On the Farm: Saskatchewan family emphasizes the importance of soil health as a key way to keep operation viable
STURGIS, Sask. — Education is a lifelong endeavour for a father and son focused on improving their soil health.
Elgin Amy and his son Keenean are moving their farm closer to where they want to be next year and beyond.
“There’s just so much to learn. But you got to get your head around the fact that everything is connected and try to understand the ramifications of what we do, and it’s not simple,” said Elgin Amy.
Added Keenean: “There’s so much that we don’t know, but we’re making decisions based on the information that we have.”
“I’ve got another 40 years of farming ahead of me and I’m thinking more long term. If you end up creating problems in your soil, then you can’t even grow your most profitable crops anymore, and that’s a concern for your operation,” said the 23-year-old.
Both are trying to adhere to that mindset on their fourth-generation, east-central farm, about three kilometres south of Sturgis, Sask.
After four years of working as an agricultural equipment technician, Keenean recently returned home to the farm to work alongside his father full time.
“I always wanted to and it made sense to come back here with Dad instead of trying to do it on my own,” he said.
Today, the pair operate a 160-head commercial herd, as well as a 1,750-acre grain farm.
This year, they’re growing three cereals (wheat, barley, oats), one pulse (peas) and an oilseed (canola), as well cover crops, green feed and hay.
A 50-50 split is their business model. Chores are also divided evenly, albeit age appropriate.
“I do the mechanic stuff, but if the options are physical labour and running equipment, he’s going to run equipment and I’ll do the physical labour part of it. You do the jobs that you’re good at because things are more efficient that way,” said Keenean.
They agree that good communication is key to keeping things fair between them, something the father and son haven’t struggled with.
“I’m not going to be around forever, so he has to learn to do the management side and the business decisions. If you don’t learn to do that, then you’re in a bad spot down the road,” said Elgin.
“Of course we talk. We sit down and analyze things because there’s always risk and pitfalls. We try to manage the risk. If he’s going to run things, he has to run all aspects of it. He can’t be the hired hand or you’re just postponing problems, which will catch you in the future.”
Keenean has been buying his own land for about five years and now owns five quarters.
“It’s not overly ambitious — you can do it and it’ll amount to something in 20 years,” he said.
“My initial farming goal was own 2,000 acres and 200 cows. So we’re working towards that.”
Four years ago, they also started applying Bio-sul Premium Plus fertilizer and soon after decided to become an Aberhart Ag dealer in their area.
Using a spin spreader, they surface broadcast the granular elemental sulfur (30 percent compost, 70 percent sulfur blend) on their land and for many other farmers in the area.
“It’s been working really well, so we ended up taking that on for ourselves and then decided to do custom work with it,” said Keenean.
“You take the newest leaf sample of the crop as it’s growing, and then send it away for analysis and it tells what the nutrients are in the plant. We always make sure that the product is working good and then guys typically book more acres after.”
A passion for improving soil health is a theme that flows throughout all aspects of their operation.
“Pasture management is a good example. With proper management, stocking rates can increase quite significantly, so that’s something that we’re working towards,” said Elgin.
Added Keenean: “Everybody talks about the high costs of things and it is high. We’re trying to manage our cattle and our pastures so that we get the cattle to do as much of the work as possible. That’s a path that we’re still learning how to go down.”
This past year, they started experimenting with cover crops on one of the quarters to build organic matter and other things that synthetic fertilizers don’t provide.
“Our goal is to extend our grazing season up until January instead of feeding them because our winter-feeding costs are so high here. That is where our biggest potential to improve our profitability is,” said Keenean.
Elgin said there’s a lot of good work being done with pasture management, conversion rates on beef cattle and water-use efficiency.
“All these things come into play and it’s trying to understand how this all fits together in an economical way,” he said.
The father-son duo recognizes that some priorities must change to meet long-term strategies, not only for their operation but elsewhere in agriculture.
“We’re very economic driven. We make short-term decisions based on economics, not necessarily a good long-term decision. However, if you’re under pressure economically, you make those decisions. Hard to get past that,” said Elgin.
“I see the need that Keenean’s generation has to do things differently than I did, or it’s not going to work. So I have to acknowledge and accept that we’ve got to open our minds here and change. It’s hard because you’re talking about paradigm shifts and that’s not necessarily easy,” he said.
Added Keenean: “I think he’s right. We can’t follow 1980s farming practices and expect to be profitable in today’s market. We’ve got to cater to what’s profitable, but at the same time find where profitability is and figure out whether it’s a long-term solution or not. Figure out how to be profitable over a lifetime, and we’re going to have to just keep changing.”