Located in the Aveyron department of France, the Augais family have milked sheep at Mas Andral Farm since 1985. Hannah Noble met up with them on the trip sponsored by Zinpro to find out more.
All the milk produced by the Augais family’s 520-strong flock of Lacaune sheep farmed at Mas Andral Farm is sold to produce Roquefort cheese.
The sheep are managed by Marine Augais, with help from her father-in-law Michel, while her husband Benjamin does the majority of the field work across the farm’s 320 hectares (790 acres).
Roquefort cheese is produced for just six months a year, between December and July. This means for many sheep farmers selling milk to one of the region’s seven dairies producing Roquefort cheese, their authorised period of production is dictated by demand from the dairies.
In order to produce milk within this period, at Mas Andral ewes begin lambing in December with the shearlings following in January.
Mrs Augais says: “The lambing percentage is normally about 180 per cent and, to fit in with the requirements of Roquefort production, the lambs have to stay on the ewes for the first 30 days of their life. Milk cannot be sold during this time”
The ewes are milked on the farm’s 26-point rotary parlour with a throughput of 500 ewes per hour. Mrs Augais says each ewe takes about 2.5 minutes to milk at the start of lactation and one minute towards the end. The flock’s lactation lasts 170 days and each ewe produces on average 288kg of milk.
Ewes are grouped in parity groups for lambing, and usually 10 per cent are expected to produce triplets. After lambing the ewes are put in individual pens with their lambs for 12 hours before moving into groups of three ewes with lambs for 24 hours. When the lambs are a week old the ewes are grouped into pens of 50 with their lambs. All ewes rear a maximum of two lambs each, so any which produce triplets have one taken and adopted onto a single.
Mrs Augais says: “By one-week-old the lambs have access to creep and are allowed with their mothers twice a day for a maximum of four hours in total.”
The Lacaune is a breed native to the area which was officially recognised in 1893 as a result of the amalgamation of many local breeds. As time has passed, the breed has split into two lines, one for milk and one for meat.
There are more than 800,000 of the Lacaune milk sheep in France with over 2,000 breeders and due to the Protected Designation of Origin status of Roquefort cheese, they are the only breed whose milk is permitted for its production.
Thanks to the Lacaune Breed Society, recording and improvement of the breed has taken place since 1957 which started with milk quantity recording, followed by milk quality recording in 1985 and, more recently, somatic cell count and udder morphology along with other conformational traits. In 2015 it began genomic testing rams to identify the highest performers in the breed.
Like many dairy sheep farms in this region of France, during July and August the Augais family uses one round of artificial insemination (AI) on the ewes with the help of synchronisation, before running them with rams to sweep up any remaining empty ewes. Ewe lambs are usually retained from ewes which hold to the first service as an indicator of their fertility.
The semen used is fresh and is obtained from Ovi-Test, one of two Lacaune AI centres in the region. AI is carried out by certified technicians who are able to inseminate 100 ewes per hour. The centre carries out 400,000 inseminations per year and the conception rate to fresh semen is about 68 per cent.
The testing centre, located close to Rodez, is home to 700 Lacaune rams, which are selected from 373 selector farms which represent 23 per cent of the Lacaune milk breed. These have been identified as the highest performing flocks and follow the official milk recording scheme. The difference in production between the selector flocks and the average is calculated to be equivalent to five years of genetic progress. The average milk production for the selector farms is 330kg in 173 days and the average replacement rate is 28.6 per cent per year.
Emma Singla, technical adviser Lacaune Breed Society, says: “Using genomics to identify outliers in the breed has decreased the generation interval by 2.5 years. With conventional genetics you have to wait two years until any progeny information is available for each ram, but with genomics this information is known much sooner.”
Since starting to select for genetic improvement in milk production in the 1980s, progress has been tracked and currently the society is seeing gains in milk of 5.4kg per year, 0.25g/kg fat per year and 0.19g/kg protein per year.
Ms Singla says: “The same trend is being seen with somatic cell count and udder morphology, since we started to select for these traits we have seen great improvement in the breed.”
At one-month-old rams from the selector farms are genomically tested. The highest ranking rams arrive at the testing centre at four months old and semen collection starts at eight to nine months old. All the rams at the facility are vaccinated for bluetongue, pasteurellosis and clostridial diseases.
Two ejaculations per ram are collected each week and observed in the lab for motility and concentration, each usually produces enough semen to fill about 30 straws. A straw of fresh semen contains 350 million sperm cells compared with frozen which contains about 50 million cells. Milk and antibiotic is added to the semen and the temperature must be maintained at 30degC until insemination.