By Chad Ingram
County residents thinking they may want to try their hands at farming may want to start with small ruminants – that is sheep and goats.
“It doesn’t cost as much to get into the sheep or goat industry as it would for beef” Jillian Craig small ruminant specialist with Ontario Ministry of Farming and Rural Affairs told a crowd during an information evening hosted by the Haliburton County Farmers Association at the Minden Hills Community Centre March 1.
A female meat goat for example will cost about $250 compared to the thousands of dollars one can pay for a cow.
Not only are goats and sheep relatively cheap to keep they are also in high demand.
“There’s a huge market here and it’s growing every day” Craig said adding a study has shown that consumption of goat meat would be higher if more of it was available in grocery stores.
The landscape in Haliburton County is also suitable for goats.
“There’s tremendous capacity to grow here” Craig said.
There is also huge demand for sheep more than 60200 of which were slaughtered in Canada in 2014. As of 2014 there were more than 174000 breeding females – ewes – in Ontario which has the largest sheep population of any province.
There are more than 13000 sheep in the City of Kawartha Lakes more than 15000 in Durham Region and in Haliburton County just over 1200.
Fifty-five per cent of lamb imported to Canada is consumed in the Greater Toronto Area Craig said and only 42 per cent of the sheep meat market in Canada is supplied by Canadian farmers.
When it comes to beef “you have to decide what your farm is best suited for” Dan Ferguson of Beef Farmers of Ontario told the room.
Different species of cattle fare better than others in different types of landscapes.
“If you’re new in the area go to the other guys” Ferguson said. “You’ve got to ask a lot of questions when you’re starting into the game.”
When it comes to prices there are market guides that are updated daily. If purchasing cattle at auction Ferguson advised rookies to leave their chequebooks at home for a few rounds until they know the subtleties that separate say a $1200 cow from a $3000 one.
“To the untrained eye they look like the same basic cow” Ferguson said.
Haliburton County’s rocky terrain can pose challenges making natural food foraging more difficult for the animals.
“Forage is really high-value up here with your rough terrain” Ferguson said adding that shipping up food for the wintertime can be another difficulty. “Sourcing winter feed is a big challenge up here from what I understand.”
Another challenge in Haliburton County is its soil. What differentiates the county from the bountiful farming lands just south of its border is its geology.
“That geology is the Canadian Shield” said Peter Doris of OMAFRA’s environmental management branch.
The presence of the shield gives the county a more acidic soil – with a pH balance of 5.5 to six – than the fields in say the City of Kawartha Lakes.
Most of the crops grown in Ontario thrive in soil with a neutral pH level around seven Doris said.
“The one big exception?” he said. “Blueberries. Blueberries love an acidic soil.”
Doris said blueberries will grow well in soil with a pH level down around five.
Acidity levels can be attained through soil testing using relatively inexpensive soil probes. Doris likened soil testing to flossing – something that should be done regularly but which many people don’t bother with.
“People would say ‘Is my number bad?’” Doris said. “And I would say ‘It’s just a number. Part of it is understanding the hand you’ve been dealt. It’s not necessarily good or bad it’s what the glaciers have left us.”
Once a pH balance has been determined there are ways to treat soils. To keep soil in fields healthy Doris suggested a rotation of uses including livestock foraging which enriches fields with manure. He said wise use of manure as well as ensuring proper drainage are other ways to take care of soil as well as tillage when necessary.
“Part of its comes back to playing the hand you’re dealt” Doris said.