By Treena Hein
Manitoba’s newest poultry industry member brings a passion for helping and supporting producers that is beyond reproach.
By Treena Hein
As the new poultry industry development specialist at Manitoba Agriculture, Amy Johnston came to her position with both strong first-hand livestock experience and an in-depth knowledge of production through the eyes of a nutritionist.
Johnston grew up in the Interlake region of Manitoba, in a rural agricultural community where her family owned and raised horses. “I was involved in 4-H and Pony Club from a very young age and I continue to ride,” she says. “The combination of rural life and a love for working with animals sparked my interest in a career in agriculture.”
She selected animal science as her major during her bachelor of science degree at University of Manitoba and happened to take a poultry course given by now-Emeritus Professor Bill Guenter, whom she describes as “very dynamic.” He oversaw a special topics course in poultry, and he served on an advisory committee for her master’s degree, for which she returned to the University of Manitoba after working in the industry for a few years.
Johnston finished her master’s thesis on phosphorus digestibility and bio-availability in field peas, a high protein feed ingredient often used in western Canadian pig diets, in 2008. “I then worked as a nutritionist focusing on niche market feeding programs for pigs and poultry,” Johnston recalls. “I also worked in quality control (HACCP) for a federally-inspected meat processor for a short time.”
In 2011, a position came available for a poultry nutritionist at a large feed company in Western Canada (Landmark Feeds, now Shur-Gain) and Johnston was hired. “I loved the opportunity to work with poultry farmers, to help achieve their production goals and assist in finding solutions,” she says. “One of the most critical things I learned as a nutritionist is the importance of managing feed ingredients and water quality for optimum production. Another is the importance of observation and evaluation of flock performance parameters at each stage of the production cycle. If small changes in performance are noted and corrected for in a timely manner, this can smooth out bumps in the performance curve.” Johnston stayed at Shur-Gain until last October, when she joined Manitoba Agriculture as a poultry industry development specialist, a position that had been vacant for about eight years.
“We were sorry to see her leave,” says Tracy Speirs, a senior poultry nutritionist at Shur-gain/Trouw Nutrition Canada. “However, our loss is certainly a gain for the Manitoba poultry industry overall.” As Amy’s manager, Speirs observed many strengths in Johnston, including diligence and a focus on keeping the customer’s best interest foremost in her recommendations and problem-solving strategies. “Although her background prior to working here was in swine, she was able to quickly learn the poultry industry and nutrition,” Speirs notes. “She was always willing to step outside her comfort zone to learn more and contribute to company and customers’ needs. She would always take the time to understand a problem or question from customer, even a call that might be an hour in length to ensure she gave the best advice. She also was active in our company poultry technical group providing feedback from the field on issues and challenges and in helping with on farm validation trials. She was an active member of the ANAC nutrition council and in planning the former Western Nutrition Conference when it was held in Winnipeg.” Speirs notes that on a personal level, Johnston loves a good laugh, is kind and thoughtful and looks for the best in people.
Jane Goodridge, a swine nutritionist at the same firm who has known Johnston for over two decades, echoes the sentiment. “You just knew she would be very successful,” she says. “[Amy] had a professionalism about her that was blended with a warmth that naturally drew people to her…along with a quiet strength that comes from achieving success. She really is capable of handling anything that comes her way, and along with her scientific approach and expertise, she has a natural talent for thinking outside the box. She has a passion for helping and supporting producers that is beyond reproach.”
Goodridge adds that whenever possible, Johnston “keeps her finger on the pulse of ongoing research and developments, continually improving herself and moving forward. And honestly, there isn’t any challenge that she is afraid of…Because of all this and more, she is very well thought of and respected.”
At Manitoba Agriculture, Johnston works with a team of livestock production, health and welfare specialists. She provides technical expertise to advance the poultry sector through working with producers, processors, service providers, commodity associations and research institutions. “I also collaborate with government and industry colleagues to develop programs and policies,” she notes. “Some of my goals this year include identifying the most pressing the needs of the poultry sector, helping to support industry growth and assisting poultry producers to respond to regulatory changes. I will also continue to work with the industry to further develop best practices for animal health and welfare, food safety and sustainable production, as well as assisting the poultry sector to capitalize on new opportunities.”
Prairie trends and challenges
Johnston views that current trends in poultry production in Manitoba will be similar to those found across the country. “Changes in antimicrobial usage provide both challenges and opportunities that affects the entire industry,” she says. “We must re-evaluate management techniques, carefully manage flock treatments, investigate potential alternatives to antibiotics, insist on high biosecurity protocols and ensure that good working relationships exist between veterinarians, producers and service providers. The quality of every input on a poultry farm, from chicks and poults to feed and water to air quality, has to be high in order to achieve top results from birds raised under carefully-monitored treatment programs, as well as for those raised on an antibiotic free program. We are fortunate that we have the opportunity to learn from producers in the U.S. and Europe, who have working with adjustments to antimicrobial usage for some time.”
Johnston also believes that trends in food consumption will continue to play a role in how poultry is raised and processed. “National consumption of poultry products is on the rise, as is specific demand for niche-market and convenience products. This creates an opportunity for Manitoba poultry producers and processors.”
On a personal level, Johnston is busy with her children Xander (10) and Katelyn (8) and their activities, as well as her own weekly riding lessons at a local horse farm. She enjoys the benefits of living in a rural community and taking part in available outdoor activities with friends and family. She also loves to cook, and is always looking for great new recipes using Canadian eggs, chicken or turkey. “I want to thank you for this opportunity to introduce myself in my new role at Manitoba Agriculture,” Johnston says. “I’m truly thrilled to be helping the poultry industry here continue to be successful. I’m very proud to work with such a vibrant, compassionate industry. While I enjoy working with the birds, the people are what make this such a great sector to work with.”