Alta. sheep farm anticipates room to grow

Producers feel there’s a huge demand and not enough supply, considering Canada produces only half of what it consumes

PONOKA, Alta. — It’s busy at East Valley Ranch — and loud. The collective“baa, baa, baa” of well over 1,000 sheep and lambs bleating together under one roof is surprisingly loud as ewes ensure their lambs stay close and lambs in turn want to feed or confirm the whereabouts of mom.

Ben Rodenburg processes three-day-old lambs that have been bonding with mom in lambing jugs, small individual pens, along one side of the year-old 300 x 80 foot metal-clad barn. With each set of animals processed, Ben gently nudges the sheep into the alley toward a larger group pen.

The bleating elevates as Ben’s father, Jan-Willem, enters the barn via Bobcat, manoeuvring up and down a wide alleyway, depositing feed to the various pens. There are pregnant ewes close to lambing, those due further out, ewe and lamb sets, weaned ewe lambs and weaned ram lambs.

Lambs are weaned at about 50 pounds, generally around six weeks of age. Their mothers are moved to an outdoor pen to dry off. They shelter in a 256 x 40 foot three-sided pole barn under the watchful eyes of three large white Maremma-cross/Great Pyrenees guardian dogs.

“Coyotes are the biggest problem in this area”, says Ben. “My dogs take care of them.”

As Ben is able to expand the outside pen and corral system, he’ll move more of the animals from the barn.

“It’s better for them to be outside,” he says.

Ben usually manages the flock himself but his recent diagnosis of ulcerative colitis and 10-day hospital stay prompted his parents, Jan-Willem and Jolanda, and two younger brothers, to assist with the lambing responsibilities and daily chores.

Ben’s wife, Heather, was on hand as well between hospital visits, while also caring for the couple’s two young children, Jazlyn, 3, and Axel, 1. Ben returned home from hospital March 7. He feel’s stronger every day and intends to manage the disease through diet and medication.

The flock of about 700 ewes, consists of Rideau Arcott, Canadian Arcott, Ile-de-France, and Suffolk sheep. All are meat animals. Ewe lambs are held back to increase the herd.

A few are sold as breeding stock to 4-H clubs, and acreage owners.

“Hobby people have sheep in summer, then sell them in winter,” says Ben.

The ram lambs go to auction, usually at Olds, Alta., at five to seven months of age, when they’re between 110 and 120 lb.

In the last week of March, about 525 of the 700 ewes had lambed at an average of 1.78 lambs per ewe.

There’s not much of a market for the fleece that was sheared late last fall, about six weeks before lambing began. It’s sitting in a warehouse in Lethbridge awaiting sale. Ben says the income from the wool is “next to nothing. It doesn’t even cover the cost of shearing.”

Jan-Willem and Jolanda own the 80-acre East Valley Ranch they bought in November 2016 but live on a quarter section farm 20 minutes away. Ben and Heather live at and manage the ranch and plan to buy out Jan-Willem and Jolanda within five years.

The elder Rodenburgs previously ran a dairy in the area that they bought in 2000, the year they immigrated from Holland where they operated a mixed farm near Rotterdam — dairy, vegetables, flowers, custom work.

“We couldn’t expand so we decided to come to Canada,” says Jan-Willem.

It was a dream he held since he was 18 and had shared early on with Jolanda, before they married.

When the time came, they chose central Alberta due to the good rainfall, as well as the Christian school and church that was important to them.

After 16 years in Canada and nearing age 60, Jan-Willem and Jolanda, five years younger, were ready to transition into retirement mode. They sold the 120 head dairy in late September 2016.

Ben had worked for them. Both generations agreed that the dairy had been very good to the family, but when contemplating their respective futures neither wanted the burden of the tremendous financial investment required with the dairy quota system.

The switch from dairy to sheep was a reasonable alternative. Sheep are easy to handle. There’s an established market with increasing demand. The first sheep in the new barn, which has room for 900 ewes, came in late February 2017.

The Rodenburgs grow all of their own feed — alfalfa grass, barley grain and barley silage — on owned and rented land, totalling about 600 acres.

Jan-Willem and Jolanda have five other children but at present, Ben, the second oldest at age 30, is the only one farming.

When the family was in the dairy business Ben had a few sheep for fun.

“I was always crazy about animals. The sheep are a memory from my Opa (grandpa) in Holland. I want my kids to grow up with those same experiences,” he says.

At East Valley Ranch, in addition to a lot of sheep, there is also a half dozen laying hens, several white fluffy Silkie chickens, a pet turkey, ducks, a pot-bellied pig, and three miniature goats. The animals mostly run free except the goats.

“They ate Heather’s flowers last year so they got penned up,” says Ben.

Ben is optimistic about his and Heather’s future sheep ranching.

“Canada only produces about half of what’s eaten here. There’s a huge demand and not enough supply. In five years, I plan to have 2,000 head and 5,000 in 10 years. That’s my long-term goal. But it all has to make sense financially.”

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