Ag edition: Shepherds-in-training

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Two generations are working together at Sure Shot Sheep, where the walls of the barn office are covered with framed photos of two families working and playing on the farm.

The McNabb and Brooks families have joined forces, with friends and family on call when needed, to learn and grow their relatively new lamb operation.

The venture started with Jeremy McNabb, who bought 42 sheep during the pandemic. His wife Janine was pregnant at the time so Rachel Brooks stepped up to help, forging a partnership between the two families.

They have grown their operation and now have 350 breeding ewes in two locations within Clearview Township.

Having had no farm-life experience until Rachel married Will Brooks, whose family has been cash cropping in the area since the 1980s. She said she has had a lot to learn, and dove right in, studying as much as she could – everything from how to operate a tractor and a skid steer to using hormones to bring the ewes into oestrus, a period of fertility.

She completed the Ontario Sheep Farmers’ Master Shepherd’s Course and now chairs the Ontario Sheep Farmers’ committee for District 6 (Simcoe, Muskoka and Parry Sound). The Ontario Sheep Farmers is an organization that advocates on behalf of Ontario’s 3,000 sheep farmers, representing the sheep, lamb and wool industries. There are fewer than 100 sheep farmers in Simcoe County and District 6 is small in numbers but Rachel hopes to increase participation.

She says they have found a community in the sheep world, a network of people willing to share knowledge and mentor young shepherds.

She and her daughter Clara have become involved with the South Simcoe 4-H Sheep Club.

Clara, now 13, was really keen from the start and her two brothers, aged nine and 11, are now becoming more involved. The McNabb children are still very young but do enjoy spending time with the sheep.

Clara has started to grow her own flock and now has five sheep.

“I love everything about it,” said Clara of shepherding. “I like doing chores and watching them grow up.”

She wants to be a large animal veterinarian and recently took a 4-H trip to the University of Guelph, where she hopes to study one day, for a tour the school and to learned how to judge animal showmanship and homecraft.

“It has given her purpose and is teaching her work ethic and responsibility,” said Rachel. “It is pretty cool to watch children learn how to take care of animals.”

They are working with a nutritionist who recently suggested they add liquid molasses to the nursing mothers’ diet of corn silage, haylage, dry hay, cracked corn and minerals. Jeremy, who keeps part of the flock at his Brentwood farm, said he really wanted to try it. Although they haven’t had any issues and the sheep seem to like it, they have no way to definitively measure the effect on the output of milk.

On a visit to their Concession 9 barn, Jeremy and Rachel point out that the barn is quieter than some because the sheep are healthy and well fed. Rachel points to sleeping pile of lambs, something she calls a lamb puddle.

Using hormones to accelerate lambing to three times in a two-year period, the lambs are sent to Ontario Stockyards in Cookstown when they are between three and four months old. The meat is distributed through Trillium Lamb Producers, a joint venture value chain and quality assurance program, and is also sold locally at Hoffmans, A&D Bird Seed Country Store, and direct-to- freezer orders.

“Having Ontario raised meat in the store is an accomplishment because of all the imported meat you see in the grocery stores,” said Rachel. “Local has a lower impact.”

The hurdle is the cost because Ontario sheep farmers can’t compete with farmers in New Zealand who can pasture many more animals, and cheaply.

For their comfort, health and wellbeing the sheep are sheared twice per year but there is no market for the wool so the industry is looking for innovative ways to find uses for it as a method of reducing waste. The lack of use for the wool is a hurdle in the production cycle of the farm that is otherwise circular with feed coming off the field and manure being used as fertilizer.

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