Organic Weeders
by Bob I'Anson
(originally published in "Small Farm Canada" Jan/Feb 2011)

Bob and Laurie I’Anson Laurie’s Little Lambs near St. Catherine’s have increased their flock from 10 to 29 Old English Southdown Babydoll sheep in the recent past. Bob plans to lease them to vineyards in the vicinity to keep weeds and grass down. “The practice is fairly new in Canada, but sheep are widely used for this purpose in Australia, New Zealand and France,” he notes. “Vineyards save a lot of money in terms of labor in grass cutting and chemical usage. Babydoll sheep are well-suited for this with their small stature, and there are hundreds of wineries in this area.” One Ontario winery that began the practice several years ago uses weaned lambs until grape ripening, at which time the lambs are slaughtered, but I’Anson plans to use adult sheep and remove them during ripening (when the grapes make attractive snacks) and then return them after harvest. “It takes four or five sheep per acre of vineyard, so I would like to expand my flock to around 50.”

With a rare breed such as Babydolls, I’Anson says it’s typically only possible to import a small amount of stock at a time. “I imported two groups from the U.S., and I am going to increase my flock through my own breeding from here,” he says. “It will expand quite quickly with twins and I have been advised about a supplemental ration that increases chances of twin births.”

At Black Walnut Lane Farm in Millgrove, Ontario, having twin births is an important goal in order to have saleable lamb year-round. Owners Ron and Adele Service raise Dexter cattle and many breeds of sheep, and Adele says expansion was based on observation and record-keeping with the different breeds. “We have been gradually increasing our flock over the last ten years with our own breeding program: up to 160 ewes,” she says. “After a number of years of observing the stamina and productivity of the full bloods and cross-breds, in 2008 our main focus became Jacob and Texel (full and cross-bred), with the introduction of the Booroola gene (otherwise known as the “twinning gene”).

When they looked into supplying local farmer’s markets with lamb last year, they discovered they didn’t have enough and had to buy from another farmer before they bought 110 commercial Katahdins to fill the demand. Adele notes: “The work load doubled … We needed more shelter, more equipment, more feed … therefore more instant expenses, more stress. However, we are now producing and selling all our own lambs at three farmer’s markets, plus freezer orders and to two restaurants.”
At a certain point, it became very obvious they needed a bulk feed bin, says Adele. “It was a 5 ton bin raised high enough so that we could fill a wheelbarrow under it. Quickly thereafter we purchased two 3-tonne gravity grain wagons.” In the meantime, Ron was doing research on corn silage: methods of storage and feeding. “He purchased a 2 ton side opening mulcher, for line feeding,” notes Adele. “We also had to rent more land to grow more hay. All these decisions take time and resources, plus research, asking questions, networking, problem solving, taking courses, etc. I am not sure that there is a straightforward template of how to do this, as everyone’s situation is different. That is why I do appreciate the wealth of information that is available via the Internet and through the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.”

In terms of pricing, Adele says “At some point a few years ago I decided I would not apologize for the price of our lamb. I ‘knew’ my flock and the labor and infrastructure and most of the cost of production it took to produce our lambs. Quality food does cost more money [and] the educated consumer understands this.” She says she watches prices in the greater Toronto area, in specialty butcher shops, grocery stores and also monitors at the farmer’s markets to see what cuts are selling well and being asked for. In addition to lamb, the Services sell beef (their own Dexter and Angus), bison (bought from a rancher in southern Ontario) and wild boar (raised by their farm business associates Mark and Tania Veenstra). They’ve currently run out of beef inventory.