Tag archive

livestock

Footnotes from the Field: Waste Not, Want Not

in 2020/Current Issue/Fall 2020/Footnotes from the Field/Livestock/Preparation/Soil

Empowering the Human Micronutrient Supply Chain from the Soil Up

Marjorie Harris

I have long accepted that the saying “Healthy Soil, Healthy Plants, Healthy people” fully explained the human nutrient supply chain. Turns out, this is not entirely accurate. In fact, the mineral requirements for healthy plants, animals, and people are quite different.

During organic farm inspection tours, I met a BC farm family diagnosed with selenium deficiency syndromes. The local health unit had identified the conditions. One person suffered from a significant fused spinal curvature from a skeletal muscle disease caused by selenium deficiency.

The farm’s soil tests confirmed that the garden soils were indeed deficient in selenium. The farmer was aware that his newborn livestock required selenium shots to prevent white muscle disease and that his livestock were fed selenium-fortified commercial organic livestock feed.

That BC farmer’s “Aha!” moment came when he made the connection between his garden soils’ lack of selenium and his family’s health problems. My curiosity was piqued. What was going on here—what is selenium and where do we find it?

Selenium is recognized as an essential trace mineral for healthy livestock and it is standard best practice to give selenium shots shortly after birth. In the year 2000, the Canadian government, along with the rest of North America, mandated the addition of selenium minerals to commercial livestock feeds (poultry, swine, beef/dairy, goat, and sheep) as a way to increase animal health and fortify the human food supply in dairy, meat, and eggs. Canadian wildlife surveys have determined that wild creatures also suffer from selenium deficiency diseases. Chronic and subclinical selenium deficiency could be a contributing factor to recent wildlife population declines, as other causes have not been identified.

I was surprised to learn from the government of Alberta’s Agri-Fax sheet that plants do not use selenium and do not show deficiency symptoms from its lack in the soil. At the same time, there are a few plants, such as locoweeds, that can hyperaccumulate selenium to levels that are toxic to livestock when selenium concentrations are high in the soil.

It was only relatively recently that we realized selenium was essential for human health. In 1979, Chinese scientists made the discovery while investigating the deaths of thousands of young women and children in the Keshan County of North Eastern China. The condition associated with these deaths was named Keshan disease, after the county where it was first recognized. The Chinese scientists discovered that selenium supplementation could correct the disorder. Since then, much has been learned about how selenium acts as a mineral in the human body in conjunction with other trace minerals such as chromium and iodine, which are also not used by plants.

Selenium deficiency is regarded as a major worldwide health problem with estimates of between 500 million to 1 billion people living with selenium deficiency diseases. Even larger numbers of people are consuming less then what is needed for optimal protection against cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and infectious diseases.

Researchers have found that selenium is widely distributed throughout the body’s tissues and of high importance for many regulatory and metabolic functions. Selenium is very much like a “Goldilocks” micronutrient: you need just the right amount. Too much or too little can lead to serious health consequences. The Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) in Canada for adults and children 14 and up is 55 micrograms per day. Our dietary selenium is taken up in the gut and becomes incorporated into more than 30 selenoproteins and selenoenzymes that play critical roles in human biological processes. Selenium is considered a cornerstone of the body’s antioxidant defense system as an integral component required for glutathione peroxidase (GPx) activity. The GPx enzyme family plays a major role in protection against oxidative stress.

In addition, selenoproteins regulate many physiological processes, including the immune system response, brain neurotransmitter functioning, male and female reproductive fertility, thyroid hormone functioning, DNA synthesis, cardiovascular health, mental health, and heavy metal chelation. Selenoproteins have a protective effect against some forms of cancer, possess chemo-preventive properties, and regulate the inflammatory mediators in asthma.

Many chronic diseases have been linked to selenium deficiency. A short list includes: diabetes, Alzheimer’s, lupus, autoimmune disease, arthritis, schizophrenia, cardiovascular disease, degenerative muscle diseases, neurological diseases, and rheumatoid arthritis. The selenium GPX-1 immune defense system has demonstrated antiviral capability. GPx-1 is found in most body cells, including red blood cells.

Some lipid-enveloped viruses pirate host selenium resources as a strategy to outmaneuver the host immune selenium-activated GPX-1 antioxidant system. If a host is selenium-deficient the virus can overwhelm the host GPX-1 immune response. In selenium-competent individuals the GPX-1 initiates an immune response cascade which inhibits viral replication and clears the virus from host. Selenium’s antiviral defense ability has been documented for Ebola, coronavirus, SARS-2003, influenza viruses (swine and bird flus), HIV, herpes viruses, cytomegalovirus (CMV), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), hepatitis B and C, Newcastle disease virus, rubella (German measles), varicella (chicken pox), smallpox, swine fever, and West Nile virus. There are a number of studies showing that selenium deficiency negatively impacts the course of HIV, and that selenium supplementation may delay the onset of full-blown AIDS.

While the research is still unfolding and it is too early to make determinative conclusions about COVID-19 and potential treatments, preliminary research indicates several interesting lines of inquiry. COVD-19 researchers in China published new data on April 28, 2020 making an association the COVID-19 “cure rates and death rates” and the soil selenium status of the region. Higher deaths rates were observed in populations living inside soil selenium-poor regions such as Hubei Province. Regional population selenium status was measured through hair samples. Samples were collected and compared from 17 different Chinese cities: “Results show an association between the reported cure rates for COVID-19 and selenium status. These data are consistent with the evidence of the antiviral effects of selenium from previous studies.”

By now, you’ve probably figured out that we can’t live without selenium. The evidence is clear: human and animal health is dependent on selenium, and yet it is the rarest micronutrient element in the Earth’s crust. Selenium is classed as a non-renewable resource because there are no ore deposits from which Selenium can be mined as the primary product. Most selenium is extracted as a by-product of copper mining.

Selenium has many industrial applications because of its unique properties as a semi-conductor. The most outstanding physical property of crystalline selenium is its photoconductivity. In sunlight electrical conductivity increases more than 1,000-fold, making it prized for use in solar energy panels and many other industrial uses that ultimately draw selenium out of the food chain, potentially permanently.

Selenium is very unevenly dispersed on land masses worldwide, ranging from deficient to toxic concentrations, with 70% to 80% of global agricultural lands considered to be deficient. Countries dominated by selenium-poor soils include Canada, Western and Eastern European, China, Russia, and New Zealand. Worldwide selenium-deficient soils are widespread, and increasing.

Naturally selenium-rich soils are primarily associated with marine environments. Ancient oceans leave behind dehydrated selenium salts as they recede. Here in Canada the receding salt waters of the Western Interior and Hudson seaways left mineral deposits from the Badlands of Alberta, following along the southern borders of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Some countries, including Finland and New Zealand, have added selenium (selenite) to fertilizer programs to fortify the soils with some success. Results show that only a small proportion of the selenium is taken up by plants and much of the remainder becomes bound up in non-bioavailable complexes out of reach for future plant utilization. On this basis, it is thought that large scale selenium biofortification with commercial fertilizers would be too wasteful for application to large areas of our planet. The geographic variability of selenium content, environmental conditions, and agricultural practices all have a profound influence on the final selenium content of our foods. Iodine, which works hand-in-hand with selenium, is even more randomly variable in soils and food crops.

The Globe and Mail ran the following January 2, 2020 headline: “Canadian researchers combat arsenic poisoning with Saskatchewan-grown lentils.” In 2012, it was estimated by the WHO that 39 million Bangladeshis were exposed to high levels of arsenic in their drinking water, and the World Health Organization (WHO) deemed Bangladesh’s arsenic poisoned groundwater crisis the “largest mass poisoning of a population in history.” As it turns out, the lentils from southern Saskatchewan accumulate enough selenium that they could be used as a “food-medicine” in Bangladesh as a cure for arsenic poisoning. Clinical trials conducted from 2015 to 2016 found that participants eating selenium-rich lentils had a breakthrough moment when urine samples confirmed that arsenic was being flushed from their bodies. Other studies have also shown that selenium binds to mercury to remove it from the body.

Now that we are finally wrapping our minds around the fact that our personal health depends on just the right amount of selenium, we find out that the health of future generations may depend on it even more. It takes more than one parent’s generation to produce a single child. While a female fetus is growing in the womb, the eggs of the gestating mother’s grandchildren are also being formed in the ovaries of the fetus. The viability of the grandchildren’s DNA is protected from oxidative stress damage by antioxidant selenium. Oxidative stress on the new DNA could potentially result in epigenetic changes for future generations. The selenium intake of the grandparent directly affects the grandchildren. From this point of view, it is seen as imperative that all childbearing people have access to sufficient selenium. Selenium is essential for healthy spermatogenesis and for female reproductive health, as well as the brain formation of the fetus. In short, humanity is dependent on selenium for health—now and forever.

The world’s selenium resources are scarce and need to be carefully managed for future generations. Since both the human and livestock food chains are being fortified with this scarce resource, the manures from these sources are worth more then their weight in gold. The natural cycles of returning resources dictates that livestock manures need to be guided back into the soil for crop production. Human biosolids can be guided into fiber crops or forest production. Over time, livestock manures will fortify the soils with all of the micronutrients passing through their systems. Human manures passing through fiber crops can eventually be composted and recycled into crop production, returning selenium continually to the human micronutrient supply chain.

Waste not, want not.


Marjorie Harris, IOIA VO and concerned organophyte.

References:
Evans, I., Solberg, E. (1998). Minerals for Plants, Animals and Man, Agri-Fax Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development: agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex789/$file/531-3.pdf?OpenElement
Haug, A., et al. (2007). How to use the world’s scarce selenium resources efficiently to increase the selenium concentration in food, Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease: Dec 19: 209 – 228. DOI: 10.1080/08910600701698986
Jagoda, K. W., Power, R., Toborek, M. (2016). Biological activity of
selenium: Revisited, IUBMB Life – Review: Feb;68(2):97-105. DOI: 10.1002/iub.1466
Brown, K.M., Arthur, J.R. (2001). Selenium, Selenoproteins and human health: a review, Public Health Nutrition: Volume 4, Issue 2b pp. 593-599. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1079/PHN2001143
Harthill M., (2011). Review: Micronutrient Selenium Deficiency Influences Evolution of Some Viral Infectious Diseases, Biol Trace Elem Res. 143:1325–1336. DOI: doi.org/10.1007/s12011-011-8977-1
Zhang, J. et al. (2020). Association between regional selenium status and reported outcome of COVID-19 cases in China, Am J Clin Nutr. doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqaa095.
Carbert, M., (2020). Canadian researchers combat arsenic poisoning with Saskatchewan-grown lentils, The Globe and Mail: theglobeandmail.com/canada/alberta/article-canadian-researchers-combat-arsenic-poisoning-with-saskatchewan-grown/
Sears, M.E. (2013). Chelation: Harnessing and Enhancing Heavy Metal Detoxification—A Review, The Scientific World Journal. doi.org/10.1155/2013/219840

Organic Stories: Lasser Ranch, Chetwynd BC

in 2020/Climate Change/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Organic Community/Summer 2020/Tools & Techniques

The Lasser Legacy: Raising Healthy, Nutritious, Environmentally-Friendly Cattle

Jolene Swain

Charlie Lasser’s plan was to retire at 100. Just three weeks short of his 89th birthday, he’s been considering extending that to 110—there’s so much to learn and so much knowledge to share when it comes to raising cattle, and he’s just not quite finished.Farming is part of Charlie’s DNA. Coming from a long line of Swiss ranchers, he finished up with school in grade nine and bought his first work horse when he was 14. “I never went to school long enough to learn that there are things you can’t do,” says Charlie. Running a team of horses by the time he was a young teen, he earned money mowing, ploughing, raking, and hauling hay to make the next investments towards having his own land to farm.

Over the past 70 plus years of farming, Charlie has had his share of side hustles in local politics and public service. “You have to get out there and help people, that’s what life is all about,” says Charlie. From the longest-serving mayor of Chetwynd (22 years), to founding or serving on numerous boards and councils, including BC Hydro, Northern Lights College, Lower Mainland Municipal Association, the University of British Columbia, the Chetwynd Communications Society, and even the local thrift store, it seems he’s done a little of everything. But his true calling and passion has always been farming, and it was important that anyone he dated understood that.

When he met his life partner Edith, she not only understood Charlie’s draw to the land, but came from a ranching background herself, and knew just as much about cattle as he did. Together, they made a great team—too busy farming and surviving to argue: “We used to laugh, we could never remember when we had an argument. It was hard work starting out, and we had to work together to survive.”

Edith passed in 2016, after 62 years and three days of marriage, and it is clear that she is dearly missed. After many years working at the family dairy in Pitt Meadows, Charlie and Edith brought Lasser Ranch in Chetwynd in 1971, and moved the family up in 1974.

Dream team: Charlie and Edith of Lasser Range. Credit: Rod Crawford

Charlie is known as one of the early pioneers of the organic industry in BC. “When I was young, everything was organic, that’s how we farmed,” he says. When commercial fertilizers came to market in the ‘50s, he sprayed once on their farm in Pitt Meadows, and didn’t like it. He’s been setting the standard for organic cattle ranching ever since.
“The land and earth is like a bank account, when you build it up, it will produce and you can live off the interest,” says Charlie. “If you use fertilizer, your land becomes a drug addict, it has to have that commercial fertilizer or it will not grow.” According to Charlie, it might take a bit more time at first to build up your land, but the returns are fantastic. Fellow organic pioneer in the fruit industry and good friend Linda Edwards knows Charlie as someone always eager to try something new. “He made money as a cattle farmer, and more importantly, he had a good time doing it,” says Linda.

Of course, farming has changed a lot since Charlie’s ancestors ran cattle in the 1400s, and even since Lasser Range was established back in 1971. Antibiotics were discovered, a game changer for the dairy industry. Horses, once relied upon to round-up cattle, have been replaced by smaller and more numerous pastures in a practice and a grazing style now known as management-intensive grazing. And finally, amongst organic, grass-fed, and animal welfare certifications to name a few, it seems that Charlie might be on a mission to grow what he suspects will be the world’s most environmentally-friendly and nutritious cattle with his latest new feed ingredient. Call it a hunch.

Actually, it’s more than a hunch. Dr. John Church and his team at Thompson Rivers University discovered that organic grass-fed can supply an extra 30-40 mg of healthy omega-3 fatty acids per serving than conventional or ‘natural’ grain-finished beef.1 In this study, over 160 sources of beef were sampled from grocery stores on Vancouver Island, and one sample stood out from the rest when it came to healthy omega-3 fatty acids. The source of that beef? You guessed it: bred and raised on Lasser ranch. But there’s more to the story. These cattle had been grass-finished at Edgar Smith’s Beaver Meadows Farm near Comox, BC. Upon further investigation, Dr. Church found that there was another interesting component of the nutrient rich beef: storm cast seaweed. Now, in collaboration with farmers like Charlie and Edgar, they are digging deeper into the nutritional differences of meat from cattle fed seaweed from an early age.

Feeding seaweed to cattle may not only lead to beef that is more nutritious, but also better for the planet. Cow burps and flatulence are well known for adding methane, a greenhouse gas that traps considerably more heat than carbon dioxide, to the atmosphere. While the number of cows on the planet is a contentious topic these days, reducing the methane production in individual cows might be a step in the right direction.

Charlie Lasser (right) with Ron Reid on the COABC Vanguard of Organics panel in 2018. Credit: Michael Marrapese.

Not all seaweed is created equal. It turns out that certain strains can reduce methane output by up to 60% in live animals. And that’s not all. According to Charlie, who has started feeding Smith’s seaweed to a select group of weaned calves on his ranch, not only are methane levels reduced, but the calves getting seaweed snacks appear to be putting on more weight than their gassy siblings.

Dr. Church and his team at TRU are working on a detailed microbial community analysis of the rumen to demonstrate that the seaweed product is able to shift activity away from methanogenic bacterial species found in the digestive tract, towards those that benefit from excess hydrogen, resulting not only in reduced methane, but an increase in production. This could confirm Charlie’s observations that adding seaweed to the diet results not only in a reduction in methane but also, an increase in beef production. But is the market ready for a low carbon footprint ‘Sea Beef’?

Feeding seaweed to cattle is not new. Coastal ranchers in places like Japan and Scotland have historically fed seaweed to their livestock. Conveniently, Charlie’s cows appear to be big fans of the variety of invasive red seaweed, Mazzaella japonica, harvested and baled by Edgar. “Once they get used to that seaweed, boy they go for it,” says Charlie. Other species studied down in California are not quite so palatable and require grinding and mixing with molasses to convince the cows to eat. Mazzaella japonica shows a lot of potential, but Charlie says “there’s a whole plethora of other seaweeds” that Dr. Church and his team are eager to try.

While we’re just now adjusting to what the global Sars-CoV-2 pandemic means for our food system, farming strategies that tackle climate change and food security have always been important to Charlie. “I want people to remember that we worked the land, and took care of the land, we didn’t abuse it,” says Charlie. “With this virus, everything that happened before will be changing, our whole way of life will be changing. As a result, you’re going to see more people concerned about organics, and more people concerned about where their food comes from and how it is raised.” By the time you read this, he may have already celebrated his 89th birthday. On that day, and the days to follow, you’ll find him out checking on the cattle, experimenting, and learning—willing and eager to pass his lifetime of knowledge on to the next generation.


Jolene Swain farms at WoodGrain Farm, a wilderness farmstead in the Kispiox Valley north of Hazelton in the unceded lands of the Gitxsan First Nation. Here she has spent the last five seasons growing organic vegetables for two local farmers’ markets and an increasing array of seed crops available through the B.C. Eco Seed Co-op, as well as helping get the hay in for the milk cow and small flock of sheep. Jolene works off-farm as an organic verification officer and consultant, and is the Central & Northern BC Land Matcher for the B.C. Land Matching Program delivered by Young Agrarians.

Feature image: Cattle on Pasture at Lasser Range. Credit: Rod Crawford.

References:
1. Canadian Journal of Animal Science, 2015, 95(1): 49-58, doi.org/10.4141/cjas-2014-113

Standards Review: Behind the Scenes

in 2020/Livestock/Organic Community/Organic Standards/Standards Updates/Winter 2020

Tristan Banwell

How did I come to be involved in the 2020 Review of the Canadian Organic Standards from my organic outpost near little old Lillooet? Well, Anne Macey talked me into it, of course. By email. She’s very charming and persuasive, even in text.

I am glad she did recruit me, because I now realize how important the process is. I have also become very familiar with the livestock standards, and I have heard the perspectives of producers from many regions of Canada and all scales of production. It was eye-opening and rewarding (and time-consuming!). I have a deep appreciation and respect for the people at the Organic Federation of Canada who made this process happen. A lot of hard work and organizing goes into this process, and a lot depends on us, the volunteers on the Working Groups.

It’s my turn to talk you into getting involved, or at least convince you to read Rebecca Kneen’s article all the way through so that you know what is going on.

Throughout 2018 and 2019, I volunteered on the Livestock Working Group, and sat on smaller groups called Task Forces for Poultry, Swine, and Ruminants. Many of the participants are producers, some large and some small. Others are inspectors, consultants, agronomists, veterinarians, or employees of various organizations, like the SPCA (or COABC!). I was surprised to find there are also industry group representatives participating on behalf of their constituents, such as the Chicken Farmers of Canada and Egg Farmers of Canada.

Each of the Livestock Task Force groups included 8 to 20 individuals, while the Livestock Working Group was comprised of 40 to 60 people. Meetings were two to three hours long by teleconference, with participation on Google Drive for document review and collaborative editing. The Working Group met monthly from September 2018 to April 2019, and again in the winter of 2019/20 to complete the process. Task Forces met an average of three times.

New Task Forces cropped up within the Livestock Working Group to deal with petitions related to Apiculture, Bison, and Rabbits. Members of our working group were also recruited to advise the Genetically Engineered (GE) Task Force, and invited to join the Social Fairness Task Force. Sometimes a petition for another Working Group would come across to Livestock for comment, or seeking the answer to a specific question. But primarily, we got down to work reviewing petitions for changes to the Standards with regard to swine, ruminants, and poultry.

Often, especially when a petition was unrealistic to implement or perceived to weaken the Standards, the groups could quickly reach consensus with a recommendation. I came to appreciate the flexibility of the Standards to apply in so many different contexts, while ensuring a basic set of principles is respected. It is easier to understand the complexity of the Standards when you realize that they are built and revised one particular circumstance at a time.

We also navigated many controversial conversations. What one participant may view as strengthening the Standards may be seen by another as a meaningless change leading to unnecessary expense. Dedicated volunteers gathered and shared research to support their positions and worked over wording repeatedly to solve disagreements. Consensus was sometimes difficult to reach, sometimes impossible. At times, a voting block would solidify and no proposal offered could progress. This was frustrating, but the system is designed to move discussions forward regardless: if a Task Force cannot make a recommendation, the topic goes back to the Livestock Working Group for further consideration. If that still does not help, it’s back to the Technical Committee.

After suggested changes go out for public review over the summer, the comments come back to the Working Groups. We must address all comments. In the case of Poultry, so many comments came back that the conveners further divided the Poultry Task Force into a small and nimble committee that could make recommendations that then returned to the larger group. In the end, our recommended changes to the Canadian Organic Standard will go up to the Technical Committee, who can then accept, revise, or reject the changes. This group will consider not only the recommendation but also the context, and if a topic was highly controversial or many negative comments are received, they should take that into consideration.

I am interested to see how our hard work influences the Canadian Organic Standard, and I know that when the process comes around again, I will step up and put in the time to make my voice heard. I hope that you will too.


Tristan Banwell is a founding director of both the BC Small-Scale Meat Producers Association and the Lillooet Agriculture & Food Society, and represents NOOA on the COABC Board. In his spare time, he manages Spray Creek Ranch in Lillooet, operating a Class D abattoir and direct marketing organic beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and eggs. farmer@spraycreek.ca

10 Actions to Prepare for Wildfire Season

in 2019/Climate Change/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Summer 2019

BC Agriculture & Food Climate Action Initiative

The impacts of climate change include hotter and drier summers, which means that wildfires are expected to become more frequent and intense. But ranchers can take steps to prepare for an emergency wildfire event and reduce risks to their operation.

The following actions are extracted from the Workbook: Wildfire Preparedness and Mitigation Plan and the Guide to Completing the Workbook, resources that were developed as part of the Regional Adaptation Program delivered by the BC Agriculture & Food Climate Action Initiative (CAI).

Funding to develop the Guide and Workbook was provided in part by the Governments of Canada and British Columbia through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership as part of the Regional Adaptation Program.

1. Complete your farm/ranch wildfire preparedness plan

Go to BCAgClimateAction.ca/wildfire and download the Workbook and the Guide. 

The Workbook is available as fillable PDF so you can save and edit your plan as needed. The Guide walks you through detailed action planning for before, during and after a wildfire.

2. Prepare an agriculture operation map 

Guide p. 8-14

Maps are an essential step for wildfire preparedness, response and recovery and are especially useful for engaging with emergency services personnel.

3. Create a livestock inventory and prepare/plan for livestock protection

Workbook p. 7-8 and 16-21

Start by developing an inventory of your livestock, including types and numbers and their expected locations during fire season. Then review the list of options for protecting livestock and make necessary arrangements.

4. Reduce combustible materials and use fire-resistant materials on your property 

Guide p. 16-18

Sparks and ember showers can travel 2 kilometres ahead of a wildfire, and radiant heat can ignite combustible/flammable materials, such as fuel storage, within 10 metres.

To help mitigate these threats, remove combustible vegetation and materials surrounding agricultural operation structures. Consider using fire-resistant building materials, such as metal siding or asphalt roofs.

See the FireSmart Homeowner’s Manual for details.

5. Document vehicles and response equipment/resources 

Guide p. 16

Make special note of any water supply systems that are vulnerable to power/Internet outages, and be aware that water supply can be restricted and prioritized for use by agencies during a wildfire.

6. Document and confirm water resources and plan for sprinkler protection 

Guide p. 16 and Guide p. 18-19

Identify and confirm water sources that may be available for irrigation, sprinkler protection and response. Prepare in advance to install cisterns or other emergency sources if required. Review requirements for sprinkler protection of priority structures.

7. Review your insurance coverage 

Guide p. 20-22

Talk to your insurance broker annually to ensure you know what’s covered and what’s excluded. Take photos of your property and assets in their current state and condition.

8. Install a backup power system 

Workbook p. 13-14

Backup power ensures any critical equipment, such as feeding systems, will continue working in a prolonged power outage.

9. Sign up for wildfire alerts 

Workbook p. 14-15

Subscribe to your regional district’s emergency alert system if available. On Twitter, follow @BCGovFireInfo and @EmergencyInfoBC and turn on your mobile notifications to receive an alert each time they tweet.

10. Share your plan and update it annually 

Workbook p. 29

Make multiple physical copies of your plan and store them in operation buildings, keeping one copy in a personal vehicle. Save an electronic version to an off-site location. Ensure everyone living and working on your operation is familiar with the plan and knows where to find a copy. Share your plan summary with your regional district and other key response agencies and individuals.

Bringing Plants and Animals Together for Soil Health

in 2019/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Soil/Spring 2019/Tools & Techniques

Crop-Livestock Integration at Green Fire Farm

DeLisa Lewis, PhD

What do the North American Dust Bowl of the 1930s and the current global experiences of climate change have in common? Of course, both are understood as environmental disasters with humans as major contributors. But, if you answered with either ‘farmers’ or ‘soils,’ or more ideally, both, you’d be hearing a celebratory ding-ding-ding right about now.

For farmers and their soils, however, the ‘answers,’,in the form our day-to-day management are not so simple. Environmental historians have uncovered a picture of the Dust Bowl that is also less simple than the above equation, (e.g. Worster, D. 2004; Cunfer, 2004). True to the story I would like to tell here, these historians do focus on some of the challenges of long-term management of soils. Geoff Cunfer, an environmental historian of the Great Plains, found just how much ‘manure matters’ and asserted, “Through 10,000 years of farming on five continents by hundreds of diverse human cultures, only a handful of solutions to soil fertility maintenance have emerged” (Cunfer, 2004: p. 540).

What I’ve learned from reading environmental and agricultural history accounts, as well as reviewing the findings from long-term agricultural research studies1 is that careful, and regionally specific considerations of soils and climates are key nodes for fine-tuning systems. Perhaps more importantly, farming operations, including organic ones, have become increasingly specialized with livestock and manure here and vegetables over there. The lessons from history and long-term agricultural research, point towards diversity, and combined strategies for soil fertility or soil health.

I did not reach a place of digging around the archives or agriculture research station reports until I had close to 15 years of practice with soil management on certified organic vegetables farms. My farming systems experience to that point was within specialized, vegetables-only operations where I managed the soil preparation of the fields as well as windrows of compost with the front-end loader on my tractor.

When I arrived in British Columbia to learn more about the science behind soil management practices, some of the immediate lessons learned centered on the very different soil types, climate characteristics, and economic and cultural realities here. I now have just over a decade of ‘living here’ experience in the Coast-Islands region of BC, and am moving into year five operating our family-owned farm in the Cowichan Valley. That background is meant to highlight that I am still learning, and what I want to share for the purposes of this article on soil health and climate change, is my journey so far with integrating livestock with vegetables on Green Fire Farm.

Although coping with ‘too much and too little’ available water is not new to farmers in the Coast-Islands regions of BC, frequent and extreme weather events do present a new set of challenges. Faced with the demands of producing high quality product in competitive markets, and rising costs for farm inputs, we decided to pursue a number of different strategies to meet the goals of farm profitability, risk reduction, and (my personal favourite) soil health.2 The overall strategy is diversification, both in the fields and in terms of different revenue streams for the farm.

The soils and climate of our farm are well suited to a mixed farming operation, with Fairbridge silt loam soils3 and a Maritime Mediterranean climate. The soil landscape would be described as ‘ridge and swale’, with differing slopes and mixed drainage patterns interspersed through the fields. The drainage limitations of these soils and the erosion prone sloping areas are key pressure points for early spring and late fall field soil preparations. Though I have attempted to address some of these potential challenges to soil health with carefully timed tillage,4 and the use of a spader to reduce mechanical disturbance, the loss of production from one to two weeks at both ends of the growing season can be a costly hit to our farm profitability.

With that in mind, I see necessity as a driver with my decision-making around farm enterprise diversification. I did not arrive on our farm in the Cowichan with all the knowledge or skills required to integrate livestock with our vegetable production, but I did arrive with a keen interest in learning what mix of systems could optimize the opportunities and limits of our farm’s unique mix of soils, climate, and markets. Nearly five years in, we grow and sell a diverse mix of annual vegetables, perennial fruits, hay, and pastured pork. In recognition of the limits to my own management capacity, the addition of each new layer of complexity to the system is small and incremental.

I braved the unknowns of bringing in weaner piglets in the first season because we did not have enough irrigation water at that time to set up the vegetable systems that were most familiar to me. We began our learning with pastured pig systems with a total of eight piglets.

Last spring, we found another certified organic farm in our valley who were ready to sell their small herd of four lowline Angus beef cows. With their mentorship and guidance, I’ve added a system of ‘modified’5 intensive grazing to our pastures. In addition to purchasing the cows, our investments were increases to our electric fencing equipment used with the pigs, additional livestock watering tanks, and a used set of haying equipment.

This spring, I plan to set up smaller paddocks using the electric fencing where I want the cows to terminate the overwintered cover crops. This would be my ‘holy grail’6 system for putting in practice both soil health principles and climate friendly strategies, and much additional research will be needed to evaluate the return on investment and to quantify the contributions to soil health or climate impacts mitigation.

Currently, I have more questions than answers with respect to a full assessment of how this crop-livestock integration performs on our farm. As one part of our response to that, we will be expanding our record-keeping systems in an effort to learn our way towards an evaluation. Connecting our farm efforts to the work of others as recorded in the pages of this magazine, Corine Singfield7 and Tristan Banwell8 are both carrying out promising on-farm research focusing on livestock integration and MIG. Stay tuned for more details!


DeLisa has two decades of experience managing certified organic mixed vegetable production systems. She was lead instructor for the UBC Farm Practicum in Sustainable Agriculture from 2011-2014, and her teaching, research, and consulting continue with focus areas in soil nutrient management, farm planning, and new farmer training. Her volunteer service to the community of growers in British Columbia includes membership on the COABC Accreditation Board and North Cowichan Agriculture Advisory Committee.

Endnotes
1. Examples of long-term agricultural research include > 100 years at Rothamstead in the U.K., Morrow plots and Sanborn Field (USA), > 40 years at the Rodale Farming Systems trial
2. See the ‘science of soil health’ video series published by the USDA NRCS, 2014
3. See the BC Soil SIFT tool for mapped and digitized information on your soil types and agricultural capability
4. Conservation tillage is recognized as a ‘climate friendly’ and soil health promoting practice, and there are many variations on that theme as farmers and farming systems. I use the term ‘careful’ tillage to emphasize attention to monitoring soil moisture conditions to reduce soil physical and biological impacts, and as an overall effort to reduce the number of passes with machinery. Not to be missed, in a discussion of soil health and climate friendly farming practices, are two recently published growers focused books on the no-till revolution in organic and ecologically focused farming systems. See what Andrew Mefford and Gabe Brown have to say in the recent issue of ‘Growing for Market’ magazine.
5. Management Intensive Grazing defined as emphasizing ‘the manager’s understanding of the plant-soil-animal-climate interface as the basis for management decision’ in Dobb, 2013 is a promising, climate friendly practice for BC growers. I use the term ‘modified’ to signal that I have not yet achieved the daily moves or high intensity stocking numbers often associated with MIG. Our paddock rotations have evolved to reflect our immediate needs for lower labour inputs and less frequent moving of the animals with their paddocks.
6. See Erik Lehnhoff and his colleagues’ (2017) work in Montana for an interesting review of livestock integration and organic no-till in arid systems.
7. See Corine Singfield’s article on integrating pigs and chickens into crop rotations in the Winter 2016 issue of the BC Organic Grower.
8. See Tristan Banwell’s article on Managed-intensive grazing in the Winter 2018 issue of the BC Organic Grower.

References
Badgery, W., et al. (2017). Better management of intensive rotational grazing systems maintains pastures and improves animal performance. Crop and Pasture Science.68: 1131-1140. dx.doi.org/10.1071/CP16396
Bunemann, E.K., et al. (2018). Soil quality – a critical review. Soil Biology and Biochemistry. 120:105-125. doi.org/10.1016/j.soilbio.2018.01.030
Cunfer, G. (2004). Manure Matters on the Great Plains Frontier. Journal of Interdisciplinary History. 34: 4 (539-567).
Dobb, A. (2013). BC Farm Practices and Climate Change Adaptation: Management-intensive grazing. BC Agriculture and Food Climate Action Initiative. deslibris-ca.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/ID/244548
Lehnhoff, E., et al. (2017). Organic agriculture and the quest for the holy grail in water-limited ecosystems: Managing weeds and reducing tillage intensity. Agriculture. 7:33. doi:10.3390/agriculture7040033
Pan, W.L., et al. (2017). Integrating historic agronomic and policy lessons with new technologies to drive farmer decisions for farm and climate: The case of inland Pacific Northwestern U.S. Frontiers in Environmental Science. 5:76. doi:10.3389/fenvs.2017.00076
Richards, M.B., Wollenberg, E. and D. van Vuuren. (2018). National contributions to climate change mitigation from agriculture: Allocating a global target, Climate Policy. 18:10, 1271-1285, doi:10.1080/14693062.2018.1430018
Telford, L. and A. Macey. (2000). Organic Livestock Handbook. Ontario: Canadian Organic Growers.
Worster, D. (2004). Dust Bowl: The southern Plains in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press.
Province of British Columbia, Environment, M. O. (2018, May 09). BC Soil Information Finder Tool. gov.bc.ca/gov/content/environment/air-land-water/land/soil/soil-information-finder
Explore the Science of Soil Health. (2014). USDA National Resources Conservation Service. nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/soils/health/?cid=stelprdb1245890
Singfield, C. (2016). Integrating Livestock into Farm Rotations. BC Organic Grower. bcorganicgrower.ca/2016/01/integrating-livestock -in-the-farm-rotations/
Banwell, T., Tsutsumi, M. (2018). Organic Stories: Spray Creek Ranch. BC Organic Grower. bcorganicgrower.ca/2018/01/organic-stories-spray-creek-ranch/

Healthy Soils Yield Resilient Operations

in 2019/Climate Change/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Soil/Spring 2019/Tools & Techniques/Water Management

Three case studies examine soil management practices in the face of climate change

By Rachel Penner, BC Agriculture & Food Climate Action Initiative

Improving soil health is one way producers can increase the resilience of their operations in the face of climate change. The BC Agriculture & Food Climate Action Initiative (CAI) has supported multiple projects, with funding from the provincial and federal governments, evaluating practices to maintain or improve soil health. Case studies in three regions of the province offer some practical takeaways for farmers looking to adapt to changes in climate.

Okanagan: Adding Compost and Reducing Irrigation

Climate change is expected to increase average temperatures and lengthen the growing season in BC’s Interior, enabling cherry producers to expand production northward and grow crops at higher elevations. However, expanding production may be limited by challenges with managing soil pathogens and by water availability.

A three-year research project focusing on cherry production in the Okanagan resulted in two key findings: 

  • adding compost to old and new orchards helped maintain soil health
  • reducing post-harvest irrigation by 25% did not impact fruit yield or quality

Gayle Krahn, the horticulture manager at Coral Beach Farms, participated in the project. “It’s through these trials that growers gain the confidence needed to invest in mulches,” says Krahn. “As well, the results from the deficit irrigation studies gave us a good handle on how much water we need in our orchards. Climate change could affect our water supply, so we need to be mindful of our water usage while ensuring we can continue to grow healthy crops.”

Louise Nelson with the Biology department at UBC Okanagan led the three-year experiment. Researchers monitored the effects of compost and mulch applications, comparing results with controls in two new and one established orchard, and assessed the impacts of post-harvest deficit-irrigation.

The study, completed in 2018, revealed that adding compost to cherry orchards had the following impacts on the soil:

  • increased soil organic matter, total carbon and nitrogen, other mineral nutrients and pH
  • increased percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in leaves after two years
  • increased fruit firmness and stem pull
  • tended to increase total nematode abundance in soil
  • tended to decrease plant parasitic nematodes in plant roots and soil
  • decreased colonization of roots by arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi

“I would definitely recommend that growers invest in compost as it helps build soil structure, reduce moisture loss and keep soils cool during summer heat,” says Krahn. “The result is increased root growth and a healthier tree, which equates to growing quality fruit.”

The study also found that a 25% reduction in post-harvest irrigation had no impact on fruit yield and quality, stem water potential, tree growth, or leaf mineral content, giving producers greater assurance that they can safely decrease water usage in their cherry orchards post-harvest.

Delta: Using and Maintaining Tile Drains

Climate projections indicate that winter rainfall will increase and extreme rainfall events will double in frequency by the 2050s in BC’s Fraser River delta. This increase in moisture could prevent farmers from getting onto waterlogged fields, either to plant or to harvest, and could also increase soil erosion, nutrient runoff, and damage to crops.

However, effective spacing and maintenance of tile drains can increase the ability of producers to work their fields.

A project in Delta, completed in July 2017, evaluated practices for improving on-farm drainage management as a way to adapt to wetter spring and fall conditions. The project, led by three researchers in the Faculty of Land & Food Systems at UBC in collaboration with the Delta Farmers’ Institute, the Delta Farmland & Wildlife Trust and local farmers, set up demonstration sites on two fields and monitored practices across a total of 30 fields in multiple locations.

The results of the two-year project indicated the following:

  • Using tile drains in vegetable crop fields increased workable days by 8% and by 14% when pumps where also used. (The impact was negligible for blueberry fields.)
  • Drain tiles spaced at 15 feet allowed soil to dry faster in the spring than drain tiles spaced at 30 feet.
  • Cleaning tile drains resulted in 12 extra workable days per year at a cleaning cost of $10/additional workable day/acre.

Central Interior: Practising Management-intensive Grazing

Management-intensive grazing, a practice that involves planned grazing and rest periods for pastures, is a context-dependent practice that can vary from one rancher and pasture location to the next, making it difficult to test the impact it has on soil.

A four-year project in BC’s Central Interior, completed in spring 2017, compared grazing practices and used traditional soil sampling methods, plant community composition and remote sensing to measure soil carbon. Results confirmed that management-intensive grazing increased soil carbon, which has important implications for soil health.

“What got me interested in grazing-management practices was the enthusiasm of the ranching community,” says Lauchlan Fraser, a professor at Thompson Rivers University who led the project. “I wanted to see if some of the claims that were being made held up.”

The data showed that, for intensively managed pastures, total carbon was 28% greater and organic carbon was 13% greater when compared to extensively managed pastures. It is widely agreed that this stored carbon is linked to soil health, and a fact sheet for the study stated that: “Benefits associated with greater soil carbon include soil moisture retention, erosion control and species biodiversity.”

These outcomes were experienced by the producers who participated in the study. All the ranchers reported that they saw improved soil moisture retention, which would help them cope better in a drought year. They also thought the practice would work as a tool to control invasive species and improve plant and animal diversity, both important contributors to resilient grazing systems.

“It would be worthwhile to follow up with doing the research required to test how biodiversity and soil moisture are influenced,” says Fraser.

While carbon sequestration is primarily associated with climate change mitigation, the project’s final report found additional implications for climate change adaptation: “Flexibility of electric fencing, and actively managing cattle on a daily basis, was identified to be an adaptation strategy, since a rancher is able to adapt his or her practices based on conditions which vary from one year to the next,” says Fraser.

Project Funding and Detailed Reports

For all three of the projects, funding was provided by the Governments of Canada and British Columbia through the Canadian Agricultural Program as part of the Farm Adaptation Innovator Program delivered by CAI.

Complete project results and fact sheets can be found on the CAI website at:

bcagclimateaction.ca


Rachel Penner is the Communications Specialist for the BC Agriculture & Food Climate Action Initiative. She grew up on a grain farm in southwestern Manitoba, received her journalism diploma in Alberta and spent time as a writer and editor in Saskatchewan. She now resides in Victoria, BC, where she works and volunteers as a communications designer and strategist.

Feature photo: Farm field in Delta, BC. Photo credit: CAI – Emrys Miller

Meat from Here

in Fall 2018/Grow Organic/Livestock/Organic Community

Challenges to Localizing Meat Production

Tristan Banwell

Consider for a moment the complexities of the industrial meat supply chain. Livestock could be born on one farm, sold and moved to another location for finishing, trucked to yet another premises for slaughter. The carcass will be butchered and processed at a different location, and sold at another (or many others), and could be sold and reprocessed multiple times before it ends up on a customer’s plate. The farm, feedlot, abattoir, and processing facility could be in different provinces, or they could be in different countries. It is a certainty that some of the meat imported to Canada comes from livestock that were born in Canada and exported for finishing and/or slaughter before finding their way back to a plate closer to home.

A 2005 study in Waterloo, Ontario(1) noted that beef consumed in the region racked up an average of 5,770 kilometres travelled, with most coming from Colorado, Kansas, Australia, New Zealand, and Nebraska. The author concluded that imported beef products averaged 667 times the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of local beef, and the emissions were at the top of the chart among foods studied. Meat production is low-hanging fruit for reducing pollution and improving the environmental footprint of agriculture, and not just through reducing transportation. Implementation of managed grazing and silvopasture ranked #19 and #9 respectively in terms of their potential impact on climate by Project Drawdown, in the same neighbourhood as other exciting forestry and agricultural innovations, family planning, and renewable energy projects.(2) Organic methods further reduce negative externalities by nearly eliminating inputs such as antibiotics and pesticides, which are used heavily in conventional settings.

Much of the agricultural land in our province is also well suited to livestock according to the Land Capability Classification for Agriculture in BC. In fact, 44% of BC’s ALR lands are categorized in Class 5 & 6, meaning the soil and climate make them suitable primarily for perennial forage production. Looking beyond the ALR boundaries, 76% of all classified arable land in BC is in Class 5 & 6.(3) Of course, there is land in Class 4 and better that could also be best suited to livestock production, and livestock can be beneficially integrated into other types of crop and orchard systems. As farmland prices spiral higher, aspiring farmers could be looking further down this classification system for their affordable opportunity to farm. Livestock production and direct marketing meats can be an attractive enterprise for a new entrant, especially given the exciting opportunities for regenerative organic methods and an increasingly engaged and supportive customer base.

Unfortunately, there are numerous challenges facing both new and established small-scale meat producers in their efforts to implement improved methods and supply local markets. The cost-slashing benefits of economies of scale in livestock enterprises are staggering, and even the leanest, most efficient small livestock enterprise will incur disproportionately high production costs. Sources of breeding stock, feeder stock, chicks, and other outsourced portions of the life cycle chain can be distant, and finding appropriate genetics for a pasture based or grass finishing operation can be next to impossible. Given the geographic fragmentation of the province, managing the logistics of other inputs like feed, minerals, equipment, and supplies can be a Sisyphean task.

The regulations around raising livestock, traceability, slaughter, butchery, and meat processing are complex and span from the federal level (Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Canadian Cattle Identification Agency, Canadian Pork Council) through provincial bodies (BC Ministry of Agriculture Food Safety & Inspection Branch, Ministry of Health, supply management marketing boards), regional groups (regional health authorities, regional district governments) and right down to municipal government bylaws. The tables are definitely tipped in favour of large-scale commodity producers, who have the scale to hire consultants and meet more expensive requirements, and who are beholden to regulators for only one product or species. For a small scale diversified livestock operation, compliance becomes expensive and time consuming as a producer navigates the rules, requirements, and permits for multiple species.

Should a farmer manage to jump some hurdles and establish an enterprise in compliance with regulations, they may find that their growth is capped not by the capacity of their land base or even their markets, but rather by regulatory factors and supply chain limitations. There are particularly low annual production limits in supply-managed poultry categories—2000 broilers, 300 turkeys, 400 layers per year—and that is after applying as a quota-exempt small-lot producer. There is currently no path to becoming a quota holder for small pastured poultry operations. The sole quota-holding pastured poultry producer in BC is currently under threat from the BC Chicken Marketing Board, which requires a set production per six week cycle year round, rather than the seasonal production necessitated by outdoor poultry systems. The BC Hog Marketing Scheme allows a more generous 300 pigs finished per year, and there is no production regulation for beef cattle nor for other species like ducks, sheep, and goats.

Regardless of what livestock species a farmer raises, eventually they must go to market. For most commodity cow-calf operations and some other livestock enterprises, this can mean selling livestock through an auction such as the BC Livestock Producers Cooperative. However, many small scale producers prefer to maintain control of their livestock, finishing them on the farm, arranging for slaughter, and wholesaling or direct marketing the meat. This can help a farm retain more of the final sales price, but adds another layer of complexity around slaughter and butchering, as well as storage, marketing, and distribution.

In BC, there are five classes of licensed abattoirs in operation, including 13 federally-inspected plants, 63 provincially-inspected facilities (Class A & B), and 66 licensed Rural Slaughter Establishments (Class D & E).(4) Federally inspected plants are under jurisdiction of the CFIA and produce meat that can be sold across provincial and international borders. The two classes of provincially licenced plants include inspected and non-inspected facilities. Class A and B facilities are administered by the Ministry of Agriculture Meat Inspection Program, have a government inspector present for slaughter, and are able to slaughter an unlimited number of animals for unrestricted sale within BC. Class A facilities can cut and wrap meat, whereas Class B facilities are slaughter-only with no cut/wrap capacity.

Class D and E slaughter facilities, also known as Rural Slaughter Establishments, are able to slaughter a limited number of animals per year without an inspector present after completing some training, submitting water samples and food safety plans, and having the facility inspected by a regional health authority. A Class D facility is limited to 25,000 lbs live weight per year, can slaughter their own or other farms’ animals, and can sell within their regional district only, including to processors and retailers for resale. This class of licence is limited to 10 regional districts that are underserved by Class A and B facilities. Class E licenses are available throughout the province at the discretion of Environmental Health Officers. This type of licence allows slaughter of up to 10,000 lbs live weight of animals from the licensed farm only, and allows direct to consumer sales within the regional district, but not for further processing or resale.

Despite multiple options for abattoir licensing, small farms are underserved and slaughter capacity is currently lacking in BC. Running an abattoir is a difficult business, with significant overhead costs and strong seasonality, and there is a shortage of qualified staff in most areas of the province. On-farm slaughter options may sound appealing, but the costs associated and low limits on the number of animals per year make small on-farm facilities a difficult proposition. Producers will find it difficult or impossible to have their livestock slaughtered throughout the fall, which is busy season for abattoirs for exactly the reasons producers need their services at that time. Some poultry processors are beginning to set batch minimums above the small lot authorization numbers to eliminate the hassle of servicing small scale producers.

Clearly, improvements can be made to increase the viability of local and regional meat production in BC. This year, meat producers throughout the province came together to form the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association (SSMPA) with an aim toward creating a network to share resources and to speak with a common voice to move systems forward in support of producers raising meat outside of the conventional industrial system.

The BC provincial government has reconvened the Select Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fish & Food, and the first task of this group is to make recommendations on local meat production capacity.(5) The SSMPA has been active in these discussions, as well as earlier consultations regarding Rural Slaughter Establishments, and looks forward to encouraging a more localized, place-based meat supply in BC.

To learn more or join in the discussion, visit smallscalemeat.ca or facebook.com/smallscalemeat.

To reach the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association (SSMPA), get in touch at smallscalemeat@gmail.com.


Tristan Banwell is a founding director of both the BC Small-Scale Meat Producers Association and the Lillooet Agriculture & Food Society, and represents NOOA on the COABC Board. In his spare time, he manages Spray Creek Ranch in Lillooet, operating a Class D abattoir and direct marketing organic beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and eggs. farmer@spraycreek.ca

References
(1) Xuereb, Mark. (2005). Food Miles: Environmental Implications of Food Imports to Waterloo Region. Region of Waterloo Public Health. https://bit.ly/2nh4B37
(2) Project Drawdown. https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/food/managed-grazing
(3) Agricultural Land Commission. (2013). Agricultural Capability Classification in BC. https://bit.ly/2vl3SC8
(4) Government of BC. Meat Inspection & Licensing. https://bit.ly/2uIcNgJ
(5) Ministry of Agriculture. (2018). Discussion Paper prepared for the Select Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fish and Food. https://bit.ly/2J1x9Kc

From the Chilcotin Wildfire Front: A Rotational Grazer’s Story

in 2018/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Summer 2018/Tools & Techniques
Wildfires scour the landscape around Riparian Ranch

Shanti Heywood

This story first appeared on the Young Agrarians website.

Protecting my home was just something I had to do. People keep commenting on how brave I was—but I like to think everyone has some grit inside of them somewhere to fight when they have to. My heart goes out to those who have lost their homes and those who are still fighting to save homes.

We bought 256 acres of cleared but poor quality (and consequently, affordable) land out in the middle of nowhere. My husband wanted to live off the grid and I grew up off grid, so it wasn’t a huge stretch buying this place. With technology these days we have a lot more creature comforts available off grid than I did as a kid in the ‘90s.

The only catch was my hubby has a company down in Burnaby so I’m up here by myself 90% of the time learning to do a lot of things I never dreamed I’d be doing. Since the land needed improving and was not fenced we bought some solar powered fencers and step in posts and got to work. With affordable solar fencers, the voltage isn’t that much, so you really have to work with the psychology of the animals. If they’re not satisfied they will just leave. Solar fencers definitely let you know if your animals are happy in a hurry.

I moved them last year every 24 to 48 hours, and I saw a good deal of improvement. This year we dedicated a lot of time to fencing. I would only move them once per week but it still did what it was supposed to do.

The forage stayed green a lot longer than the ungrazed areas despite extreme drought conditions. Once the fire started I kind of knew we were in a good spot. Some of my friends, bless their hearts, were heavily involved in helping people evacuate livestock. They were quite insistent that I should get my animals out of there, but I refused. They’re as much my coworkers as they are livestock and they had as much of a job to do during the fire prep as I did.

I put my cows and horses in the hay field (the only area that had not yet been grazed…lots of fuel growing in peat soil) and started to move the step in posts closer to the forest every time they had finished a section. The fire danced around me for a month and finally made a pretty decisive b-line for me. Once the fire started to come I moved the posts back to the grazed area so they wouldn’t burn and set up a second water source in case the first source had fire near it. I moved the animals’ loose mineral tub back to where I thought was safest so they knew that was the best area to hang out, and that was that.

Intensively grazed pasture stopped the spread of fire
Intensively grazed pasture stopped the spread of fire

We watched the fire come in on all sides in one wild night. There’s no way I can describe the power of this fire so I’ll just give a rundown of what happened. August 11—I kind of knew it was the day the fire would come. Five weeks of waiting, watching, and preparing. That morning I got my chores done early and headed inside for a nap. I woke up in the afternoon to roaring fire on three sides and hot—I mean HOT—wind.

My neighbours Becca and Darrel showed up not long after. Darrel was worried about a cabin in the woods, Mikey’s cabin, and wanted to go check that the pump was still running. He went one way and Becca and I went the other way to break a dam upstream to let more water in to the creek for Mikey’s pump. There we are, two girls sitting in the mud listening to the roar of the fire behind us. Once we started heading back we quickly realized the fire was already almost at my property and became pretty worried about Darrel. He never made it to Mikey’s pump because the fire was already in the surrounding forest. We all figured the cabin was a pile of ash.

Another neighbour, Robert, showed up at that point, as did the one and only guy we had ever seen from Quesnel (who is supposed to be managing this fire). He quickly left. There wasn’t much we could do. We stood and watched the flames come in on all sides, completely surrounding us and cutting off all exits.

Once the fire had come in close I turned the waterfowl and billy goat loose and went in to the field that the goats and dogs were in. I called them all out of their huts as I was worried the roofs might catch a spark and led them to the sprinklers. They seemed to understand what I was showing them, as they never walked back in to their huts that night. I was not concerned about the cows and horses out in the hay field. We do managed intensive grazing, which proved very effective at stopping the fire in its tracks. I was pretty confident they were completely safe.

Then the smoke came down on us and for most of the evening we were choking on smoke and couldn’t see a thing. We had a couple little hot spots in paddocks and pastures throughout the night but they either burnt themselves out or were put out.

About midnight the fire calmed down on the Northern side and much to our surprise we heard the buzz of Mikey’s pump in the distance—the cabin had survived. The water from the dam had finally made its way down to us so we used it to put out a few fires and wet certain areas down. At the end of the night we all stood in awe of what had happened and what was still going on. Robert cut his way through my driveway to get home and we headed to bed. Darrel stayed up to keep watch.

The next day my husband finally was able to make it home and the fire ripped through two of our neighbour’s properties (they both made it). We weren’t able to be there for either of them but we cut our way through and went to help as soon as we could. Later that evening Robert’s wife Mamie said, “Who’s even going to believe this? Two people in their mid ‘60s running around with hoses fighting a wildfire.”

The fire burnt right up to where they had grazed and stopped. It was very hot and burnt pretty much anything in its path including green marshes and willow bushes. In one spot where I had just grazed but didn’t move the posts back to the grazed area the fire actually burnt the hot tape but not the posts because the cows had reached under and grazed around them.

Peat soil is quite notorious for burning underground for months…even through the winter…but for whatever reason the field appears to be just fine. My poor neighbour who owns another part of this field about two km away is still battling underground hot spots in his peat soil and he had the fire pass through one day after me. We’ve been over a few times to help him put out spots and move hay.

We have major wolf problems in the winter so fencing and LGDs (livestock guard dogs) are actually more important than this fire ever was. I shocked the heck out of the structure protection crew when I told them my puppies in training were more important than their hoses and I would NOT move them out of their field. Never a dull moment around here.

Horse and cows happy to be safe and sound!
Horse and cows happy to be safe and sound!

None of us are able to get fire insurance due to our remote off the grid locations, so of course we all stayed to fight. We have been spending every day since checking on the properties and putting out little hot spots. It won’t be something I will ever forget, nor will this area ever look the same within my lifetime.

In the end, we didn’t lose anything to the fire. There’s no damage other than a few singed fence posts and of course my canoe I forgot about until we had gone to break the beaver dam when the fire was here. All the prep I did made it a fairly easy experience and the people that stayed with me of course helped immensely. I was never very good at studying for tests in school but this one I feel like I did my homework and was pretty well prepared for.

The fire is still blazing to the East of me. I can see plumes of smoke rising as I type this but for the most part we are safe. It’s never a dull moment here but I think it is safe to say this was one of the most exciting.

facebook.com/riparianranch


Shanti Heywood manages Riparian Ranch, an off grid ranch in the Chilcotin working towards providing humanely raised meat and livestock in the most natural and peaceful setting possible.

All photos: Riparian Ranch/Shanti Heywood

Animal Behaviour and Stockmanship

in 2018/Livestock/Spring 2018

Or: How to Never Have to Chase Sheep in Circles Around a Paddock Ever Again!

Sara Sutherland

Many people believe that sheep are stupid. Even people who have never worked with sheep tend to think that sheep are stupid. Broadly speaking, there are two categories of things that sheep do that make people think they are stupid. Firstly, sheep mob together, follow each other, follow the bellwether up the steps to the slaughterhouse, and generally show a lack of independent thought. Secondly, sheep scatter, run the wrong way, get out of fences, and when you get almost all the sheep into the pen and close the gate one will inevitably spin around and run out just before you get the gate closed. (If you think about it, this isn’t fair—dumb if you do and dumb if you don’t!)

When you work closely with sheep, you begin to realize that they also show signs of intelligence. Sheep will watch when you fix a hole in the fence, then go and check if it’s really fixed. Sheep will teach each other to get into a feeder that is supposed to only let lambs eat. A researcher in the UK, Keith Kendrick, studied facial recognition in sheep. Sheep would push the button beside the photograph of a sheep they knew, a flockmate, instead of a sheep they didn’t know. They could recognize over 30 individuals, and remember for at least three years after the last time they had seen the animal in the photograph!

So if sheep are so intelligent, if they have this capacity for recognition and learning and memory, why do they do stupid things?

Sheep don’t have a lot of natural defences. They don’t have sharp teeth, they don’t have long fangs, they don’t shoot lasers from their eyes (fortunately). Because they are prey animals, they are highly motivated to avoid being eaten. The most dominant sheep in a flock is not the leader, the most dominant sheep is in the middle where it is safest. When there is a group of animals of similar size running past each other, it is very difficult for the predator to focus on one individual. If you have ever tried to catch an individual sheep out of a flock, you know that you really need to stay focused on one individual in order to be successful. Statistically, a sheep in a flock of twelve is less likely to be eaten than a sheep in a flock of three. So sticking together, circling, and following each other are not caused by stupidity. In fact, they show a sophisticated understanding of statistics!

What about when sheep scatter and run the wrong way? Every animal has a “personal space bubble” or “flight zone”. When you step into their flight zone, they move away. The size of the flight zone varies. The biggest factor affecting the size of the flight zone is habituation—how used to you the animals are. To reduce the size of the flight zone, habituate your sheep to your presence. They are intelligent enough that if you walk through their paddock regularly they will recognize you and become gradually less wary of you. If you step into their flight zone behind their shoulder, they will move forwards, in front of their shoulder they will stop or turn around. Always be aware of where you are in relation to the animal. Why does one sheep spin around and run away from the flock when you go to shut the gate? She is motivated to be close to the other sheep until you step into her flight zone, then she is highly motivated to gap it. So take your time, let them all move into the pen, then watch the outside sheep and move into her flight zone behind her shoulder as you slowly shut the gate.

There are between breed and within breed variations in the size of the flight zone. There are no naturally “bad” breeds though—animals of any breed will habituate with regular calm handling. Animals that are stressed or in pain will have a larger flight zone. You should keep this in mind and not expect them to react the same way they normally do when something is wrong. Sheep in a smaller group will be more reactive than sheep in a larger group. They type of stimulus will also affect the size of the flight zone. The most effective stimulus for getting sheep to move is something that is novel—something that they haven’t been exposed to before. It doesn’t need to be especially loud or annoying, even a plastic bag on the end of a stick works well until they get used to it.

If animals get really stressed, it takes them a period of time to go back to behaving normally. Think about the last time you had a near miss in traffic, and how long it took for your heart rate to go back to normal! So if things really turn to custard, walk away and let them relax and come back 20-30 minutes later (providing it is safe to do so).

Unlike dogs, sheep predominantly use vision to experience their environment. Sheep do see differently than we do. They see things moving on the horizon better than we do, but large things close-up not as well. They see greens and yellows better than we do, but reds and blues not as well (so don’t use them to help you chose your wallpaper). They see vertical bars on a gate better than horizontal ones—if your sheep keep banging into the gate maybe they don’t see it well.

You can tell it’s a Perendale because of the short little ears and because it’s on the wrong side of the fence

When you are designing handling facilities for sheep and cattle, whether it is a set of pens and races or just a couple of gates in the corner of the paddock, use these principles to make it easy for the animals to do what you want them to do. Set it up so that they can circle and stay close together. Make sure they can see where they are going; for example, make sure that you are not running a race into a blank wall. When you are moving animals, use their flight zone and balance point. Don’t chase them around in circles—you will only make them stressed. Habituate them to a handling facility by running them into it a couple of times before you do anything stressful or painful to them in there. Look through a race from the sheep or cow’s eye level to try and spot anything likely to make them baulk as they run through. Sudden changes from light to dark, shadows, reflections, and hanging flappy things are common issues that we might not notice that make sheep or cattle not want to run.

Why is this important? Firstly, if you are set up to use the animal’s natural behaviours instead of working against them you will get the job done more quickly. Secondly, you will get the job done more safely. People can get injured by sheep and cattle, and if you are stressed because you aren’t well set up to handle animals you are more likely to do something dangerous like roll the motorbike or tell your partner you don’t like their cooking. Thirdly, stress makes animals more likely to get diseases. So if you are set up to work with the animal’s natural behaviour instead of against it, you will find your animals are healthier, you are safer, the work is done more quickly and more easily, and you might find that actually sheep aren’t as stupid as you thought!


Sara Sutherland is a large animal vet in the North Island of New Zealand, specializing in sheep. She’s from a large family farm in Quebec with meat and dairy sheep, and currently not only provides vet services for farms from 20-2,000 head of sheep but also conducts research and hosts workshops on management for farms in the region.

Photos: Sara Sutherland

Keeping Your Flock Healthy

in 2016/Grow Organic/Livestock/Spring 2016
Small Flock Chickens, Poultry

Caitlin Dorward, Caroline Chiu & Kent Mullinix (Institute for Sustainable Food Systems, Kwantlen Polytechnic University) and Clayton Botkin (BC Ministry of Agriculture)

BC’s Fraser Valley is recognized as a major centre for commercial and supply-managed poultry production including layers, broilers, and turkeys. Also prevalent in this area is a small-scale poultry sector; the BC Ministry of Agriculture estimates that there are as many as 10,000 small flocks in the Fraser Valley alone. Many are “backyard” flocks kept for personal egg production or for direct-market egg sales from the farm gate. Some are kept by poultry fanciers dedicated to breeding and showing. No longer solely a rural pursuit, small backyard flocks are now allowed (subject to bylaw stipulations such as lot size) in many BC municipalities including Victoria, Kelowna, Kamloops, Vancouver, City of North Vancouver, Delta, Port Coquitlam, Surrey, and Maple Ridge.

Although the Fraser Valley’s 10,000 small flocks, at an individual level, account for few birds compared to the numbers kept in commercial operations, they play an important role in the local food system – and their small scale does not exempt them from the same poultry health and biosecurity concerns faced by the commercial sector. During the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreak in December 2014, for example, the disease was detected in two backyard flocks.

Recognizing that small lot poultry producers also benefit from training in biosecurity and health management best practices, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems (Kwantlen Polytechnic University—KPU) recently partnered to host a four-part “Keeping Your Flock Healthy” course at KPU’s Langley campus. This free course held over four two-hour sessions was intended for owners of small flocks looking to learn more about poultry diseases and ways to prevent them. Course instructors included Clayton Botkin (Industry Specialist, Poultry and Regulated Marketing, BC Ministry of Agriculture) and Dr. Victoria Bowes (Avian Pathologist, BC Animal Health Centre, BC Ministry of Agriculture), both North American experts in their fields. Dr. Daniel Schwartz (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) was also a guest presenter.

Those who attended came from across Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley and were small flock poultry owners who kept chicken as a hobby, for business, or for home consumption. Attendees expressed interest in learning more about disease management, general flock health, required lab tests, application of organic practices, protection against predators, information sources, licensing, scaling up, and industry regulations.

Considerations in Caring for Your Small Flock

Food Safety

From a food safety perspective, the food-borne illness salmonella is one of the biggest concerns for egg producers of all scales. Currently, testing of eggs for direct-market sale is not required, but of course providing safe, healthy eggs is a goal for all small-scale farmers, and testing for Salmonella should be a consideration. As such, small-scale egg producers should be aware of the risks posed by salmonella and how to mitigate them. For example, cracked or soiled eggs including those laid outside of the nesting box should never be sold or consumed. Egg candling and proper egg washing routines should also be implemented.

Chicks & Fertile Eggs

When it comes to small flock health, the source of chicks or fertile eggs is an important starting point. Small lot producers should take time to get to know any hatchery or other source from which their chicks are purchased. Ask questions about the hatchery’s quality control program, salmonella monitoring, vaccinations, health programs and accountability process. Before choosing breeds for your flocks, do some research about what breeds are appropriate for your area’s climate and for the purpose of your operation (e.g., egg production, meat production, etc.).

Small Flock Housing

The session included an introduction to poultry production and small flock housing. Newcomers to small flocks were able to take advantage of an introduction to poultry production and small flock housing. If you have a small flock, it’s important to seek out the regulations pertaining to small flocks and direct marketing of eggs, including the supply management or “quota” system – and learn about keeping your flock, premises, and product healthy.

Poultry housing is also a critical factor for small flock health. As a rule of thumb, remember that proper housing for your birds is just as important to their health as your own home is to yours! A simple checklist that can be used to evaluating the quality of poultry housing for all breeds is: Feed, Litter, Air, Water, Sanitation, and Security (FLAWSS). Use this checklist as a starting point but also familiarize yourself with any specific needs or housing requirements of the breeds in your flock to ensure you can provide them.

Diagnosing Disease

According to Dr. Bowes, a basic understanding of poultry anatomy (parts) and physiology (purpose/ function) can help small and large flock owners diag- nose, or at the very least notice, potential health prob- lems in their flock so that they can be addressed on site or brought to the attention of your veterinarian. The most common poultry diseases can be caused by viruses, bacteria, and parasites, and include avian in- uenza, E. coli, and mites.

4 Strategies that Prevent Disease

Strategies to limit the spread of disease are another important aspect of small flock management. Small flock owners need to conduct a critical examination of the premises where their flock is kept in order to identify potential points of pathogen entry. Once you have identified these points, you can develop and implement strategies to minimize the chance that disease causing organisms will gain entrance. In general, developing such a biosecurity protocol entails the following steps:

  • Access management: reduce the risk of pathogens being carried into and out of the flock premises
  • Health management: ensure that the flock is in good health, from chick to slaughter
  • Operational management: assure all procedures of your operation enable management of the health and well being of the ock and premise; barn area is always clean
  • Know and understand the procedures: be up to date with any issues and ensure that everyone involved with managing the flock and premise know the procedures for proper management.

The workshop concluded with information about techniques for humane euthanasia and plenty of time for questions from participants to the workshop instructors.

A small poultry flock can be the perfect business model, or a great way to produce your own food. No matter your goal, understanding how to promote the health and wellness of your flock is in your best interest, as well as the birds!

Resources

The “Keeping Your Flock Healthy” course is presented annually by the Ministry of Agriculture. If you are interested in attending a future course, or would like to be added to a contact list for small flock poultry related information and events, contact Clayton Botkin at clayton.botkin@gov.bc.ca.

Copies of the Small Flock Manual distributed to course participants.

General information and resources about poultry in B.C.

Information on Avian influenza outbreaks in Canada, including the December 2014 outbreak in B.C., and advice from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, on how to prevent and detect disease in backyard flocks.


The Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University supports regional food systems through applied research, extension, and community engagement. Reach out for more information about our work or if you are interested in partnering with us on an event or project.

Photo credit: Thomas Buchan

Go to Top