Progressive, proactive, technology-focussed — these are three words that well describe J&S Judge Farms in Norfolk County, Ont., one of a number of businesses that the Judge family owns and operates.
“Our first broiler chicken farm with 30,000 quota units was purchased with 50 acres of land, and this farm is still the home base of our operations,” says owner Jim Judge. Over the years, the family expanded the broiler operation to two more sites and just over 103,000 quota units. The family also has a 2,300 farrow-to-finish hog operation that supplies breeding stock to eastern Canada, the U.S. and occasionally to other countries as well.
Over the years, along with adding better ventilation systems and automated controls three years ago, the Judges started installing cameras at their poultry (and pork) facilities. They had had some thefts and vandalism incidents, and their insurance company recommended exterior cameras as the best option for security. At the time, they also decided to install interior cameras, which accomplished a number of important goals. “We can monitor the birds and check that the barns have power from any internet connection in the world,” says Judge. “We can move the camera around, zoom in. So the cameras are about security, but also barn operation and biosecurity as well.”
Just recently, in April 2014, LED lights were installed in all their broiler barns to achieve greater efficiency and higher light output. Judge says the cost return should be achieved within five years, but with increasing electricity rates to come in Ontario, it may come sooner.
The Judge family also grows corn and soybeans on 3,000 acres of owned and rented land and sells a large portion of their corn to their feed suppliers, from which they buy both poultry and hog feed. With the land located on the Sand Plain of Norfolk County, dry years presented yield challenges, and it was in 2012 — a year in which extreme heat and drought led to field corn crop failure — that the family decided to act on research they had been conducting for two years into ensuring a good crop every season.
“Our normal yield per acre for corn is around 150 to 175 bushels, but on some of our sandy drought-prone land, it’s a struggle to get much more than 100 bushels per acre,” explains farm manager Todd Boughner. “We need to increase that.” The quest to do better started in 2010 with testing drought-resistant corn varieties, and working on some related projects by themselves and in partnership with various companies and academics. Over time, the focus came to rest on creating a system that would completely take concern over future weather patterns out of the picture: subsurface irrigation.
The idea had sprung from the installation of a simple lawn-watering system at the home farm a few years before. Discussions followed with local irrigation suppliers about subsurface systems for crops, but there was no data or experience with these types of systems anywhere near Canada – just in the southern U.S. where the heat is so strong. So, if the Judges wanted to proceed, they would have to blaze the trail. With Boughner and others, they planned a field irrigation pattern, sourced components, and began designing and building the equipment. “It took time to determine an optimum irrigation schedule, and to create a wireless monitoring system to regulate water flow,” Boughner says.
The year 2013 saw them turning on their state-of-the-art, wireless, farm-created subsurface drip irrigation system on 75 acres of one of their farms, a system that is now in the early stages of commercialization. It also gained Judge Farms a 2013 Premier’s Award in agricultural innovation.
The setup also required the enlargement of a farm pond, which they were only able to draw from with a permit. “The small water usage requirements — about half — with sub-surface irrigation made it easier to obtain the water-taking permit in comparison to conventional technologies,” Boughner explains. “A pond that supplies at least 100 acres of overhead watering can supply 200 to 250 acres of sub-surface drip.”
The capital cost of the entire system was about $1,500 per acre, with cost return reached in only a few years. “We believe the irrigation increased the yield on that farm in 2013 by 45 to 50 bushels, but it was a good year from a rainfall standpoint,” says Judge. “In a drought year, we believe it will increase yields by 100 to 150 bushels, which boosts farm income considerably.” The ongoing workload (only one person required) and operational cost for the system is minimal, and it will be 15 to 20 years before major replacement work will be needed.
This farmer-developed technology is attracting a great deal of farmer interest among field crop, tobacco, orchard and vegetable growers. “Farmers have a challenging time these days, and if they can maximize underutilized land, that is very beneficial to the bottom line,” Judge notes. “We will likely do another farm with drip irrigation in the near future.”
Judge Farms is also one of the founding members of Farm Fresh Poultry Cooperative (FFPC) in Harriston, Ont., and Jim Judge has been president since 1997. The venture involved a group of about 30 farmers buying an existing plant and expanding it. “We process the birds from one of our barns there,” Judge notes. “We are very pleased with having gone into the venture as it provides us with another ongoing option for processing.” He believes supporting new markets and value-added products is important for farmers.
In the past, Judge has served on the Chicken Farmers of Canada board and also served as President and on the board of Chicken Farmers of Ontario. He currently serves on the boards of the FFPC, the Association of Ontario Chicken Processors and Integrated Grain Processors Co-operative Inc., which owns IGBC Ethanol in Alymer, Ont.
Near Steinbach, Manitoba, sits a farm that is the pride of Dean Penner and his family. “I grew up on a broiler and grain farm, and as a young adult, I did road construction,” he recalls. “But when I got married to Carolyn I wanted to be at home more, and that was a big part of the motivation to start farming. It’s a good lifestyle to have for raising a family.”
The landscape is flat in the area, with some other farms nearby. One edge of the Penner farm actually touches on Steinbach’s city limits, which is convenient when a quick purchase is needed. In 1989, when the farm was purchased, it was a 4,000-bird, broiler breeder operation. In 2000, the Penners expanded to 10,000 hens and acquired Dean’s father’s broiler quota (totalling 30,000 kg). In 2005, the family started a hog operation (7,200 animals) at another site.
Dean does the day-to-day paperwork, repairs and maintenance. Employees handle egg collection. “Carolyn pitches in when employees are away, and our son and daughter, who are young adults, help out as well,” says Penner. “They haven’t shown a lot of interest in working full time on the farm yet, but we hope that one or both will be interested in that in the future.”
Over the years, the Penners have made typical updates to the lighting, water, ventilation systems and more. However, they broke new ground in 1993. “I was the first in the province to install bird scales in the barn,” Penner explains. “Technology has changed considerably since then in terms of accuracy of weighing, but at the time and as it is now, scales made it far easier to monitor weight gain.”
Penner has served on the board on Manitoba Chicken Producers for about six years and the Manitoba board member at Canadian Hatching Egg Producers (CHEP) for many years as well. Founded in 1986, CHEP represents 235 farmers from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. “Last year was a big year because Alberta and Saskatchewan came on as full members,” says Penner. “That’s a big accomplishment. We now have every province from Quebec westward as members and are working to have the Maritime provinces join.”
Penner has served as chair of the CHEP Advisory Committee for the last three years. In 2013, there were a number of challenges that the Committee handled, namely interpreting market conditions and measuring their influence on overall chicken demand for the Canadian marketplace throughout the year. “Among the key elements influencing demand for chicken in 2013,” Penner says, “were alternating economic growth forecasts, overproduction in the early half of the year, growing spent fowl imports into the Canadian marketplace, and opportunities created by the ever-evolving escalation of prices for competing meats.”
In the spring of 2013, the committee sought to assess the expected level of growth for the rest of that year and this one. It focussed on the factors above, but also: the potential shortages of hatching egg and chicken meat supplies in the U.S., caused by recently reported avian influenza outbreaks in Mexico; growing broiler bird weights; and inflation of food and meat prices.
“Ultimately, we agreed at the end of 2013 that strong growth in demand will likely continue in 2014, and we recommended a 2014 volume similar to the volume set in July 2013,” Penner says. “The whole industry benefits when broiler hatching egg allocations are established on a reliable level of chicken estimates, and the work done by the Advisory Committee helps to achieve this goal.”
Penner also sits on the Poultry Code Development Committee for broiler chickens, turkey broilers, broiler-breeders, turkey breeders and hatcheries. That committee is updating the existing code, which is about a decade old. The Code involves stipulations on how much room birds must have and addresses other husbandry factors. In addition, Penner is chair of the CHEP Production Management Committee, a group with the responsibility for food safety including “CHEQ” food safety program and animal care programs. Members of this committee are in the early stages of creating a new animal care program based on the new code that is being developed. The program will ensure producers follow the Code through an audit process. The CHEQ program gets regular reviews and updates and the audit process is monitored.
“It’s a good group of people in CHEP,” says Penner. “And it’s a very good thing for the industry. It sometimes takes a while to come to a conclusion on something, and it can take a long time to get things in place in terms of government involvement, but progress is steady. It’s been a positive experience, and you learn a lot of things that you would not learn staying on the farm.”
When he attends annual meetings in various provinces, Penner enjoys seeing how things are done differently when the delegates go on farm tours. “It’s surprising and interesting,” he says.
In terms of where the industry is headed in future, Penner says “With some of the animal welfare aspects, there is more outside pressure to do more. We are doing a good job, but I think we have to do a better job of communicating that. Supply management debates are ongoing.” In their spare time, the Penners enjoy quading, spending time at their cabin in the woods and travelling. They would like to do more travelling in the future and so will likely be looking to hire a farm manager.
With an eye on the growth of the industry, David Hyink is passionate about his family farm operation and the broader Canadian poultry industry.
David and his brother Eric are partners in a family-owned broiler chicken business and shareholders with their parents, who bought the first farm in Ponoka, Alberta, from Lilydale in 1976. The original farm, which was located in the town of Ponoka until the mid-2000s, has been re-located outside the town and the Hyinks’ have converted the original farmsite into the Chicken Hill residential subdivision. They have expanded their operation to include three farms between Ponoka and Lacombe, with an annual production of close to three million kilograms per year.
“Eric and I manage the day-to-day operations of the three farms and are building the business together,” says Hyink, owner of Hyink Farms together with his wife Sharlene and their three children Justin, Travis and Kristen. “When we moved Hyink Farms to the new location, we built a fairly modern farm to take advantage of the technology we have today, as well as modernizing Eric’s Chicken Hill Farm, Red Barn Farms. Incorporating new technology and innovation into our farms allows us to minimize the labour required to run the operations. The two of us manage most of the ongoing farm operations, but we do hire teens from the community to help with certain jobs during peak periods.”
The three broiler operations include eight barns varying in size from 10,000 to 20,000 square feet of open area with automated feed lines and water systems. The ventilation system manages temperature, humidity, C02 and other aspects to maintain a proper climate for healthy birds. Hyink also installed high-pressure misting systems into the barns to help cool the birds when the barns are running at full capacity. All the barn operations are computerized, making monitoring and management easier. The ability to check and control the computers in the barn from smart phones has allowed the Hyinks to have a high standard of care for the birds even when they are busy and away from the farm.
Animal care is important to the Hyink family business and is a passion of David’s who carries that past his operation to various provincial and national industry boards. Hyink emphasizes that it is because of the farming partnership with his brother that he is able to be away from the farm to participate in the many boards and committees across the country.
Animal care and food safety a priority
Over the past several years, David has held board positions on both provincial and national industry associations and task teams. He was elected to the Alberta Chicken Producers for the first time 14 years ago and continues as Alberta Director on Chicken Farmers of Canada Board, today, with only one year off in that time for mandatory step down. He has also served as Vice Chair, Chair and member of the Alberta Farm Animal Care (AFAC) board and member on the Alberta’s Natural Resources Conservation Board (NRCB) policy advisory committee, the regulator for intensive livestock operations in Alberta.
“Based on the important work done in Alberta by the various representatives on animal care, then General Manager of AFAC, Susan Church, and myself got involved with other stakeholders across Canada to help create the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) in 2005 and get it up and operational,” explains Hyink. “For the first two years I sat on the executive as the Farm Animal Care representative. It was exciting to help build something off the ground and see how well that organization is continuing today. It continues to bring credibility to the codes of practice and assessment programs that are developed and improved in Canada.”
Hyink, who was also the first chair of the Chicken Farmers of Canada’s Animal Care Committee, is pleased to see that after many years of hard work and lots of effort a successful chicken industry animal care program has been initiated in all provinces across Canada. “I believe our program is very comprehensive and world class, and compares well to other programs out there,” says Hyink. “This auditable animal care program allows us as producers to assure consumers that the chicken they are eating has been grown under controlled conditions and farmers are actively audited and monitored to maintain those standards. This is an important piece of the puzzle to put those practices and processes in place and be able to prove we are following the program standards.”
The Chicken Farmers of Canada also has a mandatory On-Farm Food Safety Program across the country, and were the first commodity organization to receive third party audit by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) for the program. He believes it is an excellent program and important to have the credibility of CFIA behind the program. “From an industry perspective, it is important to have credible national programs in place and implemented across the industry,” adds Hyink. “I think it provides a level of stability and consistency, and assurance for consumers of our chicken products.”
Hyink emphasizes that the economic impact on producers and the costs to implement programs to improve safety and welfare need to be recognized. “As a result of this program, many farmers had to make real production changes on their farm and invest in new technologies, which had significant economic impacts on their business. Producers made these changes for the good of the industry at large in Canada.”
He has also served on the National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Strategy, an advisory council with stakeholders from federal and provincial governments and agencies and industry organizations. “Antimicrobial use and resistance is one of the issues this partnership is bringing leadership to. In addition to the work of the partnership I am proud of the steps the chicken industry has taken to proactively address this issue,” says Hyink. For example, industry completely restricted “preventative” use of Category 1 antimicrobials in chicken production as of May 15, 2014. Category 1 antimicrobials are deemed to be the antibiotics most critical for human health. This change will create challenges for farmers to be even more diligent in the work they do. “We continue to make progress to address these challenges and issues for industry.”
Hyink believes that developing strong, honest and meaningful relationships with industry partners is very important, both for his own business and for industry. As industry issues come up, those relationships provide a way to have difficult conversations and solve issues and challenges together. Hyink continues to be involved in many provincial and national industry boards and activities. He is also very involved with his family and community, supporting his kids’ sorting endeavours and activities. Christian faith and service in his church and community are also very important to Hyink and his family.
Growing demand for the future
In 2007, the Alberta Chicken Producers identified the rapidly growing population in Alberta as a key industry issue and have been working with the Chicken Farmers of Canada and other provinces to address the future allocation system for industry. “Every federal and provincial agreement has to face this reality and the chicken industry is no exception. We believe that for our chicken supply management system to stay strong, we need to address the reality of this growth situation and find a fair, robust allocation system to provide a strong platform for the Chicken Farmers of Canada to move forward in the future,” says Hyink. “I am a very passionate proponent of a strong national system of the Chicken Farmers of Canada and the work they do, and you won’t find a director in Alberta who would think otherwise. We continue to work diligently along with every other province to try to find a new allocation system that includes meaningful differential growth and that will be acceptable to all 10 provinces.”
Karen Kirkwood, Executive Director of Alberta Chicken Producers, and Hyink have been leading a team from Alberta to address this issue and held many meetings consulting with producers, processors and those they are negotiating with to try and resolve the issue. However, despite all of the efforts, consensus was not reached, and as of January 1, 2014, the Alberta Chicken Producers were no longer part of the national agency and are operating on a temporary agreement, which expires in July 2014.
“A strong national supply management system is very important to us and we hope we are able to come to a solution soon and get all 10 provinces to sign back on to an agreement,” explains Hyink. “We are very open to long-term sustainable solutions and addressing the issue strictly out of the growth of the industry. Chicken farmers in Canada are fortunate to be in a vibrant growing industry and a solution will not need to impact any current allocation and production across Canada. No farmer in Canada would be growing any less chicken than they were before or shutting down their barns. We will continue to work towards trying to find a solution based on a positive view of the future.”
Supply management supports farm transition and growth
Transitioning the farm from one generation to another, or supporting new farmers to enter the business is a challenge and is very expensive for any type of farming operation. However, Hyink believes that supply management, although sometimes criticized as a costly venture and difficult to get into, actually makes it easier for young farmers. The chicken industry in Alberta and in other provinces has one of the youngest demographics across the agriculture industry.
“For young farmers who are patient, have a long-term focus and work hard, supply management can provide stability and a consistent business that banks will consider financing,” says Hyink. “Although it has taken 20 years of hard work, off-farm income and perseverance, without supply management I don’t think I would be in farming today. It has provided a way for my brother and I to go to the bank and arrange to transition the farm from our parents and, at the same time, expand and grow the business to where it can support our families. I couldn’t imagine even being a farmer it is wasn’t for the consistency of the supply management system. And hopefully, this system will remain strong and provide the opportunity for transition to the next generation in the future.”
Dire warnings of “superbugs” are making headlines everywhere. From what I’m seeing, antimicrobial resistance has easily been the top farm and food news story so far this year. While these warnings are often poor interpretations and overly alarmist, they can’t be ignored.
Antibiotics are a lifesaver. Since the discovery of penicillin in 1928, antibiotics have added about 10 years to the life expectancy of Canadians, according to health groups with www.antibioticawareness.ca. Food production has benefited too. It is undeniable that antibiotics have contributed to better animal welfare through disease prevention, control and treatment; safer food from healthier animals; and higher food output from better feed efficiencies and growth. Yet they have their downside too.
According to the U.S. Centre for Disease Control, 23,000 people are killed by antibiotic resistant bacteria in the U.S. each year, nearly five times the number who die from food poisoning.
In the media at least, animal agriculture seems to get an unfair share of the blame. Canada’s Chief Medical Officer of Health has been repeatedly quoted as saying that three-quarters of the drugs used in Canada are for animals, with 90 per cent of on-farm use dedicated to growth promotion or disease prevention. The fact that three times more drugs are used in animals shouldn’t be surprising given that there are five times more Canadian cattle, chickens, pigs and sheep than people. Even more if we add in other domesticated animals.
Of the 90 per cent usage for growth promotion or disease prevention, fully two-thirds of antibacterial compounds applied to livestock and poultry, whether at sub-therapeutic or therapeutic levels, are not a threat to human health because they are either not used in human medicine or have a minor importance in treating human disease. So when we hear about so-called “superbugs,” or multi-resistant bacteria, these are more likely to be a result of antibiotics used in humans than those in agriculture.
Never-the-less, farming still involves antibiotic use that can potentially pose a human resistance risk. Canadian farm groups and pharmaceutical companies have not been blind to the issue. In the 1990s, Ontario introduced livestock medicine training courses to reduce the misuse of livestock drugs. In 2009, the CleanFARMS safe disposal program began collecting unused animal health products from farmers – four years ahead of a similar national collection day for all Canadians.
Animal health companies have been working on antibiotic alternatives. In the poultry industry alone, the Canadian Poultry Research Council (CPRC) has committed over $5 million, nearly half of its research funding, into antimicrobial research.
With the advent of viable alternatives, Chicken Farmers of Canada (CFC) announced in December 2013 their plans to eliminate extra label use of Category 1 antibiotics in poultry production by May 15, 2014; which they have done. Steve Leech, CFC food safety, animal care and research program manager, said at the time, “the plan is a response to worldwide concerns about potential anti-microbial resistance in humans.” This category of antibiotics is heavily relied on in human medicine so resistance is an issue. CFC also wants to stop the use of over-the-counter drugs by having all antibiotic use require a veterinary prescription. And for nearly 20 years the Canadian Animal Health Institute, which represents drug manufacturers, has called on the Canadian government to halt Own Use Importation and use of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients or bulk chemicals in order to prevent unapproved drug use. Off-label use is another concern.
These same companies announced on April 11 that they are working with Heath Canada to phase out the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion as well as having veterinary oversight of these products when used in feed and water. The phase-out, expected to take three years, will apply to all poultry and livestock production in Canada. Coming on the heels of a similar announcement by U.S. drug manufacturers, this harmonization is doing what the World Health Organization has called for: taking a coordinated approach.
Here’s the point: The industry needs to stay on course. Producers need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. And more than ever, they need to tell the public what they are doing on their own farms “to help make the medicine go down.”
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