Ask a farmer

A century ago, over half of Canada’s population was farmers. Most folks understood farming as it was done then because it was fairly simple. Today people are so far removed from agriculture that they have a hard time understanding the scary stuff they read about – growth hormones, steroids, genetically modified organisms, medications, pesticides and the like.

According to the latest census, the Canadian farm population totaled 650,395 in 2011, accounting for one out of every 50 Canadians, or two percent of the total population. But that doesn’t mean we have 650,000 farmers in Canada. That number includes families.

The census also says the farm population in Ontario accounted for 1.4 percent of Ontario’s total population. That figure is also misleading because it’s based on a farm population of 174,905. Those aren’t registered farmers. Fifty thousand would be a more realistic figure.

Today there is a lot of interest in food: how it’s grown, how the animals are treated and how farmers treat the environment. The Ontario Farm Animal Council (OFAC) has put out two very factual and excellent magazines – The Real Dirt on Farming (1 and 2) – which answer many questions about food and agriculture that might help the majority of non-farming Canadians.

Myths and questions

An interesting item is about grass-fed and grain fed-cattle. Many people assume that beef cattle raised on grass will have less impact on the environment than grain-fed cattle in a packed feedlot. Not so. A study says grass-fed cattle produce more greenhouse gases per pound of beef than beef from feedlot grain-fed finished animals. Grain-fed animals also gain weight faster and are sent to market sooner, which means there is less manure and they’re emitting less gas overall.

One of the questions I’m asked during the winter months is why farmers still have corn out in the field. “The farmer had all kinds of good weather to get it off in September and October but nothing was done. Why weren’t they at it then? Now it’s out in the snow.”

I explain that it’s grain corn and there are reasons why it wasn’t harvested before the snow came. The farmer has to have transport trucks lined up to haul it to a dryer when he harvests the corn. Elevators are sometimes overrun with corn during the harvest. The moisture could have been too high at harvesting time, resulting in high drying costs. The farmer may want to take a chance and let nature dry down the crop over winter and combine it in the spring. That works some winters, but it is a risk.

Silage corn – stalks, leaves and cobs chopped up as livestock feed – is harvested in September. That is the ideal time to harvest it as the moisture content of the plant is perfect for making corn silage. Silage cannot be made when the stalk and leaves are dry (it would catch fire) so that’s why the dry-looking corn in the fields is only harvested for grain.

Outside in winter?                   

I often get asked about “cows” outdoors in the winter eating hay in the snow. Don’t they get cold feet? Freeze out there? Nope. Beef cows are hardy animals. They need a windbreaker shelter for cold, windy days but otherwise can eat and sleep in snowy fields. It’s healthy too.

I get asked why some farmers get huge transport loads of fertilizer trucked onto their fields. I explain that it’s agricultural lime, not fertilizer.

I was asked by someone last summer why the farmer planted a huge field of golden rods. Isn’t it early for them to be blossoming in July? It’s very pretty when it blossomed and we took photos of it, the woman said.

It’s a field of canola.

Those are just some of the interesting and easy questions to answer. The inquirer understands; not much debate there. The questions and comments about GMOs, hormones, steroids, chemicals and production quotas, however . . . well that’s another story. Those people need to read The Real Dirt on Farming.  


  • Meindert VanderGalien

    Meindert was born in The Netherlands in 1949. The family immigrated to Canada (The Ottawa Valley) in 1953. He’s a life-long cattle farmer, enjoys traveling, reading, writing, gardening, bush work in the winter cutting firewood and country life. He’s been a columnist since 1987 writing for many newspapers and is currently the bulletin editor at Hebron CRC in Renfrew, where he is a faithful member.

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