Sheep business started as way to train dogs

North Country Cheviots graze the pastures at Allen and Susan Neal’s farm at Raven, Alta.  The breed is hardy and originated in Scotland. | Barbara Duckworth photo

Susan Neal acquired sheep as part of her border collie enterprise, but now she’s winning fleece competitions

RAVEN, Alta. — When Susan Neal began breeding North Country Cheviot sheep, she wanted to keep the Scottish breed true to its traditional roots of good meat and quality fleece production.

This year she won the supreme champion fleece competition at the national All Canada Sheep Classic in Humboldt, Sask. That win confirmed her breeding program is on the right track.

She started to enter her fleeces in competitions three years ago and the awards have started to accumulate.

“I went by what I like. When I first entered, I went by what I thought was right,” she said.

She and her husband, Allen, started Isle of Skye Cheviots 10 years ago after experimenting with other breeds on their 100-year-old farm at Raven in west-central Alberta, where they also have 250 commercial cows and cropland.

She raises registered border collies that trace back to bloodlines in Scotland. She needed sheep to work with the dogs and after trying a North Country Cheviot ram she was hooked.

She has been raising dogs since she was nine and sells them all over Canada. Now she is selling her purebred sheep the same way.

“I applied what I know about breeding other animals into how I have bred my flock. I have done a lot of research into the breed itself,” she said.

She buys rams that trace back to Great Britain because she wants to maintain the traditional style of the breed with barrel-shaped bodies, pricked up ears, quality wool and Roman noses. Her flock includes descendants of the Queen Mother’s Longoe flock.

“I try to keep the traditional North Country Cheviot. They are a hill breed. In Scotland, they tend to have more of a shoulder and are thicker,” she said.

“I just feel so much is being lost with tradition and I wanted tradition,” she said.

Susan Neal shows a sample of fleece she collected from her flock of North Country Cheviots. | Barbara Duckworth photo

It is a feed-efficient breed where the fertile ewes produce lambs that are up and nursing with five minutes of life. They are hardy and require little hands on care, which she appreciates because she and Allen do all the other farm work.

Her business is on several tracks.

She sells rams to commercial producers, who are looking for hybrid vigour, and small flocks to people new to the business.

The breed has an easy-going temperament, which is good for people who want sheep but are novices with livestock.

“All the research I did on North Country Cheviot said they would run away from you before they would chase you down in the field.”

The fleece is white with long staples and good crimp, an ideal quality for spinners, weavers and knitters.

The sheep graze a hilly pasture but Neal bunk feeds them to keep the fleece as free of vegetable matter as possible.

She selects animals that have high quality fleece without long hairs. The absence of coarser hairs keeps the wool from being scratchy.

The sheep are sheared every spring and the fleeces are processed at Custom Woolen Mills at Carstairs. As a handcrafter, she appreciates the quality of natural fibre when she crochets or knits.

She sells to hand spinners across Canada. Quilt batting, roving and yarn carrying her label are sold through her website and Facebook page as well as local sales via word of mouth.

She has learned the value of marketing from past careers. A retired salesperson with Digitex Canada, she sold photocopiers and other electronics. She is also a journeyman appliance repairperson so she has experience working with the public.

“If you don’t try to make the most out of your flock of sheep or herd of cattle or whatever you have on the farm, you can lose out on some huge opportunities,” she said.

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