Skip to main content

A focus on grass management is all part of a vision of greater sustainabilityERDINHASDEMIR/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Bill van Nes may be the owner of a dairy farm in southwestern Ontario, but he also considers himself a grass farmer.

"I'm not just concerned with feeding animals grass, I'm interested in growing grass," says Mr. van Nes, president of St. Brigid's Dairy Ltd., a 1200-acre organic dairy farm near Brussels, Ont. "It's a bit of a different outlook that way. I don't just send my cows out to a pasture and have them there for a week. They are rotated very quickly so the grass has a good time to rest and recover."

Mr. van Nes's focus on grass management is all part of his vision of greater sustainability, for both his land and the animals grazing on it. His herd of 350 cows spend a lot of time grazing – their diet is about 60 per cent grass, twice the organic standard in Canada – so his frequent rotation of pasture provides the grasslands with proper recovery time.

A focus on sustainability has also influenced Mr. van Nes's choice of breed, Jersey, over the typical dairy cow, Holstein.

"I have mostly Jersey cattle because I believe they are a better animal for grass," he says. "They are smaller and they don't leave as big an impact, they have a smaller footprint. Holsteins are bred mostly for milk production, which sacrifices the fertility and longevity."

Mr. van Nes has owned and operated St. Brigid's, one of the largest Certified Organic dairy operations in Ontario, for the past six years. Most of his milk goes to Harmony Organic, an organic dairy producer based in Listowel, Ont. Demand for organic milk products continues to grow in Canada, but it can also be a challenging business because of the higher cost of organic feed. Like family farmers all over Canada, Mr. van Nes is constantly innovating to remain competitive and fulfill his vision of a more sustainable operation.

Although an industry like farming might seem slow to change in comparison to other industries, Mr. van Nes says innovative techniques are being adopted more and more.

"You might not notice much of a change year to year," he says. "But after 10 years, you sure do."

Crystal Mackay is executive director at Farm & Food Care Ontario, a non-profit organization representing and promoting farms of all types across the province. Ms. Mackay points out that farmers have always been creative and innovative.

"By nature we're all 'MacGyvers,' we're always looking for better ways to do things. Every crop, every animal that's born, we ask, 'How can the next generation be better?'" she says.

The difference now is that innovation on the farm is multi-faceted, says Ms. Mackay. From the accounting software farmers use to do their books to satellites that help to steer their tractors, farmers are reinventing every aspect of their operations, says Ms. Mackay.

Farmers can use radio-frequency ID tags in the ears of their livestock to provide better traceability in the food supply chain. With satellite imagery, farmers can create grid maps of their fields to determine nitrogen levels and apply fertilizer with a custom manure applicator only in the areas where it's needed. Farmers can even take on mother nature with high-tech tools that mitigate potential weather disasters.

Ms. Mackay gives the example of an apple orchard just east of Toronto that invested in a hail cannon.

"They have apples and blueberries, which are very susceptible to hail. If the weather patterns coming in indicate that there's a risk of hail, this hail cannon shoots sound waves up into the clouds and breaks up the hail so that it becomes a rain," she explains.

Thought it's a very expensive piece of equipment, the farm felt it was good risk management to purchase it, says Ms. Mackay. "Two years ago we had a lot of hail damage and a lot of apples were lost in Ontario, so that farm felt the technology paid for itself. You can lose your whole year's income with a five-minute hail storm."

Like many small business owners, farmers are also pulling information from online resources, academic journals and experts on social media to keep them competitive and leading-edge.

"One guy on Twitter goes by the handle @WheatPete and a lot of farmers follow him for advice and tips," she says. "Farmers are also checking markets on their cell phones about when to buy and sell grains."

Ms. Mackay says the biggest motivating "rally call" she sees in agriculture and food production today is feeding more people on less land.

"That is our ultimate challenge. We have a population growth curve, we're expecting 9 billion people [worldwide] by 2050, so it's like, how will we feed all these people? If you want to grow more food on less land, you need to use every square inch to the best of its ability," she says. "You want that soil to be healthy and sustainable, which means better crop rotation, better understanding of your soil, growing appropriate crops in appropriate areas."

It's a challenge that Mr. van Nes has taken up on his farm. He says he's working to utilize his land more efficiently utilizing techniques like "cover cropping," or growing multiple species of plants together after a grain crop to keep the soil healthier and the land covered. "I'm up to about 10 different species – sunflowers, millet, peas, soybeans, sorghum/sudangrass, ryegrass, oats, radish and red and crimson clover. Each plant contributes something and they feed off each other," he says.

Mr. van Nes says a recent trip to Switzerland to study farming techniques was an "eye-opener" when it comes to efficient utilization of farmland.

"They don't waste a square metre of land," he says. "They farm right up to the road, there's nothing wasted there. I think we should be more like that here."

Ms. Mackay agrees that better efficiency is key to future farming innovation.

"If one hen can produce more eggs, if one cow can produce more milk, if she eats a better-quality food product so we can feed her less and she produces less manure, it all adds up to efficiency," she says. "More [food production] using less land and less resources, that's the ultimate challenge."

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's advertising department, in consultation with CIBC. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.