By Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Starting from nothing to build a farm a half-hour from Montreal is an intimidating prospect. But Martin Brodeur Choquette and Johanne Cameron have done it, through a combination of hard work and an unconventional approach to acquiring land and facilities.
The yard was a hive of activity when I arrived in mid-November to visit with Johanne and see the flock. The children, Clara (4) and Victor (18 months) were staying with Johanne’s parents in Quebec City, because all the windows had been taken out of their house as part of a renovation. Behind the house, a construction crew was working on a new building that will house a generator and other equipment, part of a broiler barn to be built next year. I was surprised that Johanne had agreed to let me come interview her with all this going on, but over the course of the afternoon I realized that construction projects are just business as usual for her and Martin.
Johanne and Martin were each involved in the sheep industry before they met 12 years ago, but it was the sheep that brought them together.
Martin got his first sheep at the age of 15; he had already been raising and selling meat rabbits for many years and got into sheep when some of his rabbit customers asked about buying lamb. After completing high school in 2001, he attended agricultural college at Saint-Hyacinthe. By the time he graduated in 2003, he had 350 ewes. A year later, the flock numbered 450, and was housed in two rented barns eight kilometres apart. Like many commercial flocks that grow rapidly, Martin’s was far from uniform, with genetics from several breeds and a lot of older ewes. With an average of 1.5 lambs per ewe, it was not a profitable enterprise.
Johanne grew up helping her grandfather, Louis-Philippe McCarthy, with his registered Border Leicester flock. She studied animal science at Laval University and worked with Dr. François Castonguay to develop a photoperiod (light control) system for sheep flocks in Quebec. She completed a Master’s degree in 2006, while working full time at the Centre d’expertise en production ovine du Québec (CEPOQ) research station in La Pocatiere.
In 2004, as part of her job, Johanne visited Martin to consult with him on using light control to improve the productivity of his flock. By the end of the year, Martin’s flock had been divided into six groups, with one lambing every 40 days (every eight months for each ewe).
The next year Johanne moved to Saint-Hyacinthe to be near Martin. She brought 15 registered Border Leicesters with her, and purchased 100 registered Rideau Arcotts; Martin acquired his first three purebred Hampshires. A third barn was rented to house the purebred sheep.
All of the barns that Martin and Johanne have rented over the years have been empty dairy barns, and all have required renovations to accommodate sheep, most of which Martin has done or supervised himself. As part of their rental agreements, Martin and Johanne always obtain a right of first refusal to buy the land and buildings if the owner of the farm decides to sell.
But even with this new barn, with a combined flock of 550 head, Martin and Johanne were still short of space. In 2005, Martin began extending the barn on one of his other rented sites, adding 1,800 square feet in 2005 and another 3,040 square feet in 2006.
The next big change took place in February 2007, when Johanne and Martin purchased the Romanov flock of Tom Mackowecki, near Edmonton, Alberta. A short-term rental of a cold barn in the area was quickly arranged, where the Romanovs could be quarantined on arrival, and bred. But with the flock now at 650 head and the Romanovs lambing in August, more space was still necessary. So Martin picked up his hammer once again, adding another 2,800 square feet to the barn he had enlarged in 2005 and 2006, bringing the total pen space at this site up to 9,763 square feet, not including feed alleys.
That same year, the Rideau Arcott flock was dispersed. The purebred Romanov, Border Leicester and Hampshire flocks were combined with the commercial flock, and divided into six groups lambing under light control on three sites.
At this point, Martin and Johanne were still renting all the buildings they were using, but an agreement was in place to buy the farm where most of the sheep were housed, in 2008. After assuming ownership of the property, they added a silo and a ‘garage’ for a TMR mixer that arrived the next year.
In 2010, they decided to close down operations at the second barn Martin had been renting since 2003, and to put up another building combining sheep housing (8,500 square feet), manure storage (5,000 square feet) and machinery storage (3,000 square feet) on the main site. Managing the flock on only two sites (the main site and the barn first rented for the purebreds in 2005) rather than three meant no longer having to transport 75 pregnant ewes home for lambing every six weeks, which was a considerable relief.
The Border Leicester and Hampshire ewes have always been bred to produce purebred lambs, and so too are some of the Romanov ewes. But with the arrival of the Romanovs, Johanne and Martin also began the process of replacing their commercial ewes with an F1 Border Leicester x Romanov cross. These F1 ewes are then bred to Hampshire rams to produce a three-way terminal cross lamb, maximizing the hybrid
he Border Leicester and Hampshire ewes have always been bred to produce purebred lambs, and so too are some of the Romanov ewes. But with the arrival of the Romanovs, Johanne and Martin also began the process of replacing their commercial ewes with an F1 Border Leicester x Romanov cross. These F1 ewes are then bred to Hampshire rams to produce a three-way terminal cross lamb, maximizing the hybrid vigour in both the commercial ewes and their lambs, and making strategic use of the prolificacy of the Romanovs and the growth and carcass characteristics of the Hampshires.
Many readers at this point will be calculating how many separate breeding groups and pens a program like this would require. But with six groups of sheep lambing every eight months, only 100-110 ewes would be bred for each lambing. And some groups can be combined: a single Border Leicester ram can breed both Border Leicester and Romanov ewes, and a single Hampshire ram can breed both Hampshire and F1 ewes. Although such a program may be more complicated to run, Johanne feels it reduces their risk by allowing them to sell breeding stock as well as slaughter lambs.
In 2012, Johanne and Martin joined the Voluntary Scrapie Flock Certification Program, where they are now at Level B. In 2013, they followed that up by committing to become free of Maedi-Visna. Over the next year, the entire flock of 700+ ewes was tested and divided into MV-negative and MV-positive ewes. The MV-negative ewes were moved to a newly rented barn, where they were divided into three groups, lambing every eight months under natural light conditions (with CIDRs). The larger group of MV-positive ewes were kept at the main site and divided into four groups lambing every eight months with light control. Between the two sites, there is a group of sheep being bred every 60 days.
At the end of 2014, Martin and Johanne, in partnership with a friend, were able to buy the barn they had first rented in 2005 for their purebred sheep, as well as the surrounding farm. The barn was converted into a feedlot in 2015, and has a capacity of 450-500 lambs.
By the end of 2015, after two years of testing, segregating, culling and keeping replacements only from MV-negative ewes, the negative (500) ewes in the flock outnumbered the positive (200) ones, so the two flocks traded places, with the negative ewes moving to the main site (4 groups on light control) and the positive ewes (3 groups on CIDRs) going to the the rented site. The MV-positive flock shrinks each year; by 2018, the entire flock will be negative and this barn will be used for lambing F1 ewes.
This year, Johanne and Martin have expanded again, re-renting the barn where they quarantined the Romanovs in 2007. This facility, with a capacity of 350 head, will house ewes being exposed to short day lengths on the light control program.
There is no shortage of work. In addition to all the buildings and sheep, there are 400 acres of land under cultivation, about 40% of which they own. Martin grows corn silage and alfalfa to feed the sheep, and this year also grew a mix of alfalfa, oats and peas for forage. Corn is also harvested as grain, to feed the animals and for sale. Cash crops include wheat and soybeans for human consumption, and soybeans for seed. Rye is planted in the fall as a green cover crop, and baled in the spring for the young stock. After one cutting, the rye is sprayed out and the land seeded to soybeans once again.
As in many Quebec flocks, the sheep are in total confinement. A TMR feeder on the main site allows Martin to limit the time spent feeding all the barns to three hours each morning, plus another hour at the end of the day pushing feed back to the ewes. The TMR consists of corn silage, alfalfa haylage and corn grain, with a mineral/vitamin supplement; the proportions of each vary depending on the stage of production of the group being fed.
With seven groups of sheep now, and 10 lambings per year, there are always ewes to be sorted, bred and lambed, and lambs to be weaned, weighed and marketed. With her background in sheep research and genetics, Johanne finds record-keeping, evaluation and selection particularly interesting. All of the purebred sheep are registered and all purebred lambs are ultrasounded for fat and muscle depth each year. Johanne uses the EPDs she gets from GenOvis to match up rams and ewes to produce the best progeny on paper, and then makes her final selection decisions based on the conformation and soundness of the lambs themselves.
Johanne and Martin have also invested in genetics from other countries, importing semen from Australia, the UK, and France in 2008 and 2014. Using AI to bring in new blood increases genetic variation, and also allows them to reduce the number of outside animals they bring into the flock.
That being said, Johanne enjoys showing the sheep and participates in a few shows each year. She also serves as one of three Quebec directors on the board of the Canadian Sheep Breeders Association. Martin is also active in the industry, as a director on the Fédération des producteurs d’agneaux et moutons du Québec and on the board of their local COMAX co-op.
Johanne resigned from full-time work at CEPOQ in 2011, but now works for them part-time, both remotely from home and on-site (a three-hour drive from home). This winter, she will spend three hours a week teaching a course on sheep production at the agricultural college in Saint-Hyacinthe.
Besides Martin and Johanne, there is one full-time employee, Amélie Marquette, and another, Marie-Ève Bazinet, who works 15 hours per week. A friend of Martin’s father, Luc Benoit, helps with the fieldwork and the ongoing construction/renovation of the barns, and also delivers market lambs to the abattoir each week.
The table below shows the production of Martin and Johanne’s flock. The last two columns (BLRV and XB) represent the commercial ewes, the vast majority of which are F1 Border Leicester x Romanov crosses. But because Johanne coded them as XB in the early years of the flock, and then later as BLRV, GenOvis generates separate reports for each. There may also be a few Dorset x Romanov ewes in the column marked XB.
The values shown in red for the 100-day weights and ADGs of the lambs out of the BLRV and XB ewes represent only a few lambs that were still present on the farm when 100-day weights were taken; the majority of the terminal lambs had already been shipped to the abattoir at this point.
Most of the slaughter lambs (70%) are sold as heavy lambs through Quebec’s heavy lamb marketing agency. Martin and Johanne buy some of their own lambs back from the agency and sell them to an abbatoir owned by Martin’s cousin, who prefers their lambs. A few go as new crop (1%) or light (10%) lambs; the rest are sold or kept as purebred rams (7%) or breeding ewes (12%).
In 2012, Martin and Johanne were chosen as Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers, in recognition of what they had achieved in building their farm and their flock from scratch, rather than taking over and building onto a family farm.
With the ewe lambs added to the flock in November, Martin and Johanne now have over 800 females. The goal is 1,000, but they also want to work on the health and productivity of the flock as it grows, and will need more land and facilities as they expand.
Buying farmland within a half hour of Montreal is not for the faint of heart. Worth about $5,000 per acre when Martin first started raising sheep, it now sells for $20,000 per acre, making a considerable level of debt a significant cost of doing business in the area. But for those who can manage it, land this close to Montreal is considered a safe investment.
In 2017, Martin and Johanne will start a new enterprise, a broiler barn, which will help pay for the additional land they need for the sheep, but also allow them to diversify their farm operation beyond the sheep and cash crops, thereby reducing their risk. It will create still more work, but not as much as generating the same amount of additional income from sheep would. Life might be simpler with just the broilers, but both Johanne and Martin prefer to raise sheep, finding it more creative and satisfying.
Editor’s Note: The photoperiod system used by Johanne and Martin was described in an article (written by Johanne) in the Spring 2012 issue of Sheep Canada magazine. To read this article, go to sheepcanada.com and click on the link for this issue.