Producer hopes raising sheep indoors will reduce disease and increase productivity
TEES, Alta.— It still looks like a hog finisher barn on the outside, but inside there are now sheep instead of pigs.
Nathanael Polson says he has eliminated predator and weather problems by moving his sheep into the barn north of Tees.
“This barn was just perfect. Lambs seem to find ways to die outside. I’ve eliminated that with this facility,” said Polson, who also runs a cow-calf and feedlot operation and grain farm about a 20 minute drive southwest of the barn at Clive.
“Weather seems to be 80 percent of the battles with livestock.”
Polson previously raised a 500 head flock but had little room to expand.
Years of high grain prices and low hog prices had been hard on the pig industry, forcing many producers out of the business. The barn that Polson bought had housed hogs for only four years.
“The pig industry at the time was in pretty rough shape,” said Polson, who took possession of the barn in the fall of 2012.
It has been just what Polson needed in his quest to expand to his present 1,200 head and to his eventual goal of 2,000 head.
Few renovations were required to switch the 156 by 220 foot barn from hogs to sheep. He added an overhead door to bring in feed, dragged the concrete slats from the two main feeder barn areas and knocked out some pony walls.
Removing the portable concrete slats increased the ceilings from 10 to 12 feet high in the two main feeding areas.
The three nursery rooms are virtually unchanged. Weaned lambs are moved into the nursery rooms, where they are raised on plastic slotted floors and eat from pig creep feeders. One pig nursery room has been made into a sheep nursery.
Polson said raising the lambs inside rather than outside on a bed of straw earns him a premium for clean wool from his processor, Sungold.
The mainly Rideau sheep with some Ile de France and Charollais genetics were chosen for their ability to produce multiple lambs and breed out of season.
The nursery room, where he keeps the bottle lambs, held 100 to 150 lambs last year. An automatic nursing machine gives the lambs access to warm milk on demand.
“As long as they get colostrum, there is no issue,” Polson said of the lambs’ ability to thrive in the nursery.
He eventually intends to streamline his genetics to have most of the ewes produce at least a 250 percent lamb crop instead of the normal 150 percent.
“It is really the gravy in the business. You can’t make it viable with one and a half lambs.”
Just like other farming businesses, profit comes with being larger and more efficient and meeting increasingly stringent environmental requirements.
His operation doesn’t make sense with 1,000 ewes, he added, but it works with 2,000 ewes, which he is trying to get to as quickly as possible.
“To be truly efficient, you can’t do it by being lean thinking,” he said.
“You can’t cut corners and use more five gallon pails.”
For Polson, becoming larger means spending money on proper equipment, land and buildings.
He said his banker has been of considerable assistance as he expands. The bank stood by him during the BSE crisis and was willing to lend him money based on his personality and a belief in the lamb business.
There are few large-scale sheep producers, which means Polson’s financial numbers will be the numbers on which future sheep operations are based.
“They were willing to step up and take a risk on me,” said Polson of his local ATB branch.
He is operating a closed herd, which he hopes will reduce disease problems.
“With sheep, it’s all about nutrition,” he said. “If you cut corners on feed or mineral, it’s the only time they’ll get sick. I have a closed flock so all issues are nutrition.”
The ewes lamb in groups of 500. They and their young are moved into individual lambing jugs for one to two days until they are mothered and the lambs receive colostrum.
A group of 500 ewes began lambing in mid-January, a second group will start in mid-March and the final group will start in June. Polson hopes that another group can eventually lamb in November, ideally after he is finished harvest.
A radio frequency identification tag is placed on each lamb and marked with paint to prevent mix-ups and provide good flock production records.
A self-propelled feed wagon dumps feed at the edge of the pens twice a day. The young lambs also have access to creep feed.
A shearing gang shears the ewes two to three weeks before lambing, which seems to eliminate moisture concerns in the barn. The temperature inside the facility stays at a constant 5 to 8 C without extra heat.