Twenty-five years ago, Sylvain Arbour bought an abandoned farm in Bonaventure. He started his farming project with a single building and about 50 hectares of land no longer being cultivated. Beginning in spring 1990, he bought some 60 mixed breed ewe lambs from a neighbouring sheep farmer. A few months later, he started modifying the barn (and it wouldn’t be the last time…). He wanted to improve his capacity so he could ultimately build up his flock to 120 individuals.
The work was finished in 1991 and at the same time, a second group of 60 ewe lambs arrived. But this time, they were F-1 hybrids… the principles of genetic improvement were already coming into play.
In 1992, Sylvain finally began ovine production as his 120 young ewes lambed for the first time. Employed as a silvicultural worker, he was able to plan future investments in his enterprise. In short order, a new barn was put up. Construction on a 28’ x 40’ cold sheep barn (uninsulated) began at the same time as another makeover of the existing building. A third group of F-1 ewe lambs was purchased the same year. The flock was now composed of 140 ewes and several Dorset and Suffolk rams.
Since he didn’t have the farm equipment he needed to harvest his fields, he decided to rent the land to a neighbour who in turn would provide him with the hay he needed for his flock.
The enterprise continued to expand in 1998 when Manon Lelièvre and another associate joined forces with Sylvain, and Les Bergeries du Margot came into being. This association made it possible to buy a new building and the surrounding land. The building was quickly turned into an insulated warm sheep barn while the addition of several hectares of pastureland justified the purchase of farming equipment so Sylvain and his associates could start harvesting their own hay to feed the flock.
Other ewes joined the existing flock and a new insulated sheep barn was built. Deciding to get more training, Manon enrolled at the Cégep de Matane and earned a certificate in ovine production. It was smooth sailing for the enterprise…
Suddenly, in April 2001, catastrophe struck! The Canadian Food Inspection Agency arrived with a diagnosis of scrapie, and for several months it cast a shadow on the producers’ plans. They had to cull their 438 ewes, followed by their lambs, ewe lambs and rams.
This done, they proceeded to thoroughly disinfect the sheep barns as recommended by the CFIA and barely five months later, acquired 360 head and just like that, they were back in production.
In 2003, Les Bergeries du Margot owned 485 head, including 12 rams. They were housed in warm and cold sheep barns, on two different farms. Sylvain and Manon bought out their associate and acquired their first East Friesian dairy ewes, banking on increasing their flock from within.
In 2004, the owners planned a five-year, multiple-phase expansion project. It notably included moving the buildings from the second farm site to the home farm, modifying layouts and building new structures, introducing a photoperiod-control system and eventually producing ewe milk. The building that would house the milking parlour and dairy would be built in 2006.
In 2005, Sylvain and Manon had 325 mixed-breed ewes, 12 purebred rams, 120 purebred Dorset ewes and 50 purebred East Friesian ewes. Heavy lamb production took place year round, making it possible to balance income over the course of the year and use the buildings to their fullest extent.
Production fell in 2004, perhaps in part due to a shortage of space, major work on the farm, and a feeding trial involving potatoes. But measures were quickly taken to remedy the situation: a 60-tonne silo at the second farm site was used to store grain and a 50’ x 200’ fabric-covered steel structure (Cover-All) was set up on the home farm in 2004. More than 300 ewes and feeder lambs were housed there, improving the flock’s yield.
Then, in November 2005, catastrophe struck yet again! Scrapie was again detected in the flock and all the animals had to be culled. Les Bergeries du Margot workers again armed themselves with bleach, grabbed the pressure washer and cleaned all the premises thoroughly. Then, they sought out a breed that would be prolific, free of the terrible disease, and discovered the Arcott Rideau.
To produce at its best, the ewe, with its somewhat fragile lungs, calls for a certain degree of experience on the part of the farmer. Sylvain and Manon together have more than 25 years’ experience in the field. The ewe, a good milker, can give birth to as many as four lambs per lambing. Its needs space, good air circulation and quality fodder.
The owners introduced a photoperiod-control system and added a nursing machine to feed the extra lambs. A seaweed fodder project for lambs was developed and introduced as part of a cooperative effort involving 5 producers. Each member of the coop chose to be responsible for its own marketing. Les Bergeries du Margot continued to supply the local market and developed others by dealing with Montréal butcher shops.
Since then, seaweed-fed lamb has been available at a few specialty butcher shops in the Montréal and Lévis regions, and even in the Laurentians where it’s sometimes available at the Val-David butcher shop. Efforts are being made to enter the United States market. To meet demand there, two Gaspé Peninsula sheep farms produce seaweed-fed lamb for Les Bergeries du Margot. They have to meet a set of specifications and are certified by CONCERT.
Les Bergeries du Margot now employs two full-time workers and one part-time worker in addition to the two associates, Sylvain and Manon.
The future is ensured in the person of their oldest child, Leïla, who is currently taking the required courses at La Pocatière. Gaël is a Secondary Three student and will soon be deciding what he wants to do in the future.