Veteran sheep producer says high standards are the key to his success

HIGH STANDARDS Patrick Smith’s ewes produce an average of 3.4 lambs 
and have to lamb on their own or else they are culled from the flock

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If you want a high-performance flock, you can’t tolerate problem ewes, says a veteran Manitoba producer.

“We have always been very vigorous about removing any ewe that has any problems,” Patrick Smith said at a recent Alberta Lamb Producers meeting in Leduc.

“If the ewe can’t succeed in our operation, it has to go. If you don’t do this religiously, you’ll never end up with a flock that is truly self-sufficient.”

Smith runs 2,350 Rideau-cross ewes on a farm near Sarto in southern Manitoba. Sarto Sheep Farms is primarily a confinement operation organized around a feedlot and mixed pasture. Smith has just 80 acres of pasture as he has found ewes are unable to maintain enough condition on pasture to meet his high lambing goals.

“What we looked for were animals that could and would deliver quads at a size that allowed them to be self-sufficient,” he said.

Smith’s system is designed to minimize labour needs.

“With 2,350 ewes and 5,000 lambs each year, it’s just not feasible to run sheep that require extra attention,” he said.

His ewes produce an average of 3.4 lambs and have to lamb on their own, as Smith and his workers do not go into the barn between 10 at night and 7 in the morning. He keeps bright lights on 24 hours a day in the lambing area, so ewes and lambs can locate each other. The sheep are on a two-week breeding cycle. Ewes begin breeding at nine months of age, and are rebred every eight months. Lambing occurs every two weeks.

Heavy culling

The first rule is to cull any ewe requiring extra time or effort. Smith, who has been raising sheep for more than 40 years, culls 15 to 20 per cent of his ewes, relying on carefully kept records to make decisions.

“It’s important to use the records to determine who you are going to cull,” he said. “Almost always, the sheep who looks the best is the worst. Just because a ewe is 10 years old, it doesn’t mean she should be culled. She should be culled because she doesn’t perform.”

Ewes that come out of lambing looking thin can be good ewes, especially if they are feeding big quads, he said. Young ewes are allowed to have singles, but older ones are expected to produce twins, triplets or quads. Ewes that have second singles are culled, as are ewes that miss a lambing cycle. Ewes with poor udders as culled, as are their female offspring. He also selects for lack of wildness.

Smith said he believes it is important to have a mortality rate below six per cent pre-weaning.

“A lot of people have come to accept that 15 to 20 per cent mortality in a multiple-lambing environment is acceptable. I don’t think it is,” he said.

Smith runs the operation, which mostly sells breeding stock, with a small staff that includes his wife, a full-time farm manager, and one employee. The key is having simple procedures that are rigorously applied, he said.

“We know where the tools are and how to do specific operations,” said Smith. “Because everything is done the same way as part of the cycle, everyone who is participating knows what to do and does it effectively.”

Consistency is also critical to establishing a brand, he said. Smith recommends that people who are getting into the industry buy all their sheep from one flock to avoid problems. Buyers are allowed to come to his farm and work with him for a week to see how things are done.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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