Monthly Archives: September 2010

Sow Housing…What’s the Right Answer?

On Friday I attended the annual Ontario Pork Policy Day conference in Guelph.  This conference brings together pig farmers from across the province to share ideas and discuss pertinent industry topics.  In the afternoon I attended a breakout session that focused on sow housing.  One of the most contentious issues facing pig farmers today is animal welfare, and sow housing, most notably gestation stalls are at the centre of the debate.  For my non-farm readers, let me give you a little background.  A gestation sow is a female pig that is pregnant and a gestation stall is one form of housing for these sows until they are ready to move into the barn where they will give birth to their piglets.

To the untrained eye, gestation stalls don’t seem like the best way to keep sows.  Sows are housed individually, making it hard for the sow to interact socially (pigs are very social animals) and their living space is constricted to ensure that their feeding/watering area stays clean and their manure ends up in the manure pit.  That being said there are very good reasons for keeping sows in stalls.  They allow the farmer to closely monitor each sow individually to make sure that she is receiving the proper amount of feed and water and they protect sows that would fall on the lower rungs of the social order, (dominant sows can be very mean to ‘weaker’ sows).

On our farm we keep our sows in stalls for approximately 4 weeks following breeding.  When we have confirmed that the sow is pregnant we move groups of 25 sows into large group housing pens for the balance of the gestation period, (fun piece of trivia for you; the gestation period is 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days).  We keep them in stalls at the beginning for the exact reasons I listed above.  Before we allow the sows to exist in large groups we need to ensure that they are in peak physical condition so that they can handle the stresses of group housing and stalls allow us to individually manage the sows.

Recently there has been some very interesting research done on sow behaviour at the Prairie Swine Centre, a leading research facility in Canada.  The study allowed for sows to have free access to both stalls and a group pen and the results were very interesting.  At any given point throughout the study, it was found that only 20% of the sows were in the loose area.  In fact 40% of sows spent more then 98% of their time in a stall. Conversely, some sows spent over 90% of their time in the loose housing area.

There is no easy answer to the gestation stall debate and I think that the research done at the Prairie Swine Centre proves that this is indeed a very cloudy picture.  I will always contend that farmers are the greatest champions of animal welfare and each individual farmer will have their own thoughts on how to provide the best level of care for their animals.

We Can’t Eat Limestone

Much like my performance when attempting to run the 1500m race at track and field days, my blogathon started strong but as the race wore on, I got tired (or in this case my brain felt like exploding) and I’m finishing late.  But I’m still going to finish, after a 2 day respite; I’m going to write the 4th and 5th blog posts over the weekend.

For my first post, I’m weighing in on a long standing controversy that has been brewing in a small community an hour north of our farm.  Shelburne and the surrounding townships are in the heart of potato country in Ontario.  A few years ago an individual started buying farms in the area, telling residents that the goal was to build a large efficient operation.  Farms were bought well above market rates and in a relatively short time span the company had amassed landholdings of more then 7000 acres.  As time passed, it came apparent that John Lowndes was merely an agent for a large hedge fund out of Boston operating under the moniker, The Highland Companies, and instead of a massive potato operation, the goal was to build a limestone quarry that could rival the biggest in North America.  If you visit the company’s website (highlandcompanies.ca) they give you the impression that they are warm and fuzzy firm that cares about the future of the community but to my sceptical eye I see nothing but corporate whitewash.  In my opinion, they are making the calculated decision of just how many community events they need to support to get necessary approvals to go ahead.

When it came to light that the real plan was to develop the land into a 2400 acre limestone quarry, members of the community joined together to form the North Dufferin Agricultural & Community Taskforce.  They have been active and very vocal; making every attempt to stave off a quarry that they feel threatens the sustainability of the community.  Today, Shelburne stands as a community divided with former neighbours not talking with each other, depending on their stance in the debate.

While there are lots of issues the NDACT has brought forward in concern to the quarry I want to focus on one undeniable fact.  People can eat potatoes, people cannot eat limestone.  Allowing this quarry to proceed will remove 7% of the provinces potato acres.  Don’t think that is all that much….to give you a better picture lets talk about the 5 pound bag of potatoes that you buy at the grocery store.  7% of the crop puts 9.8 MILLION those bags on your grocery store and my estimation is being conservative because I haven’t accounted for yield differentials throughout the different potato growing regions in Ontario.  It just so happens that the land that we are talking about destroying is the most productive potato ground in the province.  Dufferin and Simcoe counties are 1st and 2nd respectively in terms of potatoes yielded per acre.

We can get bogged down in the details but I want to really hammer home my point; people can eat potatoes, people cannot eat limestone.  I’m not denying that we need aggregates but let’s not build quarries in the centre of our most productive regions.  Urban expansion has already buried the majority of the most productive land in our province under concrete and pavement but our provincial government had started to show some foresight for the future with programs like the Greenbelt initiative.  I would appeal to our policy makers to once again look out for future generations of potato eating Ontarians by quashing this quarry.

To find out more about NDACT visit http://www.ndact.com or http://mail.ndact.com/blogs/forum/

Post#7 Toys R US…Farmer Version

An Ontario farmer and fellow social media enthusiast Wayne Black called Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show a Toys R US for farmers and after spending the day there it lived up to the billing.  At the end of the day, most of us farmers still have a little bit of the same boy or girl that loved playing in their sandbox with the “giant” dump truck and getting to play with big things is one of the best parts of our job.  COFS appeals to this love by collecting all of the biggest machines (and other various and sundry things associated with agriculture) into one tidy field.

COFS is the premiere farm show in Canada, there is no other venue that draws such a diverse set of exhibitors.  It could probably be asserted that if a company is in the business of agriculture in Canada then you will find them at COFS.

Today turned out to be an excellent day to attend, the weather was phenomenal and my feed salesman happened to show up which meant a very ‘important’ meeting had to take place in the beer tent.  In all seriousness, it was a great day and I picked up a couple ideas for to take back home.

The day started with an abbreviated version of chores and an hour long drive where I managed to take care of a couple things on the to do list from my Blackberry (don’t tell the OPP).  The morning was spent checking out the livestock exhibitors where I picked up a great idea for a cheap creep feeder at the Purina booth, (for you non-farmers, a creep feeder is something that holds feed for young piglets to help supplement their mothers milk).  Lunch may have been the highlight of the day; I enjoyed slow roasted Ontario Corn Fed Beef brisket that was out of this world.  The afternoon was spent browsing through some of the new equipment and chatting with lots of friends that I hadn’t seen in awhile, (along with my meeting with the salesman). I ended the day by attending a reception for Ontario Agricultural College alumni that was hosted by Agcareers.com.

That’s all for today, see you tomorrow,

To learn more about Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show visit outdoorfarmshow.com

If you are interested in learning about Ontario Corn Fed Beef visit ontariocornfedbeef.com

Post#6 Lady Gaga and the Meat Dress Saga

A very peculiar story came across the airwaves yesterday during morning chores about a certain pop star wearing a controversial piece of clothing at Sunday night’s MTV VMAs.  For anyone who hasn’t heard; Lady Gaga accepted an award wearing a dress with accompanying accessories that were crafted out of raw meat.

This did seem a tad off the wall but I have enjoyed reading the fallout this morning as I tried to figure out how this dress could give me some fodder for today’s post.  After some head scratching I came across the following quote from Lady Gaga when she appeared in the dress with Ellen DeGeneres for Ellen’s season premiere that aired yesterday,

Well, it is certainly no disrespect to anyone that is vegan or vegetarian. As you know, I am the most judgment free human being on the earth,” Gaga explained. “However, it has many interpretations but for me this evening if we don’t stand up for what we believe in and if we don’t fight for our rights pretty soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our bones” (www.popcrunch.com)

Earlier in the night, Lady Gaga had shown up at the VMAs with 4 former servicemen and women who had been discharged from the armed forces through the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in which gay, lesbian, bisexual etc. people are forced to leave the service if they allow their sexuality to become public. If I’m interpreting her correctly, she was using a little shock value to drive the point home that people deserve the right to make choices for themselves and should be able to do so without prejudice from others.

I believe that individuals should be free to practice any religion, love any person regardless of gender or race and do so free from persecution.  Furthermore, I believe that the same approach should be taken to the choices that people make about their food.  To me, food is an sacred part of our being and people should be allowed to eat what they want without facing criticisms from others.

This is where I come to an impasse with groups like PETA and the HSUS; they take a very antiquated view in terms of diet…people should do things the way I want them to and if they don’t then they are wrong.  The truth is, people will continue to eat meat into the foreseeable future and if animal rights groups were truly committed to improving the welfare of animals they would use portions of their massive budgets to help fund research for production agriculture to continue in their quest to raise animals in the most humane way possible.

That’s all for today, see you tomorrow at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show

Post#5 Adventures in Chinatown

When I was starting out into the realm of social media Lilian Schaer, author of the blog “Food and Farming Canada” was kind enough to sit down with me and give me some tips on how to be an effective blogger.  One of the key messages was to post regularly to keep the interest level piqued.  This spring Lilian took it upon herself to do a ‘blogathon’ and attempted to blog everyday for one month.  I’ve decided that I’m going to undertake a mini version of a blogathon and will attempt to blog for 5 consecutive days this week.

Today’s post coincides with a video that was posted on YouTube (http://bit.ly/dzi7Jb) this afternoon that gave some clips from my adventures in Chinatown over the Labour Day weekend with my good friend Matt Douglas.  I wanted to observe how other cultures experience their food and since we sell BBQ pigs that end up in Chinatown I figured that would be the best place to start.

One thing that jumped out at me in the largest of the grocery stores that we visited was the simple yet very effective labeling system.  When our government decides to revamp our convoluted and confusing labeling system I suggest the head on down to Spadina Ave.  There was no rocket science going on, the grocer simply put out labels in Mandarin (I think…my character knowledge is lacking) and English that gave the price and where the product was grown.   There was no debate about the percentage of the good that was Canadian or whether it should be called Product of Canada or Made in Canada; merely this is how much it costs and this is where it was grown.  Even processed meats, something that a label reader like me can’t decipher in the regular grocery store generally included where the animal was raised.  Another neat observation that I made was the demographic mosaic that was shopping in the stores.  While the majority of people were Asian, I still heard more languages then I can count on my hands and there seemed to be people of every age group in the stores.

We ended off the day by sitting down on the patio at Kensington Cornerstone (http://kensingtoncornerstone.com) to enjoy delicious Caesers that included a generous amount of horseradish and gluten free calamari.  If you are a celiac living in Toronto you may want to check this place out, the menu is entirely gluten free and they offer pitchers of mixed drinks since beer is not allowed in the gluten free environment.

See everyone tomorrow

Post#4 I Care

Farmers today are often accused of not caring for their animals.  Many groups will argue that animals raised on “factory farms” spend their entire life in a state of terror and pain.  YouTube has countless videos that have been posted that depict utterly horrifying images of animals enduring cruelty and abuse.  Animal rights groups use media like this to sway the general public, leading the average Joe to assume that farmers view their animals as machines, not caring about anything other then the bottom line.  While I don’t have the media budget to go toe to toe with groups like the HSUS I want to talk about something that happened this week at home to try and give some insight to the emotions that farmers experience when caring for livestock.

This past weekend it was my turn to do chores and as I was doing my rounds in the farrowing barn (the place where our female pigs give birth) I came across a sow that was having difficulty during labour.  After collecting the necessary supplies I went back into the room with her and attempted find out what was causing the trouble.  I worked and worked but nothing I seemed to try was helping the sow get her last few piglets out and as time went by I realized that there was nothing more that I could do.  I got Dad to take a look and see what he could do but he came to the same conclusion as I, there was nothing that we could do and unless there was some sort of rapid turnaround, the sow was going to die.

It is hard to describe in words the feeling that you have when you know that an animal that has been entrusted to your care is going to die.  It is a profound sadness coupled with a feeling of personal failure.  While the my relationship with that sow was not as personal as a relationship you may share with a pet; I still feel responsible for her death and I spent Sunday afternoon trying to figure out what I had missed the day before: could I have done something different that may have led to a better outcome.  The reality is that every so often, no matter the species or the setting, complications will arise during the birthing process and very rarely things can go wrong.

The take home message of this story is that farmers care for their animals; yes I am running a business but at the end of the day I have chosen a profession that requires me to CARE for animals.  If I fail to nurture my animals then I will have failed as a farmer.  Next time you see or hear something about farmers not caring for their animals remember who gets up at 3 in the morning in the middle of January to go check on calving cows, remember who makes it to the barn by 6am on New Years Day after a late night out on the town, and finally, remember the emotion of sadness and failure that I spoke about in this post.

Farmers care, we wouldn’t be farming if we didn’t