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Celebrating Environmental Stewardship: Ferme Sage, Quebec

The Canadian Cattle Association (CCA) is pleased to feature the provincial stewardship award recipients in the running for the 2023 The Environmental Stewardship Award (TESA). The recipient of the CCA’s national award will be announced during the Canadian Beef Industry Conference in August, in Calgary, Alberta. As always, a common theme among recipients is a profound sense of obligation to care for land, water, and animals. Through sharing their stories, insights, beliefs and values, readers can gain perspective about the relationship between stewardship and cattle production, and the benefits of conservation to society.

In this issue, we feature the Quebec Cattle Producers’ 2023 Environmental Stewardship Award recipient, Ferme Sage, owned and operated by Stan Christensen and Cheryl Sage, and their sons, Ian and Eric.

Long-standing beef operation committed to being part of the community

By Lee Hart

The Sage family farm which has operated along the Gatineau River in western Quebec for nearly 180 years has had to adapt to a few different environments over its long history.

As a purebred beef operation, registered in 1984 as Ferme Sage, it has had to adapt to a diverse natural environment including, lakes, streams, rivers, rolling topography, open pastures, and hayfields scattered through a heavily forested area.

And it has also had to adapt to a diverse social environment. The farm operates within a popular recreation area that is the either the home or the playground of many non-farming urban professionals including teachers, lawyers, and doctors with little firsthand knowledge of the agriculture industry.

How do you raise upwards of 300 head of purebred cattle amid all the natural and social environmental variables? It involves applying proper livestock production and management practices, and always be willing to communicate with your neighbours, says Stan Christensen, who along with his wife Cheryl Sage have been among the principal owners of the farm for nearly 40 years.

Their livestock management and sound land stewardship practices over the years earned Ferme Sage recognition in 2023 as the Quebec Cattle Producers' nominee for The Environmental Stewardship Award (TESA) presented by the Canadian Cattle Association.

"In many parts of the country, when you go to the coffee shop you're talking with other farmers," says Christensen. "But in our area, it is predominantly non-farming professionals and recreationists such as golfers, skiers, and joggers. So, it has been our approach over the years to do our best to integrate ourselves and our farm totally into the community. That involves applying proper production practices — doing a good job of livestock production and land management — and explaining to people what agriculture is about. It is essential that we are part of the community and not isolating ourselves. "

While Stan was born and raised on a mixed farming operation in New Brunswick, he met Cheryl while at Algonquin College in Ottawa where he studied computing science. They married in 1975. It was Cheryl's family that established the farm on the south shore of Lac-Sainte-Marie and east shore of the Gatineau River in 1846.

The Sage family farm evolved from producing lumber to growing hay and raising horses for use in logging camps. In the 1940s, they introduced dairy cattle for about 20 years and later transitioned to producing a few Shorthorn cattle and marketing feeders to supplement income.

While Stan and Cheryl were involved with the farm after they married, when Cheryl's father died in an automobile accident in 1984 the farm was registered as Ferme Sage and was operated by Stan, Cheryl and Cheryl's mother Carmen Sage.

Some years later the partners became Stan, Cheryl and their sons Ian and Eric Christensen and the operation transitioned toward purebred Red Angus production. Stan and Cheryl are actively involved, Cheryl with beef sales and Stan with sales and management. Ian, with a degree in environmental biology, takes the lead on the day-to-day farming operations.

Today, Ferme Sage, includes a purebred cow herd of about 120 head, although with calves, breeding bulls and bred heifers "we can have anywhere from 280 to 380 head of cattle on the farm at any one time," says Stan. On the breeding side, they market primarily two-year-old bulls as well as bred heifers. The farm has also developed a thriving direct marketing business for beef. They operate a small retail store on the farm and also supply ground beef to local restaurants.

Ferme Sage has a deeded land base of about 850 acres and also rents another 580 acres of pasture and hayland from a number of landowners within a 35 km radius of the farm. About 80 per cent of the area is forested.

"Both with our deeded and rented land the emphasis is on managing it to maintain permanent grass stands for both pasture and hay," says Stan. They don't use any tillage, and no chemical fertilizer or herbicides are used on the farm, as well. "The emphasis is to manage the cattle through rotational grazing, so that the nutrients go back on the fields to improve soil organic matter and produce more forage," he says.

The cowherd begins calving in mid-March and early April, with the calving season wrapped up by the end of May. As the cattle begin the grazing season in May, the cow-calf pairs and heifers will move through a number of paddocks on six different farms, while the bulls will be pastured at home.

Depending on growing season conditions, the cattle will be moved usually about once a week to fresh grass in a new paddock defined by portable electric fencing. Over the grazing season, each paddock will be used three to four times, with grass allowed to regrow before cattle return.

"We believe that is an important aspect of being part of the community," says Stan. "We rent some land from retired farmers and some of it belongs to non-farming owners. But they can all see that the land is managed properly and remains productive. They can see that beef production is quite complimentary to good land stewardship."

The cattle are checked regularly and moved to new ground as needed. Stan applies low stress cattle handling techniques, that makes moving to fresh grass, or treating cattle for any ailments a very easy-going process. Fenced buffer strips and off-site watering systems are used to keep cattle away from water, riparian areas and wetlands. They only take one hay cut per year to keep forage stands vigorous and growing, and haying is delayed in some fields to avoid disturbance of certain nesting birds species.

While weather is always a factor, Ferme Sage has a long-standing objective to keep cattle on pasture for at least half the year. "Most of the past 30 years, it has worked out that if you manage grass properly the forage resource can support the cattle on pasture for about 183 days or until early November before the weather becomes too severe," says Stan.

With a dome shelter providing good protection for the weaned calves that are fed round bale haylage put up at 50 per cent moisture in winter, most of the herd is fed round bale hay. With plenty of natural treed shelter, the herd can be wintered on hilly pasture or areas with less productive soil, again so nutrients - manure and urine - go back onto the soil. For the start of calving, the cows are fed on areas that are sheltered by the trees around open areas at a minimum of 200 meters from the lake and streams. Any accumulated or piled manure is also spread on pasture. "We like to add a small amount of forage seed such as clover, trefoil and orchard grass to each load of manure to help reseed and keep pastures productive," says Stan.

Their awareness of properly managing cattle and perennial forages, protecting water resources and wildlife habitat, and encouraging bio-diversity factor into so many of the management decisions and production practices. It is good for the environment while at the same time supports a very sustainable purebred beef operation.

"Our priority is to continue demonstrating that raising beef is compatible with maintaining a healthy environment and other land uses," says Stan. "At a time when the area is quickly attracting new cottagers, Ferme Sage is dedicated to maintaining agriculture's place in the community by employing sustainable practices.

"I believe it is important for us as beef producers to stand back and look at our farms and our livestock operations as observers. What does the community see when it is driving by? If conditions are wet, for example and your cattle are standing around in mud up to their bellies, there is going to be some backlash. So, what is the picture that other's see? If we pay attention to that, that is the key to the future success of the agriculture industry."

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