Cattle play major role on Ontario grain farm

Producer receives environmental stewardship award for the work he has done in crop and pasture management

ST GEORGE, ONT. — Steve Sickle is a life-long learner when it comes to managing crops and pasture.

One of the things he has learned is that cattle and cropland go together.

Beef Farmers of Ontario agrees with his theories and named him its 2019 environmental stewardship award winner.

Sickle said the award caught him by surprise.

“There’s lot of other people doing more. I’m still learning. I’ve got lots to do environmentally,” he said.

Based at St George, Ont., in Brant County, the family owns 350 acres and rents another 900. He practices no-till, seeds corn, soybeans, soft red winter wheat and hay and maintains about 25 cow-calf pairs. He also does custom work and shares a combine with a partner. They bought the machine together and handle their own harvest as well as work for other customers.

His parents, Bill and Marie Sickle, started the farm in the mid-1960s and at one point dispersed the cows. Later, Steve realized cows were a good fit to graze the rough topography and eat the hay crop that sometimes failed because of wet weather.

“I realized we need some livestock on this farm for our hills. We were making hay and couldn’t sell rained-on hay,” he said.

He attended seminars and learned about regenerative agriculture and rotational grazing. Further education and experimentation have helped him plan out the pastures and add cover crops with species such as oats, peas and turnip mixes to provide a new business model to the farm.

Part of the new plan saves labour. His wife, Amanda, works full time off the farm as an optometrist, and the two children, Kara, 15, and Ethan, 8, help with the chores.

He has set up the pastures so the kids can move the cows at the end of each day.

They move the single wire electric fence and water trough that is fed from a hose running along the paddocks.

The cows do the rest, consuming forage and spreading manure.

“Naysayers say it is too much work, but the cows are way better off,” he said.

Trees and water courses have been fenced off, and with help from organizations such as the Grand River Conservation Authority and the Ontario Soil and Crop Association, grants were available for some of the projects.

The work has regenerated the farm.

A frost-free solar powered water system on the corner of three fields was added for winter grazing and watering.

Swampland was dredged, the peat was sold off and seven new ponds emerged, including one that can be used for a family swimming hole.

“Purple loosestrife was rampant in these ponds that we dug out,” he said.

The invasive weed disappeared, and the result is pretty ponds that provide habitat for waterfowl, amphibians and new plants the family had not previously seen.

The cattle grazed until mid-January this year on corn stubble with some supplemental hay before coming home for calving. The cattle spread manure throughout the year, and Sickle also spreads dried chicken manure at a rate of three tonnes per acre of cropland each year.

Moving away from keeping the cattle in one large pasture and instead adopting rotations and fenced-off paddocks has improved the landscape in unexpected ways.

“What we noticed was the cows had a path down the hill and when it rained hard they turned into gullies. We noticed the pasture was getting harvested more at the barns than it was in the far corners,” he said.

“When they went out for water they would all go but only two would drink. That was inefficient.”

Besides fencing off critical parts of the operation, Sickle added a portable shelter to provide summer shade. It can reach 35 C with high humidity in summer, and the cows were struggling.

He sees it as a more efficient and profitable approach.

“It is an integrated thing,” he said.

“My crops on this home farm are way better than anywhere else with less inputs. My soil health issues are better because of slugs and dung beetles working together.”

Another approach to efficiency is leasing a bull for about two months a year from someone on a different calving cycle. He gets the calves and does not have to worry about feeding a bull for the rest of the year.

Weather is the major challenge. Many years he is seeding corn at the end of April, but excessive precipitation since Thanksgiving set him back and the crop was not in the ground until the long weekend in May.

By the first part of June the grass was more than knee high and was starting to get ahead of the cows’ ability to eat it. The paddocks are one to 1.5 acres in size, and as the season progresses, the cows may be moved faster to fresh grass.

He has also found the cattle are easier to handle because they see him or the children every day.

The heifers, cows and calves are on pasture, but last year’s calves stay at the on-farm feedlot, where they are fed grain corn and silage. About half to three-quarters of the meat is sold into his freezer beef program, where it is marketed as natural product receiving no added hormones or antibiotics. The rest is sold to nearby Norwich Packers’ natural beef program.

Besides the weather, another challenge is urban encroachment. Years ago the local municipality zoned part of the area as estate residential, and large, high-end homes are springing up near the farm. The municipality promised it would not take away prime agriculture land, but the Sickles still worry about potential future conflicts.

Winter is meant for meetings and education. He is a director with the Ontario Soil and Crop Association and is involved with the Brant Cattlemen’s Association. He is always looking for new educational opportunities.

“If you don’t learn something every day, there is no point in getting up,” he said.

“I think a lot of people don’t go to enough meetings.”

There is also time to appreciate what has been accomplished from a steep hill overlooking the farmyard.

“Coming up here Sunday morning to spend some time with the cows before church is a nice place to be,” he said.

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