Northern Ontario Agriculture Spotlight: Wand Family Farm
When driving past the Wand Family Farm outside Powassan in late spring you could be forgiven for thinking that an unseasonably late and very localized blizzard had just covered one of the fields. This is because lambing season swells the Wand sheep flock from some 600 ewes to over 2000 animals when all is said and done. Add to that number the several Great Pyrenees guard dogs and there can be a lot of white spots in Markus Wand’s fields.
Wand Family Farm is a multigenerational affair, having been started in 1975 when Markus’ parents moved from Germany to start a dairy operation. The family transitioned from dairy to beef cattle in the 1990s and added sheep in 2003. The farm now boasts 65 Red Angus and Simmental cow-calf pairs, pigs, chickens and turkeys in addition to the sheep, and continues to slowly expand. Markus’ mother Ursula still plays an active role on the farm, along with his wife Jennifer and their young son Bronson who is not quite old enough to drive the big McCormick tractors yet.
It takes some 2500 large round bales to feed the sheep and cattle over the winter, but they’re rotationally grazed over the farm’s 475 acres for as much of the year as possible. Grazing this many animals requires considerable pasture management. “Since doing a better job of fertilizer and manure application, stockpiling forages and rotating the cattle and sheep in the grazing system, we have been able to extend the grazing season even further on both ends, but mostly towards the end of the grazing season. The sheep tend to allow for earlier pasturing, since they are gentler on fields during the wetness of spring – we generally can graze the sheep in lower lying, wet areas before we can pasture the cattle. In 2016, the grazing season was April 27 to December 11, which was the longest to date,” reports Markus. The sheep are moved to different pastures every three or four days, ensuring that the forage isn’t eaten down too much and will be able to regrow so that pastures can be grazed four, sometimes even five times each season.
Alternating sheep and cattle through fields reduces the parasite load for both species, which is a critical part of Markus’ strategy. Leaving a single grazing animal species in a field means that they will increase the number of parasites for that specific species in the field and in the animals themselves, which can inhibit growth and cause health problems. To combat this, moving cows through a field after sheep ensures the cattle consume the sheep parasite, which has little or no effect on them, and then fewer sheep-specific parasites are present in the field next time the sheep are rotated through. As Markus says, since beginning the rotational grazing practice “we have experienced less sheep and lamb mortality and morbidity, while using less anthelmintic products to control sheep parasites.”
Markus notes that the sheep are still run through the handling system roughly the same number of times as before the rotational grazing was instituted, but they spend less time in the system because only animals needing to be dosed with de-wormers are stopped. Additionally, running the sheep through the system ensures that all sheep are checked for health issues, parasites or otherwise. The sheep also become accustomed to running through the handling system, making it less stressful for both the animals and the farmer.
Ensuring that the sheep and cattle rotate pasture regularly can be labour intensive, but has been aided by the construction and maintenance of extensive water systems and fences. Permanent waterlines run through much of the property, but where they don’t water is provided through solar- and gas-powered systems. Each grazing season sees new fences built, both page wire and high-tensile, while old fences are removed or replaced. Added to the permanent fence system are three strand poly-wire reels strung across fields to temporarily divide them.
While improved animal health and productivity is its own reward, the Wands have also received outside recognition for their efforts. In 2017 the Wand family won the Ontario Sheep Pasture award for their “excellent environmental protection practices” while at the same time being “able to improve animal health and husbandry.” Further back in 2010 they also won the Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers Commercial Wool Production Award.
Markus Wand’s overall recommendation for anyone looking to improve their pasture efficiency is simply to ensure that pasture is not grazed excessively. Don’t put animals out to pasture too early in the spring, don’t leave them out too late in the fall, and in between make sure they don’t eat the pastures down too much. This allows a farmer to maximize productivity from each and every field.
You can find Wand Family Farm online on Facebook and www.wandfamilyfarm.com, or you can meet the family in person at the North Bay Farmers’ Market every Saturday. See the North Bay Farmers’ Market website for hours.