Accidental shepherd

Doug Beggs' reforestation efforts begat sheep - and he's never looked back
That saplings grow into trees and ewes produce sheep is basic botanical and biological knowledge. But saplings producing sheep? In a roundabout way, it's what happened at Doug Beggs' Spruce Haven Farm.

In 1991, after what he characterizes as a reasonably successful but far too stressful working life, Beggs bought a hundred acre farm in St. Vincent township, Grey county, south of Meaford. His plan was to dabble in smaller business ventures; as a lifelong nature lover, birdwatcher and skier, roam his property's rolling hills; and perhaps keep an animal or two.

A first step was reforesting the property, much of which, says Beggs, a neighbour reckoned hadn't seen a plow in 80 years and was overgrown with wild apple and pear, dogwood and scrub. Under a government reforestation program, 10,000 seedlings - mostly white spruce, with some poplar and cedar - were planted, and he was advised to get a few of sheep to keep the weeds from choking the seedlings, because they wouldn't eat the evergreens.

After a bit of research, says Beggs, he determined hardy, voracious grazing Columbias would be ideal and bought 10, "which proceeded to eat all of the spruce on the first day."

Then, figuring a few more sheep would help clear his pastures, he took the Ontario Agricultural Training Institute's introductory sheep course and bought a ram and 10 more ewes, which lambed in a paddock formed by snowfencing the week after he got them - "all singles, thankfully," says Beggs.

By then he was hooked, and today, six years on, the Spruce Haven flock numbers around 150 and Beggs counts himself a shepherd.

By choice, he essentially works the farm on his own, except for hiring a neighbour on a custom basis to do some haying and late April bringing in a shearer. In pasturing his flockyear-round, he says, "I'm out walking the fields and fences every day, working, sure, but I also have time to watch for birds, keep an eye on the wildlife."

He's spending more time in the field now after abandoning a four-year experiment with mid-April drop lot lambing in 5- x 5-foot lambing jugs in his 32- x 38-foot barn. The barn was too small, he was rushing around trying to put the ewes in the jugs with their lambs when all the ewes wanted to do was stay at the spot where they birthed, "and the weather's too rotten too often mid-April here. I'd be running back and forth from the house to the barn all night to make sure the lambs were OK, not freezing."

Worn out but committed to sheep farming, he began exploring lower input production methods. An inveterate internet browser, he corresponded on the graze-l and sheep-l list serves with other low input producers, talking up other shepherds whenever he had the chance. His flock had always been pastured, and based primarily on a system espoused by Minnesota shepherd Janet McNally - a popular sheep circuit lecturer and consultant - Beggs adopted drift lambing in 1998.

For the last two springs, ewes have been bred to lamb mid-May to early-June. The day before he figures lambing is to start, Beggs puts his ewes into a two-acre paddock created with poly wire. Three days later, he moves the ewes that haven't lambed to a new paddock and repeats the process every three days over 21 days until all the lambs have dropped.

"It's uncanny," he says. "The ewes that haven't lambed after three days will be eager to move along to the next paddock where there's fresh pasture, while those that have lambed just stay behind." He adjusts the size of the new paddocks depending on how many ewes are left to lamb.

Labour is reduced, says Beggs, partly because he's not wandering all over looking for lambs. Nor is he chasing ewes that are reluctant mothers and want to move on without lambs: "Most ewes will stay with their lambs, and I've found I can make eye contact, point a finger and stare them down if it looks like they want to bolt." He marks the mother's tag numbers on the lambs - left side for a single, right for a twin and on the back for a triplet.

Ewes and their lambs stay in their birth paddocks for about 30 days and groups are then gradually combined to improved pastures fairly close to the house and barn. During lactation, Beggs buys in grain for the ewes so they don't lose much condition before moving to the farm's bushy back acreage.

They get about a pound of corn per day for 40 to 60 days. A key to any full pasture system is good predation protection.

Beggs gets that from Harry, a gelded llama he bought as a weanling. At weaning, which Beggs does at around 60 days, Harry stays with the lambs on the farm's improved pastures while the ewes are sent to the rougher back areas. Beggs says he's lost just one weaned lamb to the many coyotes in the area, and that was a bottle-raised 85-pounder who wandered over a knoll out of Harry's sight. The llama, says Beggs, was more expensive than a dog, but it "eats what the sheep eat and I figure I can get 20 working years out of him."

Round bales are put out in November, after the grass stops growing but before the deep snow in the area makes it too tough for Beggs' David Brown 880 tractor to pass. Past observation and scrupulous note-taking allows him to determine the number of bales his chosen winter pastures will need, depending on the number of sheep and their condition. In spite of the availability of the bales, the Columbias still graze down through the snow for any remaining grass, says Beggs. Each pasture has a main gate off the central lane behind which he's placed water troughs. In summer, he fills them from a 45-gallon tank that hangs off the back of his tractor. In winter, he doesn't water the flock unless there's no clean snow to eat.

Columbias are a rare breed in Ontario, says Beggs. He stuck with them after the spruce eating episode for their low maintenance - ability to do well on grass alone, hardiness, strong flocking instinct on open ground and "the fact that they're not fence wreckers like Suffolks - they're quite docile." They're also a good dual purpose breed, says Beggs, giving him meat and wool income.

Nonetheless, they finish heavier than other breeds and, says Beggs, "I take a hit at the market with them, which is why as well as keeping a portion of the flock purebred Columbia, I also have North Country Cheviot/Columbia crosses. I use two North Country rams on many of the Columbia dam line that I pick my replacements from. I also use Suffolk as a terminal sire breed over those crossbreds. They finish better, and I can get a better price at Cookstown," where he markets his meat. Finding purebred Columbia rams is tough in Ontario: It's expensive to import a new one each year to guard against in-breeding, and there's no guarantee the new animal is disease-free. A Manitoba couple has recently re-located to the Arthur area with their Columbia flock, and Beggs says he's had preliminary discussions about creating a mutually beneficial breeding program.

Reflecting on just how far he's come in the past few years with no farming background, Beggs credits his neighbours and the willingness of the sheep community to share its expertise, "because I knew nothing....When I bought the place I got lost on the concessions the first time I tried to get here after the deal closed." Coincidental with his first 10 sheep making spam of the spruce, one of the two pigs he'd bought about the same time took off out of its pen and wasn't corralled for three days.

Today, Beggs feels comfortable enough with his production success to have become a lecturer in OATI's sheep course. He knows he'll never be a feed-the-world kind of farmer with a huge flock. But he does think there's a place in rural Ontario for those of his ilk - novice farmers whose passion and success take them beyond the hobby stage and perhaps back to the ideal of the small family farm.

© copyright 1999 Agricultural Publishing Company Limited.

Grassy knolls

The animals are the harvesters of choice on Beggs' 95 arable acres, about 45 of which have been seeded. As the whole farm had literally gone to seed by the time he moved in - "the top soil was two feet deep in some places," says Beggs - it's taken him a few years to improve the pastures, yanking bush, plowing, discing and seeding to barley before creating four distinct pastures of birdsfoot trefoil/brome grass, tall fescue/ white clover, timothy/ladino and alfalfa/double-cut red clover/timothy.

He likes the trefoil because it's less bloating than alfalfa and the sheep eat more of the plant, including stems. The brome was selected for its spring and fall lushness, complementing the trefoil, which comes on in summer. Sheep graze the tall fescue/white clover pasture spring and early summer, then the area is saved for late-fall/early winter grazing. Beggs says the mix has extended his grazing system by about a month, and the clover provides N, reducing fertilizer costs. The alfalfa/red clover/timothy and timothy/ladino fields were seeded for hay in 1997 as a precaution against a trefoil bug hitting the farm. Beggs' neighbour takes a first cut of hay off, and then the fields are added to the pasture rotation late summer. In the back 50 there's still plenty of wild apple and pear and scrub brush to graze, and Beggs puts his sheep in the lane that divides the front half of the farm to keep it from getting overgrown.

Pasture growth is checked with a rising plate meter. Beggs typically puts sheep in a paddock when plant height is eight to 10 inches and takes them out when it's down to three or four.

© copyright 1999 Agricultural Publishing Company Limited.


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