Raising Sheep Demands Constant Vigilance
Not far from McBride, BC, nestled in the beautiful Robson Valley bottom land that frames the Fraser River, is a wilderness paradise known as the Robson Valley Sheep Farm. Owned and operated by Theres and Hani Gasser, the certified organic farm is dedicated to raising high quality meat sheep, who share the land with a few dozen Angus beef cows, a few riding horses and some poultry for home use. Like most paradises, the Robson Valley Sheep Farm’s idyllic appearance is the result of careful planning, good management, and lots of hard work.
The Swiss Family Robson
Hani and Theres, along with their three little children, came to BC from Switzerland in 1988. Hani was fresh out of a four-year training program from a Swiss agricultural college, which included two years of hands–on apprenticeship and two years of classroom study. Hani had taken extra courses in organic farming, and was eager to put his knowledge to work in his new country.
After spending their first four years in Canada managing a biodynamic beef operation near Chase, BC, in 1992 the Gassers were ready to take the leap into farming for themselves. They bought land in Chase and for the next 14 years they very successfully ran the well known certified organic Mountain Meadow Sheep Dairy, producing sheep milk cheeses and yogurt.
Then, in the fall of 2006, the Gasser took an even bigger leap: they moved north to McBride, onto 535 acres of beautifully forested wilderness in the Robson Valley. Situated on a big bend of the Fraser River, their new domain came complete with an oxbow lake, a full mile of river frontage and a large acreage of fertile wetland full of local and migrating birds, which the Gassers now maintain as a bird sanctuary.
What the property did not include was livable space for the Gassers. The farm hadn’t been occupied for over a quarter of a century, and Hani and Theres’ first project was to change the large equipment shop into a dual service timberframe home and shop. Using their own pine beetle killed timber, the couple spent several years doing all of the renovations themselves.
A Hardy Herd for a Northern Climate
The sheep on the Robson Valley farm are a variety of mixed breeds, resulting in a robust and healthy herd that can tolerate the cold winters and thrive in the wilderness environment. The Gassers brought their original dairy herd north with them, and since then have crossed the sheep with breeds that can lamb out at one year old, successfully mother the first time with a single lamb and then mature into an ewe that gives twins, while living on grass and hay alone. The Robson Valley sheep do not receive any grain. The size of the flock each year varies from about 100 to 300 mother sheep depending on the amount of hay produced by the start of winterfeeding. The sheep live outdoors all year round except during lambing, when the ewes are moved close to the house into the lambing barns where they can be checked every three hours.
Since sheep and parasites love each other, parasite prevention dictates the rotational grazing schedule for the Robson Valley flock. The Gassers are careful to rotate their sheep out of a pasture ahead of the parasites’ maturation cycle. This means moving the sheep every week, or at the very longest, before 14 days. Thanks to electric fencing, the paddocks are kept small enough so that the sheep can be moved easily.
This rotational grazing pattern mimics natural ruminant behaviour of grazing the valley bottoms in the spring and winter and moving up to fresh mountain pastures during summer and autumn.
This rotational grazing pattern mimics natural ruminant behaviour of grazing the valley bottoms in the spring and winter and moving up to fresh mountain pastures during summer and autumn. The Gassers also practice multi-species grazing, keeping cows and horses in the pasture along with the sheep. Combined with regular haying, the practices help to prevent the sheep from grazing in the same paddock more than once a year.
Inevitably though, occasionally a parasite appears. Whenever the Gassers detect evidence of parasites in one of the sheep, they are quick to administer their custom-order herbal de-wormer. The de-wormer, developed by the Gassers themselves with assistance from the staff at Urban Spice in Vancouver, contains wormwood, fennel seed and gentian. The Gassers’ have now started growing their own wormwood to ensure a ready supply of this key ingredient.
A Machine-Free Farming Lifestyle
Since neither Hani nor Theres enjoy doing mechanical repairs, they have reduced their reliance on farming equipment down to haying and fencing machines. When the pastures are in need of reseeding with red and white clover, timothy and orchard grasses, the Gassers simply hand broadcast the seed into a pasture just before the sheep flock is moved in, and rely on the sheep to trample the seed into the earth.
Alternatively, in the summer they add seeds to the cattle salts and let the cows do the work of spreading them — with organic fertilizer included for free! While these methods are slower than working the soil with equipment, the Gassers find them simpler, much less expensive, and less work-intensive. Currently their biggest problem in pasture maintenance is the encroaching advance of hawkweed and foxtail barley. Hani and Theres would love to hear from other farmers with suggestions for combating these weeds.
Because sheep require a diet much higher in protein than beef cattle do, growing, growing high-quality hay is crucial to sheep herd health, Hani explains. This is partly due to the fact that a cow weans a calf when it only about half the weight of its mother and a ewe weaning twin lambs has to raise nearly double her own weight.
That need for protein can make sheep fussy eaters, and very talented at nibbling off all the leaves and discarding the rough stems of the hay. And that can lead to a lot of wastage, so the Gassers have solved the problem with winterfeed by allowing only their sheep into a pasture to feed on a new hay bale first. When the sheep have finished picking over the bale, the following day the cows are brought in to clean up the leftovers. This method leaves very little waste and helps keep the Gassers’ collies busy herding all winter long too.
Because of intense predator pressures in this neck of the woods, very good livestock guard dogs are required to be on duty at all times. Two or three Akbash or Akbash-crossed dogs (preferably Comondor) live with the flock all year long. The dogs are with the flock 24/7 — except when a female is in a ‘standing heat’ and needs to be temporarily kenneled.
The critical trick to developing a excellent sheep guard is that between its 6th and 10th week of age, the puppy must bond with livestock.
Thanks to the watchfulness of their guard dogs the Gassers lose very few animals. In fact, in the last nine years they report they have lost only 5 ewes — to an attack by a pack of wolves. The secret to their success? According to the Gassers, the critical trick to developing a excellent sheep guard is that between its 6th and 10th week of age, the puppy must bond with livestock. And they’re careful not to make pets of the dogs. As Hani says, “A livestock guard dog has no business in your yard, in a kennel, or on your porch. And it should only be fed and receive affectionate petting when by the flock. We are the Alpha dog to our guard dog pack and they come when called.”
Where the Akbash specialize in guarding the sheep flock, the Gassers use Border Collies and one New Zealand Huntaway to herd the sheep from pasture to pasture. Theres and Hani love to train and work with their guard and herding dogs and occasionally sell puppies.
If you would like more information on sheep farming, Hani and Theres are happy to share their ideas, opinions, and their years of experience and wisdom on shepherding. You can reach them through their website: www.sheephappens.ca
Marjorie Harris, BSc, IOIA V.O., P. Ag. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – attributed to Hippocrates