It’s not just dirt. It’s the foundation of our farm.

Let’s talk about soil.

It’s not something we discuss very often here because let’s face it, it’s not all that exciting or glamorous: it’s not cute and cuddly like a newborn calf nor as exhilarating as a herd of cows galloping our to pasture.

But without soil, our world as we know it would not exist. It’s the foundation on which civilization is built. Without soil, we’d starve. Healthy soil = a healthy planet. As farmers, we’re caretakers and stewards of our land and we’re at the forefront of efforts to ensure that we hand over our soil to the next generation of farmers in better condition than we received it.

Taking care of our land is crucial to the success of our farm. Our soil grows the crops we feed to our cows. Healthy soil grows nutritious crops that keep our herd in good health and producing top quality milk. And these crops that we grow to feed our cows also help to reduce our carbon footprint by absorbing carbon dioxide. It’s obvious then that soil is an essential cornerstone on which our farm and all farms are built.

Here’s some of thing we focus on to keep our soil healthy and care for our environment :

💩 Manure: Cow poo is full of nutrition for crops. It’s an excellent fertilizer containing nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients. It also adds organic matter to the soil which improves soil structure, aeration, soil moisture holding capacity, and water filtration capability.

🐞 Soil life: bugs, earthworms, bacteria, protazoa, nematodes, rodents, and more make their homes in soil and are all instrumental to good soil health. Without the activities of soil organisms, dead plant matter and manure would accumulate and litter the soil surface, and there would be no food for plants. These organisms all work together to break down plant matter and manure into the nutrient building blocks that plants can use. To have healthy soil it is essential to focus on feeding the soil life and not just the crop growing in the soil as well as avoiding the use of any substance that can negatively impact soil organisms. Good soil is soil that is teeming with life.

🌱 Cover crops: We minimize erosion and run off of manure or leaching of nutrients by employing the use of cover crops. These crops are planted after the main season crop, such as corn, are harvested and protect our soil during the winter months. In the spring, residue from cover crops is incorporated into the soil to build up organic matter and feed soil life.

🌾 Crop rotation: different crops have different nutritional needs. We rotate different crops through different sections of our farm to allow optimum uptake of nutrition and to discourage the buildup and potential for leaching of nutrients into ground water.

🐄 Grazing: having our herd on pasture does amazing things for our soil. First of all, the cows fertilize as they eat; the cow pies they leave behind are soon homes to bugs and organisms busily breaking down the manure into available nutrients. Secondly, the herd tramples part of the grass, which decomposes and also adds organic matter and nutrients to the soil. Thirdly, a field that has been grazed will grow back more densely than a field that has been mowed and harvested. The resulting mat-like structure of the grasses shields the soil from the sun which adds to its water retention capabilities, obviously very helpful during our dry summers,

🧪 Soil sampling: we regularly take soil samples to determine if our soil lacks or has an excess of nutrients and we adjust our application of manure accordingly. These tests are instrumental in keeping our soil life well fed and avoiding any run-off or leaching issues.

📝 Regulations: we adhere to all provincial regulations surrounding manure application, which includes times when application is forbidden, such as in periods of heavy rainfall and the winter months when crops are dormant.

Franklin D Roosevelt once said,

“a nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”

I think all farmers agree that it’s perhaps the most important part of our job to keep our soils healthy and productive, for the current and the next generation of farmers and consumers. It only makes sense to take good care of our soil; without a vibrant productive base our farms have no foundation.

Cow-Calf Separation: Cruelty or Necessity?

Tuesday, May 21:

Mama Annie had her new calf – a heifer! 😍 – sometime over night between Sunday and Monday. When we came to the barn Monday morning, the calf was standing, all fluffy and dry after being thoroughly licked clean by her mama. However, it did not appear that she had nursed; her tummy was flat and she was bawling periodically. We milked Annie in the parlour, then bottle fed her colostrum to her very hungry calf. The two have been together since then and we have not yet observed the calf to be nursing, so like always, we feed her her mama’s milk with a bottle. We will move her to the calf nursery later today – about 36 hours after birth.

This is Annie’s second calf. As you can see in the video, Annie is not afraid of her farmer. Her calf, curious and precocious, runs up to the camera, perhaps thinking it is feeding time again. Annie watches, but she’s not nervous or overly protective. She knows from experience that her farmers will care for her and her calf with compassion, affection, and respect. When the time comes to move her calf to our comfortable calf nursery, we will do so calmly and gently. If Annie’s behaviour thus far is any indication – she’s been more interested in munching on feed at the feed bunk than in her calf – it will be the typical relaxed and stress free event it always is.

Wednesday, May 22:

Separating cows and calves is an emotionally loaded subject. Why? Because the reasons for and realities of the practice are not widely understood.

Too often, we attach our own emotions to animals, and while of course it is obvious that cows experience pain, fear, joy, and other emotions, they do not have exactly the same needs and preferences that humans do.

They don’t crave stimulating conversation, “Netflix and chill”, quality time with their spouse, a bed with blankets and sheets, nor many other human desires.

Coming from a non-dairy background myself, I at first was taken aback at the practise of separating cows and calves within a day or two after birth. Growing up, our beef cows spent several months with their calves until weaning time, and weaning was no fun: bawling calves & cows meant little sleep for the first few nights. However, once I saw for myself how neither the dairy cows nor their calves were unduly disturbed by the separation, my feelings changed.

It’s like this: in a beef herd, good mothering instincts are a desirable trait. A beef cow that isn’t a good mother won’t last long on a beef ranch; she must take excellent care of her calf out on the range when contact with the rancher is sporadic – or her calf will die. In dairy, however, the farmer is much more present and involved in all aspects of the cow’s day to day life and so it is easy to step in if the cow is not caring for her calf. This means that over the generations, good mothering instincts have not really been a factor when choosing desirable traits. Rather, calving ease, milk production, udder traits, feet and legs traits, longevity, and other “good milk cow” characteristics have been at the forefront of most breeding decisions. That mothering instinct has mostly been lost.

I’ve seen cows neglect their calves, more often than you can imagine. Others, like Annie here, will clean their calf after birth but not allow it to suckle. I’ve even seen cows attack their calves. Dairy cows are, by and large, just not the greatest mothers. Yes, we’ve had some cows that are better at caring for their calves. But even these cows react in the same way as you’ll see in this video. We’ve even occasionally experimented with keeping some of those cow calf pairs together in the herd. Do you know what happened? The cows pretty much ignored their calves and the calves began to treat the entire herd as their own personal milk smorgasbord, nursing from numerous cows in the herd. Yeah, not an ideal situation in the least!

Let me conclude with this: cows trust their farmers and are honestly more interested in access to food and water and spending time with the herd than in the wellbeing of their calf. The calf is well cared for as well, and showered with attention and affection. Both thrive. Both are happy. And that’s our goal as farmers: happy, healthy animals.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (I know we stress this often), remember that the best source of info about animal agriculture will ALWAYS be where it all happens: the farm. Have any questions about cow-calf separation or any other farming practice? Please ask!

Myths and Fear: a farmer’s thoughts on promoting Canadian milk

Remember when Subway announced they were going to start sourcing antibiotic free meat? I was scrolling through my old blog posts the other day and came across a piece I had written then. I had been feeling so discouraged at the animosity that move brought out – between farmers!

Unfortunately, this feeling of competition and rivalry has not abated. In fact, the new trade agreement has seemed to acerbate the divide between farmers – especially between American and Canadian dairy farmers. This is why:

Canadian farmers and consumers’ claims of American cows pumped full of hormones and antibiotics are not accurate. Yes, some American farmers use artificial growth hormones on their dairy cattle to stimulate milk production. However, only a small percentage do — and these accusations that American milk is full of hormones are rather baseless. Additionally, American farms face the same penalties we do should antibiotic residues be found in their milk. We’ve interacted with so many American farmers over the years, farmers who farm because they love their cows, their land, their way of life. Family farmers just like us. We are more alike than we are different; this love for dairy farming should be what pulls us together, not what drives us apart. Yes, a share of our Canadian market has once again been given up to foreign imports by this trade agreement. This trade agreement will do

very little to ease the woes for our neighbours to the south but it WILL have a very real, very negative effect on our Canadian dairy industry. It scares us too! Still, I’ve seen just a few too many posts claiming that American milk is garbage. It’s just not fair to our neighbours to the south who work so hard for so little. I hope we can share our concerns about the impact of this trade deal without resorting to fear mongering about the milk produced by farmers just like us.

Instead, why don’t we encourage Canadian consumers to continue to buy Canadian by sharing the benefits of buying local milk? It benefits our Canadian economy, first of all. It’s produced by Canadians, for Canadians. That’s awesome! Additionally, we are so proud of our national quality, safety, traceability, and animal welfare standard – the ProAction Initiative. This program is extremely comprehensive and ensures that the milk our consumers purchase is top quality and is produced by happy, well cared for cows. That’s definitely something to celebrate!

Let’s put a face on Canadian dairy farming. Instead of sharing articles or social media posts that promote fear based marketing, maybe share a photo of your cows or your farm, and explain how you are so proud to produce food for your fellow citizens. Remember that our neighbours to the south are farmers just like us. They too face the same fears and hardships that we do, probably more so given the dismal milk prices there the past several years. Denigrating the work they do is not the answer here. Will you join us in attempting to stop the spread of fear simply by sharing your love for your farm, your cows, and your work doing what you love best? I think that if this were to happen, we’d all win – farmers (yes, both Canadian and American!) and consumers alike.

If you’d like to read more of our thoughts on farmer rivalry and fear marketing, check out this link:

https://inuddernews.com/2015/10/22/the-subway-saga-my-thoughts-on-marketing-and-farmer-rivalry/

The New and Un-Improved TPP: A Canadian dairy farmer’s perspective

Disheartening news for the Canadian dairy industry today…

You may recall our repetitive posts about the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement negotiations 2.5 – 3 years ago. At the conclusion of those negotiations, our government gave up a rather hefty chunk of our dairy market. It was sobering news then, even with the promised renumeration package. When President Trump refused to ratify the trade agreement and pulled the USA out of the agreement altogether, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. The US accounted for 60% of the collective Gross Domestic Product of the countries involved in the trade agreement; it seemed unlikely that the deal would go any further. Still, Canada resumed negotiations with the remaining countries. These negotiations flew slightly under our radar what with the much louder rhetoric surrounding the NAFTA re-negotiations capturing most of our attention and worried speculation.

However, today I was shocked to read a press release from Dairy Farmers of Canada revealing that our government has agreed to give up the same amount of market access concessions as it had previously – when the USA was still a part of the trade deal! In other words, more foreign milk will flow into Canada tarriff free. Our Canadian supply managed system balances supply and demand, and so increased supply from foreign sources will result in our Canadian farmers being forced to decrease production and therefore farm revenue will also fall. Not a pretty picture!

Honestly, I’m upset. With the loss of the largest negotiator calling for increased access to our dairy market, our government should have worked harder to scale back the access granted in the first TPP agreement. Does our government not value the 221 000 jobs that depend on our dairy sector? Our government has reiterated their support for a strong and vibrant dairy industry. This doesn’t look like support to me. It looks more like they’re throwing our country’s hardworking farmers to the wolves.

What will this mean for our country’s dairy industry? Will the compensation package promised with the original TPP concessions still be on the table? Or will our farmers be forced to bear the brunt of yet another blow to one of the pillars integral to the stability of our industry? What will the future look like for our industry, our farm, our family? Will our aspiring little farmers ever realize their dream? If this market concession is any indication of the value our government places on our industry, I shudder to think what the NAFTA negotiations may hold for us. Sobering times, my friends.

https://www.dairyfarmers.ca/news-centre/news/policy/dairy-farmers-of-canada-reacts-to-reports-regarding-the-revised-cptpp-agreement?utm_campaign=DFC18&utm_medium=SP&utm_source=FB&utm_content=lK

Supply Management IV: will new NAFTA be our nemesis? 

Some of you have been asking for our thoughts on the latest news coming out of the NAFTA negotiations. And honestly? I’ve been too disheartened to even write about it. We’re scared. Scared about our futures, scared about our children’s futures. As relatively new additions to the dairy industry – we’ve been dairying for less than 15 years, only 6.5 years on our own – we carry a massive debt load. That’s all fine and dandy under the stability of our supply management system, and it should be paid off before our children would potentially take over the reins of the family farm. However, should that stability vanish, as the latest US demands for the abolishment of our entire system would entail, our farm would very possibly cease to exist. 

And why? Our system ensures a stable, fair price for farmers. It also has meant that consumers – and we’re consumers too! – have paid a competitive, fair price for dairy products in the grocery stores. It has allowed Canadian farmers to develop a top notch program that ensures that our dairy farms are held to the highest milk quality, food safety, and animal welfare standards in the world. Our system has helped hundreds of young and not-so-young dairymen and women get a leg up into the industry through various provincial new entrant programs. There are so many benefits to our system! Is it perfect? No! But it’s always changing and adapting to new situations. And quite frankly, it’s the best system out there. Around the world, dairy farmers are struggling to make ends meet. In New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Europe, and the USA dairy farmers are exiting the industry in droves, no longer able to keep their farms afloat after sustained low global milk prices. 

So why attack our industry? It doesn’t make sense to me. The world is awash in a glut of milk. Farmers around the world have been producing more and more milk, all just trying to make ends meet. But now there’s a huge over-supply. Canada’s market look mighty attractive; a good place to dump that excess. But that won’t solve the problem! With only 30 million consumers, 10x LESS than the US, our market would quickly be saturated with this foreign milk, and the problem would still be there. Except now, our small Canadian family farms would be forced out of business, unable to compete with the glut of milk pouring over the border at abnormally low prices. Our complete rural fabric would be torn apart. It’s not just the farmers who would suffer; it would be the feed companies, the veterinarians, the dairy supply companies. In short, it would mean large scale devastation of many rural communities. Instead, these governments eyeing up and demanding the end of our system should fix their problems at home. Manage your supply. There’s no need to over-produce; it’s just plain wasteful and it’s detrimental to the global dairy industry. When supply and demand are balanced, we all win: farmers, consumers, governments, and national economies. 

We’ll be watching the next NAFTA negotiation rounds with bated breath. We are most definitely thankful that so far our government has been vocal about their determination to protect supply management, and we hope and pray that these words will be reflected in their actions at the negotiating table. To our supporters: thank you. Thank you for your moral support. And thank you for continuing to support your local dairy farms with your purchasing habits. We wouldn’t be farming and living this dairy life, caring for our cows with dedication without you behind us! 

For now, we continue on. Our kids still follow us around the barns, helping out when they so wish, learning to do by doing. Will this knowledge and these skills ever be put to use one day? Will they ever follow their dreams to be just like mom and dad? I don’t know. Time will tell. 

High Yields on Organic Corn. Yes, it’s possible.

As organic crop and dairy farmers, one of the most common questions we are asked about organic farming is this: “How do you grow corn? I’ve heard/read that organic corn is really difficult to grow organically – it gets over run with weeds and because chemical fertilizer isn’t an option, it only yields half of what could be grown conventionally.”

Here’s our answer to that…

As we’ve shared in the past (here and here), organic farming revolves around practices that increase soil health. Whether it be cover cropping, using manure or compost for fertilizing, or rotational cropping, organic farming requirements all have one over-arching goal: growing and maintaining healthy soil. Let’s take two of our corn fields as an example.

Field number 1, here at the home farm, has been farmed organically for 5 years now. It started out as pasture, had cow and chicken manure applied multiple times per year, and last summer was rotated into corn. We planted a triticale cover crop last fall, harvested it in the spring, spread chicken manure, plowed under the residue and seeded it in corn for one last season before it will be rotated back to grass. We also have irrigation here at the farm and irrigated the corn three times this summer. This field yielded 29-30 tons/acre of corn silage, the highest we’ve ever recorded on our farm. (Incidentally, the custom harvesting crew was very favourably impressed, stating that this corn was better than the majority of what they had harvested in our area so far this year. )

img_6134-1

 

Field number 2 is part of a new long term lease that we acquired in the spring of 2016. It too is in its second year of corn and previously was a hazelnut orchard. No manure had been applied for more than two decades. Soil testing showed nearly no organic matter present. Last year, we applied chicken and dairy manure before seeding the corn. A hot dry summer with no irrigation presented a pretty dismal picture last fall: only 13 tons per acre of corn silage. A very very poor return on investment of time and money (land rent & seed).

 

But we weren’t giving up.

We know that organic farming isn’t about quick fixes, it’s about long term gains.

A conventional farmer would probably have added fertilizer with the corn seed and perhaps side-dressed with a specifically tailored chemical fertilizer later in the growing season. It would likely have resulted in a better crop yield. But it would have fed just the plant and not addressed the underlying problem of poor soil health. Our approach has been to utilize a winter cover crop, applying more manure this spring, and plowing under the cover crop residue before seeding. Just that one year of adding organic inputs has worked wonders! With more organic matter decomposing and breaking down in the soil, the corn crop had more “food” throughout the growing season. The added organic matter also helped the soil to retain moisture even though rain was pretty much non-existent again this summer. The result? With very similar & equally unfavourable weather conditions, a 65% increase in yield! This section will now be rotated into a grass/alfalfa mix for the next six years before our rotation brings corn back to this piece. Can you imagine how much better still that crop will be after years of building up that organic matter? It’s such an exciting prospect.


I guess the point is this: organic farming done well can definitely hold its own in “competition” with conventional farming when comparing yields. We may have different methods of achieving those yields, and organic farming often precludes the use of “quick fixes”, but based on this and other examples, it should be apparent that generalizations that organic farming = decreased crop yields are neither warranted nor accurate. Additionally, I believe that so many of the organic principles have amazing benefits for the land that we’ll leave behind to future generations. I’m certain of this: while organic farming may not be for everyone, it certainly is a good fit for our family and farm!
Any questions? Feel free to ask.

Vote! The future of Canada’s dairy farms may depend on your choice!

Hello friends.

In just over two months, members of the Conservative Party of Canada will choose their new leader. By applying for a Conservative party membership by next Tuesday, March 28, you too can have a say in who becomes the next leader of the Official Opposition. Rona Ambrose has done a great job at the helm as interim leader but now it’s time to vote for the new long term voice and face of the party.

As dairy farmers, we’re watching this leadership competition unfold VERY closely. You see, all of the political parties in Canada have historically been supportive of the dairy and poultry industries’ current method of matching consumer demand with a supply of fresh milk, poultry, and eggs. Our system, called supply management, effectively protects our Canadian dairy sector’s vibrancy, viability, and important contributions to the Canadian economy while providing consumers with top-quality, safe, plentiful, and appropriately priced dairy products.

A few years ago, I shared the following description of our system in my first blog post about supply management: “In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Canadian government and Canadian dairy farmers came to the conclusion that production discipline – balancing supply and demand for milk products – was necessary to avoid extreme market fluctuations. Both the federal and provincial governments worked together with farmers to implement a system that is adjusted to suit the needs of Canadian demand for dairy. The system is administered by the Canadian Dairy Commission, which measures the demand for milk and sets the production limits accordingly. Plain white milk as well as any other dairy product labeled as Canadian is solely produced by Canadian dairy farmers for Canadian consumers. Milk is a local product, supporting local economies across our nation. The share of the market that each farm owns is called quota. Quota grants the farm a right to produce milk. The provincial quota is adjusted according to demand, and is increased or decreased as needed. Overproduction and waste are avoided because production is directly synchronized with consumer demand. Dairy farmers are paid a standard price for the milk they produce. This price is set by the Canadian Dairy Commission and is the result of a yearly national study of the cost of producing milk at the farm. Dairy farmers are paid the cost of producing the milk they ship to the processor.”

But with the prospect of a new leader for the party in official opposition to the governing Liberal Party of Canada, all of this could be in jeopardy. The two front runners in the race to become the new leader of the Conservative Party are no friends of supply management. In fact, one of the candidates, Maxime Bernier, has based nearly his entire platform on the premise that, if elected, he will do his utmost to dismantle this very system of stability, strength, and self-reliance that allows family farms across Canada to prosper. The other front runner, Kevin O’Leary, has oft times allowed his bias against supply management to show. Although he now professes that he supports supply management, he has also said that he will use supply management as a negotiation chip in any future trade deals. You can’t have it both ways, in my opinion!

The most infuriating part of all of this, however, are the half-truths and myths on which these candidates base their opinions. For example, they claim that consumers suffer as a result of supply management, claiming that Canadian consumers pay double the market rate for dairy products. Let’s take a look at that for a moment by comparing the prices in Canadian grocery stores to those south of us in the USA.

Screenshot 2017-03-21 15.04.16

Compiled by Nielson, this graph is a weighted average over one entire year of milk sales in a select number of countries with which Nielson has contracts. It’s a very accurate picture because of the sheer size of the study, taking into account purchasing habits and the length of time studied.

Well, would you look at that!

To compare apples to apples, we must compare the price of “hormone free” milk in the US to Canadian milk, as all milk in Canada is artificial-growth-hormone free. I’m sorry, but do you see what I see? It appears that Canadian consumers pay LESS than our neighbours to the south! Huh! Who would have thought that this would be the case considering the rhetoric spewing from the anti-supply-management camps!

As further evidence to these facts, check out this comment from a friend of mine who recently visited Florida with her children. This is what she had to say:

“US $4 for a gallon of partly skimmed milk (3.79L, not 4L like up here in Canada) while I’m used to buying 4 L for $4.29 Canadian.”

Figure in the current exchange rate, and you’re paying over $6.65 for less milk. Interesting!

Mr. Bernier also claims that the price of milk in the stores would drop if supply management were abolished. Just take a look at the price of milk in New Zealand. They abolished supply management, but the retail price of milk is higher than in Canada AND farmers are paid much less. Just last year many farmers were forced to exit the industry when the farm gate price dropped far below the cost of producing their milk. Do we want to see our family run dairy farms disappear from our nation’s landscape? If Canada were to dismantle supply management, our family farms would be a thing of the past as large conglomerates would swoop in to take over those bucolic farms dotting our countryside from coast to coast.

Critics of supply management often say that our system stifles innovation. I’d beg to differ. Every year we take part in a tour of the newly built farms in our small part of the province. There usually are 10 farms on the tour, and the technology and innovation is staggering. Robotic milking equipment, robotic feeding equipment and the latest equipment in animal welfare advances, to name just a few.  Family farms are able to invest in these sort of technological marvels just BECAUSE of the stability that supply management offers. Take a look at the graphic below. Canadian farm gate price for milk is stable, and sufficiently covers the cost of production, which allows for investment capital for these projects. This stability means that the banks are confident in our farms, and we are able to borrow the money to fund these innovative additions to our farms. Our farms are well maintained, in good repair, and feature the latest equipment and tools to provide the best care for our cows.

Screenshot 2017-03-21 15.04.52

It should now be quite obvious to you that critics of supply management are basing their opinion of our system on faulty information. But these critics refuse to listen to the voices of Canada’s dairy farmers. We’re facing a very real, very immediate problem. If an anti-supply management candidate is elected in this leadership race, we could stand to lose much of our support in Ottawa if the voice of the official opposition does not hold the governing Liberals’ feet to the fire when or if our system comes under attack during trade negotiations and the like. And I shudder to think of what could happen should the Conservatives be re-elected in 2019 and either of these candidates would become Prime Minister. Not an ideal situation in the least!

Now that you understand the threats facing our family farms, would you be interested in helping to keep our system intact and benefiting both consumers and farmers? Here’s what you can do: Become a member of the Conservative Party of Canada by March 28, 2017. Membership is open to all citizens and permanent residents of Canada above 14 years of age, provided they are not a member of another political party. A one year membership is just $15 and allows you to vote in this coming leadership election to be held on May 27. We, along with our fellow Canadian dairy farmers will be watching the race with interest, and will in all likelihood be in communication with one another about which candidate we feel will best benefit all of Canada, dairy farmers included. Due to the way this vote will be structured, it will be important for all dairy farmers to vote as a block in order for our votes to be of any influence in the outcome. We have a few more weeks to decide who this candidate will be. I’m curious to hear from candidates, their staff, and other interested parties about who they think will be the best person to man the helm of the Conservative Party of Canada going forward.

Until next time,

Julaine, a Canadian dairy farmer.