By Treena Hein
From a long wait for quota decades ago to a large and diverse farming operation where technology abounds
By Treena Hein
Sometimes in life we have to wait for things, but they are worth it. In Vernon Froese’s case, it was broiler quota that he waited for, first applying while he was still in high school in 1969. “I knew there were about 30 or 35 people ahead of me at the time,” he remembers. “The list was updated every few years, and you had to confirm your application and interest. I didn’t own any land, but I knew I wanted to farm.” Vernon got married in 1976 to Hilda and for a few years, they raised pullets. In 1981, the Froeses finally received notification they were next in line for chicken quota, and the year after that, the couple bought Hilda’s parents’ farm.
What is now called “the home farm” in the Froese family is a farm that had been started by Hilda’s parents around 1948 as a small dairy on about 400 acres. Hilda and Vernon waited two years to convert the dairy to chicken and hogs. “I grew up on a dairy farm and knew what the workload was, and it was difficult to find quota to expand the dairy,” Vernon says, “so we converted the dairy barn to a hog barn and built a broiler barn the same year.” At that time, Manitoba had what was called a “roaster” quota for bigger male birds, and quota was based on square footage, so the barn Hilda and Vernon built in 1984 was 10,000 square feet. Today, they produce 42,000 kilograms of chicken per cycle at the home farm and 87,000 kilograms on another farm purchased about seven years ago, which already had three chicken barns. The Froeses also have two other farm sites where they raise 12,000 feeder hogs on contract to Maple Leaf.
They also crop 1500 acres (grain corn, soybeans and canola), selling all their grain to the local feed mill where they buy all their feed. “Some of our grain definitely comes back to us,” Vernon says. “They cook the grains and pellet the chicken feed, and the birds seem to do better on the cooked feed.”
Sons Tyler (married to Alishia) looks after fields and equipment, and Ryan (married to Ange) manages the chicken and hog sites. The farm also has one full-time employee. Daughter Trista and her husband Paul have their own farm and daughter Rochelle (married to Brian) is a massage therapist in Medicine Hat. In all, Hilda and Vernon have 16 grandkids. “The oldest is 12, so none of them work on the farm yet,” Vernon says. For his part, he notes “I do the paperwork and pay bills and look after chickens on the home farm. Tyler and Ryan handle day-to-day farm management now, and that’s a big change from ten years ago.”
The Froeses have had some challenges with chick quality over the years, mostly chicks that come from U.S. hatcheries, but Vernon says one local hatchery is planning to raise all its own, and so more Canadian chicks will be available locally. The Froeses manage their flocks carefully and it’s been years since a veterinarian had to visit the farm.
Vernon has served on the Manitoba Chicken Board for ten years. “The price for chicken, food safety and animal care programs have been some issues provincially over that time period, and nationally there was a new allocation agreement settled in the last two years,” he notes. “The government looks favourably on the supply management system and the farmers make it work well. Allocation takes a lot of time and is carefully done.” Vernon notes that Manitoba’s chicken consumption has risen along with growing provincial and national population levels – and due to more consumers preferring chicken as a nutritious and healthy meat. “We went through an expansion phase a few years ago in Manitoba and brought in five new farms provincially last summer,” he says. “Poultry farming is a very stable industry and it has a good future.”
Vernon notes that raising chicken without antibiotics is a big issue now, and there are no easy answers. “We’ve reduced antibiotics and antimicrobial use as an industry,” he says, “but animal welfare is compromised when you raise birds completely without the use of antibiotics. If birds are sick, you need to treat them. We want to make sure the bird does not suffer, so the therapeutic use of antibiotics is needed occasionally. All chicken meat is antibiotic-free because we follow closely the withdrawal time requirement before the chicken is processed. It’s up to us to get the message out that we are raising a safe product and reducing antibiotic use.” Vernon adds that preventative use of antibiotics is changing rapidly, with Class I drugs gone completely and Class II and III being replaced with alternative ionophores or vaccinations as they become available. “Management practices have changed over the years,” he adds, “and farmers are doing an excellent job raising their birds.” Vernon believes chick quality and barn air quality has to be top notch if no antibiotics are being used, and as a chick’s first peck at manure can create health issues, keeping bedding clean is an important issue as well.
Vernon is part of the national team that worked towards updating the Code of Practice for broilers. In its examination of euthanasia, housing, transport, density, temperatures, ammonia and all other aspects of production over the last few years, the team found a few changes were needed, one being that four hours of darkness per 24-hour period will be mandatory. Vernon says most flocks get that already, as research has shown birds do better with some complete rest.
The Froeses are no strangers to new technologies, and in their hog barns, they have an automated feed air intake, fan and alarm system that can be controlled online from anywhere in the world. “I remember at first, there was only one small 12-inch fan in the dairy barn when we bought the first farm,” Vernon remembers. The Froeses also have GPS on all their field equipment (Tyler was a GPS dealer at one point) and Vernon and his sons consider it worthwhile. Ryan finds the GPS handy for precision cropping, especially at night. “I can read a book while I’m harvesting or planting as it’s hands-free, and there’s no overlap and wasted time,” he says. “But you still need to pay attention for things like a big rock or mud holes where you can start spinning.”
The family’s oldest chicken barn is turning 40 this year and everything in it will need to be replaced over the next five years with new and automated systems. But what won’t change on the Froese farm is cooperation and companionship. “It’s a blessing to be able to work with family,” Ryan says. “My father, brother and I all have a third ownership and so you work decisions out together, and whatever challenges you have, you face them together.”