Ontario beef producers help young people get into farming

James and Joan McKinlay recognize the importance of setting up the next generation to succeed

James and Joan McKinlay are passionate about beef farming. They also believe strongly in the next generation and in the role established producers can play in getting young farmers started in the industry.

It’s a philosophy they’ve put into practice on their own farm, working with their son and four other young people to start their farming careers in non-traditional scenarios. They’re now sharing their story with fellow beef farmers through presentations at industry events and webinars.

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“If we’re going to have a next generation of beef producers, we as established producers need to step up and get creative to see how young people can get involved,” said James McKinlay, while speaking at the 2019 Beef Symposium in Guelph. “There is no template, there is no right or wrong way; but young people will step up to the plate if they’re given an opportunity.”

The McKinlays farm in the Blue Mountains area of Ontario’s Grey County near Georgian Bay and also own farm property farther north on Manitoulin Island. Blue Mountain is a popular skiing area within driving distance of the Greater Toronto Area where a lot of land is owned by non-farmers, making buying challenging but offering plenty of rental opportunities. Manitoulin, by comparison, is much farther from larger urban centres but presents great potential with more affordable land that is ideally suited to forages, cow-calf and backgrounding.

Overall, they crop about 800 acres of cereals, corn, canola, soybeans and red clover, with forages serving as the foundation of their operation.

Their herd consists of about 150 mainly Red Angus and Simmental cows, with a strong emphasis on maternal traits. They develop and market about 80 to 90 heifers and 20 bulls per year. The McKinlays have been testing bulls since 1989 and started home testing with their own bull test station in 1999.

“We have always had a passion for information; if you buy corn or soybean seed, we check all the data so we put that same emphasis on cattle,” McKinlay explains. “We have been involved in red meat clubs for about 35 years, so we have 35 years of data on our cow herd and our calves.”

From left: Robert McKinlay, Tom Aikins, Jason McKague, Julie Higginson and Ethan Higginson participating in a panel discussion at the 2019 Beef Symposium in Guelph.
photo: Lilian Schaer

The McKinlays have been hiring young people to work on their farm for many years. In fact, McKinlay’s first experience hiring teenagers was when he was in his teens himself and making hay to help pay for his college education. He also spent about two decades working in a treatment facility for young people before he and Joan decided to become full-time farmers in their mid-40s, after the birth of their son Robert, now a student at the University of Guelph.

“As an older parent you hang out with a lot of young people and you can learn a lot from them,” McKinlay says. “We’ve mainly worked with teens from age 12 to 17 and we always felt we were a launching pad, but the last few years, the teens we usually launched didn’t leave — so we’ve had to change how we normally work with them.”

They’ve been lucky, he added, to work with young people who always ask questions and have an incredible work ethic, energy and positive attitudes — a powerful force he believes the industry needs in its next generation of producers.

Twenty-year-old Jason McKague first started working for the McKinlays when he was 12, picking stones and cutting grass. This spring he will be graduating from the University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus. Thanks to some creative support from the McKinlays, he’s already well on his way into the beef industry.

After starting with some cows on share, the real opportunity came for McKague when McKinlay learned of a neighbour looking to sell his herd and retire — so he stepped in to help McKague work out a deal where he bought some of the neighbour’s animals and rented his land. The neighbour takes care of the chores while McKague is away at school. McKague also puts his mechanical talents to the test by getting his used round baler and haybine working. He saw success marketing his calves this past fall through an owner lot sale.

Julie and Ethan Higginson, school friends of Robert McKinlay who have since gotten married, are also working with the McKinlays. Julie first came to their farm as a high school co-op student in 2014 and with the McKinlays’ help, the Higginsons have progressed from cows on share to launching their own branded beef program. They’re innovative pasture managers and are using social media to tell that story to help market their beef. In addition to farming, Julie works for dairy company Lely while Ethan is finishing his education at the University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus.

Tom Aikins also got his start with the McKinlays as a co-op student, approaching them about a co-op job in the fall of 2016. Although the McKinlays originally shared him with a dairy farmer, by June 2017 they had offered Aikins a full-time job. He now has cows on share, a farm rented, and owns a tractor, haybine, rake and baler.

“If you get the chance to hire the right people, do it and figure out what they will do later,” says McKinlay. “We helped Tom negotiate the lease and we are financing cattle to Tom over a four-year period. He has a set of summer calves he’s backgrounding and produces calves for the grass cattle market.”

Both McKague and Aikins credit McKinlay with initiating conversations with them about starting with cows on share. They are keen to continue growing their businesses, even though getting the initial down payments together to buy their own land will be a big hurdle to overcome in an area where prices range from $10,000 to $20,000 per acre.

“It’s tricky to get in when you first think about it, but there is opportunity if you look for it,” says Aikins.

“The McKinlays are very open and always make sure they know what we are thinking,” adds Julie Higginson.

According to McKinlay, all of the young people he and Joan are working with are good at recognizing opportunities and don’t shy away from challenges. They also work well with each other even though they are on separate operations, supporting each other and sharing information as they grow their fledgling businesses.

“We’ve spent a lifetime building the cow herd and I want to see that continue,” McKinlay says. “As an industry, we need to take up the slack and figure out how to support young people — they are young, keen, ambitious and passionate about agriculture and this lets us build co-operative relationships for the future.”

Originally from a dairy and beef farm in southern Ontario, Lilian Schaer is a freelance agricultural journalist and communications professional based near Guelph, Ont. You can follow her on Twitter @foodandfarming.

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