Sunday, October 9, 2011

Sheep Canada Writings

Below are for of my articles I wrote for Sheep Canada a national shepherds magazine. Hope they are not too technical and that you may find them useful and enjoyable.

Ivomec Resistance and Worm Wars.

The title says it all. I had heard of resistance to Ivomec from several sources but it all seemed so distant and far away. It was occurring in areas of high sheep numbers and so I felt some what immune to it here in a of backwater BC. I have had sheep in Canada since 1989 and have only wormed once or twice a year, alternating between Ivomec and Valbazen. I had never had a major out break and will admit to some degree of complacency. Having spent time raising stock on the prairies I was used to dry land pasture, where often worms pose little or no problems. Worming once a year before putting the ewes on winter feed was often an economic rather than medical decision. Here in BC I have irrigated land, heavy morning dews and lush pasture, all great ground for harboring worm eggs and larva. With flocks being generally smaller here I ended up buying six flocks in to make a decent mob. When reading the last few lines you can see a ticking time bomb rearing its ugly head. Most of the flocks were fine but on reflection I realized one was wormed often and always with the same brand wormer. Sadly we only found this out during our battle with resistant worms and not the 18 months before when buying them.
During the summer of 2009 my combined flock was on lush irrigated pasture, which could best be described as rocket fuel. Every thing was going fine until July we started to notice mucky behinds which we first put down to too much clover and alphalpha as the grass was slowing up due to the heat. With the loss of condition we got out the wormer and did the flock. You guessed it we used Ivomec, but for the repeat dose we used Valbazen as that’s what we had on hand. Most got better, the few poor ones we put down to damaged stomach walls and we soldiered on. You will notice at this point no mention of the Vet. Mistake number one. A lot of the lambs went as feeders and we culled out the poor performing ewes and looked forward to the next season. At the onset we should have had the vet out and done some stool samples. This would have nipped it in the bud and saved the grief to follow in 2010.
Over winter we had culled and sold of the flock that we later suspected of bringing in our “super worms” as they were a breed that did not do well on our pasture. Sadly though they had left their little friends on the fields which were picked up by the remaining ewes and spread in the summer of this year. We rotationally graze but even with longer grazing intervals our moist lush grass seems to enable a better survival rate for the larva. We started seeing signs of worms in early July. I had a chat with our local vet. I mentioned I had read of Ivomec resistance and he said that he had too, but as he had heard of none in BC and to go ahead with Ivomec. This we did, as well as submitting fecal samples to the vet and then moved the flock onto some of our rented land where they had not been for a year. It was dry land and with no irrigation and harder grass I felt this would help. Mistake number two. When recovering from worms or in this case still carrying a heavy load of worms, lower octane feed only makes things worse as the lower plane of nutrition requires more feed intake. After ten days and two dead lambs we moved them to some irrigated ground, which also had not been grazed for a year. It was the toughest move I have ever witnessed as many of the lambs struggled with the short walk and several had to be carried. The Vet came out right away, took fecal samples and phoned me back with the results two hours later. The barber pole count had doubled and he admitted it looked as though we had a resistant strain. After conferring with his colleges and emailing veterinary practices that had dealt with resistance problems, he came back with a new medicine, Cydectin, a pour on for cattle that had been very successful in past cases. So a dose was calculated for drenching sheep and off to the field we went with our portable handling system. We were ready for a paddock shift so to get to fresh grass the flock had to first pass through the chute and have some grape coloured juice that smelt of gasoline. I was hoping I hadn’t just paid $150.00 per litre for farm gas! Within a couple of days the sheep seemed to be eating more and looking perky. We moved them every 24 hours to fresh grass to avoid re-contamination. The vet came after 5 days and tested samples again. He phoned back shortly afterwards with the sweetest news we could wish for. Clean poop. No critters of any kind to be found. On his advice we used Cydectin one more time 21 days after the first dose. From that point on the flock has not looked back. We are later finishing lambs this year and we did bring them home three weeks earlier to avoid grazing on contaminated pasture but it was worth the effort. I crutched (dagged) the dirty lambs to remove tags and dingers when we weaned them and am now marketing good looking lambs through the Auction yard and private sales. Next year we will be vigilant and check eyelids and body condition more closely. More to the point I will drop the “it can’t happen here” attitude, as it can and did. As for the Vet bills, the $100.00 a time lab work bills were hard to swallow but when you cost in the month longer to finish lambs and the dead lambs and one young ewe you realize going it alone was a false economy. Ivomec has been around for a while now and it was only a mater of time before the bugs caught on and learnt to beat it. Nature as they say bats last, and we now have roundup resistant weeds, bacteria that resists antibiotics, and worms that resist Ivomec. There is no doubt in my mind that the worms will one day resist Cydectin, but with good stockman ship and drug rotation we can hopefully prolong it’s use. Stockmen rarely talk about their wrecks, much less have them published in a national magazine, so I hope by sticking my neck out I will help some of you avoid the same mistake.

Matching Breed To Location

I have lived in Canada for thirty summers now, having spent roughly half my time on the Prairies and half in the Southern Interior of BC. Most of the time I have been ranching and one thing that is often glaringly obvious is the miss matching of livestock to location. Hailing from Britain as I do where every county or area has its specific breed of sheep, cow, pig, duck or chicken, I find it strange as folks here buy with the heart not the head. We tend to keep the breeds we like even if they are ill suited to the area we live. This seems to be a bigger problem with small farms rather than larger scale operations. Probably because it’s easier to ignore the financial lesson being doled out by owning tropical sheep on a bald prairie with 8 months winter when you only own 20 as opposed to 200 or 2000.
It’s always easier to spot our neighbours mistakes than our own so to begin with I will use Britain as an example. No shepherd there would dream of taking Dorset ewes up to the highlands of Scotland and swap them for some Scottish blackface ewes to take back to the rolling fertile pastures of Dorset County. The Black faced ewes would become overly fat, many not breeding and those that did would end up with more lambs than they knew what to do with, along with many foot problems and a few cases of bloat. The Dorset’s in Scotland would no doubt loose condition, some would not breed and many that normally have twins would only have singles. All of the above would make for stressed sheep, stressed shepherds and empty bank accounts.
Now to bring this closer to home and I will be the bad example. Remember you know nothing without experience and the man who didn’t make any mistakes probably didn’t do a lot either. The trick is to learn by others mistakes, it’s a lot cheaper! I used to ranch in southern Manitoba, we ran sheep, cattle and goats. The sheep were mostly Dorset/Suffolk crosses and suited for our area and management. Then one day I went and fell in love with Columbia’s, a huge wool breed with lambs that finish at 140lbs lovely fine wool and low lambing percentage which often goes hand in hand with easy care sheep. Not only did I pick a breed that was ill suited to our economic needs and our management style, but I hauled them in from Maple Creek, Saskatchewan which is a dry short grass area and we were in a moist park like setting with grass up to our under wear.
I thought our better grass would increase the lamb crop, needless to say our grass was like lettuce compared to Maple Creek’s granola like nutrient dense grass. No extra lambs appeared the next spring and over two years the wool clip value dropped as the wool became course, going from the fineness of silk to the thickness of bristles on a wire brush. It took four years of denial before I smartened up and got rid of the Columbia’s. As Tv’s 70s show Red would say, “what a dumbass”. Buying breeds with the heart instead of the head will do that to a fellow.
Now I’m not saying go sell off your sweet hearts and study up on climate, grass and livestock to get the winning combination. But if you want to improve your bottom line and after much tender loving care your gal’s are not coming up with the goods maybe its time to do a little investigating. Believe me, it’s quicker to destock and buy the right breed than try to upgrade a breed that is a poor fit.
These days we ranch in BC and rotationally graze irrigated pasture. This requires a high degree of management and needs a good return for all the labour of moving electric net fencing and irrigation pipes. In playing with breeds I bought in older ewes from small flocks that were being sold up. There was some disease risk but all worked out well. We have Dorsets, Romneys and Suffolks. Our pastures are lush green and are grazed 4-6 times a season, so we need a breed that can best utilise these conditions. The Dorsets and Romneys are coming up trumps as the conditions are similar to where their breeds originate from. The Suffolks are not doing so well unless their lambs are sired by the Dorset ram, the Dorset genetics make better use of the grass. Dorsets were originally a dairy sheep so they tend to milk better. Romneys are also a lush grass type animal with the added bonus of worm resistance as they originate from Romney Marsh a wet lowland in Kent England. The Suffolks who hail from a grain crop growing area of England and were used to clean up crop land in the fall and no doubt became accustomed to some grain will have to go, as they are poor milkers on grass and the lambs are not doing as well as the other two breeds. The Suffolks have been sold, not because they were bad sheep (they did 175%) but because they would not finish lambs on grass which is what we require.
For drier colder areas such as the Prairies, higher elevations in the Southern Interior of BC and the Peace region the wool type breeds such as Rambouillet, Columbia, Corriedale and Targhee do well especially when crossed with a Dorset or Suffolk terminal ram to gain some Hybrid vigour for the market lambs.
The Lower mainland, Vancouver Island, Ontario and the Maratimes should stick to the traditional English county breeds, Dorset, Suffolk, Leicester, Oxford, Hampshire, Romney, Southdown and some of the newer French varieties.
As for the new hair breeds I have to admit a some what sceptical bias as most are tropical sheep and do well in the warm and wet which is something we don’t do here. The money you save on shearing you will spend three fold on extra food to keep them warm in the winter with no woollen overcoat. The only exception I can see here is a Dorper ram to use as a terminal sire for market lambs on you’re already correctly chosen ewe breed. They are meat machines and with one per forty ewes you can afford to give him a bit extra feed in the winter as he will earn his keep.
So remember no rash moves, but take a closer look at where your breed originated from and do some looking at your pasture type and weather records. Just maybe its time to end that love affair and start shepherding with your head, your bank account will thank you for it.
Rob Fensom ranches in the Southern Interior of BC, is a grazing Mentor to those in need. He has been known to graze any type of critter for a buck.

Working with Nature, less stress, less bills.

I wrote in my previous article of matching breeds of sheep to geographic and climatic conditions that best suit them. The next move is to get in step with nature and let your sheep do what comes naturally. By this I mean you should first see when your local deer have their young. This is an excellent indicator as to when forage is available in your area for optimum milk production. Wildlife does what is the most efficient and effective when it comes to reproduction and feed. That is why often times we seem over run with them, especially on the highway and around the hay stack in winter!
I know you like the look of those Easter lamb prices and they sell for 50 cents to a dollar more per pound than those November lambs. But the question you have to ask yourself is what was the cost per pound to produce them? Remember those cold nights you stayed up lambing and all the hot lamps on to save those lambs from freezing. Also the extra feed and grain to “steam up” (pre lambing) the ewes and also after lambing to keep the milk flowing to feed those lambs. Next the expensive creep feed for the lambs to speed up their growth to hit that Easter market, because if they don’t make it the price drops after the Greek Easter and you still have all those high costs on the lambs that are left.
I have to confess to a fair bit of experience of the above as we used to lamb five flocks from Boxing Day till May, to hit the high spring prices and produce a cash flow. Our barn would also only accommodate 70 ewes at a time, so it helped make the best use of our barn. All of this was done in a Manitoba winter so you can imagine the man hours, feed and hydro that went into this labour of love. With some simple grade 4 math one can soon see that the deer and Mother Nature have it all figured out.
Easter lambs usually weigh from 50 to 70lbs; fall lambs are usually 100 to 130lbs, so they are roughly twice the weight. As Easter lambs are rarely twice the price per pound of fall lambs (except in the light weight classes), they often still sell for the same price or more per head than Easter lambs. That coupled with cheaper feed, grass in summer and only a maintenance ration for ewes in the winter, means there is no real advantage in those early lambs. When you then check flock health, vet bills and lambs marketed per ewes exposed to the ram, the ‘natural’ spring born lambs leap ahead in efficiency and effectiveness. The shepherd, due to the lower man hours per ewe can handle more sheep, thus improving income and making better use of the assets and lowering the fixed costs per ewe. He also seems to be less of a grouch, according to my wife.
I realise many who read this lamb in the winter due to off farm work in the summer season and this is understandable. I was in that situation when lambing the five flocks and know full well that the pay cheque is more powerful than the lamb cheque. Often it is thought easier to “dry lot” the flock and feed them as feed is cheap and the fields are best left unfenced for easier hay making. The simple fact is livestock can feed themselves while grazing cheaper than you can make, haul and fork that hay to them. This is not including all the manure that you have to haul and spread which they would have done for you while grazing, putting it back where it came from.
With the new style portable electric mesh fence the problem of grazing and permanent fences ruining hay fields is taken care of. In my own operation I have three hay fields with perimeter fences that are permanent. I can make hay of the whole field or graze any part or all of it with the use of portable fences. Those of you who are working off farm with a “sheep dependency” but have children who show an interest or a supportive wife can still graze. While I worked off farm my 12 year old son and 14 year old daughter managed to take down and set up this style of fence on their own with no supervision, moved sheep and goats with never a mishap. This not only helped us at the time but gave them self respect and a sense of responsibility that has served them well now they are in their twenties. One of the great advantages of small ruminants is the whole family can be involved with little danger from the livestock, unlike cattle, horses or bison.
Working with the natural cycle is not only the most economical but also more satisfying and a less stressful route to take. In the long run it means more time enjoying the work at hand and the surroundings you are in, and let’s face it, that’s why we do it. Which is far better than being a “materials mover” hauling hay in, and manure out while your animals watch you serve them on bended knee (or bended aching back), doing all the work while they have all the fun.
Rotational grazing, or the title I prefer MIG, Management Intensive Grazing is truly the only way to go. It sounds daunting almost scary, but actually is just general knowledge of plants and animals mixed with good old common sense and timing. All of which has been made easier by the electric fencing advances, modern plastics and the new style energisers available at just about any feed or farm supply store you walk into. So once you have your flock lambing to make the most of your seasonal grazing and in time with nature, the next step is to have pastures to allow them to work for you. An old Stockman I knew was asked what was the secret of his good calves and lambs, and top price he got at the market. His answer was to kick the grass he stood on and said “I just keep good grass under their noses.” So next visit I will explain pasture management, how to make it work, keep it simple and not be overwhelmed by all the jargon.

Lessons from a Shearer

We had our sheep sheared at the beginning of March, early by Provincial norms but I like my girls clean and slick for lambing. Our shearer Rod Allen came to do the job. He calls Keremeos home but originally he was a Kiwi so one assumes he should be a good shearer, and Rod does not disappoint. The job went smoothly, so much so, we had plenty of time to “chew the fat”. We can swap stories as I to use to shear nearly 20 years ago, although a different, century the stories have striking similarities.
Rod and his brothers were all taught to shear; his father knew none of the boys would go hungry in rural New Zealand or Australia with that skill mastered. Rod admits he had a 25 year break from it, so starting back several years ago was not all that easy. He says it’s like riding a bike, you don’t forget, but you have to get physically in shape, “bending like a rubber toy helps”! Even now during the off season he exercises knowing it he doesn’t, the start up will be even tougher. We are one of the first flocks he does and I wanted to know what made a good place to shear. As an ex shearer I try to make the job as easy as I can for Rod and myself. For the Shepherd shearing is often the most stressful time of the year, but the shearer does it every day so how does he cope?
Rod gave me a casual grin. “Do I look stressed mate?”
Of course it’s true, I have known a lot of shearers and all of them were laid back, easy going, quick to joke and laugh and most had not a care in the world. “OK, even temper is one thing but what do you need in the shed to make life easier?” I asked. He then gave me some of his needs and wishes as many are missing at some of the farms he goes to.
1) The number one thing all shearers need is no more then one or two steps to the holding pen, because he has to drag the sheep the same distance back to the shearing stand.
2) A level, solid shearing stand that is easy to sweep, two sheets of plywood work fine, placed next to the holding pen gate.
3) Plenty of natural light, artificial lights throw shadows and can make shearing a challenge, especially if the sheep are black.
4) Out of the wind and rain is nice! He seems to be real fussy about this; no doubt he has had a few bad experiences.
5) The sheep always have to be by the gate ready to go, he is not fond of leaving the shearing stand to chase the sheep up and then have them over excited to shear.
6) Good Tunes! Music at a moderate volume helps the day go and keeps tempers smooth.
7) Enough help to keep the holding pen full, the stand swept and the fleeces moved away so the shearer can do what he does best, shear sheep.
8) Sheep must be dry, if rain is threatened put them inside. Not only are they harder to shear and unpleasant for the shearer, wet wool will mould and rot in the wool sack, causing an even lower price for the wool.
9) Last but not least, in fact this is the most important. The sheep should be off feed for 18 hours or more. It is easier for the sheep and shearer if they have empty bellies even more so if they are heavily pregnant. We shear a moth before lambing and that’s about as close as you should get, or you may have prolapses and even abortions due to stress.
Shearing is now becoming a family occupation. Rod, his wife and their son were off to Montana for a week at shearing school after visiting us. His wife and son are doing the beginners course and Rod says he will do the advanced course to keep his hand in. I teased him and said soon he will just count the sheep and collect the money leaving the shearing to the family. “No way mate, I like shearing too much, I plan to shear till I’m 80”. That reply was music to my ears. We are about the same age and I want to Shepherd until my 80s, but I don’t want to shear the woolly b----s!

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