By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Over the last 15 years, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to a lot of places for Sheep Canada magazine, but there are still many parts of the country I’ve yet to see. One of these was the Gaspésie, or Gaspé Peninsula, which extends along the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River in eastern Québec, north of New Brunswick.
But I got my chance last month as I made the 4.5-hour trip from home to meet with Manon Lelièvre and her partner, Sylvain Arbour, to learn about the production and marketing of their seaweed-fed lamb.
Les Bergeries du Margot was started 25 years ago by Sylvain, with the purchase of a single building on 50 hectares of unused farmland and a starter flock of 50 crossbred ewes. Over the years Sylvain added buildings, acquired more sheep and took on partners in the enterprise, including Manon. The farm now consists of 500 acres plus another 100 that they rent, and is home to 600 ewes. This progress is especially impressive in view of the fact that scrapie has twice forced them to depopulate the flock and start over– in 2001 and again in 2005.
The current flock of registered Rideau Arcotts is scrapie-certified and closed to the introduction of outside animals, except for rams that have been genotyped. The farm is also on the provincial Maedi-visna program.
The flock is maintained year-round in three buildings on the home farm, and another barn on a separate property. The photoperiod system developed at the CEPOQ research station is used to program six groups of ewes so that there is a lambing roughly every six weeks. Manon says using the photoperiod system allows for some quality of life, with time to relax a little between lambings, in contrast to when they used sponges and PMSG to induce the ewes to lamb out of season.
Sylvain uses a software program called BerGére to record the production of the flock and make management decisions. He shared one report with me (see sidebar), which breaks the production of the flock down into in-season and out-of-season results, as well as according to the age of the ewes. The data on individual animals in BerGére is uploaded directly to GenOvis for the production of EPDs used to select rams and ewes.
The Rideau ewes are bred to Ile de France terminal sires to improve the carcass quality of the lambs. Les Bergeries du Margot lambs are slaughtered as heavy lambs and therefore must be sold to Québec’s single-desk marketing agency. But after sending the lambs to the HACCP-certified abbatoir near Rimouski (about 200 miles away), Manon buys some of them back to be marketed to meat shops and restaurants in Montreal and other parts of Québec as Agneau de la Gaspésie – Nourri aux Algues (Gaspé Peninsula Seaweed-Fed Lamb). Manon is quick to credit the agency with bringing stability to the price of heavy lambs in Québec, and the extra step of having to repurchase her own lambs from them is well worth it to have that security.
The seaweed in question is a Fucus species that is sold locally, but Sylvain and Manon buy it more affordably from a plant in Nova Scotia. Because it is an expensive ingredient, the seaweed is added to the basic ration of barley, wheat, and soybeans for the finishing stage only—which begins for male lambs at 30 kg and continues until they reach slaughter weight at 48-50 kg. Female lambs are not fed seaweed and not marketed as seaweed-fed lambs. They are slaughtered at lower weights (43-46 kg), due to their tendency to be fatter at a given weight, and sold to the agency.
Like all Québec lamb producers, Manon receives detailed carcass information such as weight, GR measurement, and conformation scores on every lamb they ship. But, unlike most producers, she receives this information the day after the lambs are killed, which allows her to make a final selection of the lambs that will represent her brand. It also allows her to allocate specific carcasses to each customer, based on their individual preferences.
Manon acknowledges that the seaweed probably does not directly affect the taste or quality of the lamb—it is, however, a valuable tool in creating a brand that helps to sell lamb for a premium price. But the seaweed-fed lambs are a superior product; not because of the seaweed but because of the strict criteria that lambs must meet to be marketed as seaweed-fed lamb: male lambs (because they are leaner and better-muscled than females at the same carcass weight) that have never been treated with antibiotics or other medications, raised under specific conditions of space, light and temperature, and with specific GR measurements (fat depths) and conformation scores.
These lambs are truly the ‘cream of the crop’ at Les Bergeries du Margot—premium lambs, distinctive for their uniformity (conformation and weight), marbling and tenderness. In order to purchase these elite lambs back from the agency, Manon must keep detailed records of their feeding and management, which is also certified by an independent monitoring agency—EcoCert.
Manon works with two other farms in the Gaspé, who also raise seaweed-fed lamb according to her criteria and deliver to the same abbatoir. With three farms working together they have fresh lambs for their customers every week, but none of them has to ship lambs more often than every two weeks.
Every Tuesday Manon makes the four-hour trip from their home in Bonaventure to the abbatoir, where she picks up 25–30 lamb carcasses in their refrigerated delivery van. From there she heads to Montreal (a further five hours), where she delivers the carcasses to butcher shops and restaurants, before spending the night with family and returning home the next day. To offset the cost of the weekly trip, Manon does a ‘backhaul’, picking up items in Montreal or Québec City for delivery to people in the Gaspé.
Manon shared some printouts from the heavy-lamb agency for 15 lambs killed in the first week of May. These lambs had an average slaughter weight of 22.6 kg and an average index of 104.39. The average price paid for lambs at the abbatoir that week was $10.50, but the price paid for these 15 higher-indexing lambs was $10.96 per kg or $247.70 per head. There is a small deduction of $1.65 plus tax per lamb for shearing the wool off the bellies before slaughter.
When Manon buys the lambs back from the agency, she pays the same price, plus the cost of slaughtering the lambs, which ranges from $28-30 per head. When she sells the carcasses on to her customers, she receives an 18% premium for these specialty lamb carcasses.
Of course none of this would be possible without the use of RFID tags and readers, both on the farm and at the abbatoir. Like all lambs in Québec, Sylvain and Manon’s are double-tagged with an Allflex dangle tag and matching RFID tag within 48 hours of birth. The Agri-Traçabilité Québec (ATQ) number on the tags is used to identify each lamb from the farm to the abbatoir to the customer, and on all reports and invoices from the heavy lamb agency.
Manon works with a distributor who finds the customers in Montreal and other parts of Québec. The distributor is waiting for the abbatoir where the lambs are killed to obtain USDA certification, so they can expand their sales into the US. The farm website (in English and French) is an important marketing tool and lists all of the locations where their product can be purchased, or is served.
For more information on Les Bergeries du Margot, visit their website by going to sheepcanada.com and clicking on the link for this issue.