Beef Farmers of Ontario’s ninth annual cow-calf roadshow stopped for a sneak preview of a new feeder barn at Foster Farms, near North Gower, Ont., that was slated to start receiving cattle at the end of September.
The 120 x 650-foot barn is the only one of its kind in the Ottawa region and one of a small handful in the province constructed with a slatted concrete floor over a pit to catch manure, says owner Dwight Foster.
He has gone an extra half-million-dollar mile for creature comfort by laying down perforated rubber mats over the concrete. It’s all topped off with a free-span steel truss hip roof covered with translucent fabric by WeCover Structures of Thamesville, Ont.
“I really like it. It’s a beautiful, bright, lively environment for the animals and people in winter and summer,” Foster says. “Most feedlots in Ontario today are under cover of some type because we have seen an improvement in feed conversion and average daily gain by having protection from the cold winters and shade during the hot, humid summers.”
The new barn incorporates the bright interior of his two-hoop, fabric-covered barns (Quonset style), while eliminating the one drawback — the need for straw. The hoop barns are open along the feed-bunk side so that they can be filled from the outside, and cattle are bedded along the opposite side. Not only is scraping out old bedding and replacing it every second day labour-intensive, but you need a lot of straw, he explains.
The new barn has a centre feed alley on a solid concrete floor that covers a water reservoir below to supply the 14 water bowls in the barn, one for every two pens. The rations are pushed into the feed alley with a skid steer. A robotic system may be an addition down the road.
The design leaves each pen wide open for the cattle to relax in clean, dry surroundings with temperature and ventilation controlled by raising or lowering the 14-foot curtains on each wall. The waste that falls into the pit below is liquid enough that it can be pumped out as needed.
The barn is filled pen by pen with like-sized cattle and each group stays together as a closed lot until they are shipped. As one group finishes, another group enters. It will handle 2,500 head a year, bringing the farm’s total annual carrying capacity to 9,500 head.
The feedlot is strictly a finishing operation selling to any of three packers in the area. Foster’s buyer purchases 700- to 900-pound calves, depending on the economics, from auctions or farms. Most are from eastern Ontario and western Quebec, with some from the West and the Maritimes.
The farm grows all of the corn put up as silage and high-moisture corn for the feedlot. A typical ration includes corn silage fed in a total mixed ration with any combination of high-moisture corn, cull potatoes, and dried or wet distillers grain from a nearby corn ethanol plant. Last year, there was such an abundant supply of cull potatoes, that he was able to carry over all of the 2015 silage. This year, at least for the new barn, the plan is to switch away from silage to high-moisture corn with distillers grains and a small portion of cull potatoes.
One supports the other
Construction on the new barn started May 15 and went smoothly relative to the three and a half years of red tape he went through to get permission to build it.
The farm is in North Gower Township, which is still a rural area, but within Ottawa city limits. The family farm has moved twice to outdistance Ottawa’s sprawl since the first generation started farming in 1825. His dad moved what was by then a dairy operation to the current location and Foster, who is the sixth generation, expects it will be okay through his time, and probably his children’s.
By age 18, he knew he wanted a career in farming, just not as a dairyman. The dairy operation was profitable, but came at the expense of long hours of work milking cows on the old pipeline system. It would have taken a lot more cows and quota to justify upgrading to the new milking parlour design of the mid-1980s. He wanted to give grain farming a go and his dad suggested buying six feeder calves to get rid of the last of the silage. Growing crops and feeding beef calves seemed like a good combination and there have been feeder cattle on the farm ever since. For many years, the facility was an outdoor yard with wooden lean-tos for shelter.
Today, he and his wife Ruth Ann, along with their family of five high-school and college-age children, own and operate the feedlot, a grain trucking business, North Gower Grains elevator, and crop 6,000 acres with help from their 15 employees.
“One part supports the other,” Foster says.
Land is expensive so they need to concentrate on growing high-value crops, mainly corn and soybean, with wheat grown in rotation to supply straw for the feedlot. Wheat generates the poorest grain revenues, but straw valued at $150 per acre makes it feasible, he adds.
It takes only a couple of weeks to get the seed in the ground, while harvest typically runs for at least four months. The wheat harvest can start as early as mid-July and wraps up in time to start making corn silage during the first part of September. Soybean crops are next to come off later that month followed by high-moisture corn, with grain corn bringing harvest to a close around the end of November, sometimes into December.
The addition of the 20,000-tonne elevator in 2008 started with an idea on a much smaller scale to add grain storage capacity at the farm. The lack of grain storage and handling capacity in the area got him thinking about the possibility of building large enough to offer these services to other producers.
The elevator and feedlot go hand-in-hand as well because the feedlot provides a local outlet where farmers can sell lower grades of corn.
Foster participates in the Ontario Corn-Fed Beef program. Even though it has been a great success story and local demand is improving, he feels there is room for stores to be more active in promoting the Ontario product so that consumers come to expect it to be in the meat case whenever they go for groceries and can easily make the choice to buy local Ontario beef.
A nagging question on his mind is why 50 per cent of Ontario’s beef supply has to be imported. Something isn’t right, he says. Is it because we aren’t producing enough, or there aren’t enough producers because they can’t make money feeding cattle, or because someone else is willing to produce beef cheaper than we do in Canada?
“I feel really strongly about supporting the products and people of Canada. It’s not that consumers should have to pay way more for Canadian beef. We need to be competitive and at the same time support products made in our country first,” Foster says.