Multiple generations work the Spy Hill farm

The intergenerational knowledge within a family farm is the bedrock upon which the farm is built. It’s also what makes each farm unique.

This knowledge includes historical perspectives on the land, specialized know-how with specific equipment or livestock breeds, and on the Odgers farm near Spy Hill, Sask., hockey is a big part of the existence.

“It’s always been like that. When I was a kid we were feeding square bales at the time and you did chores every day then. You were out there in the dark in the middle of winter and you had to get the cows fed before you could go to the hockey tournament,” said Jeff Odgers.

During Odgers’ 12-season NHL career, and two-year stint as a colour commentator for the Thrashers at an Atlanta radio station, farming took a back seat.

Today farming is again at the forefront with Odgers taking over and expanding the family farm, something he always planned to do.

Odgers returned to Spy Hill in 2007 with his two boys Dakota and John, and ended up buying a farm located about five kilometres from his parents’ place.

The property used to be a U-pick strawberry farm that employed Odgers for a time when he was a boy.

“It’s kind of funny that it’s one of the things I did as a kid, now it’s my operation,” Odgers said.

Farming activity has increased for Odgers, but hockey still has a strong presence on the farm.

John and Dakota played hockey in the Western Hockey League, and Odgers’ common-law partner, Lin Miller, has a son named Kenton who is playing professionally in the East Coast Hockey League.

“In the winter, we’re watching lots of hockey. Lin’s 13-year-old son, Naton is still playing bantam hockey right now, so we spend a lot of time at the rink or watching hockey on the internet,” Odgers said.

Miller is active in the day-to-day farming activities, including baling, combing, and working with cattle.

Dakota plays hockey and studies environmental science at Carleton University in Ottawa, but he always makes it home to Spy Hill to help on the farm every summer.

“Every summer I’ve come back since I was 15, because I’ve left every winter to play hockey. So as soon as the season is done, I’m back on the farm and giving him a hand, trying to help out as much as I can,” Dakota said.

Odgers’ parents, Fred and Cheryl Odgers, recently retired, but they still help with farm activities.

“We have half the herd over at Dad’s place, so they’re feeding cattle all winter. He helps with seeding and haying, but he has the freedom if he wants to go see grandkids,” Odgers said.

“He’s a real valuable source of knowledge and help, and he allows us the freedom to get away for a week if we want to go watch hockey.”

Jeff Odgers played more than 800 games in the National Hockey League for the San Jose Sharks, Boston Bruins, Colorado Avalanche and the Atlanta Thrashers. He now runs an organic grain farm near Spy Hill, Sask. | Photo courtesy Jeff Odgers

Organic growing techniques were used on the farm by Odgers’ dad for years, including abstaining from spraying pesticides, but Odgers’ experiences in large cities convinced him to achieve an organic certification.

“When I was playing hockey, the areas I was living in were obviously bigger centres and you could see the organic market start to grow. It caught my eye, and for the size of farm that we had, I knew we would have to specialize and find a niche market for it to work,” Odgers said.

Today he operates a certified organic grain farm that uses conventionally raised cattle to help make it viable.

The farm is slightly less than 2,000 acres and it produces about 100 calves each year. The cattle used to be certified organic, but he decided to drop the certification last year.

“The organic grain market kind of has its own market and runs separate from the conventional, but it seems they want to tie the conventional price to the cattle in the organic market. There was never enough spread to keep going, in my opinion,” Odgers said.

The cattle are still a crucial component to his organic grain farm, for weed management, fertility, and to help profit off of every acre, even during years when grain isn’t harvested.

Organic grain farms traditionally used a summer fallow year to reduce weeds or a plow-down year, in which a crop is tilled under to increase soil organic matter and nitrogen levels.

But having a year in the rotation where nothing is harvested is difficult for growers with a limited land base.

“I’d be hard-pressed to be able to farm without cattle, unless you’re willing to have either a summer fallow year or a plow-down year,” Odgers said.

“Your cover crops, legumes and your plow downs can either be grazed or turned into bale silage first, and then it regrows and is plowed down. So, you’re actually trying to get some pounds of gain of beef off your cover crops or plow downs,” Odgers said.

Either sweet or red clover is planted with a cash crop, such as wheat that is harvested in the fall. In the following spring, the clover, which is a biannual, takes over the field and begins fixing nitrogen in the soil.

Once the clover is harvested, tilled under, and the field is cultivated toward the end of summer, Odgers seeds a cover crop.

“With our last pass with the cultivator, we’ll put in a fall rye or winter wheat just to help control the weeds,” Odgers said.

The fall rye is typically not harvested. Instead it’s terminated before planting the following spring.

Cover crops are used to suppress weeds, to prevent leaching by holding nutrients in the plants, and fall rye is a good nutrient scavenger that can make nutrients available for crops planted after it is terminated.

In the spring, “we’ll terminate the fall rye. Then we’ll wait seven to 10 days before we put a crop in because there is a little allelopathic effect with the fall rye where it does suppress growth,” Odgers said.

In dry years, he’ll plant his spring crop soon after terminating the fall rye cover to conserve moisture.

Odgers also uses intercrops to maximize productivity and to choke out weeds.

“Peas and oats will go together whether or not there is a companion crop like red clover that goes with it. Last year we did a triple crop. We did oats, mustard and peas together. They are all different sizes and we are in the process of separating it right now,” Odgers said.

He said he’s had success growing the three crops together and intercropping is an important technique to the farm.

“In some areas if it was a little bit wet, the peas don’t like the wet too much, so you’d have more oats. In some of the drier areas, you’d have more peas and more mustard come. It seemed to have a pretty consistent swath throughout the whole field,” Odgers said.

Cattle help reduce risk.

“Whatever we do, we like to have some options, because weather is unpredictable, and to be honest, weeds are unpredictable. We’ve had it where we’ve done everything we thought was the right way and we thought it was going to be our cleanest crop and it turns out, it’s not. Then at least you have the options of it being silage or to put through your cows,” Odgers said.

He also uses a diverse silage mix instead of a summer fallow year.

“The one mix we had, we had oats, millet, vetch, phacelia, and we had radish that we grew all together,” Odgers said

The plants in this diverse silage mixture have different root structures that do not leave space for weeds when they’re grown together.

The silage is cut before weeds get a chance to seed out, the field is then worked in and a cash crop is grown the following year.

“We’ll probably put in something like an oat. So, if things don’t work out like you hope they will work out, you have the options of green feed or silage,” Odgers said.

Jeff Odgers pulls twine off a round hay bale while feeding his cattle on his farm near Spy Hill Saskatchewan. | Robin Booker photo

To improve pastures, Odgers uses mob grazing, where a relatively large number of cattle graze a small area.

“With the cow-calf pairs, you can’t crowd them too much, but we have a quarter section that we’ve put an alleyway down the middle and we use temporary fences. We’ll put 40 pairs on five aces at a time and we’ll move them every two and a half to three days,” he said.

Mob grazing allows greater control over how land is grazed and it helps regenerate pasture.

“They’re not allowed to just pick the good stuff. Ideally, we’ll move them when there is still eight inches of grass left so we’re never trying to eat it right down. The health of our grass is really noticeable. You look at it and you don’t have the bare spots, you don’t have gophers, which is unusual for here,” Odgers said.

He said gophers prefer areas with shorter grass so they can see well.

Maintaining soil fertility without the use of synthetic fertilizer can be difficult for organic grain growers. Soil nitrogen levels can be maintained through the use of legumes in plow-down crops, forage and intercrops. However, phosphorus is harder to manage.

“That is a tougher one. With the phosphorus, you spread manure wherever you can but you only have so much manure to spread,” Odgers said.

“We found with the cattle, you grow a few cash crops, and then you put it back to an alfalfa, grass hay mix. Let it go back, then you have a dual purpose, you can either silage it, you can pasture it.”

By taking the land out of cash crop production for a few years there is more opportunity for mineralization to replace nutrients taken off the land.

Odgers recently installed an irrigation system that draws water from a lake on the two quarters where his house is located. He said the irrigation system helps him intensify production because increasing land prices makes it hard to increase the farm’s footprint.

Last year, 130 millimetres of water was put on a flax crop grown under pivots.

Dakota is still getting used to being back in farming mode this summer. He’s in charge of running the electric fences, which is a never-ending job. He also seeds, puts up hay, and does countless other jobs required on a mixed farm.

He is the fifth generation on the Odgers farm.

He chose to study environmental sciences at Carlton because the profession fits with his long-term plan.

“I know what I want to do when I’m done playing hockey, and that’s come back here. So, I’m trying to get an education and take advantage of that,” Dakota said.

He hopes his degree will lead to a job in the area working in the nearby mine or in agriculture.

“On the farm, there is downtime in the winter, especially with two hands of me and my dad. So, I’ll be able to invest time elsewhere. I’ll be able to make some investments whether it’s in equipment or new land. Everything I’m trying to do is get invested into back here,” Dakota said.

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