By Connor Lynch
TWEED — There’s opportunity for beef farmers in Northern Ontario, but it’s frontier work. Think pioneer clearing land, living far from friends and family and relying largely on yourself to survive in the frozen north.
Although, the frozen part can actually be quite helpful, said beef farmer Dave Cockburn, who raises beef cattle at Iroquois Falls, six hours north of Pembroke in Renfrew County.
Raising beef cattle in Northern Ontario took on a provincial focus when the Beef Farmers of Ontario launched Beef North a few years ago, highlighting the opportunities for beef farmers in Northern Ontario, including cheaper land and access to Crown land. Cockburn is originally from Tweed in Hastings County, where he helped out on his grandfather’s farm and acquired a passion for Charolais cattle. “My intention was always to farm, though definitely not to farm here,” he said. But his wife is from the area and got a job there as a teacher. By 2015 he’d bought a farm in Northern Ontario and was raising beef cattle.
He bought a 60-acre farm, which proved to be his first roadblock. Land is cheap in his area; cleared pasture land goes for around $1,000/acre, and tile-drained land for between $2,000 and $3,000/acre. But because it’s so inexpensive, banks don’t consider it an asset, so he couldn’t get a bank loan to buy it. “(We were) lucky enough the people we bought from held the mortgage for us,” he said.
With cheap land readily available, a farmers’ first instinct might be to buy it up. But Cockburn would actually recommend renting. Tile-drained farmland in his neck of the woods can rent for as low as $50/acre. Cockburn decided instead of putting cash into land, he’d built up the homestead: He built a new house, new shop, renovated the buildings, built new corrals and added heated water bowls for his cattle. The added value on the home farm also meant he could leverage it as an asset for a bank loan, if he needed it. These days he rents 300 acres of land to grow feed.
Farmers are used to being self-reliant but Northern Ontario takes it to another level. Veterinarian services can be few and far between. “We have one vet, who services a huge area, about 200 km across. He isn’t always available.” Back in Tweed, calling a vet might’ve meant a half-hour delay before someone could get out to the farm. Up north, that vet might not be able to come until the next day.
In general, Northern Ontario just doesn’t have as much infrastructure. Buying feed or seed, or getting support with your equipment is more expensive and time-consuming. “You’re driving two hours one way just to get tractor parts,” Cockburn said.
But cattle seem to handle the winters, cold and snowy as they may be, quite well. Calving is often easier because the ground will stay frozen throughout the winter, so farmers aren’t calving into mud.
Feed can be an issue: High-quality hay is hard to come by since there’s so much rain during the summers, he said.
He invested in a wrapping machine this year so he could make haylage. Usually he can grow enough high-quality feed to get through the winter, but when he can’t, it’s an expensive proposition. A 50 lb. bag of pellets in Northern Ontario might cost double what it does in the south.
And you have to have well-drained land. “Unless your land is tiled, you aren’t getting two cuts of hay.”
According to Cochrane-area beef farmer Jason Desrochers, a third-generation farmer in the area, there’s been steady movement north in the past few years. It’s more of a trickle than a flood, at least for the conventional farmers. Plenty of Mennonite families are moving north and starting beef herds, he said. And they seem to be sticking around. Some of them stop farming, or farm less and get off-farm work. But they seem to like the north, he said, whether they stay in farming or not.
The community has been fantastic, Cockburn said. His neighbours are great and he loves the small-town atmosphere. But it can also be lonely; he’d feel much more isolated if not for his in-laws. “If you’re moving here, be cognizant: you’re a long way from family and friends.”
Cockburn admitted that Northern Ontario was not his first choice. “If not for my wife, I’d be farming in Tweed.”
Northern Ontario offers opportunities for beef farmers. But it’s cold, isolated, and farmers need to be self-reliant
By Connor Lynch