Archive for March, 2016

Defining Sustainability

Sustainability is a holistic, long-term approach to business.  It maximizes the economic and environmental stability, equity, and health of the farm, business, and family.

A sustainable approach to farming is more than talking about environmental actions or maximizing profits.

Sustainability focusses on business processes and practices, rather than a specific food, fibre, or feed output.  It integrates economic, environmental and societal values to create a Triple Bottom Line (i.e. understanding and accounting for three “bottom lines”: economic, social, and enviornment, instead of simply looking at a cash flow analysis for actions in your operations).  This is very different from a purely profit-driven approach, where businesses benefit economically, but often at the expense of the environment and society.

Agricultural Context

Sustainable Agriculture is…

“the efficient production of safe, high quality agricultural product, in a way that protects and improves the natural environment, the social and economic conditions of the farmers, their employees and local communities, and safeguards the health and welfare of all farmed species.” (Sustainable Agricultural Initiative Platform, 2010)

There is a growing global demand to increase sustainability in agriculture.  What this means on-farm differs depending on where the farm is (the Place), what the farm produces (the Product), and where the product is sold and for what price (the Price). Regardless of what is purchased, grown, or sold, there are broad perspectives that can increase the sustainability of every agri-business by addressing the TBL of economic profitability, environmental stewardship and social responsibility.

Consumers are increasingly concerned with how their food is grown and processed.  The single largest share of impact within the supply chain is the food production itself. Food processors and retailers need long-term and ever-increasing supplies of quality raw materials. Unpredictable weather extremes and global water scarcity make agricultural production and food processing more volatile.  Sustainable practices help ensure businesses along the entire supply chain have reliable sources of product.  At the same time, reliability creates new opportunities for enhanced branding to meet consumer demand.  Sustainable sourcing is a point of differentiation in the marketplace.

While these components are discussed separately below, their goals overlap; impacting and influencing each other.  For example, economic decisions will impact the environmental and social components; the environmental actions taken will impact the economic output and social well-being.

Economic Profitability

To be sustainable, a farm must be economically viable.  While the environmental and social pillars of sustainability may not always translate into immediate economic profit, sustainable practices will have a positive economic impact on the farm.

For example, the diversification of crops can help reduce financial risk.  Over time, diversification of crops can reduce financial risk while improving water quality and increasing other environmental benefits that raise the value of the farm itself.

These factors must be taken into consideration when managing a farm business.

Production and machinery costs are directly affected by sustainable practices.  Fertilizer and pesticide applications can be applied responsibly and, in some cases reduced, based on crop rotation, variety selection or market availability for end-product.  Sometime overall yield may decrease, but differences between production cost and revenue can be improved, leading to increased profitability for the farm.  Likewise, management, marketing skills, and experience of decision-makers will have direct economic effects on the business.

Indicators of your farm’s economic profitability may include:

  • increasing net worth or savings,
  • debt is consistently decreasing, and/or,
  • farm is consistently profitable year after year.

Environmental Stewardship

Stewardship is a familiar concept to farmers.  For many, this is what comes to mind when they think of sustainable agriculture.  Environmental stewardship uses ecologically-sound practices that have a neutral or positive impact on the natural resources and non-renewable resources used on-farm.  It can mean reversing damage that has already occurred, like soil erosion or draining of wetlands.  It can also be enhanced by taking steps to prevent the future degradation of land and water resources through conservation practices, like:

  • naturalizing riparian zones,
  • using smart cattle watering practices,
  • establishing proper cover crops.

These are factors that have direct impacts on your cost of production and economic profitability components of sustainability.

Another key to successful environmental stewardship lies in soil health.  Maintaining adequate soil organic matter, biological activity and nutrient balance are essential to feed crops in the long-term production of the business.

There are many ways to enhance soil fertility and improve soil health, such as including legumes in crop rotation, using manure or compost instead of and /or in complement to synthetic fertilizers, and maintaining a working knowledge of the fertility of the fields so as to properly manage them.

Other stewardship concepts include:

  • protecting water quality,
  • year-round soil cover (residue or cover crop),
  • integrating crop and animal systems to maximize efficiencies, nutrients and energy,
  • controlling invasive plants.

Some traditional practices conflict with sustainable practices, because they severely damage the soil structure and resiliency of a field to adapt to extreme weather events, climate change, and the stresses of intensive crop production.

All practices, new and traditional, must be considered when implementing sustainable farming practices.

Social Responsibility

Social responsibility relates to the quality of life for everyone who interacts with the business: employees, customers, neighbours, local community members, and the farmer.  The most prominent examples of this in rural Ontario are agricultural cooperatives, farmers’ markets, on-farm events and twilight tours.  Other examples occur within the business itself, like fair treatment of workers and good business practices.

Some indicators of social responsibility include:

  • support for other local businesses and families within the community, circulating money within the local as well as the global economy,
  • the rural community population is stable or increasing,
  • post-secondary school graduates return to the community after graduation, to succeed on family farms or with associated businesses.


Sustainable agriculture is defined by three interactive components: economic profitability, environmental stewardship, and social responsibility.  It is important that sustainability is embraced at all levels; farm practices can have compound impacts across the entire supply chain in very complex ways.

Sustainability is a goal. However, a farm should never expect to “achieve sustainability”.  As farm practices become more sustainable, farmers gain a deeper understanding of the natural resources they steward and how this affects their business.

A competent working knowledge of sustainability creates further opportunities for new sustainability practices.  This in turn increases the farmer’s ability to respond to market pressures and environmental conditions, and help develop a robust and resilient business. The profit in sustainable practices is both tangible and intangible. It includes economic gain, environmental stability and social benefit.

Sustainability, like our seasons, is a never-ending journey, which is why it is so important to continue to work towards this goal.

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Although we had a mild winter this year, Ontario winters are typically cold and bring a lot of snow. Plan ahead and plant a windbreak before next winter – windbreaks are an effective way to trap snow and prevent snow build-up around driveways and laneways, buildings, farmyards and other high-use areas. For you, this means:

  • potential savings in fuel costs
  • a reduction in the wear and tear of your plowing equipment
  • less money and time spent on clearing snow from your property
  • easy access to your livestock
  • safer travel along rural roads

Windbreaks have year-round benefits, too. When planted around field crops, feedlots, livestock buildings, pastures and calving areas, windbreaks reduce wind speeds and will:

  • increase crop yields and reduce soil erosion
  • lower animal stress and improve animal health
  • increase feed efficiency
  • protect the working environment in and around livestock areas


“Before [the windbreak] was planted here, it was nothing to have four or five feet of snow up through the driveway – [in 2015] with all the snow we had, we had a maximum of ten inches of snow. I’m thrilled with it. It [has] done everything it’s supposed to do and probably more.”

Mike Downey, farmer

Alma, Wellington County

What’s more, windbreaks planted around your farm buildings and home can reduce heating costs up to 30 per cent!

 Windbreaks make great living snow fences. They deposit snow on the downwind side of the row of trees, protecting high-use areas from snow build-up for a distance of up to three times the height of the trees. A windbreak that is 10 meters (33 feet) high will deposit snow up to 30 meters (98 feet) away.

Windbreak maintenance tips

Trees are dormant in winter and early spring, so now is a great time to assess the health of your trees and to determine if maintenance is needed. Regular maintenance will increase the effectiveness of your windbreak, creating a more effective shelter zone on the downwind side of the windbreak. Thinning and pruning practices differ by windbreak type and tree species. Talk with your local conservation authority or a professional forester to develop a maintenance plan suited to your windbreak objectives and the type of windbreak you have.

Thinning conifer windbreaks

Figure 1: Thinning a windbreak using a staggered pattern.

FINAL thinning image

Thinning, or removing, conifer windbreaks after 10-15 years of growth may be necessary so they can continue to provide good crop and soil protection. Thinning conifer windbreaks gives the remaining trees more resources and room to grow, resulting in stronger and healthier trees that offer better wind protection. The two-row conifer windbreak shown in Figure 1 has had trees removed in a staggered pattern. Using a staggered thinning pattern prevents major gaps in the windbreak and prevents a direct path for wind to get through.

Pruning hardwood windbreaks

Figure 2. Pruning a windbreak.

FINAL Pruning image

This is a good time of year to prune hardwood trees (Figure 2). Be aware that some species, such as maples and birches, will secrete sap when pruned. This may look unsightly for a short period of time but is not harmful to the tree. You can avoid this by pruning just after the leaves are out.

The pruning of hardwood windbreaks should be done regularly – we suggest every three to five years. Waiting longer between pruning puts a lot of stress on trees, often resulting in slow growth and poor windbreak development. Pruning removes lateral branches, stimulates vertical growth and stops the tree from interfering with the trees around it. Pruning also gives room for farm equipment to pass by, increases the life of the windbreak and helps it to develop harvestable wood products for the future.

Planting a windbreak

Spring is the best time to plant a windbreak. There are several things to consider when planning a windbreak planting – talk with a forestry professional or your local conservation authority for help with these steps:

Planting objectives

Why do you want to plant a windbreak? The reasons why are key when planning for a successful windbreak because the reasons will determine the type of windbreak you plant and the type of trees you use. There are many reasons, such as to:

  • save on energy costs
  • reduce soil erosion and protect crops
  • add beauty and shade to your property
  • create a living snow fence
  • grow harvestable wood products

Conduct a site visit with an expert

A site visit can be done at any time of year. It is a very crucial step that will help you plan a successful and healthy windbreak. An expert can:

  • discuss the potential height required for your objectives and the length, width and spacing of trees
  • determine the best windbreak design/type based on your planting objectives
  • point out the best location for the windbreak based on wind flow patterns
  • point out drainage ditch and utility locations on your property
  • help you choose the correct species of trees to plant based on your property’s soil type and location
  • help you with a post-planting maintenance plan

The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change’s Tree Atlas has a list of native Ontario trees that can help with choosing the best species to plant based on where you live.

Meeting your objectives

Your windbreak will need to be properly designed to meet your objectives. Your objectives could change based on tree species availability, the type of soil on your land and the type of windbreak you decide to plant. You may need to reconsider your expectations and objectives after a site visit and before you finalize a planting plan.

Develop a planting plan

Use the information gathered from the site visit to create a plan using a map, diagram or aerial photo of your land. The plan should show where you’ll plant the trees, the species of trees you’ll plant, and the spacing between trees and between rows. Keep in mind the optimal height you’d like for your windbreak, crops that you plan to plant beside the windbreak, and the winter hardiness and typical lifespan of the selected tree species.

Prepare the planting site

Site preparation is something you’ll need to do before planting your trees. It includes marking out in-row and between-row tree spacing, tilling, mulching, mowing and/or band or spot spraying, and deciding if you’ll use black plastic mulch to control weeds.

Order the trees

While typically ordered in the fall, trees can be ordered during the winter and early spring if stock still exists.

For help with planning a windbreak, contact your local conservation authority. They may be able to visit your planned windbreak site and help you with your planting plan, site preparation, choices of tree species, and appropriate spacing and planting, as well as windbreak maintenance.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) has many resources to help you with windbreak planning. Visit our website to watch four windbreak videos on planning, planting, maintenance and farmer windbreak success stories. Our free Best Management Practices book, “Establishing Tree Cover,” provides a step-by-step guide for planning and planting a windbreak and includes maintenance tips. Contact OMAFRA’s Agricultural Information Contact Centre at 1-877-424-1300 or ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca for more information.

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The Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management estimates that barn fires cost Ontario farmers more than $25 million per year (2012-2014 average)

Do you know what to do in the event of a farm emergency? Do you know what to do if you have deadstock to manage?

Barn fires, natural disasters, equipment failures and diseases are devastating events for farmers, their families and workers, and the neighbouring community. Planning ahead to reduce risks, and preventing accidents with a safe operation will help to protect employees, family members and animals.

Emergency events can cause substantial loss to a farm operation and create unique challenges for farmers, including disposing of large volumes of deadstock. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) has a regulation that gives you options for deadstock management. These options help to protect water quality, reduce environmental impacts and minimize biosecurity hazards, such as scavenging.

Collection of deadstock by a licensed collector is recognized as the most effective and sustainable disposal method.

In emergency situations, you can apply to OMAFRA for an Emergency Authorization for the storage, disposal or transportation of deadstock. These authorizations can be used when emergency conditions exist that make it difficult for you to dispose of deadstock according to the regulation.

OMAFRA works with the province’s farmers, commodity groups, insurance companies, municipalities and trucking companies to ensure that deadstock is disposed of as soon as possible. In granting an exemption, OMAFRA considers the various factors of the situation, such as:

  • the urgency of the situation
  • the number of animals to be disposed
  • biosecurity risks
  • time of year
  • the condition of the deadstock
  • site conditions, including proximity to tile drains, location of surface water and wells, and depth to groundwater

Planning ahead can help alleviate some of the stress during an emergency. Our web page found at ontario.ca/farmsafety has useful resources for farm owners, including information on preventative maintenance for farm buildings and our book, “Reducing the Risk of Fire on Your Farm.” We encourage you to develop a contingency plan for emergency situations. Visit ontario.ca/deadstock for information on contingency deadstock planning and the regulation.

For help with managing deadstock in an emergency situation, you can contact an OMAFRA environmental specialist or engineer in your region, or the Agricultural Information Contact Centre at 1-877-424-1300 or ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca.

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