Ontario Sheep Farmers advocate for sheep, people & the environment
Many people do not know that Ontario is home to our country’s largest sheep flock.
There are 3,000 sheep farmers in Ontario. These farmers contribute over $530 million to our economy.
Established in 1985 and producer run, Ontario Sheep Farmers (OSF) is an organization that represents all aspects of the sheep, lamb and wool industry in our province. With the goal to encourage and to promote, the OSF works daily to improve the marketing of sheep, lamb and wool through producer education, promotional campaigns, consumer education and public awareness.
Jenn MacTavish, OSF’s General Manager explains to Norfolk Farms that OSF represents the interests of a very diverse range of members.
Recently, OSF passed a Diversity and Inclusion Policy. Wanting to care for both sheep and people, in a media release dated June 21, 2021, MacTavish writes: “OSF is looking forward and committed to continuous improvement--for our people, our farms, our animals and our industry partners.”
It is this forward thinking that has also propelled the OSF to be working on a new five-year strategic plan. Known as the Crossroads Challenge, OSF has gathered farmer surveys, held town halls and listened to many one-on-one conversations. Industry growth is a main concern. It will be exciting to see the OSF’s new plan soon.
Livestock matters . . .especially sheep!
Sheep and other livestock provide so many benefits. They make several important contributions to our environment and to our economy.
Food security: some livestock consume grass, damaged or unusable grains, crop residues, and by-products from food processing.
Land Use: roughly 30% of Canada’s agricultural land is unsuitable for growing crops, but can be used as pasture fields for grazing livestock. These pastures provide habitats for other wildlife.
Environment: livestock are part of the original recycling program. First, grazing animals eat grasses and other indigestible plant matter. Secondly, this gets converted into nutrient and protein rich food. Thirdly, it gets returned into organic matter to the soil.
Soil Health: grazing livestock improves soil system performance by reducing soil degradation and dependence on fertilizers and herbicides.
Wool: fleece from sheep can be turned into wool which is a sustainable and biodegradable fabric. *source Ontario Sheep Farmers.org
Sheep farmers play a significant role in agricultural grassland management
The environmental value of Ontario’s agricultural grasslands is very significant. Grasslands are part of the solution to climate change, biodiversity loss, and soil degradation; but unfortunately they are often overlooked.
“Grasslands are a whole ecosystem that people have forgotten about. Part of the reason for the inattention is the lack of information about the value of agricultural grasslands,” says Jenn
MacTavish of the OSF. “They act as avenues for carbon sequestration and storage.”
Not only do grasslands serve as feed for grazing sheep, but they also serve as habitat to many species like birds and pollinators.
Carrie Woolley of Woolleys’ Lamb: sustainably raising and grazing sheep
Not only is Carrie Woolley a Shepherd and founder/owner of Woolleys’ Lamb, a Simcoe operation that has 2,000 sheep, but Carrie is also an environmental renegade.
Recently Carrie was one of 50 recipients worldwide who won in the category of the best small business awards in the Good Food for All competition that was held as part of the United Nations Food Systems Summit. Winning this prestigious agriculture award has been humbling for Carrie.
“I just do what works for us,” says Carrie while discussing rotational grazing with Norfolk Farms.
“Some people get caught up in the terminology of it,” she explains. “For example, ours is regenerative or ours is holistic. I’m not too fancy with it.”
Evidently Carrie’s union of nature, conservation and farming is working.
Carrie is a sixth-generation farmer in Norfolk County and has her BSC in Animal Biology and a Masters in Animal Behavior and Welfare. Her operation is partnered with her husband’s family farm, Schuyler Farms Limited that grows apples, soybeans, sour cherries and corn.
It was Carrie’s husband, Brett Schuyler, who was the one who first saw sheep grazing in orchards in New Zealand. Brett brought this idea back to Canada.
In July, when Norfolk Farms interviewed Carrie, she had 2,000 sheep that consisted of 855 breeding ewes, 1,100 lambs that were born this past spring, and 45 mature rams.
Rotational grazing is the practice of containing and moving livestock through different pastures. Each grazed pasture is given a time to rest and rejuvenate. This system improves soil, plant and animal health. For Woolleys’ Lambs, the result is lambs are born and raised on a 100% pasture diet.
If you’re not familiar with what a silvopasture is, it can be easily explained as a living barn. By combining sheep with trees, forages and shrubs, sheep are provided with both shade and food. Carrie and Brett have 130 acres of silvo pastures that they utilize in their rotational grazing. Additionally, they have 25 acres of grasslands.
“The beginning of our cycle is in the spring with lambing,” explains Carrie. “We go out to permanent pastures and decide on a set stocking rate by determining what each barn can handle. I decide this from looking at what it has been able to handle in previous years. We actually have 9 different farms that we divvy up our sheep into. It is in early August that we start weaning lambs. We then take the lambs into the cherry orchards after the cherries have been harvested.”
The process and length of rotational grazing is long.
“We do 8 months of rotational grazing,” tells Carrie. “Whether we are out on our pastures or out on our orchards, or even doing crop residue grazing, we’re always doing rotational. In another couple of weeks, for example, we’re going to be doing sweet corn residue from a neighbours farm. We tweak it as we go along depending on the pasture and how the animals are doing.”
For Carrie and other Shepherd’s, rotational grazing has so many proven advantages--for both the flock and the land it feeds on. These are certainly exciting times for the sheep industry, and with forward thinking people like Carrie, the possibilities are hopeful and endless.