Reality Check: GMO vs. Non-GMO Crop Production

By now you may have stumbled across a recent New York Times article that outlined the “broken promises” of genetically modified crops (GMOs). This first-generation of transgenic crops was first introduced in to commercial production about 20 years ago. With traits such as herbicide tolerance and insect resistance, these GMOs were rapidly adopted by North America’s farmers.

(If you haven’t yet seen the New York Times article , you can read it here) 

In Europe, however, they don’t grow GM crops, though they do import products, such as meal or oil, from GMO crops. In the New York Times article, the author uses European vs. North American production and pesticide usage patterns to outline his argument that GMOs don’t offer the benefits they claim.

Stuart Smyth is an assistant professor in the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics at the University of Saskatchewan, and he wrote a lengthy rebuttal to the article (you can read it in its entirety here), correcting many of the falsehoods and half-truths of the above story.

As a quick summary, Smyth draws on actual research studies (not just data point comparisons) that quantify the economic and environmental impact of GM canola, corn, and even papaya. From, yes, reduced pesticide use, to a reduction in tillage (and thus diesel fuel use), and more, Smyth reiterates that GMO crops are safe to grow and eat, reduce the environmental impact of crop production, and benefit our farmers.

Still not sure? We’d be happy to connect you to an actual farmer who uses biotechnology on their farm so you can ask them first-hand how GMOs have changed (or not changed) how they farm. Just ask!

For more on biotechnology, GMOs, crop production, and more, read up in the Real Dirt on Farming.

Farming is Big Business with a Big Heart

By Serra McSymytz, Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan

Throughout October, we have been celebrating Agriculture Month in Saskatchewan, a province whose primary goods-producing sector is agriculture. The theme “Our Food Has a Story” has encouraged many farmers, ranchers, and industry employees to speak up and tell their farm stories. I grew up in the farming world and have worked in the industry and even I must admit I’ve been blown away by the caring and compassion laced through every tweet, post, and picture.

The people in this industry rely on the earth, plants, and animals to support their families, futures, and freedoms. Yes, agriculture has evolved over the last fifty years. Yes, fewer farmers are managing more land. Yes, when size dictates, it makes economic sense to incorporate your operation, but that doesn’t mean the family farm has been lost to history. 97% of all Canadian farms are still family owned and operated.1

big-business-image-2-farmingfood4uHere’s an alarming statistic: there are 60% fewer farmers in Canada today than in 1901 and 548% more people to feed.2 That’s just within our borders, not to mention the hundreds of millions of tonnes of product we export to developing countries each year to help feed their people too. Talk about pressure to perform!

“…there are 60% fewer farmers in Canada today than in 1901 and 548% more people to feed.”

Thankfully, we are fortunate enough to live in a country where science and innovation are encouraged and explored. Where farmers and ranchers have the knowledge, tools and technology to grow and raise safe, healthy and affordable food in an environmentally responsible manner. Today’s farming is big business, not the simple lifestyle our grandparents grew up with. Yet, Ben Parker had it right, with great power comes great responsibility.

big-business-image-1-a-iveyWe live in the age of science and technology, where information travels far and wide and everyone has access to the latest diet craze or scientific study. Unfortunately, despite agriculture’s enormous technological advancements in the last quarter century, we haven’t put much time or energy into promoting our impressive new tools and now we need to defend them.

To the 98% of our population that has no direct connection to the farm and no way of understanding what a Flexi-Coil 5000-57FT Air Drill is, why we use ivermectin on our livestock, or spray our crops with unpronounceable chemicals like difenoconazole or saflufenacil, farming sounds scary. But, to the remaining 2%, it means no top soil loss, healthy animals, higher yields and a cleaner environment!

You’d be hard pressed to find a cattle rancher who doesn’t feed their family with meat from their herd, or a farmer who doesn’t bring his children along to check crops for disease and pests. That’s because farmers believe in the technology and production practices they use to grow our food and they want consumers to have confidence in them too.

When asked what they would like to say to non-farmers, the consensus was, “We care about our livestock, land and about producing safe food for you and your family. Wherever you’re from and whatever you do, everyone is dependent on food, so take the time to learn about how your food is really produced, from many different sources. Appreciate the efforts of farmers everywhere.”

Despite the new state of agriculture and the ever-evolving landscape of farming, our food still comes from families who care about their animals, land and growing safe, healthy, and affordable food.

1, 2 The Real Dirt on Farming, (Toronto: Farm & Food Care Foundation, 2014), 2-3.

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.

 

 

Satellites running farm equipment -> Fact or Fiction?

FactFictonFACT: Many farmers today rely on precision agriculture to manage their field work, including planting, nutrient and crop protection application and harvesting.

Satellite-controlled Global Positioning Systems (GPS) on tractors and equipment help ensure fertilizers and crop protection products are applied in the right amount to the right place, and make sure crops are planted in straight, even rows, for example. This reduces fuel consumption, and helps farmers ensure a more efficient use of nutrients, seeds and crop protection products.

Now you know!

For more interesting farm and food tidbits, check out www.realdirtonfarming.ca

More Than Farming: Ian Mathers, Bovine Hoof Trimmer

MorethanFarming

Ian Mathers alongside his hoof trimming chute.

Ian Mathers alongside his hoof trimming chute.

Often when I first tell people what my job is, they are confused.

“You’re a hoof trimmer? What is that?” they ask. While it’s not a common job, it’s an important one. As a hoof trimmer, I am responsible for the health and care of cattle’s hooves, and I mostly work with dairy cattle. It’s my job to do regular maintenance on cows’ feet by trimming their hooves.

Just like humans need to trim their growing finger and toe nails, so do cows. For cows, it’s even more important to trim to ensure the animal is able to properly walk on its hooves. It’s my job to ensure cows have healthy hooves and sometimes that means giving extra care and attention to sore feet.

My job is definitely not glamorous. In fact, it was featured on an episode of the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” television show. Despite how dirty the job can be some days, the work is highly rewarding. Every day I get to do what I love – work with animals to make them healthier and happier.

Continue reading

Day in the Life – an Ontario egg farmer

DayintheLifeHi, my name is Megan and I’m an egg farmer who lives near Embro, Ontario. Along with my family, we raise 50,000 laying hens (female chickens that lay eggs for consumption) and 200,000 pullets (young female laying hen raised from one day old until 19 weeks) per year. We also grow crops on 1,500 acres of land.

Today on the farm…

Continue reading

Cloudy skies? No worries. Farmers use technology to take bad weather in stride

By Matt McIntosh

Cloudy skies- No worries.Not so long ago, the beginning of the spring planting season was upon us, and many farmers in Southwestern Ontario were gearing up to plant corn as soon as they could. Weeks later and much to their disappointment, though, some farmers still don’t have any seeds in the ground.

Yes, it’s been one of those years for some farm families; although not particularly disastrous, cool and wet weather in various parts of the province this spring meant some grain farmers were not able to plant their corn crop at the most ideal time. That means a shorter growing season, or a smaller window of time for plants to grow and mature before the return of our famous –and infamous – Canadian winter.

Less-than-ideal weather is an age-old problem for farmers, however, and we’ve learned how to use modern technology to adapt to changing environments.

Corn, for example, comes in many varieties, each with different traits making it better at different things. Using our modern understanding of genetics, some farmers – when faced with the prospect of a shorter growing season due to cold, wet spring weather – trade the seeds they originally wanted to plant with other varieties that requires less time to grow.

It’s all about “Crop Heat Units” and “Growing Degree Days,” you see.

Crop Heat Units and Growing Degree Days, in a roundabout way, refer to the amount of time a plant needs at a specific temperature to grow and mature properly. Different crops, and different varieties of the same crop, can require different temperatures for a different number of days. In the case of this year’s corn crop, for example, a farmer planning on sowing a corn variety requiring lots of time at a higher temperature might have decided to trade his seeds for one needing less time at a lower temperature.

The trade-off, however, is that varieties requiring less time and heat to grow have a tendency to not produce as much grain. That is to say, if a variety requiring fewer hot days was compared in ideal growing conditions to one that required more hot days, the former would produce smaller corn cobs or fewer kernels.

Given how many things factor into successfully growing crops, though, it’s still possible for varieties requiring a shorter growth period to produce more. Indeed, if the growing conditions are ideal, it’s very possible the more cold-hardy plant will out-produce its more warmth-inclined cousins.

However, it’s impossible for farmers to know exactly what will happen weather-wise. Every grower is a weatherman in some form or another, and as we all know, even the professionals on television make wrong predictions every now and again.

When it comes down to it, growing grains, vegetables, fruits and other crops really is a gamble with Mother Nature, but technology helps minimize risk in a number of ways. Take examples like climate controlled environments in greenhouses, the use of fungicide to control leaf blight, or the incorporation of giant orchard fans to help fruit farmers try to keep deadly spring frosts at bay. All these things, and so many more, help give farmers an edge in creating a more beneficial growing environment for their crops.

Regardless of what Southwestern Ontario grain farmers have thrown at them, though, something always grows. While some years are definitely better than others, technology helps us ensure there’s always a crop of some kind – and that’s an important thing to remember when planting prospects still look cloudy.

The old adage often repeated – so I’m told – by my great grandmother Isabelle might be a useful reminder here. Indeed, “there’s always a planting season.”

Day in the Life – of a Saskatchewan Grain Farmer

By Jean Clavelle Farm & Food Care SaskatchewanDayintheLife

I spoke to Trevor Scherman today from the tractor on his farm near Battleford in northwest Saskatchewan where he’s in the middle of seeding. See what he has to say about their family farm and being a grain farmer in Canada. Continue reading

What’s a typical Canadian farmer?

Quick – picture a farmer. What images come to mind? We can bet there might be a few that look like that. Our bigger wager would be that you might be surprised to learn who is farming today in Canada.

It’s difficult to describe a “typical” farm/farmer or ranch/rancher in Canada because every one of them is unique. Many of today’s farms have little in common with the images of Old MacDonald that you may remember from the popular children’s song. The important connection across all types of farms and farmers that spans the generations is the care and commitment needed for the animals and the land, 365 days a year.

Have big corporations taken over farm ownership? Absolutely not. More than 97 per cent of Canadian farms remain family-owned and operated, and are often handed down from generation to generation. From the very young to the young at heart, sometimes four generations work together on one farm. Continue reading

Lanark dairy farmers are faces of “May” in 2015 Faces of Farming calendar

Amanda and Jason O’Connell’s Faces of Farming calendar page

Amanda and Jason O’Connell’s Faces of Farming calendar page

(Carleton Place) – Amanda and Jason O’Connell, dairy farmers from Beckwith Township in Lanark County, are the winners of the 2014 Outstanding Young Farmer Competition in Ontario. This prestigious award is presented to farmers by industry leaders. The couple will continue on to compete on behalf of Ontario at the national competition in November, 2014.

In 2015, the couple also appears in the tenth anniversary Faces of Farming calendar, published by Farm & Food Care Ontario. Their page is sponsored by RBC Royal Bank and they are featured for the month of May. Continue reading