weight.

5. We were not able to put our meat chickens on pasture as the pastures are burnt off.  They have remained in the barn.  While we probably would have had to feed as much grain (it is a misconception that chickens can get all their nutrition from pasture), it has cost us more than we had planned for bedding.

6. Feed prices have gone sky high and prices at the sale barn have gone down while farmers dump excess animals before winter.

7. My vegetable garden was pretty well a bust and what did survive was eaten by deer.

The only plus was my lawnmower has been out maybe 4 times this summer.

RAIN PLEASE and then tons of snow this winter.



Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Balancing Act

When I was doing some housekeeping on my blog, I came across a couple of draft blogs that I have decided to finish.  Here is one.  

Somewhere between "get big or get out" and "it's a lifestyle" is the balancing act that we strive to achieve at Hawk Hill.   I don't know when profit became a four letter word nor when large debt became acceptable.

When we raised horses I attended an Ontario Equestrian Federation conference with multiple industry seminars.  At one seminar called something like Making a Profit with Horses (an oxymoron if I have every heard one) the audience was asked whether they thought they should make a profit in the horse industry.  By the general reaction of the audience, the question could have been "is it ok to sell crack to children?". The audience shuffled their feet and hung their heads. It brings me back to the question, why is it unreasonable that a farmer should expect to make a profit?

When I raise this question to farmers, especially small farmers that are not even close to making a profit, they usuallly bring up the "lifestyle" line.  OK, I get that since I also like the lifestyle but that does not preclude my desire to make a profit.  How many corporate executives do you know that are willing to forgo profit for a lifestyle... that is corporate executives that still are CEOs?.
As a child my father told me that the only thing that you should go into debt to buy was  a home.  He even was uncomfortable going into debt to buy a car.  Since I seem to have inherited that gene, we are basically going to stick at the flock size we now have.   We will have ~25-30 ewes and 3-4 rams.  To get bigger than that would require expansion of my infrastructure and going into debt.  At this stage in my life that is neither a reasonable nor a realistic thing to do.

At this stage in my life, subsidizing a farm is also not a reasonable or realistic thing to do so the farm must pay for itself.  I do not expect it to support me but the farm income should cover all the expenses and I should not have to pay for the meat that goes in my freezer.  We should reach that goal this year and next year I expect to make a small profit.  It won't take me to Tuscany on holiday but its a start.


Heterosis or the healthy mutt

Most livestock breeders have heard the term "hybrid vigour" in which the cross between two breeds grows better than either of the two purebred lines.  Heterosis is the formal name for this.

In the sheep world, commercial producers take advantage of this by crossing two maternal type breeds such as a Rideau Arcott with a Dorset to create an F1 cross.  The F1 cross is then mated to a terminal sire breed such as a Suffolk or Hampshire.  If done well, the resulting market lamb is superior than from each of the purebred lines.

We cross our two maternal lines so our F1 cross is a North Country Cheviot/Tunis cross. This hybrid is indeed strong, vigorous and grows well.  We are still working on which terminal sire breed works best with this cross and our production system.  We are trying a Hampshire cross this year.

With heterosis comes a certain degree of unpredictability.  However that unpredictability is reduced if the two parental purebred lines used are inbred.  While you always create your cross from the best of your purebred lines, the mixing of genotypes leads to less predictability in the resulting phenotype ie how the animal will look and perform. In some extreme cases the parental genes are incompatable and the hybrid is less vigorous than the parental lines. This is where data collection is very important.

It is common practice for breeders of purebred stock to line breed, that is mate closely related relatives to enhance desirable characteristics such a growth rate or conformation type.  This increases homogeniety and predictability of the offspring but also can come at a cost known as inbreeding depression.  The extreme of this is the appearance of lethal recessives such as spider syndrome in Suffolk sheep.

The reality is that breeding selection is focussed on relatively few measurable characteristics and the rest of the genome comes along for the ride.  In some cases the changes are positive, some negative but on the whole the inbred animal is less gentically fit than an animal that is outcrossed. 

While our purebred lines (especially our Cheviots) have some very desirable measurable characteristics, in my opinion, they are too inbred and we will be searching for unrelated lines to use for an outcross.

Lately I have been reading articles on the impact of inbreeding on disease and parasite resistance in sheep and am seeing the fitness advantage of the heterozygote.

There is very little in the livestock literature on the impact of inbreeding on parasite resistance but there is information on wild populations of sheep.  In these publications, inbred lines are more susceptible to internal parasites working as a natural selection against inbred lines.

Scrapie is another instance.  At first blush it makes sense to include selection for resistant lines in your breeding program.  However it never makes sense to breed for a single characteristic.  In this case, adding resistance to your flock should be done slowly without sacrificing production characteristics.  I know that in 18th century Britain scrapie was thought to be the result of inbreeding; maybe they were right. Is heterozygosity the way to go with respect to scrapie ie gaining some resistance, not sacrificing other characteristics? At this point I can honestly say I am not sure. We will continue to genotype and use quality rams with resistance genotypes.  However, we will not sacrifice quality in a effort to maximize resistance.

Breeding livestock is not a set formula but rather a dance where you go back and forth but ultimately make your way across the dance floor.  Your goal is to move forward but that requires knowledge, research and accurate,detailed data collection. I strongly feel that a wholistic approach needs to be used where the health, longevity, fertility and welfare of the animal has to be considered.  You may not make as rapid advances in characteristics such as rate of gain but I am banking on this approach reducing your costs by producing a healthier and more "genetically fit"  animal.



Monday, April 2, 2012

Why we don't go against nature at Hawk Hill

I read with interest the article in the Ontario Sheep News on fish meal supplementation to supply omega 3 fatty acids in ewe ration and its impact on the subsequent lamb's ability to withstand a bacteria toxin challenge (endotoxin).  While it was scientifically interesting, this is not the direction that our farm wants to go.

The first reason is that sheep are herbivores, not omnivores, and feeding animal-based proteins to herbivores is what got the sheep industry into problems in the first place with conditions like scrapie.  No, I am not saying that fish meal can transmit scrapie, but I am questioning a nutritional supplement that is so totally foreign to the natural diet of sheep.

The second reason is the effect of the fish supplement on the quality of the meat.  As a teenager, we lived in Sweden.  At that time, the Swedish pork industry was using a fish based feed supplement.  It was, beyond the doubt, the worst pork I had ever eaten with a distinctly fishy flavour to the meat.  We do not want to use any feed supplement that can create off flavours in the meat and reduce the quality of our product.

Man's manipulation of domestic animals is but a moment of time in the evolutionary scale.  That is especially true with respect to recent manipulations for the more intensively raised livestock.

Sheep have evolved to breed at a time so that the lambs were born when vegetation is young, supporting the increased nutritional demands for a lactating ewe as well as for a rapidly growing lamb.  In our climate's case (and the British and European breeds that have evolved for our climate) that means a birth in April or May.   Not surprisingly, omega-3 fatty acids in forage peak at the same time as lambing.  Forage sugars and proteins also peak at that time.

All this begs the economic and in some cases physiological costs of trying to paddle against nature's current.  In my opinion the way to minimize health problems and economic costs in your flock is to quit trying to breed out of season. 

The demand for Easter lamb actually originated in the Mediteranean  where the climate naturally produces lamb in that season.  So is it reasonable to expect production systems in a northern climate using breeds developed in northern climates to try to mimic a Mediteranean production system using Mediteranean breeds?  My opinion is no.

 Does that mean only seasonal availability of lamb?  Sure, but it is a long season from spring lamb in May, June to heavy lambs from September to January or even later.  Off season, there is hogget and mutton, two very good meats that need to be promoted again. 

Each shepherd must make their own decision as to the production system they want but they must recognize going against our climatic realities comes at an economic and management cost. At Hawk Hill, we acknowledge the realities of our climate, our breeds and our forage production season and manage our breeding and marketing to reflect that reality. 


Monday, March 26, 2012

Ramblin' Prose

We attended a couple of lectures hosted by Ontario Sheep's District 9 last Saturday.  One session was on nutrition and the other on ram assessment and care. The lecture on ram assessment gave us not only things that we need to consider when we purchase our next rams but also what we offer in breeding stock.

 We have 4 rams here at Hawk Hill and since we have half of our flock bred purebred this year, we may be reserving the best of our ram lambs to sell as breeding stock.  When we have purchased rams in the past, there have been criteria that we have been looking for such as production records, conformation etc.  However after the lecture this past week I think we can do a better job in evaluating rams before purchase.  While we like the rams that we have I do think there is room for improvement.  However it will probably be a year or two before we purchase another ram so we do need to consider the characteristics in ram lambs we have to offer.  These are draft characteristics we would like to see in animals we purchase so why not offer this in animals we sell.

Here are some of our preliminary ideas:
  • purebred, registered ram lambs will not be offered until they are at least 6-8 months of age
  • all purebred, registered rams to be offered will be assessed for breeding soundness by a vet (only ones that pass the examination will be offered), all others will go into our market lamb stream
  • all breeding ram lambs offered will have a minimum of 30 cm scrotal circumference
  • all registered ram lambs will be genotype tested for scrapie resistance and be at least QR for codon 171
  • all ram lambs offered will have production records.
 We will need to consider what we offer for purebred, non-registered or crossbred ram lambs.  While only superior animals will be kept, we will not be genotype testing nor bringing in a vet to assess them for breeding soundness.  Assessment will be the responsibility of the purchaser for these ram lambs.

Still lots to think about.



Saturday, March 3, 2012

Don't forget to have fun

It is WAY too easy to get overwhelmed with everyday life and responsibilities to forget why we are doing this in the first place.  We work to live not the other way around.  And living means spending time with friends and family and HAVING FUN!! 
Having fun is exactly what we did last weekend.  The Glengarry Pioneer Museum celebrated its 50th anniversary by holding a Pioneer Ball.  All were encouraged to dress in period costumes or Scottish attire.  I would say that 30% dressed in heritage dress and another 30% dressed in Scottish attire. In this community most residents have a kilt tucked into their closet. Close to 230 people danced, ate and drank their way through a wonderful evening.

Hmm it has been so long since I have been in a dress I felt like I was in drag.


Saturday, February 11, 2012

Another lightbulb comes on

When I look at the time ahead and the time behind me I realize that I have less in front than behind.  Oh well.

I have so much to learn about farming in general.  I don't know how farmers do it in one generation, especially if they are like the current generation and don't want to learn from their elders but I suppose we all muddle along as best we can.

One of the ways we can reduce our cost of production is to improve the quality of our crops especially our forages and pastures.  We have effectively mined the land for the last 14 years by taking hay crop after hay crop.  While putting some manure back on the fields I am not sure that we have returned as much as we have removed.  It is time to get back to basics.  It goes beyond being a grass farmer with a by-product of lamb.We are bacteria and fungi farmers with a by product of soil. The rest just is icing.

The industry standard with horses is to bed with shavings or sawdust.  This stuff just does not break down.  Why?  It takes a carbon:nitrogen ratio of 25-35: 1 to begin composting manure and bedding.  Fresh sawdust and shavings are 500:1; even rotted sawdust is 200:1.  It will actually pull nitrogen out of your soil in order to break down.  No wonder horse facilities have mountains of this stuff hanging around.

We stopped using shavings  6 years ago and now bed the horses in straw when they come in ....which is very seldom. We now put 1-2" of sawdust on the bottom to absorb urine and then bed the rest in straw.  We do the same with the sheep, though with the hay waste, we seldom have to add more straw.  Unlike with the horses, we let a pack build up for the sheep and clean it out in the spring.

This winter we have our chores down to a fine art form; whizz in and out.  It leaves a lot more time to read up about soil care and feeding.  Maybe I will learn enough by the time I join the complement of fertilizers.


Monday, January 23, 2012

I am a slow learner

We have had horses for 12-13 years now and it has taken us this long to figure things out for the good of the horses, our pocket books and us.  When we started we spent a lot of money getting the barn renovated for box and standing stalls, bought tons of blankets, etc. Lots of money was wasted.
 Now we: 
  • leave the horses out 24 hours a day year round with a run in shed
  • bed the run in shed with coarse sand instead of straw (it stays drier and is a lot easier to pick clean)
  • insulate the stock tank and use a bucket heater to keep it open in the winter
  • throw a handful of pennies in the stock tank to control the algae
  • feed in a round bale slow-feeder net in a tombstone feeder
  • fecal test 4-5 times a year and only deworm as required
  • only vaccinate the minimum for a closed herd
  • trim as required instead of on schedule (changes with season and ground conditions)
  • 99% of diet is forage, supplement based on analysis
  • adjust diet based on body condition 
They are healthier and less stressed and so are we.  I am looking forward to the time we have the same breakthroughs for the sheep. I hope it doesn't take 12 years.


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Shepherd in Winter

As I lay nestled under the duvet listening to the morning weather - “-23 with a wind chill of -30” – I chant my winter shepherd mantra – “What the hell were you thinking?”.  At -40 I add “I could have been in a villa in Tuscany right now”.  I drag myself out of bed in a house that was built in an era when upstairs heat and insulation were considered optional.  Fleece PJs and fluffy socks – a TSC vision of loveliness.

If I am lucky Bob has the stove going before I get downstairs. There is oatmeal for breakfast with a bit extra for the chickens.  I am training them to come when they are called with oatmeal bribes. (see the former post) If you think that you look like a fool herding sheep without dogs, try chickens.

Now the ordeal of getting dressed for chores: insulated coveralls, my dork hat with ear flaps, neoprene gloves, neoprene boots, ice cleats.  If I ever give up farming I could find employment as a dominatrix.

A stilt legged shuffle to the barn.  Oh, you say, the warmth of sheep wafting over me when I open the door.  No, the barn was built by the same folks that thought heat in the house was for wusses.  It is a drafty, old bank barn where we house very few sheep but keep the hay, the water and the feed.  The sheep are in paddocks with run-in sheds scattered around the barnyard.  Water sloshing over my coveralls freezes instantly.  I recite the mantra again.

I look over the breeding groups: a red butt here, a blue butt there.  It is starting to look a lot like Christmas and the tune comes to mind.  I am jostled by the sheep as I fill feeders; the guardian dogs are prancing in the snow.  I am starting to wake up, to warm up.

Like with childbirth, I know I will forget all of this when I see the lambs frolicking in the spring pastures.  A pushy ewe dumps the bucket down my boot; here comes the mantra again.