Story & photos by Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Les Fermes Solidar (Solidarity Farms) is located on the edge of the city of Chicoutimi, beside the Saguenay River. On driving into the yard, you first notice a beautiful barn and then the magnificent view of the river and city. I met with Robert Gaudreault, the manager, and Myriam Potvin, the chairwoman of the board that operates the farm, and they told me about its history.
The farm is owned by an order of Catholic nuns, the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre-Dame du Bon-Conseil (Our Lady of Good Counsel) of Chicoutimi. The congregation acquired land in the area from 1933 to 1959, having as much as 684 acres at one time. The land was used to provide food for the entire congregation, as well as the schools of home economics and teacher training that they operated (they were self-sufficient).
In the 1960s, with the introduction of CEGEPs (pre-university junior colleges) in Quebec, the teacher’s school was closed. Changes in regulations affecting the Quebec dairy industry at the same time meant the Sisters would need to make a major investment in their dairy operation or shut it down. The congregation made the difficult choice to cease farming operations. Livestock and equipment were dispersed, and part of the land was sold; the rest was rented out to other farmers in the area.
In 2001, the community decided to resume the operation of the farm by setting up an autonomous corporation to manage it, and Les Fermes Solidar came into being as a non-profit, agricultural, social justice organization. Dairy sheep arrived in the fall of 2005, and were followed by chickens, rabbits, goats and horses. Crop production was organized around self-picked raspberries and the garden, where a wide variety of fresh vegetables were grown in season. The land was certified organic and farm products sold from a kiosk right on the farm. The farm also had a social mission, including social reintegration of people in difficulty (e.g., community service), early childhood education, primary and secondary education, sharing of resources and sustainable development.
More recently, as the members of the congregation have aged and it is less able to subsidize the farm operations, most of these activities have been cut. Today, the sheep flock is the sole enterprise on the farm and the milk is sold to outside cheese plants (fromageries).
The dairy sheep that arrived in 2005 were East Friesians but, for the last five years, the farm has used laparoscopic AI to breed ewes with imported Lacaune semen. The Lacaune is a breed of domestic sheep from an area of the same name in southern France. The board wanted to provide diversity to the Canadian dairy sheep industry, which is based for the most part on the East Friesian. The Lacaune was selected because, although it produces a lower volume of milk than the East Friesian, it has a higher concentration of fat and protein, making it ideal for cheese production. They also found it easier to import Lacaune semen from France, compared to alternatives in other countries. The Canadian Sheep Breeders Association has recently approved upgrading for the breed, and the farm hopes to register the first Lacaunes in Canada by 2022.
A total of 236 inseminations have been performed since December 2013. Two local veterinarians, Maude Desrochers and Éric Millette, trained by Dr. Gaston Rioux from CEPOQ, perform the AI. Conception rates currently average around 60%, for both ewe lambs and mature ewes, but have exceeded 70% in the past.
After recent heavy culling of older and less productive animals, the flock now consists of 200 ewes. Unlike many dairy sheep operations, where ewes are milked on an all-in/all-out system to make use of pasture, the Fermes Solidar flock is housed inside and milked year-round.
The flock is split into four groups, each of which follows a 48-week annual cycle, but with different starting and ending dates. One group lambs and starts milking every three months, and continues milking for 23 weeks, so there are two groups milking at any given time. There were 90 ewes being milked when I visited, with each milking taking about two hours. When the flock reaches its goal of 240, there will be 120 ewes in milk year-round.
All of the rams but one are at least ½ Lacaune. With the farm in expansion mode it is retaining most of the female AI lambs, but they do make some male AI lambs, as well as females from the natural matings, available for sale as breeding stock.
Each breeding group consists of ewes that are artificially inseminated and ewes that are bred naturally. About 80% of the matings (including all of the AI matings) are synchronized with CIDRs. If a ewe synchronized for AI is not detected as being in heat, she is transferred to the natural breeding group. All of the ewes in a breeding group are ultrasounded to determine whether or not they are pregnant, and if they are not they are transferred into the next lambing group.
Robert provided me with a copy of his spreadsheet showing the 48-week program, including synchronization, breeding, removal of rams, ultrasounding, lambing and milking. Each group transitions through four rations corresponding to breeding/early pregnancy, late pregnancy, early lactation and late lactation, with ewes being fed either two or three times daily, depending on how much concentrate they are receiving. Ewes are milked twice a day for the first 16 weeks of lactation and once daily for the last seven weeks, in preparation for drying off and rebreeding.
The ewes are reasonably prolific, averaging 1.9 lambs at birth. They are left with their lambs for two or three days to ensure that their lambs receive enough colostrum, and then begin milking in the parlour. The lambs are raised on milk replacer and a pelleted creep feed until weaning at 40 days.
The flock is enrolled on GenOvis and will make use of the new dairy sheep module to select the best ewes. It also participates in Dairy Control (a performance recording program); milk production is measured and samples analysed for fat and protein each month. The average milk production of the flock is about 300 lb. per day.
Milk (fresh and frozen) is delivered to the Fromagerie Nouvelle France, in Sainte-Élizabeth-de-Warwick, (3.5 hours away) and to the Fromagerie Le Détour, in Témiscouata-sur-le-Lac, near the New Brunswick border (4.5 hours, including a one-hour ferry ride). Lambs are marketed through Quebec’s heavy lamb agency at about 65 pounds live weight, and shipped to an abbatoir in Ste-Hyacinthe (4 hours away) every two months.
Rain was threatening on the day I visited and the area is not short of moisture. Good-quality dry hay is scarce, which is a problem, as some types of hard cheese made from the farm’s milk are affected by silage feeding. The dry hay they are able to obtain is kept for the lactating ewes, with silage being fed to animals in all other stages of production. The farm has purchased all of its feed in recent years, with the farmland being rented out for hemp production. This year, however, they are keeping the land to grow silage, which will be custom harvested by a local operator.
All of the forages are sampled and analysed, with the results used to balance rations for ewes and lambs at various stages of growth and reproduction. In addition to the grass hay and silage, the farm makes use of corn and a commercial protein supplement pellet from a local feedmill.
A full-time shepherd and two part-time workers perform the daily work of caring for the flock. They are greatly assisted by a member of the congregation, Sister Claire Bradette, who volunteers at the farm six days a week and looks after the lambs in the nursery.
Since 1933, the operation of the farm has been adapted to the needs of the congregation and the community, and to changes in education and agriculture in Quebec. With the average age of its members now over 80, there will be more changes in the future. But it is hoped that their vision of sustainable production and social justice, for which the farm is named, will continue for the benefit of present and future generations.