As the title suggests the article chronicles how we got to where we are. Space didn't let the article explain much about why we think the issues we are trying to address are so important. I will try to express those ideas in the Big Picture section of our website as time allows.
An abbreviated version of this article was also published in the newsletter National Farmers' Union local 344 (Grey county) sends to its members.
Last weekend it was +7C. I was thinking that if I still lived in Toronto I could ride my bicycle to the annual Bike Show.
Right now it is -18C, so I've plugged in the block heater on the tractor and will be wearing my thermal underwear to give hay to the cattle.
Tomorrow it is supposed to reach +10C, so I intend to lay out tarps today to solarize half of the 2020 vegetable garden.
These dramatic swings reduce snow cover which, in turn, tests the resilience of the soil microbiome. Conversely the less consistent cold makes it easier for new pests and diseases from more southern climes to survive here. Don't try to tell me climate change doesn't have economic impacts.
We just got hit with the biggest snow event of the last decade: about 60 cm in 24 hours on our farm. Here are some photos.
This morning you could no longer see the tractor's steering wheel or seat.
Notice how you can't see the well head or any of the stable doors. Even though I sited the fence to take advantage of the wind tunnel south of the barn it still got 40 cm of snow so I have to climb over it to take care of the cattle and to get the tractor to plow the snow.
So I slogged around the fence raising the wires to ensure that the electricity doesn't ground out and that the cattle can still see the wires.
It is now -17C (-25C with wind chill). The temperature is supposed to climb back to around or above freezing starting tomorrow so I've got to clean this up this morning before it all packs and risks damaging my equipment.
While carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O) are active in our atmosphere for many human generations, methane – a powerful, but short-lived, greenhouse gas – is broken down in about a decade. This means that the methane emissions of a herd of 100 cows today are simply replacing the emissions that were first produced when that herd was established by a previous generation of farmers. There was an initial pulse of warming when the herd was established, but there is no ongoing warming from that herd.
Under the new, updated metric, GWP*, the greenhouse gas emissions from UK agriculture fall from 46.5 MtCO2e [millions of metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent] in 2016, to just 9.5 MtCO2e*. Warming from CO2 and N2O across that period are the same as previously reported, but methane is recalculated as -10.6 MtCO2e*. That’s a negative emission value, because methane levels have fallen since the base year of 1996.
The transformation in the results is staggering. By accurately measuring the impact of methane, agriculture’s emissions under GWP* are just 20% of their original value.
Cattle and sheep are not the enemy – instead it’s high-yield, high-fodder (maize [corn], soy and cereal) production systems, which are driving humanity towards the precipice. Benefits under GWP* are gained through well-managed grass-based agriculture; by a diverse patchwork of rural businesses, and the restoration and maintenance of rural economies. We can still eat meat and dairy, as part of a new era diet that includes greater nutritional diversity, but also restore natural balance on all farm land.
The research was conducted by "...a global team of IPCC [Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change] researchers based at Oxford University" and "...was well received at COP 24 in Katowice". Here is the peer-reviewed source article published in the June 2018 edition of Climate and Atmospheric Science and here is the four page brief.
The big benefits come from "well-managed grass-based agriculture". That means ruminants such as cattle, sheep, goats, bison, and horses (who eat grass but technically aren't ruminants). It further means grass only like Better Together Farms' beef.
Most of the other ways humans get our calories and protein are worse for the environment. Pork and poultry are almost always fed rations composed mostly of corn, soy, and cereals. There are no wild sources of seafood which have not already been overfished, and farmed salmon have been genetically modified so they eat corn. Soy weighs heavily in mostly vegetarian and vegan proteins (including new meat-like products). Almost all the food for sale in grocery stores outside of the produce section is mostly made of corn and soy.
Grass only dairy is the holy grail of grazing: it is very difficult to manage cattle and pastures to approach the high output of intensified dairy operations.
If we ever stop externalizing pollution and other environmental impacts from economics, expect to pay about what I charge for food. The currently dominant model of agriculture in Canada is fossil fuel intensive, using 10 calories of fossil fuel for every calorie of food produced. Economic imperfections lead industry groups and governments to believe that this is an optimal or necessary way to feed our society. If we include the externalities so everyone sees the true and total costs of production, then cheap food won't be nearly so cheap.
The finding in this article (and both current and revised methodologies for measuring climate change impact) does NOT account for the additional environmental benefits of carbon sequestration caused by soil fertility improvement of cattle managed the way we manage at Better Together Farms.
Last week marks the second birthday of the first animals born on our farm. The steers (castrated males) Beardo and Little Will were born April 24 and 22 respectively, and Siibi the heifer (female who has not yet had a calf) was born April 12.
It has been a juggling act ensuring that the cattle get enough to eat as they rehabilitate our depleted fields, but as you can see below Beardo has grown into a fine young fellow eclipsing his mom, Koko.
Given that the cows weigh about 500 kg, I would guess Beardo is closer to 600 kg -- a very respectable weight for a Black Angus steer, and that is before finishing him (fattening him up) on the spring flush of grass.
To paraphrase the schoolyard taunt "bet my two year old can beat up your two year old" :-). Looking forward to 100% grass-fed Black Angus beef this August.
I can’t speak for other farmers, but here is why my pastured pork costs as much as it does.
Higher costs to the Farmer
Food: Feed is the
biggest cost of raising pigs; each pig eats almost half a ton of grain. I feed my
pigs custom milled certified organic rations because I still believe you are
what you eat. Organic feed costs roughly double conventional feed; keep reading
for why I think it is worth the money.
animals doesn't scale: you can do a few or a few dozen, but not 20,000 hogs per
year like the Perth County hog farmer I chatted with this year. Pastured pigs
will root up a paddock to bare dirt in under a month, and each paddock needs to
be fenced and supplied with water and shelter. I also have to bring all those
tonnes of food to them; feed trucks aren’t designed for off-roading.
cheap industrially-produced piglets are bred for confinement (a lot of them
spend their lives in near constant darkness on metal slats or concrete). Heritage
breeds or crossbreeds including heritage breeds are harder to find (especially
in volume) and cost more, but they won’t sunburn, they know and love foraging, and
their immune systems don’t need to be supplemented with antibiotics.
What you are NOT getting for your money
Funny title, eh? Read on.
medication: as Steve Leech from Chicken Farmers of Canada said in a
2015 Global News article "...you can’t eliminate preventive use of
antibiotics entirely. At least, not unless you want to completely change the
way you raise livestock, making meat that much pricier to produce and to
purchase." Raising pastured livestock is
completely different from how livestock is raised industrially, and yes, it
makes the meat much pricier. New directives came out in 2016 to reduce or ban a
lot of drugs that are also used on human beings. Do you trust that the current
industry-funded science goes far enough? Or is it worth spending more to know
that what you eat received no pre-emptive
medication of any kind?
No forced cannibalism:
Remember mad cow disease? That was spread by feeding the flesh of diseased
cattle to cattle. At huge cost the industrial food system made changes to
ensure that never happens again: they no longer feed cattle to cattle. They
still feed pigs to pigs and chickens to chickens. Don’t believe me? Look for
“pork meal” in the ingredients list on bags of hog feed at TSC or a feed mill.
No “residual feed streams”: “Residual feed streams” is a euphemism for “what waste can we safely feed meat animals.” It can include waste products from industrial food processing such as faulty Skittles, for example. (I note that this Wisconsin story was only reported outside of North America).
My organic feed costs twice what industrial agriculture feed
costs because it excludes all of the above, as well as being free of pesticides
and synthetic fertilizers. Just remember: if you are what you eat then you are
what your food eats too.
When you buy our
meat, you get only meat from our animals:A
2015 Washington Post article estimated (because no one could say
definitively) that an industrially-produced hamburger patty can contain the
meat from up to 100 different animals in a one-pound package. Think how
problems proliferate if every one of thousands of packages of ground beef sent
all across the country contains bits of 100 different animals. This is why
health authorities and industrial processors have been pushing for
traceability. Instead of the reassurance that authorities can trace any problem
after the fact, I give you my personal assurance that every animal I send to
slaughter is healthy when I send them, I send them in a way that minimizes
their stress and time around other animals, and the meat I sell contains no
animals but ours.
What you ARE getting for your money
Everything else we produce on our farm is certified organic. I can't certify my
pork because there is no certified organic abattoir within two hours’ drive and
I haven’t found a provider of certified organic piglets, but I do my best to
raise the pigs according to organic standards while they are in my care.
A better planet:
We regularly move livestock to maximize their benefit and minimize their damage
to the soil. This builds soil fertility and a healthy soil ecosystem which
sequesters greenhouse gasses (see page 12 of “Putting Soil
Health First” published by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario).
Moving them to new pasture takes a lot of time out of a farmer’s busy day, but
we strongly believe that it is best for the animals and the planet.
Improve our local economy: Money spent in a local store recirculates much more in the local economy than money spent at a chain store. Buy from me and you are paying the local feed mill that mills the hogs' feed from grain supplied by local farmers, among many other local transactions. All of us pay local taxes and most of us believe in buying local too, so every dollar you spend on a local product gets repeatedly circulated in the local economy. In other words it increases local economic activity many times more than buying the same item from a grocery chain store. Multiple US studies have found the difference to be anywhere from 30% more to 300% more positive local impact (Cape Cod Commission research brief, chart page 3).
With climate change making harvest yields more and more uncertain, a trade war
with the US, which is the source of most of our food, and transportation costs
that can only rise as oil becomes more expensive, it’s a good investment in
risk management to buy a decent proportion of your food from local producers.
You may pay a little extra today but in an increasingly uncertain world it is
good to have some locals who retain and have refined the basic skills that keep
Humane compassionate food: Our animals live their lives as they have evolved to live: in their herd (usually they all come from one or two litters), out of doors (as soon as they learn to respect electric fencing and are big enough to have a fighting chance against coyotes). We minimize their stress by letting them express their natures and by ensuring their needs are met. This makes for visibly happy and content animals. It is the old-school paradigm of choosing animals well-adapted to the environment and empowering them to manage themselves, as opposed to the industrial and regulatory approach of trying to control everything and thereby raising animals in an environment that is not natural to them.
I know our meat is expensive. I know money is tight. But
while the government spends money figuring out what waste and antibiotics to
feed meat animals to keep prices down, we produce our meat using paradigms that
are more resilient and more respectful of the animals.
Thank you to every customer who spends or has spent the extra money to buy some of our pork. I hope you now see it as I do; not just an investment in good eating, but also an investment towards a better community: more healthy, more wealthy, and more resilient.
What fool would go out in -30C wind chill and stick their bare hands in ice water? ME! My cattle's water supply had frozen over in the night so I had to break the ice and take it out. (Bare hands because I need to keep my mitts dry to keep the skin on my hands from freezing.) They could probably survive eating snow for moisture for a day or two, but since their rumens are a major source of warmth I want to ensure they are eating as much hay as possible over the next few days.
The cattle take it all in stride, by the way. Snow collects on their thick black fur indicating they are not losing too much body heat to the cold.
There is frost on the INSIDE of the window where I am writing this. At least it is not cold enough for our plumbing to freeze (a lesson from the even colder winter of 2014-5).
Time to pull the blinds and hide in the living room in front of the wood stove with our dog.
It has been 30 months since my last blog. I thought I should do something grandiose, but that was a year ago. So today's post is just a quick slice of life on the farm.
This is our second winter with cattle. Last night was surprisingly snowy, given that the temperature only rose from -17C to -10C. A steady wind kept the wind chill about 7C colder, so I figured the cattle would spend the night in their shelter.
Here is how they greeted me this morning.
They also know how to take care of themselves: staying outside in the cold reduces parasite and disease pressure versus stabling them. Ee! Bah gum, they're all champions! I wish our old farm house was as well insulated.
The first batch of chickens is in the freezer and the second batch move out to pasture in the next week.
We got our six Berkshire pigs at the end of May and they are finally moving from the barnyard to full pasture this week.
Many projects around the farm in support of the above:
Frost-seeded two fields to increase their forage and soil quality.
Replaced the barn board on the south wall of the barn.
Finished painting our bridge.
Built a third chicken coop for pasturing.
Rented then bought a wood chipper to convert brush from our tree lines into bedding for the pigs (and managed to keep all my fingers and toes attached).
Bought/built equipment for the pigs: portable electric fencing, waterers (thanks to Bullfrog Machine and Tool in Desboro for welding them to T-bars so I can use them in the field), a brush cutter so the electric fencing doesn’t ground-out in deep grass and weeds, and feeding troughs (thanks again to Bullfrog for finding a galvanized water tank and converting it into two troughs).
June and July are the busiest time of year on the farm. For the vegetables, everything is going on simultaneously: seeding, weeding, harvesting, and markets. I am seeding the last of the head lettuce this week and weed pressure will decline in August (if I can stay on top of them a few more weeks). Most of the livestock transitions also happen during this time: moving chickens from the brooder to pasture once they fledge (get their feathers), moving the pigs to pasture once they learn to respect the electric fence. It is also the only time of year when we can do outdoor painting: most paints don’t cure properly below 10⁰ C and our frost-free window is from early June to early September. That means anything I need in 2016 that needs weatherproofing or painting needs to be built and painted now.
Sunny days ahead make today a perfect day to hand weed. Time to rescue those cooking onions…
"Humanity, despite its artistic abilities, sophistication and accomplishments, owes its existence to a six-inch layer of farmable soil and the fact that it rains."—Anonymous
Think about it: our food supply is measured in days, weeks and, at best, months. The oceans are over-fished and hydroponics can't scale up. Lose our ability to grow food on the land and this is how long we have to live. Because of their importance, the UN has declared 2015 as "the international year of soils". Read more about the issues and what we are doing at Better Together Farms below. ...continue reading →