Author Archives: Steph N

About Steph N

Passionate about telling the public about her family’s 200 year old egg farm, Steph has undertaken a number of projects to achieve her goal. “I enjoy showing my urban friends the farming life. We try to hold open houses and barn tours at least once a year.”

What do Farmers do in the Winter? (when we’re not doing chores, of course)

Posted on Monday, March 9, 2015 by Steph N

Have you ever wondered what farmers do in the winter? And I’m not saying we don’t have anything to do – we still check the barns, take care of our animals, gather eggs, clean and sweep, keep our records up to date, maintain equipment, grade eggs to sell to customers, and much more – but things are a little bit slower. There is a lot less outdoor work we can do and there are no crops in the fields to worry about, so we have a little bit of free time.

Many farmers will use some of this time to learn. From Soil and Crop to Dairy Expos to Farm Safety Training, there are many meetings that go on through the winter that help us farmers stay up to date on new technologies and new ideas that we can apply on our farms.

This past week I had the opportunity to go to the Canadian Young Farmers Forum. It is an event that takes place each year and is attended by young farmers ages 18 to 40. On the first day of the event I was able to meet with 13 other egg farmers from across the country to learn about how our industry interacts with the government and how different trade deals can affect eggs in Canada. It is amazing to see how much our industry does for us and Canadians. We also learned about Social Responsibility and how the Egg Farmers of Canada are doing their part. They are planning to build a chicken barn on a farm in Swaziland to help support an orphanage, and in turn help the local economy. This farm not only creates jobs for local people but also food and income for the orphanage.

The topics spoken about at the conference also included business planning, political predictions, new technologies and apps, and tips on agriculture education. While I learned a lot in each session that I attended, the most beneficial information I took away was from talking with other young farmers from across the country. I met dairy farmers from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, potato farmers from PEI, grape growers from Niagara Falls, chicken and berry farmers from BC, grain farmers from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, and egg farmers from the North West Territories. Each farmer had a different story of how they got where they are, and also a different way of doing things. I gained a lot of new ideas from these conversations that I can apply on my farm, including things as simple as a new way to streamline record keeping in my barn.

Farmers are not afraid to share their ideas with each other, and it helps build a stronger agricultural sector throughout the country. The community that this creates is one of the many reasons I am so proud to be able to call myself a farmer 🙂

A speaker at the Canadian Young Farmers Forum talks about Best Management Practices

A speaker at the Canadian Young Farmers Forum talks about Best Management Practices

Get Cracking!

Posted on Tuesday, April 15, 2014 by Steph N

Eggs

For egg farmers, the most important thing after making sure their hens are healthy, is making sure that they are producing Grade A eggs. The biggest factor in this is egg shell quality.

Eggs are graded based on size, shell quality, and yolk quality. When an egg goes to a grading station they are washed, candled (see what this is here: Why ‘Candle’ An Egg?), and then sorted by size to be put into cartons. It is during candling when egg shell quality is assessed and when cracks would be found and removed. There are many factors (besides just a clumsy farmer) that can contribute to a cracked egg.

As a hen ages, the quality of the egg shells that she lays will eventually decline, causing more cracks to occur as the shells are more fragile. Creating an egg takes a quite a bit of calcium and so we increase the amount of calcium in the diet as the hens get older since she is not able to use the calcium as efficiently as when she was younger. Usually at around about 60 or 65 weeks old, we increase the level to the maximum level that it will remain at for the rest of the time we have them.  The calcium in the diet it mostly oyster shell.

Another factor that can lead to cracks is equipment malfunctions. To get an egg from the hen to the carton is a process that involves transporting the eggs quite a distance. To see how it happens on my farm check out this video: Getting Eggs to Your Table. If one little thing is off, it can mean the eggs are transported rougher than normal or allow an egg to hit an edge faster than it should and it can cause a crack. So as farmers, we are regularly maintaining and upgrading our equipment to ensure safe and happy hens and a good quality product.

Of course the biggest factor of cracks is the most important – breaking them into a pan to eat! So next time you crack open an egg, you can be sure you know how the farmer ensured it was Grade A.

What Does a Hen Eat?

Posted on Wednesday, January 15, 2014 by Steph N

Have you ever wondered what a laying hen eats? I’m sure when this first comes to mind you picture a hen in a long ago farm yard foraging for insects in the grass or picking up grain that an old farmer has scattered in the dust. But as nutrition and technology has improved for people, it has when it comes to an animal’s diet as well. 

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Feed is stored on farm in bins and transported through an auger system into the barn.

 

In order to keep our hens happy and healthy and laying eggs we want to make sure that they get all the nutrients that they need. To ensure this happens, they have a specially formulated diet which they have access to at all times. This diet is put together by poultry nutritionists at the feed mill where we buy our feed and can be in the form of a mash or in pellets. On my farm, as well as most Ontario poultry farms the diets will be mostly corn and soy based, with many trace minerals and vitamins within the feed, catering to all the nutritional needs that the hen has. Laying hens also use a lot of calcium for egg shell production and so need a good calcium source in their feed. This typically is provided through limestone, but if a flock is having trouble with shell quality, the feed can be topped up with oyster shell to ensure that they are getting enough.   

In the grocery store you may have noticed that there are several different kinds of eggs such as Omega-3 or Omega-Pro. On my farm we produce Omega-3 eggs and this is all to do with the diet that the hen consumes. Our feed has flax seed in it which allows the hen to put Omega-3 into the eggs she lays. For Omega-Pro eggs, the feed has fish oils in it as well so that the hen deposits even more Omega-3 into the eggs.  

A fun things you may have noticed in traveling, is that eggs in different parts of the country can sometimes have different coloured yolks. In the Prairies they are typically paler than eggs in Ontario because of the availability of the crops for the feed. In western Canada, wheat is a much more available energy source and so the yolks are pale. In Ontario, where corn is a much more common crop, it is used as the energy source and so the eggs have darker yolks. And, if you want a fancy word to impress your friends with, the darker yolk is because corn has high levels of the pigment xanthophyll. 

So, the next time you are eating eggs, you can not only be sure that you are getting proper nutrition, but also that the hen who laid that egg is as well.

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It’s wet, wet, wet!

Posted on Sunday, November 24, 2013 by Steph N

b2ap3_thumbnail_IMG_2710-640x480.jpgThis fall, with the wet weather we have had all summer and continuing now, it is making corn harvest slower for many farmers. Since most crops were late this summer due the moisture and lower heat unit accumulation (this means there was less heat and sunlight to help the crops grow and mature), the crops matured later and therefore did not have time to dry down in the field before the cooler weather set in. It is important that corn and other crops are at a certain moisture in order to store without worrying about spoilage. Usually the moisture that farmers aim to have corn at is below 16 percent, this way if it is stored on farm it will not spoil in the bin, and if it is sold to an elevator, they will not have to pay to dry it. 

Many farms now have a drying system in place, as it is usually difficult to let the corn dry down to 16 percent in the field without losing yield. This is because as genetics are getting better, farmers choose longer season corn varieties in order to get higher yields. If they were to choose a short season variety that would dry down early in the field, they would be giving up enough yield that the cost of drying is far worth it. 

On my farm we are currently harvesting corn at 23-28 percent moisture. This means that we have quite a bit of drying to do! The dryer bin that we have in place, like at most farms, is not able to hold all that we have in the field. This means that we must harvest enough to fill a bin, and then wait for it to dry until we can harvest more. It is this process (and that the yields are so good!) that is slowing many farmers down this year, because while there is usually some drying to do, it normally is a much faster because the corn is not as wet. The drying system that we use is one that is very common on farms. The bin uses a system of stirators which move the corn around, as well as a fan and heating system. Our bin is heated using propane. 

This year, with some of the crazy wind storms that we experienced in the summer, there is also quite a bit of corn that has lodged (fallen over). This is another factor that many farmers are having to contend with when harvesting as they cannot drive as fast and in some cases have to combine all one way, meaning lots of extra driving and time taken.

Even with all these challenges that farmers are facing, things are still getting accomplished and harvested, and this means happy farmers. 

It’s Harvest Time!

Posted on Monday, September 23, 2013 by Steph N

 

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It’s that time of year again – school has started, the days are getting shorter and cooler, the leaves are changing, and the crops are almost ready! This means that it is time for farmers to switch things into high gear. While they have been working hard all year, harvest time is extra busy for everyone. On my farm, harvest is a little less hectic than on others though. Since we only crop 175 acres, as the hens are the main focus of our farm, we do not own our own combine and therefore get our soybeans and corn custom harvested by a neighbour. When our custom operator comes to harvest our soybeans, we must be ready with wagons in order to ensure he always has a place to unload when the combine is full. Web2ap3_thumbnail_soybean-RM-trial-283x640.jpg want everything to be as efficient as possible in order to get things done fast in case the weather changes and also because the custom operator has many other fields to harvest. 

The first crop that will be harvested on our farm is the soybeans – they will likely be ready at the end of this week if the weather stays good. As soybeans mature, they begin to drop their leaves and the pods and seeds dry down. A good way to tell if a field is ready is if the soybeans “pop”,  but a more scientific way to tell if the field is ready to harvest is if the soybeans are less than 15% moisture. This year, we did a bit of a trial on my farm where we planted two different varieties of soybeans that are in two different maturity categories to see if it would affect the yield. In soybeans, the maturity or relative maturity (RM) is categorized by numbers, with a lower RM soybean maturing faster than a high RM soybean. In our plot, we planted a 1.0 RM and a 1.5 RM soybean. There has been only a small difference in how mature the soybeans have been over the course of the growing season, but over the past few weeks, the small difference has been very easy to see. When we take off this plot, we will have a weigh wagon that we will use to measure the yield of the two different varieties to see if one is higher. Through my job as an agronomist, we also have a few other similar plots in collaboration with the local Soil and Crop Improvement Association comparing the RM of soybeans, so we can use these results to help determine if using a higher RM will give us higher yields. 

After our beans are harvested, it will be a little while before our corn is ready to harvest, and so we will get a bit of a break, but not for long! So as you are around the country side over the next little while and see all sorts of machinery in the fields and on the road as farmers harvest corn silage, and soybeans, and edible beans, and grain corn and more, drive safe and remember that farmers are in just as big a hurry to get things done as you 🙂

When the Premier Comes to Visit

Posted on Tuesday, August 20, 2013 by Steph N

 

b2ap3_thumbnail_IMG_2066.JPGOn August 6 the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) put on an Eastern Ontario farm tour for Premier Kathleen Wynne, who on that day was acting in her second role as Ontario Agriculture Minister. This tour acted as a way not only for farmers to tell the Government of Ontario what is happening in agriculture, but also allowed many farmers in the region to showcase their amazing farms and hard-working families. Over the course of the day Premier Wynne visited beef, dairy, swine, vegetable and crop farms, and the Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers before finishing the tour at my family’s egg and crop farm.

During her stop at my farm, my family was able to give a tour of our egg room where we gather our eggs, and even had Premier Wynne gathering a few on her own. This means that the dozen eggs you just bought last week may have been gathered by the Premier! Even though we had a few important people in our barn and got to showcase our facility, we still strictly followed bio-security practices as all farmers must to ensure the safety and the health of our animals. This meant that the press, the staff from the Premiers office, and the Premier had to put on plastic boots to avoid any contamination or bacteria coming into our barn from their shoes. It made for a great opportunity for learning, but not great for talking – plastic boots make lots of noise when walking!

We also had the opportunity to show the tour a few of the crops we grow including soybeans, an important crop for farmers in Ontario. I even taught the Premier how to check if the nodules on the roots (formed by a nitrogen fixing bacteria that can provide nitrogen to the plant) were still healthy by breaking them open to see the colour was a fleshy pink like it should be. As an agronomist as well as an egg farmer, it was great being able to teach people about both. 

The last part of the tour on our farm was an exciting opportunity for a few young farmers and myself to meet with the Premier. We were able to share the successes and struggles that young farmers experience in today’s changing agriculture industry. We are very optimistic about where agriculture is going and where it will take us, but are also cautious because of the challenges that lie ahead of us – including financials, societal perceptions, and labour availability. We want to ensure that consumers know that we have their and our animal’s best interests in mind and hope to have the chance to educate them more about what we do. It is a daunting but exciting job to farm and while there are many differences between farmers from beef to dairy to eggs to strawberries, the sentiment between us is the same – we all farm because we love it.

 

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Showing the Premier/Ag Minister a soybean plant

Hot Enough For Ya?

Posted on Friday, July 26, 2013 by Steph N

 

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Is it hot enough for ya? I’m sure you’ve heard this saying many times this summer, but did you ever think that it could apply to farm animals as well? For most farmers, when the weather is very hot, it not only means that it can be uncomfortable for them to work in (especially if they have hay to do), but they also have the task of making sure their animals stay cool as well. This is why most barns have very good ventilation systems.

In my barn, we have an air exchange system with big fans and vents that turn on and off automatically based on the temperature of the barn. This ensures that the temperature remains as steady as possible to ensure the hens stay happy and comfortable. The air is fully exchanged every 7 minutes. Even with this air exchange, on very hot days (i.e. days over 35 degrees Celcius), sometimes the barn can get a little warm. For this reason we have extra big fans (think wind machines in old movies) to keep the air fresh and moving through the barn.

There is feed and water available to the hens at all times, but on hot days their water consumption increases and their feed consumption decreases. We make sure we monitor this to ensure we know how the chickens are feeling and also so we have an idea of how production will go. Typically, when the hens are drinking more and eating less, although production stays at the same level, egg size can be smaller. If it remains really hot for a very long time, we can even consult with our feed contacts to put more in our feed to make sure the hens are getting all that they need while eating a bit less. 

Farmers also have to make sure that they themselves remain safe in the hot weather – farm safety is something that farmers are always cautious of because they are often working with big machinery, and in the heat this becomes even more important. In my family we always make sure we have lots of water (and as a red head, lots of sunscreen too!) with us, no matter what we are working on around the farm.

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So, next time someone asks you “Hot enough for ya?” you can think of all the farmers and farm animals trying to stay cool too. 

 

 

Double the Yolk, Double the Fun!

Posted on Wednesday, June 26, 2013 by Steph N

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Have you ever cracked open an egg and found not one, but two yolks? Don’t worry, the chicken that laid it is a-okay, she’s likely just fairly young. 

At 25 weeks of age, my flock is still fairly new. When we get our hens at 19 weeks of age, they are just starting to lay, and although our chickens are currently laying mostly small and medium sized eggs, many of the large and extra- large eggs that are laid are double-yolks. The reason this happens is because as a chicken is starting to lay, she still has irregularities in her reproductive system just like any other animal as they move into full maturity. So, a double-yolk egg simply occurs when two yolks rather than one are released in her cycle and then the membrane and shell form around both, giving you an egg with two yolks.

On my farm, we grade and sell some of our eggs to neighbours, and nearby stores and restaurants (the rest go to a large grading station about an hour away), and our customers LOVE double yolks. Not only does it provide more yolky flavour for breakfast and can make for fluffier pancakes, but it’s also a pretty cool way to impress and amaze breakfast guests. In my family we also love double yolks. My mom’s famous cookie recipe requires one double yolk egg and one large egg (please don’t tell her I told!) which makes the cookies a bit more moist and tasty. But unfortunately for my mom’s cookies, as our chickens get a little older and wiser, the amount of double-yolk eggs will begin to decrease as the hen’s reproductive system becomes more regular, but some still will be laid. As a hen ages, her egg size naturally increases as well, meaning that the doubles that are laid later on in her life are typically bigger. These eggs are usually called Jumbo size, which is any egg that is greater than 70 g (for more information on how eggs are sized, check out the DinnerStartsHere YouTube Channel). 

So next time you are in the grocery store and see Jumbo eggs, or crack open an egg and find two yolks, you now know how it got there. And you perhaps now also have my family’s secret to moist baking – sorry mom!

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A Farmer’s Vacation

Posted on Wednesday, June 5, 2013 by Steph N

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Spring is moving along nicely, our crops are all in and with that task done comes… more work! Like most egg farms in Ontario, we keep each flock of chickens for only one year at a time. The reason for this is mainly because as a hen ages, the shell quality of the eggs that she lays decreases. By the time the year period is over, the egg shells are very fragile which means the eggs are not strong enough to put into cartons and ship to the grocery store, so they are typically sent to a breaking plant to go into commercial use. The fragile shells also mean quite a bit more cracks and more mess for farmers to clean up every day at the end of gathering. 

The transition between our flocks is a week long process. Once the chickens go out with the help of a catching crew, we must clean the barn very thoroughly. On the first day we pressure wash the whole barn in order to remove any dirt. This means I get to spend the day in a rain suit which, as they only come in large men’s sizes in our small town Canadian Tire store, means that I am actually wearing a rain dress and trying not to trip over my too long of rain pants while I wash everything. We wash the cages, the walls, the ceilings, the belts, the escalators, the fans, and everything else you can imagine. 

The next day, once everything has dried, I get into a clean rain dress, this time to disinfect the barn. This ensures that everything is clean and bio-secure for the incoming flock. The rest of the week the barn is left alone to let the disinfectant work and to let everything fully dry before turning on equipment again and receiving the new flock. This week is a mandatory time period set up by the Egg Board (a provincial and national group that helps regulate egg farmers) in order to ensure bio-security remains tight. This 5 day period with no eggs to gather is my family’s “vacation”. We were able to spend these few days finishing up other work on the farm that had been put on hold during cropping. This year it included splitting wood, planting our garden, outdoor clean-up and various other jobs. 

Then early one morning in comes the new flock who, at 19 weeks of age, are ready to start laying and I get to go back to being an egg farmer for another year. 

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Springtime, Field Work, and Rock (& Roll)

Posted on Sunday, April 21, 2013 by Steph N

b2ap3_thumbnail_254f31fd7f.jpgFor any farmer spring is a busy, busy time. There is equipment to get ready, fields to work, animals to care for, fertilizer to order, manure to spread, barns to open up again, and, in some areas, there are even stones to pick. That’s right, picking stones. 

You might never have thought about this as a chore that farmers have to do, but in stony areas of Ontario it is a necessary and essential task. On my farm, especially when I was growing up, a regular family chore each spring was going over our fields and removing stones. We would all head out in our work boots, and warm layers, one person would get lucky and get to drive the tractor that day, and the rest of us would each get a fork to help load the stones into the tractor’s bucket. We would then go over the fields and pick any stone that was big enough to harm our equipment. 

Stones can cause big trouble with machinery, especially planters. There are many parts in planters such as disks and springs and packer wheels that can not only break on impact with a stone, but it can cause all the hard work that a farmer did to set his planter just right to come undone. This can lead to many other problems in the field because seed placement in the soil won’t be as accurate. 

Fortunately, as I’ve gotten older and busier, there are some solutions and other options to stone picking. For example, you can buy mechanical stone pickers that can be hooked up to a tractor and driven over a field in order to eliminate some of the labour needed. Another way that farmers have lessened the need for stone picking is through less and shallower tillage. For example, on my farm just like many others, we used to plow the field every year. This was a deep form of tillage and would bring many more stones to the surface resulting in lots of stone picking. Now we use no tillage in our soybeans, and only disc (a shallow form of tillage) for our corn. This means fewer rocks are brought to the surface, less time is spent picking rocks, and we have more time to focus on the many other spring tasks to be done around the farm.