It took hard work, planning and patience, but after many years of renting land, and working with make-shift facilities, Martin Brodeur Choquette and Johanne Cameron, have turned their dream of having a successful sheep farm into a reality.
Choquette and Cameron, who farm in southwest Quebec, started from scratch in their early 20s. Martin started with two sheep when he was 15 and by the time he graduated from agricultural college at age 20, he had built that into a 350 head flock.
At the same time, Johanne was also building a flock while earning a degree in agronomy and a master’s degree in sheep reproduction. Her then 25-head flock included a supreme champion and several grand champions.
When they met in 2004 they combined their love of agriculture and knowledge of sheep farming into a successful farming operation — Les Bergeries Marovine (MH) — that today includes a flock of nearly 1,200 head, including 650 ewes and 225 acres of farmed land.
Their passion for agriculture and their business sense were among the criteria that earned them the honor of being named Quebec Outstanding Youth Farmer regional nominees for 2012.
“When Martin first started and even after we started farming together all we could afford was to rent land,” says Johanne.Choquette and Cameron farm at St-Charles-sur-Richelieu, near Saint Hyacinthe, northeast of Montreal. It is a prime agricultural area. After renting land and facilities on five different farms for a few years, the couple finally made arrangements with local farmers to rent with an option to buy.
“It was an old dairy and the buildings weren’t very good, but we rented the land and began to build proper facilities for sheep,” says Johanne. “In 2008 we were finally able to buy the farm.” Last year they bought a few more acres bringing their total landbase to 225 acres.
Although it is not the largest sheep farm in Quebec, it is above average in size, with 650 ewes. The couple operates both a purebred and commercial sheep operation. They work with three primary breeds: Hampshire, which is used as the terminal sire breed; Romanov, a prolific maternal breed; and Border Leicester, a non-prolific maternal breed.
The overall lamb crop ranges between 1,300 to 1,500 head with about 800 of those marketed through the Provincial Sheep Marketing Agency as heavy lambs (105 to 120 pounds), another 30 to 50 head are sold as light lambs at the stockyard, and the rest are kept for purebred sales or as replacement lambs.
On the purebred side, the farm sells between 40 to 60 purebred ewes, 40 to 50 hybrid ewes (cross between Romanov and Border Leicester) and 15 to 25 terminal sire rams each year.
“We like to have both the commercial and the purebred lamb sales,” says Johanne. “It helps to spread the risk. If one side of the market isn’t doing so well, hopefully the other side is.” As part of their purebred business, the couple shows sheep most years at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto.
Martin and Johanne have developed a year-round lambing flock. Since sheep are naturally seasonal breeders, they use a technique known as photoperiod, which artificially controls the length of day with indoor lights to trick or induce ewes into estrus.
The couple lamb between 85 and 115 ewes per month, which allows them to meet their marketing agreement with the sheep marketing agency that requires them to ship at least 18 heavy lambs every two weeks. “We are able to get a better price for our lambs if we can produce year round,” she says.
While the farm has grown considerably in the past four years, Johanne says she and Martin plan to continue to expand.
“With the sheep we are always looking for better genetics and to improve our production efficiency,” she says. This year they will be artificially inseminating ewes with semen from Australia, France and New England for their different breeds to improve the quality of the flock, which in turn improves the marketing potential.
They hope to build the flock to 1,000 ewes over the coming years and to increase their land base.
“It is important that we look at all opportunities to expand our business,” says Johanne. †