Animal Welfare: Why an Alberta Sheep Farmer Got Officially Certified

23 March 2022
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“Well Tara,” said Chris, her voice slow and Southern—from somewhere in Texas—“We’ve looked over your application, and after all your paperwork, interviews, and inspections were reviewed by the board, I’m real pleased to tell you you’ve been approved. Welcome to our family.”

I can’t begin to tell you how those words made me feel.

I’d found A Greener World—the organization that granted our Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) certification—quite by accident. At the time, I wasn’t looking for an animal welfare program, I was looking for a regenerative agriculture program.

Unfortunately, the regenerative agriculture program was still in development, but the AWA was good to go, and so, without giving it much more thought than it took to click the link, I started to fill in the paperwork.

It started with a deep desire to build a foundation of credibility. I wanted something I could show my community, something that was quantifiable, backed by knowledgeable people and from an organization with integrity. I wasn’t interested in a showy rubber stamp; I was interested in some qualifications. I wanted something that was rigorous, official, and comprehensive for the farm. I wanted to be able to speak knowledgably and have some credibility. I wanted ongoing support. I wanted to be held to account.

In a very real way, my eight-month Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) certification odyssey was my attempt to draw a box around my feet—a box that said “Start.” For many Canadians, farming—especially fibre farming—is an unknown quantity. And if my recent participation in the Agricultural Census is any indication, it’s an unknown even for many in my sector. I wanted to make sure I had a way to start this critical conversation about animal welfare. I wanted to prompt a specific question, to put the choice right there in front of people. It was important—so very important—that the breathing animal I tended and loved, with her own personality and habits and preferences, was present in the fibre held in the hands of someone who might never have a chance to meet her. I wanted Claire or Truvy or Bronte or Clancy to be known and appreciated and, above all else, I wanted our community to know they were respected. They were never ever just a means to an end. On the contrary, they were the beginning and I wanted to begin.

image description: a close up of a shaggy-headed sheep
Charlotte, one of our purebred Cotswold ladies. Charlotte grows an impressive forelock which I’ve threatened to tie up in hair bows. Fortunately it has never come to that and as long as she stands quietly while I pick all the bits and pieces out, it never will.
I’m not sure what it’s like for anyone else, but I’m not really good at mulling things over, considering the options or coming to grips with the work involved, skills needed, or resources deployed. A friend of mine—a former Canadian Forces member—once looked at me with a mixture of despair and disbelief (although I prefer to think of it as awe) and said that in their world of flash/bang decision making, I was more of a fla-BANG. “There’s no lag time,” they muttered at me. “None at all. I don’t think YOU even know what you’re going to do next.” That may be true, but as I read through the next steps in the process I had initiated, it became pretty clear pretty fast that I had—of my own free will—just subjected myself, my farm and my animals to a lot of scrutiny from people I didn’t know. I wasn’t in the driver’s seat now. My whole operation was going to be put under a microscope.
image description: a sheep looks away from the camera, a snowy scene is visible in the background

One of our original four girls—the start of our flock! This is Truvy, a Dorset/Border Leicester cross and yes, no ears. She was born on a desperately cold night in February three years ago. Despite her original shepherd’s best efforts, this little girl was badly frostbitten. When she came to us, I never noticed her earless-ness. I only had eyes for her sweet nature.

To say the process was thorough would be an understatement. Terms like “emergency preparedness” had me opening Google Earth for a satellite view of our property. I was looking up feed analyses, writing a letter to my vet, answering emailed requests for clarifications, talking on the phone with a nice man named Frank from somewhere in Maryland for over an hour. Poor Frank. Frank had the patience of Job as he waded through my fifty pages of intake forms and assessments, every question answered with more words than I needed but far fewer than I could spare.

I had to dig out every bit of history I could on every single sheep on our farm: Birth dates, farm-of-origin, when were they vaccinated and with what? When were their feet trimmed? What tracking systems did we use? When did they get sheared? Had they ever been bred? Had they ever been sick? What medications had we used? How did they get from point A to point B? How did we quarantine? Did we have a plan in place for evacuation if it was necessary? Before I knew it, five months had slipped away in a flurry of paper, emails and phone calls.

And then one day, there was a new name in my inbox.

“Hi Tara. My name is Daniel and I’ll be doing your on-farm audit.”

image description: a snowy outdoor scene, sheep and alpaca grazing around evergreen trees

The Flerd—flock plus herd equals flerd! We rotationally graze alpacas and sheep together and have been pleased with the impacts this combination has had on the land. Our flerd frequently follows after the horses in our grazing program.

Up until this point, everything had been done remotely, on paper or over the phone. It’s not that I was worried necessarily—we work really hard to keep the farm in great shape—it was just that someone I had never met before was going to be walking around our pens and sheds, probably with a clipboard, definitely with a critical look, making little ticks in little boxes with his (probably) judge-y little pen. As much as I believed in what I was doing, I was nervous. This was a whole new ballgame.

By the time Daniel-from-Georgia showed up on my Alberta doorstep, I was humming at a pitch only bats can hear. I plied him with tea (not sweet) and biscuits (Georgia) and answered his questions as best I could, given that I had to choose between breathing and talking because I seemed incapable of synchronizing them in the usual way. He did indeed have a pen and a thick book where he noted my answers—some of them totally acceptable, others needing an explanation and one or two more that he wrote down with reservations.

But after more explanations and a review by the decision board, we finally got the news: our AWA had been approved!

image description: a close up of a white sheep, facing towards the camera

Fancy Man Clancy—our flock daddy! Clancy is a purebred, registered Border Leicester. Many people think rams are difficult elements in the flock but Clancy, like many a Border Leicester sire before him, is a perfect gentleman and has never given me a moment’s worry. He’s never even pawed the ground in my direction. Thanks to his apron, Clancy is able to live among his ladies all year long. It’s a more natural arrangement and I think he likes it. A lot.

The thrill of knowing where I stand is immeasurable. I am now ready to tell you about our journey and our sheep. I am hopeful that the AWA process will be the “Start” box for all of us: a place we can all meet—whether fibre producer or fibre consumer—to discuss, advocate for, and work to safeguard all of our incredible fibre-producing animals. I know that like me, our community cares deeply about animal welfare, and I am so pleased to begin.

So. Let’s begin.

image: two shaggy sheep, grazing close together

Truvy with Bronte, another of the Cotswold ladies. Cotswolds are also endangered in Canada which is a shame—this is a breed with over 1000 years of history. They were around when the Romans came to Britain! When settlers were moving across the plains, Cotswolds and Border Leicesters would very likely have been among the breeds that they brought with them. Times change and both these venerable breeds have fallen out of favour with commercial producers. We’re doing what we can to preserve them.

image description: a small alpaca, facing the camera
Jubilee Rose, one of our alpacas. Jube-jube is shy and not very social but she doesn’t mind having her picture taken.
image description: a large shaggy-haired dog with a mostly brown face, looks towards the camera

Our livestock guardian dog, Clio. Clio is a purebred Sharplaninac, a breed originally from the Balkans. She’s very well adapted to our climate and fantastic at her job—Clio stood down her first bear at nine months old.

image description: a brown-faced sheep, in three-quarter profile, with hay and small twigs caught in the locks of the fleece
Nell, a wonderful mix of Cotswold and probably a whole lot else. She has a bellow you can hear a yard away.
image description: a sheep looks towards the camera, a snowy scene is visible in the background
This is Maude, one of our purebred, registered Border Leicesters. As far as I know, I have the only breeding flock of this endangered sheep breed in Alberta.
image description: a close-up of a sheep's fleece, very curly, with a few small twigs tangled in the locks

A beautiful Border Leicester fleece. Border Leicesters can be sheared twice a year, although we generally only do it once. In a year, any one of our Leicesters can easily grow six to eight inches of staple length. Although not generally considered a fine fibre like a Merino, Border Leicester makes a resilient, hard-wearing and practical yarn that will take a lot of wear, dyes beautifully and lasts a long time.

All images by Tara Klager.

Copyright © Tara Klager except as indicated.

About Tara Klager

Tara Klager is a first-generation regenerative fibre farmer raising endangered and heritage breed sheep hard against the Rocky Mountain foothills in Alberta, Canada. With a passion for the land and a firm conviction that her role is to safeguard and steward the amazing place she gets to call home, Tara, and her husband Bob, have worked to build community with a wide range of representation - from LGBTQ2+ to Indigenous organizations to fibre enthusiasts and members of the public, Tara provides a place and framework to encourage discussion and interaction between a variety of groups and people. Whether you're interested in animal husbandry and welfare, endangered sheep breeds, the variety of practices that go into regenerative agriculture and how you might apply them to your own context or fibre and all its possibilities, Tara invites you to the homestead, a world of people, place and permaculture. Welcome to my frontier!

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