“Our lives revolve around our animals”

Doesn’t every chicken have a nutritionist? Isn’t the morning rush only in cities? Well, maybe not. These appear to be some of the secrets to success on the Wiens farm (part of the Fehr family farm) near Hague.

At seven weeks old, Jackson Wiens is happily swinging in the kitchen—it’s early days for this fourth-generation farmer. Jackson has decided that for a few years yet, it will still be his Mommy and Daddy, Kaylin and Tyler, working the family farm.

Kaylin and Tyler farm with Kaylin’s parents, her two brothers and their families. Together they have 60,000 laying hens and raise chickens for themselves and for sale. They also farm 3,000 acres of land and raise about 80 beef cattle.

What does a typical day look like working in their hen barn?

“Usually, I get to the farm at about 8:00 a.m. and collect eggs for the first two and half hours,” says Kaylin. Note that Kaylin is talking about the morning rush, when about 25,000 eggs are collected. “The birds’ houses are designed so that the eggs roll onto a moving belt. The system is automated to bring the eggs to the front of the barn where a packer puts them into trays. When I’m collecting eggs, I’m actually putting stacks of trays filled with eggs onto a pallet.”

“We check everything. We have a system that will call us and tell us if our power goes out because that is a huge deal for us. We have backup generators that power the whole barn in the event that the power went out. It keeps the fans running and the lights on so our chickens are always protected.”

After the morning egg rush, Kaylin makes food for the hens. Feed is made every day of the week so that there is enough to get through the weekend. The diet is largely wheat, canola, and soy oil, calcium and for protein they add peas and soy. “We work with a nutritionist who determines the recipes for our feed,” Kaylin explains. “The nutritionist makes a recipe based on the weight of the hens, the weight of the eggs, and how many eggs our birds are producing. The rations are adjusted based on the chickens’ needs. The micro-nutrients, vitamins and minerals, we add by hand. We are in constant contact with the nutritionist to ensure our hens are getting the nutrition they require.”

After lunch, Kaylin does the farm’s bookkeeping for an hour or two, followed by the afternoon chores. Then there is another hour and a half of egg collection, but only 10 to 15, 000 this time. Cleaning the barn wraps up Kaylin’s day by about 6:00 p.m.

Sometimes Kaylin is discouraged by the portrayal of farmers in the media.

“There are so many misconceptions about farming. We are often painted as not caring for our animals and that is very frustrating. Our lives revolve around our birds. That is our number one priority to make sure they are cared for every single day of the year. It doesn’t matter if we have plans. If something is wrong with our hens, they always come first. If we didn’t treat our animals well, it just would not work.”

“In order for our farm to be sustainable we have to care for our flock; it is a symbiotic relationship.” – Kaylin Wiens

Every day, the Wiens family works hard to care for their chickens.

“We closely monitor everything in our barns from the daily production of eggs to how much water the hens drink, how much feed they consume, the temperatures in the barn, the humidity… We check everything. We have a system that will call us and tell us if our power goes out because that is a huge deal for us. We have backup generators that power the whole barn in the event that the power went out. It keeps the fans running and the lights on so our chickens are always protected.”

Kaylin & Tyler farm with the Fehr Family near Hague, SK.

Kaylin really loves farming. “I look forward to going to work every day. I was born into farming and that is what I am familiar with, but it is also where my passion lies,” she says. “I love that it is different every day. It is great to see the industry constantly change and improve for the better. I like working with my family—it is such a blessing that we can work together. We are so thankful that we can bring our son Jackson into the family farm. That is really cool.”

More than dogs & cats

Why I want to be a farm animal vet

By Shannon Finn

Ever wondered what it takes to be a veterinarian? As a fourth year veterinary student at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College, I thought I’d give some background on the process, and our role in Canadian Agriculture.

I grew up in Baden, Ontario – a beautiful and agriculturally rich area of Southern Ontario, and an area where I would like to practice when I graduate. Coming into vet school, I didn’t have as much large animal veterinary experience as some of my classmates, but I love rural life and have a true appreciation for farmers and the work they do.

The road to vet school itself is a long one! In Ontario, in addition to at least two years of a

Shannon Finn

university undergraduate degree, you must get three professional references – two of which need to be from veterinarians. This usually involves working or volunteering at veterinary clinics so they can get to know you. I worked at two small animal clinics during high school and undergrad. I also got experiences with horses by working on a horse farm in high school.

My advice when volunteering – don’t be scared to ask questions. Volunteering continues throughout vet school with lots of extracurricular activities, so it’s best to learn early how to make the most of it.

When you acquire references and enough hands-on experience, you can apply to school. I started my application after finishing two years of an Animal Biology degree. The top 200 applicants go through an interview process, but only 120 are selected for the program.

There are four phases, or years, in vet school. The first year involves learning everything that is “normal” for healthy animals. The second year is all about learning what can “go wrong” – how and why an animal get sick or injured. Third year is the last year of “book learning,” and we learn how to diagnose and treat a wide variety of conditions in many different animals.

Fourth year is an entire year of clinical learning on rotations. To start off our clinical year we also have to do an 8-week externship at a mixed animal practice. You can read more about what we do on our externship at OVC’s Externship Blog Project!

One of the cool things about being a veterinarian is you are able to specialize in animals that interest you the most. I chose what’s called the “Food Animal stream” for my fourth year because I’m passionate about keeping entire herds healthy – as well as individual animals – and because I’m also very interested in food safety and biosecurity.

Considering food safety, herd health, and animal welfare is a big part of being a food animal vet. It also includes building relationships with farmers, communicating knowledgeably with the public about agricultural issues, and a willingness to be on call so people can reach you whenever an issue arises.

I will be one of the Externship Project bloggers this summer, and I hope you follow along with me! I’m hoping to shed some light on the kinds of things we do as future veterinarians, including what it’s like to work in rural Ontario, and how we work to keep animals healthy. You can also follow me on Twitter at @SFinnDVMStudent!

White Stripes in Chicken — Should you be Worried?

By now you may have seen a few click-bait worthy articles highlighting a concern in chickens known as “white striping”, in which white lines can be observed in chicken meat purchased fresh at the grocery counter.

Farm & Food Care asked representatives from the Chicken Farmers of Canada to comment on what consumers were seeing and being told, and whether or not we might see this in Canada and if it’s of concern. Here’s what they said:

The research (in regards to white striping) in question has been conducted with birds that grow much bigger than they do here in Canada. The data references birds processed at 59, 61, and 63 days of age whereas in Canada, chickens are not grown to be as big and are most commonly processed at around 35 days of age and weigh about 2 kilograms. We do see some incidence of breast meat “striping” in Canada, but these are likely not as frequent, because our birds do not grow as big.

It’s important to note that white striping and other similar conditions present no food safety risk and chicken remains a nutritious choice. A recent nutrient analysis conducted by Silliker labs shows that chicken is a healthy, lean, source of protein.

“As part of an overall healthy diet that includes a variety of both animal and plant-based foods, Canadian chicken remains a great source of nutrition. As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, not only do I recommend chicken as a healthy option, I will continue to do so and not change my advice in light of this report. All cuts of chicken, both light and dark meat, are a source of important nutrients such as protein, zinc, iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and B vitamins such as B1, B2, and B12 to name a few which, are needed for health by all ages.”

Doug Cook, RDN MPH CDE

Read more here.

It’s true: Chickens grow faster today than they did in the past. However, this is due to breeding programs and feed efficiencies. In fact, the mortality rates, lameness issues, condemnation rates, and ascites concerns in chicken have all seen a marked decrease at the same time that growth rates have increased (See references below). And it’s important to note what is not making chickens grow faster: hormones or steroids. These have been illegal in chicken production in Canada since the 1960s.

Since birds are more efficient at converting feed to muscle, less land is needed, less manure is produced, fewer fossil fuels are used, and fewer emissions are generated, resulting in reduced environmental impacts.

Canada has a mandatory, enforced, and audited national animal care program, which is based on the National Farm Animal Care Council’s Code of Practice.  It was developed in consultation with over 40 stakeholders, and support for its implementation has come from animal care organizations, veterinary associations, industry professionals and more.

To learn more about how chicken is raised in Canada, talk to a farmer. Visit www.chickenfarmers.ca for all the info about production practices in Canada.

[1] National Chicken Council, “U.S. Broiler Performance,” September 2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.nationalchickencouncil.org/about-the-industry/statistics/u-s-broiler-performance/. [Accessed February 2017].
[2] D. N. Kapell, W. G. Hill, A. M. Neeteson, J. McAdam, A. N. Koerhuis and S. Avendaño, “Twenty-five years of selection for improved leg health in purebred broiler lines and underlying genetic parameters,” Poultry Science, vol. 91, pp. 3032-3043, 2012.
[3] Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, “Poultry Condemnation Report by Species for Federally Inspected Plants,” October 2016. [Online]. Available: http://aimis-simia.agr.gc.ca/rp/index-eng.cfm?menupos=1.01.04&action=pR&pdctc=&r=133&LANG=EN. [Accessed February 2017].

More than Farming — Bringing Dairy to the City

By Stephanie Vickers, Farm & Food Care

“How do cows go the washroom?” “Why don’t you bring a real cow to school with you?” These are just a couple of the questions that Dawn Stewart hears regularly in her role as an Ontario dairy educator.

Stewart knew from the start that she wanted to help answer consumers’ questions about their food.

After acquiring a degree in nutrition, working at a private school for over a decade, and taking time off to raise two children, Dawn decided to get back into teaching- which is how she found the position of dairy educator with Dairy Farmers of Ontario. 

As one of 53 Dairy Educators in Ontario, Dawn Stewart and her partner do more than 900 presentations annually to school children in the Toronto area.

As a Dairy Educator, Stewart travels to schools in the Toronto area to talk about the dairy industry. Annually, she and her partner deliver more than 900 presentations to almost 23,000 students about dairy and farming. There are currently 53 educators in Ontario. In 2016, they did 9,403 presentations to 217,126 students across Ontario.

“It is especially important [in Toronto schools], because there are a lot of kids these days that don’t have the experience on the farm, and they don’t have any idea where their food comes from” says Stewart. Stewart is one of 50 regional educators in the province that are employed by Dairy Farmers of Ontario.

Once hired as a dairy educator, Stewart spent lots of time in training, visiting modern dairy farms to see how they are run. She and her colleagues also visited the University of Guelph to find out the milk is tested before going to the consumer, and a processing facility to see how milk is packed to be taken to the store.      

Stewart works with the teachers to make the content she talks about relevant to the curriculum. When going into the classroom, Stewart’s main goals are to have the kids understand:

  • How cows are milked, and the respect they receive on farms
  • To respect the food we eat, and the process it takes to get the food to the table
  • The different healthy options that are available, as well how easy it can be to pick those options
  • By talking with the students about where their food comes from, it allows them to better connect to the food they eat and gain a greater appreciation for the work that is required to get it from the farm to the table.

“It has always been important to me that students understand what constitutes good food and bad food, and how they can make those choices, so they can live heathy lives… and I think kids can have a more active role in the foods that they eat” she said.

Dawn Stewart talks to visitors at the Canadian National Exhibition’s farm display about dairy cows

One of her favourite memories as a dairy educator Stewart says, was during a session at a special education high school “We were trying to make butter and I asked the students to help me shake the whipping cream container. One student was very excited to shake the container, so I passed it to her and with the biggest smile on her face she began to shake… her whole body moved with a fabulous enthusiastic shake but the container did not. It made my day!”

If you would like to get more information on how you can get a dairy educator into a classroom in your area, visit their website www.education.milk.org   for contact information. The program is free and can be linked to the curriculum from JK to grade 8.

360 Virtual Reality Farm Tours – They’re Udderly Amazing!

By Matt McIntosh, Farm & Food Care

Like many, I enjoy knowing how things work — there’s a reason shows such as “How It’s Made” have been through nearly 30 seasons, after all.

In the spirit of seeing first-hand how something comes to be, I’m excited to say Farm & Food Care’s latest project, FarmFood360°, is now live. With a new website and mobile capability, the project uses 360 degree video and VR (virtual reality) technology to give viewers an immersive look at where our food comes from.

The first tour looks at a dairy farm where the animals are in charge. It’s a modern farm where cows use a voluntary milking system; that’s a milking system that, quite literally, lets them choose when they want to be milked.

The remaining two tours showcase dairy processing plants: one for milk and one for cheese — one of my personal culinary favourites.

Being able to tour facilities like these virtually is also a handy thing because access to these type of locations is, generally, restricted to ensure food safety and quality.

Understanding that there are real people behind the food we eat is critical, too, so there’s also a wealth of interviews with dedicated Canadian farm families and food processing company employees. The story of our food begins and ends with people, after all, so it only makes sense to include them.

At Farm & Food Care, we’re planning to expand the FarmFood360 website to include more 360° tours in 2017. Food literacy is important to so many people, whether in a personal or professional capacity, and I’d like to think this project helps those interested get the facts in the most compelling way possible — both where food comes from, and how it gets to store shelves. 

We’re appreciative too, to our partners at Dairy Farmers of Canada and Gay Lea Foods Co-operative Ltd., to helping us get this project off the ground.

If interested, check out www.FarmFood360.ca. Our 23 older point-and-click virtual farm tours are there too (filmed over the last 10 years); they may not look as fancy, but there’s still a wealth of information on all kinds of Canadian farms, from vegetables and eggs, to ostrich and elk. 

It’s up now, it’s free, and in my humble opinion, the Internet is  better because of it.

What’s the deal with hormones?

By Jean L. Clavelle, Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan

I’m just going to say it — grocery shopping is complicated business. You are bombarded by confusing marketing campaigns and it seems everywhere you turn there is another ‘dangerous’ food item you should avoid.

Take hormones, for example. You see chicken, turkey, and dairy products with stickers that say “hormone free” or “raised without the use of added hormones” and then around the corner, cattle ranchers ask us to buy their “grown with hormones” beef! What’s the deal?

It’s true. Chicken and turkey farmers do not use hormones. The truth is they just don’t need to. Animal scientists have done a pretty good job of selecting the breeds of birds that grow the fastest. They have figured out the best feeds that the birds require, and farmers hire animal nutritionists that develop food specifically for their birds. Farmers are particularly aware of the environmental factors that will slow growth, such as changes in air temperature, humidity extremes and lighting and they do their utmost to ensure those are controlled or eliminated. Not only that, but they limit barn access to everyone but family and farm employees to prevent exposure to diseases or stressful situations. Basically, these birds are already growing under peak physiological conditions.

If a farmer wanted to, though, could he or she still use hormones? The answer is no. You might be surprised to know that the use of hormones in poultry farming was actually made illegal in Canada in 1963.

dyk-chicken-1However, there’s another reason, too. Hormones are naturally occurring and necessary for biological function. In poultry, for added hormones to be effective in improving growth, they would need to be administered in sequence with the peaks in their existing hormone pattern (which occur several times daily) and they would need to be injected intravenously. Given the current scale of poultry farms (most farms have several thousand birds), the cost to administer and the stress to the animal, the impracticalities are just too significant for this to be a plausible management strategy. So, NO CHICKENS are ever raised with added hormones.

The same is true of dairy cattle. It is illegal for Canadian farmers to use hormones in dairy cattle farming. But, this is not due to human health concerns. In fact, the U.S. does allow hormones to be used in dairy cattle — a hormone called recombinant bovine somatotropin (or rBST for short). So why don’t Canadian dairy farmers use rBST in milk production?

Because the advances in dairy farming are astonishing! There are now robotic milkers which allow cows to decide when and how often they wish to be milked, waterbeds for cow comfort, and we even have scientists who devote their entire careers to studying cow welfare. Canadian farmers have a national dairy herd that is considered among the highest level of genetic quality in the world to optimize animal production. Dairy farmers use nutritionists who balance the cows’ diets using the best of the best food ingredients. All in all, Canadian farmers are dedicated to ensuring healthy, stress free cows, promoting efficient milking and prioritizing cow comfort and welfare, which means dairy cattle have reached peak milk production without the need for added hormones.

Research has shown that using hormones to increase milk production in dairy cattle that are already milking at a high rate can result in health problems for the cows. Wisely, Canada decided this was not a necessary practice and banned its use due to animal welfare concerns – not because of fears regarding human health impacts.

But why do beef farmers use hormones? Hormones for beef cattle are administered via very small (2 mm in diameter), slow-release capsules placed under the skin in an animal’s ear where they dissolve over a period of months. These hormones work by enhancing the production of naturally-occuring hormones, by directing growth towards muscle and away from fat. Growing muscle takes much less energy (and is more efficient) than growing fat (which is less efficient). As a result beef cattle given hormones grow faster, have leaner compositions, and make more efficient use of the feed that they eat. These are important and environmentally beneficial things.

Now, it is true there are differences in hormone levels between beef raised with hormones and beef raised without hormones. That difference is about one nanogram or less. A nanogram is one billionth of a gram. For context, that is the equivalent of one second in 32 years, one foot in a trip to the moon, or one blade of grass in a football field. So, yes, technically there is a measurable difference in hormone levels found in beef raised with added hormones, but one that is minuscule.

Major governing health organizations (including Health Canada, World Health Organization, and United Nations) agree that this tiny difference is of no significance to human health. I should also point out that no peer-reviewed scientific studies exist to indicate eating beef produced with hormones has any negative impact on human health.

It might be surprising to learn that hormones are in all living things and that the relative amount of hormone in beef, either with added hormones or without, is much less when compared to many other food items regularly consumed in North American diets. For example, a 355 ml glass of beer contains nearly 8 times the amount of estrogen than a serving of beef grown with hormones, and a serving of cabbage contains over 1,000 times the amount of estrogen than an equivalent serving of hormone-raised beef. A pre-pubertal boy would have to eat over 8 cows’ worth of beef produced using hormones PER DAY to match his own daily production of estrogen. Please keep in mind though that even at higher levels, like those found in cabbage, and regardless of the food source they come from, hormones are proteins and are simply broken down into amino acids during digestion just as any other protein.

My take home message? Please do not be frightened of your food. Canadian farmers, scientists and government health organizations have our best interests at heart when it comes to the health, safety and affordability of our food supply. Continue to make nutritious choices, keep asking questions, and get to know a farmer so you have someone to talk to about your concerns!

READ MORE IN THE REAL DIRT ON FARMING, PAGE 23

What it Takes to Create Success for a Small Dairy

By: Matt McIntosh for Farm & Food Care Ontario

Keeping a diverse portfolio isn’t a bad thing in the business world, and agriculture is no different. For Rob and Julie Eby, for example, diversification is the cornerstone of their farm business.

The couple live on a small dairy farm near Ayr, Ont., called Pleasant Nook Jerseys on a property near the dairy farm that Rob grew up on. In 2009 Julie’s parents decided it was time to retire, and passed ownership of their dairy herd to Julie and Rob, who are the farm’s fourth generation.

Rob and Julie have three children, Rilee (age 6), Presley (age 4), and Brinkleigh (age 2), and along with their daughters, are the featured faces for the month of December in the 2016 Faces of Farming calendar.

 Their dairy herd consists of a mix of 30 Jersey and Holstein cows, a smaller herd by Ontario and Canadian standards, and they maintain 25 acres for hay and pasture land.

The cows are housed in a pack and box-stall barn – the ones located in Ayr, anyway. Pleasant Nook, you see, is actually divided between two locations, one in Ayr and the other further south in Fisherville. Rob explains that, while the farm was originally located in Fisherville, he and Julie are currently discussing moving the entire farm to their Ayr location.

Julie attended Ridgetown College for a general agriculture diploma before taking over the farm, and now she takes care of the farm’s day-to-day operations. Similarly, Rob went to the University of Guelph for agribusiness. And, despite also working as the owner and manager of a nearby farm equipment dealership, he spends a considerable amount of time with their cows during mornings, evenings and weekends.

Milk production, however, is only one part of Pleasant Nook. As Rob explains, his family and Julie’s family are well-known for both dairy cow genetics, and for producing top-notch show cattle.

“We’ve always been involved in showing cattle,” says Rob. “Cattle shows are a hobby, as well as a way to merchandize and get your farm name out there.”

When Rob says his family has “always been involved” with showing cattle, he certainly means it. Just a quick visit to the farm’s website – www.pleasantnook.com  – illustrates that point. They have received numerous awards and countless nominations at a wide range of events – from Toronto’s Royal Winter Fair and the New York Spring Dairy Carousel to smaller local events and 4-H competitions.

The root of the Ebys’ success at shows and other competitions, though, is good genetics. According to Rob, studying bloodlines and pedigrees, as well as good animal husbandry, is what helps his family achieve many of their goals. Rob and Julie incorporate this into their farm business through two methods; striving to make their cattle as attractive and productive as possible, as well as selling embryos and genetic stock to other farmers.

“Small farms can still survive, but sometimes you have to be a little more creative,” says Rob. “You can’t always just rely on milk production.”

As for future plans, both Rob and Julie say they would like to continue moving all the cattle to their Ayr farm, while simultaneously expanding their acreage.

Their children are very involved in figure skating, dance and gymnastics. Because of their involvement with cattle shows, the Ebys have a long tradition of involvement with 4-H as both team members and club leaders. Julie also, when time permits, volunteers at their local preschool.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, the couple’s favourite pastime is still spending time with their family on the farm.

“Watching how animals develop is fascinating to us,” says Rob.  “Everything we do is for the love of cattle and the farm life.”

Sibling Chicken Farmers Have Multitasking Down to a Fine Art

By Matt McIntosh, Farm & Food Care

Andrea Veldhuizen and Joseph Zantingh are siblings with similar traits. Both are busy raising young families, are active volunteers and, perhaps most notably, love to farm.

November2016 calendar

Andrea and Joseph’s page in the 2016 Faces of Farming Calendar is sponsored by Wallenstein Feed & Supply Ltd.

Andrea and Joseph both operate their own chicken farms in different parts of the Niagara Region. Along with a third chicken farm owned by their parents Henry and Janet, each location makes up a part of Zanlor Farms — the overarching name of their family business.

“We grew up on a dairy farm near Smithville,” says Andrea, “but my parents completely switched to chickens about 17 years ago.”

Andrea and her husband Ryan live and work on their farm near Wainfleet. It’s the newest of the three farms and just a short drive from both Joseph and Henry’s farms in Smithville. Henry is the current chair of Chicken Farmers of Ontario.

“We manage separate farms but we are still a connected family farm, we are all partners,” says Joseph.

The mother of four children – Cheyenne (15), Keean (11), Arianna (4) and Caleb (2) – Andrea first came into the family business about four years ago. Prior to that, Andrea went to school at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, and received degrees in both psychology and religion-theology. She then worked in marketing at a nursery and most recently took on the position of youth director at her church.  She made the transition to farming because she saw it as a better investment in her family’s future.

Joseph and his wife Diane have three children – daughters Alexis (4), Aubrey (3) and Erica (1). In addition to working as a welder, he has been farming for most of his life. He even remembers taking a pager to high-school just in case he was needed at home during the day.

Succession planning between their father and the siblings began about four years ago, and Joseph says he has been increasingly involved since.

“I always had fond memories of the farm. I liked the upbringing and want my family to have the same thing,” says Joseph.

Both Andrea and Joseph raise what they call “big broilers.” These chickens are raised for meat. They are kept on the farm longer and sent to market at a larger size. All the birds from each of the three farms are sold to Riverview Poultry, which is a chicken processor in Smithville. In addition, both siblings and their father Henry rent approximately 150 total acres to nearby crop farmers. 

“We are happy that we have a local processor. Everyone works together. My kids help on the farm too and they’re learning a good work ethic,” says Andrea.

“My wife is an accountant by trade, so we are optimistic that she will start to take over the farm books,” says Joseph. “She’s getting more involved as time goes on.”

In her spare time, Andrea volunteers at her children’s school, and acts as a youth director and mothers group leader at her local church. She also enjoys camping, cooking and baking, when time permits. Joseph says he enjoys fishing, camping, playing baseball and being involved with youth programs at his church.  He also enjoys spending time with Diane and their girls.

Their families and farms are, indeed, Andrea and Joseph’s most significant commitments. Looking to the future, the siblings both say they hope to continue growing and strengthening their family business in a sustainable way. It’s the best way, they say, for Zanlor Farms to stay viable for the next generation.

For more Faces of Farming, visit www.facesoffarming.ca.

A turkey farmer’s voice: How much do you want to know about turkey farming?

By Clair Doan, turkey farmer

As a turkey farmer it is important to be able to share our family farm story. Talking about how we grow and care for our turkeys is important to me because I am proud of what we do and, most of all, love eating turkey with my family. With the likes of social media,  it is not hard to be a part of the conversation or see the many posts about our birds and farm. However, last night I took the opportunity to view the W5 program on CTV called “Fowl Business” where our industry has been criticized for our handling of live turkeys from the farm to plate, mostly through the shackling and live stunning process at slaughter. My initial reaction was more mixed than I had anticipated, given our industry is directly impacted by consumer perceptions and influenced by media — perhaps there was some truth to this story.

I encourage you to watch this footage where the program relies on a “whistle blower” from Mercy for Animals, an organization whose main purpose is to convert people to veganism. I could focus on the inaccuracies and clear bias presented by this organization (as there were many). W5 counterbalanced this with the famous Temple Grandin. I could focus on the food itself and how consumers connect to their meals which I think is more effective, long term. As a farmer, the company implicated in the report was Lilydale, a Sofina Foods owned company, a sister firm to the buyer of most of our birds.

To clarify a couple of points first: I take great issue with undercover employees, with direct motives to identify irregularities in meat processing systems while knowingly being supported by Mercy For Animals. As well, the Lilydale employee, who was referenced a number of times, should most certainly be reprimanded and I am sure no longer works for the firm based on his actions and general lack of concern for the animals. However, in reality, we are always looking for the exception where rules are broken and people are not respecting the care and compassion for the animals.

Photo credit: Clair Doan

Photo credit: Clair Doan

The reality is the entire meat sector suffers from a similar crisis — their business of transforming a living animal into food, which for most part, people, is not a nice process to watch! Sure, we all love the end product on the BBQ, but connecting consumers to where their food comes from stops short of the animal leaving the farm.

Even as a farmer, after my turkeys are loaded off the truck, it is truly not my responsibility to what happens to them afterwards. What I do consider is ensuring that as close to 100% of the birds and meat were of superior quality as possible. As turkey farmers, I have personally undergone safe handling and loading of turkeys. We employ on-farm food safety protocols, which include all animals be respected and those suffering must be immediately and humanly euthanized on farm.

Recently, farm commodity boards have asked farmers to share their stories, to bring consumers, the media and influencers to their farm to share real stories of the people that truly care about our food system. I truly believe that we have a great story to tell on farm, but it begs the question, how much information is enough and how much is too much?

As a farmer, my primary goal is to raise healthy and productive turkeys. I do everything possible to maintain a positive environment for them including, fine-tuned nutrition, safe housing, ample bedding and medication, if it is required. The last thing I like seeing on my farm are sick or dead birds. So when it comes to slaughtering the turkeys, it is a difficult sight to watch. I don’t like blood in general and there are different sights, smells, movement and noises that come with the slaughter and processing of livestock. So like other consumers, the slaughter part of food production is never talked about, let alone seeing video footage of this stage. To me, the “Fowl Business” highlights the fact that living animals die for us to eat them, regardless of the perceived mishandling.

This past April, I had the privilege of visiting the largest turkey processors in Germany. It is estimated that 60,000 turkeys are handled per day, which equates to the entire Canadian production in about seven months at this one facility. Through using controlled atmospheric stunning, the facilities operated with utmost efficiency. When I spoke to the marketing manager, I asked “What message do you want me leaving the visit with?” His response was simple, that we value animal welfare from farm to plate and that their facility employs the latest technology which promotes efficient output of quality meat products. The visit in Germany left me with one on the most positive feelings regarding turkey meat, in that it was not a stomach turning, ethically questioning experience!

As an industry, I am interested to learn how Lilydale/Sofina will react to this news report, at the same time look forward to an overall industry reaction as I do believe it may be turkey today, but can easily be hogs or beef or chicken tomorrow. Yet at the same time, as a farmer, I am proud of our accomplishments on farm, yet we will only be successful in the future if we are part of an entire value chain that is effective at communicating our standards and expectations to all consumers, at the same time respecting their potential views on humane treatment of animals through the entire lifecycle.

The CTV show W5 called “Fowl Business” continues to irritate me by relying animal rights group spies and unfortunate employees that either lack training and demonstrate unacceptable behaviours to speak about the humane issues of turkey. At the same time there are reasons we pay for Canadian Food Inspection Agency, work within organized marketing boards, and abide by every increasing animal welfare protocols on farm that must work as succinct systems. I willingly continue to share our farm story in efforts of helping connect people with their food. Unfortunately delivering the message around the transformation from alive to dead is a difficult story to comprehend, but we must remember our food story does not end at the farm nor start at the grocery store.

This blog post first appeared on www.clairdoan.com

More Than Farming — Managing a Dairy Herd

By Jean Clavelle, Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan

MorethanFarmingAgriculture is much more than farming. It’s a diverse community of people who work closely with and support those farmers who grow our food, and without this supporting network, farming would not be what and where it is today.

This month, RealDirt spoke with Morgan Hobin who is the Manager at the Rayner Dairy Research and Teaching Unit at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. The Center boasts one voluntary milking system (robotic) and a parlour (or conventional milking system), and is currently milking 104 cows with an additional 150 calves and cows that are not producing milk.

Hobin explains that although they are a commercial facility, they are not a conventional dairy. Among the requirements to produce milk that you will buy in the grocery store, they have extra space to allow for teaching dairy production to students and have two different milking systems which allows for different kinds of research.  “We also have the interactive cow walk suspended above the dairy so consumers, farmers and anyone, really, can observe the cows in their day-to-day life and to see where their milk comes from. And the other unique thing is that we are a commercial dairy in the city, which is quite rare.”

Morgan acts as the liaison between the barn operations, the research faculty (from the department of Animal and Poultry Science and the Western College of Veterinary Medicine) and the public and teaches dairy management labs to Animal Science students.

“It’s a very quiet and calm environment and you don’t hear banging or yelling or animals in distress. The animals get to take their time. It’s a pretty relaxed place.”

RealDirt: What do you feel are your most important responsibilities?

morgan-hobin-dairy-manager-1Morgan: My number one most important responsibility is taking care of the cows. This includes making sure the staff is on board for the day’s activities and goals for the week. I make sure the cows are fed the right diets, calves are taken care of, and cow’s reproductive systems stay healthy. We are a commercial facility but we have research responsibilities on top of the general day to day management so all of the team needs to be on the same page.

The second is to make sure that the research that is being done is high quality resulting in publishable data. And under that scope the most important thing goes back to the cows being taken care of. Our ultimate goal is that the research that happens here directly transfers and is practical for Saskatchewan farmers and their animals.

RealDirt: What does a typical day entail?

Morgan: I get to the barn around 7:45 am and I do my rounds. I see how much feed is left over in the bunks, and then I make adjustments for that day’s feeding schedule based on how much is left over from the day before. I look at the cows and the manure (which is important because manure tells you if they are healthy or not) and make sure that all of the cows are doing well. A healthy manure patty has good consistency, piles firmly and is a brownish colour. Manure that is too runny, too firm, has gas bubbles or grain in it, indicates a problem! Then I check the notebook – these are the notes that tell us if there were any issues from the night shift (we have people here from four in the morning until 11 at night) and deal with anything that has come up. This is followed by a team meeting so everyone can get up to speed about what is happening in the barn that day and if anything out of the ordinary is happening like a tour, or a special research project that might be starting. Then it’s all up in the air from there! I usually have a plan but every day is different.

There are a lot of tasks that happen on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. An important one is to make sure to look at our computer programs which provide specific info about each animal from the day before and a snapshot of the previous week which is another indicator of how the cows are doing and their health and well being. I look at animals that are due to calve and determine if any cow needs special attention or if we need to bring them in if they are getting close to  their due date.

And then there are all of the regular dairy farm duties. I need to pay bills, order feed, make feed sheets based on the morning bunk checks and check the bulk tank (the stored milk that will eventually go to the grocery store) to make sure we are on track for our quota (the amount of milk expected to be produced each month). And of course there’s scheduling all of the workers (we have six full-time, five casual employees, and four students).

In the afternoon, I often have meetings with faculty and researchers to hash out and schedule upcoming research projects. I also go to check on the calves in the calf barn and on the heifers and the rest of the animals outside, to see if they are doing well, body condition wise. Every second week we have “herd health” where the vet and several fourth year vet students come to check for pregnancies and do general post-calving checks on each cow to make sure they are all healthy. And, because we are a teaching centre, I teach dairy management to Animal Science and Veterinary Medicine students.

RealDirt: What do you love most about your job?

I love the fact that when I come to work I know that every day is going to be different. I love the combination of office work and caring for the animals and getting to be a part of the neat research we do.

RealDirt: What is the most challenging part?

Finding the sweet spot between meeting the demands of research and teaching while still being a productive and profitable herd.

RealDirt: What has changed since you started doing your job?

I’ve been here for two years and in that time, we’ve seen an increase in the technology that is available to help us on a cow-by-cow basis and for overall herd management. Everything is constantly evolving and improving.

RealDirt: What kind of training and education do you have to do this job?

I have a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture and a Master of Science in dairy nutrition from the University of Saskatchewan. To do this job, I think it is important to have practical experience. I went to Australia and milked cows there for a year, so I understand and can work better with the team that’s out in the barn because I understand what they are doing. And having management experience definitely helps.

RealDirt: How do you interact with farmers?

Our researchers work with the provincial dairy industry so we can link the research with industry priorities which is the ultimate goal. Often farmers will stop by to view our facilities or they might have a guided tour. Farmers want to know the research that’s happening here so they can understand what’s new and what they may be changing in the future. They also want to see how our facilities work and often compare their own to ours.

RealDirt: What is the biggest misconception you encounter in your job?

I think it’s just general animal care and how cows are housed. I think visitors’ minds change when they tour our facility. For example, we have brushes in each pen, that lets the cows brush themselves and you can see how happy the cows look while getting scratched. I think visitors are surprised at how easily cows come to see you when you are on the floor which is a clear indicator to me that they aren’t scared or being mistreated – they want nothing more than to lick you. Plus we milk three times a day and people can come in (most of the time without us even knowing they are there) and see us moving the cows. It’s a very quiet and calm environment and you don’t hear banging or yelling or animals in distress. The animals get to take their time. It’s a pretty relaxed place.

RealDirt: What do you wish consumers knew about the dairy industry?

I guess I wish consumers knew producers respect the animals and the consumers. It takes commitment and attention to detail to make sure that there’s a high quality product coming out of the farm. And we wouldn’t pay attention to detail and try to constantly improve if we didn’t care. We want to make sure the consumers are getting a high quality, safe product because we care about them.

RealDirt: What do you think surprises visitors the most when they come to visit the Rayner dairy facility?

The biggest thing is that most people are surprised how much cows produce in a day: our cows produce about 40 kg of milk per day.  That’s the “holy cow” moment. There is a lot of work behind milk production like this and we need to pay attention to every detail of the cow’s life to help them be this productive. Stressed, sick, or unhappy cows do not produce milk like that. We also like showing people the robotic milker. A voluntary milking system is a great tool because you can have a 400 cow dairy and seven milking stations and it can be managed by one person. Voluntary systems are also good for animal welfare because cows can choose to be milked three or four a times day if they want, while others may choose not to be milked more than twice, so it gives them an option.

Robots can improve welfare for the animal and improve welfare for the farmer, too. These days in the dairy industry we work hard to find staff that we can trust our animals with. People ask me do you have kids? And I say “yes, 250 of them”. I can’t trust their health and comfort to just anyone. So having robots lets farmers provide great care to the cows and allows the farmer to have a quality of life too.

RealDirt: Is there a way for interested readers to connect with you (blog, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)?

Visitors are welcome at the barn between 12:30 pm and 4:30 pm,  seven days a week, or you can contact the Dean’s office to arrange a personalized tour at 1-306.966.4058

We’re blogging about Canadians working in agriculture. Each month, we’ll feature someone different on www.realdirtblog.ca to show how diverse our Canadian agriculture industry is! Know someone that we should feature? Send us a note at info@farmfoodcare.org.