Plenty of room to grow Ontario’s beef herd in the North

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Beef cattle in northern Ontario – photo courtesy of Northern Ontario Farm Innovation Alliance

The price of land is a big barrier to growing the province’s beef cow numbers, but northern Ontario may offer a solution for farmers seeking new opportunities.

“Northern Ontario, where land is cheaper and could work for cows, is a logical spot. There are 16 million under-used acres in the Great Clay Belt,” Beef Farmers of Ontario Vice Chair Matt Bowman, himself a cattleman from the North, said at the 2015 Beef Symposium.

“Beef production has been shrinking in Ontario over the last 10 years. The decline has slowed down if not stopped, but we need more numbers to support our beef industry infrastructure like feed mills and packers,” he added.

Concerned about the future of their industry, Beef Farmers of Ontario (BFO) launched a project about 18 months ago to identify what’s needed to keep the sector going and where growth opportunities lie.

The goal: to increase Ontario’s cow herd by 100,000 animals.

Matt Bowman speaking at 2015 Beef Symposium in Guelph ON
Matt Bowman speaking at 2015 Beef Symposium in Guelph ON

This, according to Bowman, will add more than 4,500 permanent jobs and close to $320 million annually in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to the provincial economy.

It will also support the growing Ontario Corn Fed Beef program with additional production, as well as provide a stable and long term economic solution for northern communities affected by job losses.

And it’s not a move to displace Western calves coming into the province, Bowman assured the audience.

Rather, more beef animals in the North could create a market for another 100,000 calves from the west.

The area in question, the Great Clay Belt, is in Ontario’s Cochrane District and stretches across the border into Quebec as well.

The 49th parallel, which makes up the Canada-U.S border in the Prairies, crosses through the region.

Efforts at establishing agriculture in the area have been launched before, but Bowman says it will work now where it hasn’t before due to several factors.

“Corn heat units are up by 20 per cent in Kapuskasing in the last 20 years, so global warming is not just a blip, it’s a long term trend,” he explained. “We also have new practices like pasturing calving and rotational grazing, and better genetics. In the past, we had no way of making wet feed, but now, with bale wrapping, we can do this cost effectively.”

The key to the BFO plan, however, lies with the provincial government.

In order for beef farming in the North to be a viable opportunity, the province needs to grant farmers access to Crown Land in the Cochrane/Kapuskasing area and allow them to bring that land into agricultural production.

Bowman said BFO has spoken to other stakeholders in the North, such as municipalities, mining, forestry and First Nations, who all have claims to the same crown land, and while in theory the idea is welcomed, no one is sure how to get it off the ground.

BFO is meeting with government officials in an effort to move things forward, and Bowman is hopeful for success as Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Jeff Leal’s mandate letter from Premier Kathleen Wynne included a goal of expanding agriculture in the North.

“This is a 20-year project and we’ve only just started our conversation with government. My own opinion is that anyone who goes there will buy some land privately and then need to access Crown Land,” he said.

It’s not BFO’s intent to create a so-called welfare state, Bowman added, but rather to make full-time beef farmers out of people who move to the north to farm.

BFO estimates 200-250 cows would provide enough income for a family with a bit of extra labour as needed.

Delton Martin is one beef farmer making a go of it in the North, where he has a 60-cow herd in Rainy River District with his wife and three daughters.

He doesn’t own any land, renting about 300 acres of pastures and 60 acres of hay fields, and also rents a tractor from a neighbour when he needs one.

His farm buildings are minimal and his herd spends the bulk of their time outside.

Weather can be a bit of a challenge at times, he told the audience, and although he tries to start grazing mid-April, it all depends on when the snow goes away.

Another big hurdle is finding financing for an expansion.

Conventional institutions currently consider his cows a liquid asset that doesn’t count as equity, so he’s appreciative of the work BFO is doing with lending institutions to try to open up more financing opportunities for farmers.

His advice to farmers considering a move north?

“Start with what you can and work your way up. You can buy equipment but that’s not what makes you money, it’s the cows. So focus on the cows,” he said. “And don’t look too hard for the perfect opportunity, or you might lose a good chance – work with what you can grab.”

“My dream is to be a self-sustaining farm without an off-farm job, and maybe with one full time employee who can be a second me,” he added.

This article was originally written for Ontario Farmer,  2015.

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