12 October 2001


Eleven years after emigrating from Worcestershire to Ontario, Canada, John and Eadie

Steele have built up a thriving sheep operation, as Paul Sanderson explains

SINCE emigrating to Canada from England in May 1990, John and Eadie Steele have earned considerable respect within the Canadian sheep industry for the success and sophistication of their commercial production operation. Their name is known far and wide across the country and many buyers purchase sheep from the couple without viewing them first.

"Our primary objective is to supply large groups of uniform replacement ewe lambs to commercial producers," explains John Steele. Their 900-ewe flock has been developed under the Ontario Lamb Improvement Breeding Strategy (OLIBS). And since November 1995 the Steeles have undertaken cooperative research with The University of Guelph, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, and the Ontario Sheep Marketing Agency to establish an above-average maternal line ewe of a certified health status.

The Steeles 120ha (300-acre) farm near Norwood, Ontario is roughly 100 miles northeast of Toronto. John classifies 93ha (230 acres) as workable, with productive land split between 46ha (115 acres) of pasture and 46ha (115 acres) of lucerne and maize for silage.

Although they describe the landscape as comparable to the Welsh Borders, the farm lies within one days drive of eight major cities in Canada and the United States. The climate is continental – hot summers and cold winters.

John and Eadie started with a flock of 67 mixed breed commercial ewes. John had considerable experience of sheep from farming in partnership with his father in Worcestershire. Together, they managed the 200-ewe Pershore flock of Pedigree Suffolk sheep as well as a 1500-ewe commercial flock.

Despite this history, the Steeles recall having only unfocused aspirations to farm, but no specific plan to farm sheep, when they emigrated. However, as their initial flock expanded, and they began to make connections with like-minded producers, their attitude began to change.

John was particularly encouraged to learn that a Canadian government programme had been underway for 15 years developing and enhancing the genetics of the Rideau/Arcott breed, a potential world-class dam line.

&#42 Probably non-existent

"And yet the worldwide reputation of Canada for sheep is probably non-existent," says Eadie. "At first we were unaware of the opportunities within Canadas sheep industry – Ontarios in particular. The Ontario sheep industry is in a period of growth, with the market chronically undersupplied."

For the shrewd business operator Ontario offers tremendous opportunities, claims John. In Canada, lamb is viewed as a luxury meat and does not compete with the commodity meats, beef, pork, and chicken. But all the Ontario producers combined currently supply only 50% of the demand for lamb from Torontos large immigrant population, he says.

Private treaty is the marketing norm for breeding stock, explains John. There are few specially-run breeding stock sales and market lambs are generally sold at auction. A small number are sold under a deadweight contract programme with the Ontario Sheep Marketing Agency.

A wide range of buyers, seeking all weight ranges – usually 20-50kg (45-110lb) live weight – is typical at auction, says John. With few exceptions, light lambs go to slaughter and not for further feeding. Under special arrangement, the Steeles also sell some market lambs direct to retailers. "Buyers pay a premium for our lambs," he says. "They may not know us, but they recognise our lambs."

The environment and production systems in Canada are different from those in other lamb- producing countries and strictly British farming techniques sometimes produce disappointing results under Canadian conditions. However sheep husbandry fundamentals hold true.

The Steeles flock is winter housed in seven polytunnels, with a combined capacity of 1200 breeding ewes. Two of these are heated with propane brooder heaters for winter lambing. Each polytunnel is approximately 30m (100ft) long and 9m (30ft) wide and these structures provide a bright and healthy environment for the sheep during the winter months. In the summer they are closed up, and the heat is an excellent steriliser of pathogens.

Lambs are finished in a 300sq m (3200sq ft) slatted-floor feeder barn. The basement below the slatted floor serves as a dry manure storage area, with cross-pit ventilation. Animals are housed on the upper floor, which is equipped with eight-foot-high adjustable side curtains for light and ventilation along the entire east and west sides.

The barns capacity is 800 lambs, sorted by weight and sex in groups of 65 – most ram lambs are sold at 45kg (100lb) between 90 and 120 days old. Feeding is fully-automated whole grain ration.

&#42 Bugle design

An 18m x 24m (60ft x 80ft) barn was built exclusively for sheep handling. The interior bugle design provides the capacity to quickly and accurately process (sort, medicate, tag, gather data) 300 animals an hour.

In the summer of 2000, John and Eadie constructed an on-farm surgery facility for embryo transfer procedures. The farm is also equipped with two bunker silos, 8.5m x 30m (28ft x 100ft), plus two additional greenhouses for storing hay and straw.

They maximise forages from May 1 to Oct 31 through intensive rotational grazing. Each field has access to water through a 200m (700ft) umbilical pipe, which is moved with each rotation. A snacker feeder, pulled behind an ATV, is used to provide grain/mineral supplementation at pasture as required. Winter feeding is primarily maize and lucerne silage stored in the bunker silos. Local contractors are used for manure spreading, and silage harvesting. Specialised sheep services are also used for shearing and ultrasound pregnancy scanning.

"Farming still tends to be a very insular occupation," says John. For this reason he stresses the importance of gaining general exposure to the Canadian environment, culture, and production systems before committing to a farming operation here.

John worked for seven years in the Canadian banking system before he began full-time farming. This provided invaluable experience in creating the farming operation that they now have. Even then, he had a greenhouse collapse under the heavy snow load after he underestimated the severity of Canadas winters. In this part of Canada, he says, you bury outside water lines a minimum of 1.2m (4ft) deep to prevent winter freezing.

Predator (mainly coyote) control is another industry issue. The Steeles entire farm is protected by a 1.2m (4ft) high-tensile perimeter fence with two electric wires on top, with stand-off electric wires six inches from the ground on the outside. Guard llamas patrol the smaller internal fields as a back-up to the electric fence system.

While farmers in Canada enjoy substantially less red tape and less competition than their British counterparts, lack of skilled labour remains a chronic problem. Ontarios particularly good standard of living continues to attract farmers from abroad, but it also offers a variety of attractive employment options to potential workers. The Steeles have noticed that farmers from Great Britain are well represented in Ontario, but they generally remain outnumbered by farmers from Europe.

Some exposure to Canadian culture, including the little details such as a drivers licence, health card, social security number, and insurance agents, can go a long way to improving the prospects of an emigrant farmer on Canadian soil. From experience, John and Eadie Steele have learned, "the language may be the same, but Canadas still a foreign country."

More detailed information on the Steeles Canadian operation is on their farm web-site,


Main pic: A winter view of five of the sheep polytunnels. Total capacity is 1200 ewes and two are heated with propane for winter lambing (cost is £82/tunnel/30 day lambing period).Below left: John and Eadie with children Ian and Chelsea.

A group of flock rams on autumn pasture.

A 4ft fence keeps out coyote (and occasionally black bears and cougar).

Eadie and Chelsea in the lamb feed barn. Most ram lambs are sold at 45kg between 90 and 120 days old. Feeding is fully automated.

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