Constant growth and improvement

‘Constant growth and improvement’ is this family’s motto for success

Ferme Drapeau et Bélanger is not your typical Quebec dairy farm. In a landscape dotted by small family operations, Ferme Drapeau breaks the mould with an 1,150 head herd, that includes 625 milking cows.

Third generation farmer, Dominic Drapeau, operates the family farm with the same entrepreneurial spirit as his father and grandfather before him — to see each obstacle as an opportunity to grow and improve.

It’s this innate approach to the business of farming that helped Drapeau and his wife, Célia Neault, win both the 2016 Outstanding Young Farmers’ program award for the Quebec region and the conational award, which was presented at a ceremony in Niagara Falls last December.

Drapeau’s grandfather, Marcel, bought the family farm back in 1956 in the Sainte-Françoise municipality, which is located about mid-way between Montreal and Quebec City. “He had seven cows, an old horse and eventually a tractor,” says Dominic. By the early 1980s, the farm had more than 100 cows, well over what was common at the time.

Today, at 85, Marcel is still part of the business along with Dominic’s parents. While Dominic and Célia share herd management and finances, Dominic’s father, Michel, takes care of the fields while his mother, Sylvie, works in the office.

Célia, who didn’t grow up on a farm, adds a skill set that every modern farm needs. “She’s very good at managing employees, analyzing data and using various management tools,” says Dominic. “Her contribution has allowed the company to continue to grow.”

Every now and then, the family gathers to discuss farm business. “There’s no bickering,” says Dominic. “Everybody shares the same values and vision on how to manage the farm.” And no one is afraid to admit when mistakes are made nor start something over again if necessary.

Currently, the family runs an 1,150- head herd and crops 3,850 acres, mostly in corn and soybean, as well as corn and hay silage. Their 120 x 600 ft. free-stall barn was built in 2003 with future expansion in mind.

Barn installations include a 36-head rotary milking parlour where cows are milked three times a day — an informed choice made after many visits abroad, including trips to California and New Zealand. Milking is done on a set schedule during the day, which helps the couple organize other daily tasks. But this is not the only reason Dominic and Célia invested in the milking parlour.

“We chose a milking parlour because every day the cows are physically seen and handled by a person who can detect any problems that may occur,” says Dominic. “Using a sorting barrier, we put cows aside in a palpation area for vaccination or insemination without needing to run after them. We have everything we need within a radius of 100 feet,” he explains. An older renovated barn is used to house calves from birth to nine months.

Dominic, Célia and the family have always sought to do things more efficiently, which is why they equipped the farm with a lot of advanced technologies. For example, in the barn they use genomic testing on young animals, motion detectors for reproduction, a smart scale on the mixerfeeder and temperature probes close to calving. As a result, milk production has increased from 8,295 kg 10 years ago to 11,724 kg in 2016.

In the fields, they use a satellite navigation system to identify areas of land for levelling and tile drainage, and to aid seeding, fertilizing and spraying. Since 2011, production has increased by five to 10 per cent each year.

Dominic attributes part of their success to how they analyze all the data they generate about the farm, and how they use that information to modify operations as needed, better manage the team and herd, and to sell their crops. Data analysis also allows them to make informed long-term plans and make the necessary decisions to achieve those goals.

Over the years, they’ve expanded the team to include a full-time herd manager and a veterinarian one day per week. They’ve also hired 20 local people to work during the week, students to work on weekends and several specialists including a livestock nutritionist and an agroeconomist.

“I still visit the farm every morning, but I act more as a manager now,” says Dominic. “Before, my herd manager could go on vacation without too much trouble. It is no longer the case,” he adds with a laugh. business

Dominic and Célia have a long-term business plan that includes building another barn, tripling their herd and adding another 36-head milking parlour. To facilitate that, Dominic has been buying land in the area over the last six years — a wise strategy, he thinks, as land prices in Quebec have reached new highs recently, particularly in the much sought after area they are in.

“The way I see it, I’m only passing through,” he says. While the couple’s four children are still young, Dominic works to eventually pass on to them a thriving enterprise. For now, the couple has found a way to have family time, enjoy Sundays together and have winter and summer vacations away.

With their entrepreneurial spirit intact, these two are ready to take on whatever challenges come their way. “We are better now than we were yesterday and we will be better tomorrow than we are today,” says Dominic.