Bill Parke of Blackview Farm, a pasture-based livestock farm that uses rotational grazing and Holistic Management practices, was nice enough to sit down with me and talk for a bit about the farming life.
To start off, could you tell me a little about your farm?
We have a small farm, 100 acres, in Listowel, Ontario, Canada, with my wife, Michelle, and two kids, Carly, and Lincoln. We started our grass-based farm about seven or eight years ago as an experiment. We also wanted to try to farm without also working off the farm, which is what everyone does, especially in Ontario. At first, we were working full-time jobs plus doing the farm and marketing. We chose the grass-based farming methods because it’s a healthier alternative and better for the animals. Also, after meeting author Mark Schatsker and learning that grass-fed beef can be some of the best beef you can ever eat ( it can also be the worst), then I wanted to take up the challenge. After that we introduced the pigs, and then geese, ducks, and chickens into the mix. As far as machinery goes we have two tractors and an ATV. We bring in some organic grain for the pigs, which we grind on the farm. Everything else we feed is pasture and hay. The cattle are 100% grass-fed.
How many of each species do you have right now?
We have 25 cows and their calves. It takes from two to three years to finish the calves for market. We have 200 pigs, that includes 20 sows, and four boars. We feed the pigs for 10-12 months – we grow them slowly. We have 500 geese, 500 ducks, and about 2000 chickens. We also have 200 French Guinea fowl. It’s a one-stop shop for the local restaurants that we work with here in Ontario.
What’s it like raising Guinea fowl?
They’re really noisy, and they fly. They’ll fly into the trees, but they won’t go far. Also they’re hard to catch. So those are the downsides. But you can herd them, unlike chickens. You just have to learn how to work with each of the different kinds of fowl. What I actually got them for, mostly, was predator control. If they see a predator, say a hawk flying above, they’ll make a huge noise and alert the other animals. So they’re good for that. Also they are very good eating, are a nice size (3 1/2 pounds) and they can finish in 90-120 days. The French restaurants love them. They’re a hot item and you can make good money. Not many people are raising them because they’re so noisy.
So tell me. what’s your favorite part about farming?
Being self-employed is a big one. I really like being out on the land, I love seeing the land heal. I like the progress that you can see when you’ve accomplished something. When you’re working a desk job you don’t always see what you’ve done after a day’s work. When you’re farming you can fix something and you can see how it helps make your operation better. When you heal an animal that is sick, that’s a big accomplishment. If you have a new-born calf and you see it growing, that’s something. Seeing life all around you, it sounds clichéd, maybe, but it’s a good feeling.
I also like the marketing side, seeing your animals being born and then going right to the end, where you get to taste the final product, or on the menu at a restaurant. When you’re farming you don’t necessarily get to see that.
When I was growing up we would raise and sell stocker cattle. You sell them right after you weaned them off their mothers (6-9 months old) and you don’t get to see the final product. Your whole years work is auctioned off in a matter of seconds, and you don’t know what price you are going to get either, at an auction house. And then it’s over and you go back to your desk job.
I love seeing the whole process, from birth to the customer’s freezer. That’s huge. Being able to monitor quality. That’s fun. Like this year we kept a Wagyu-Angus cross-bred animal on grass for an extra year. We got crazy marbling, just on grass. It was triple-marbled. You’re playing with it, you’re learning all the time. How can I do this better? I like the challenge.
What could you use some help with? What are the difficulties that you have?
As I was telling you earlier, banks won’t look at us. A credit line would be lovely. Because beef takes up to three years to finish and then you have butchering costs, aging, packaging, and then you have to deliver it. Then you have to wait for the restaurant to pay. Timing is always a hard thing, trying to build your business so that you have a steady supply. Banks, in Canada anyway, they love you if you are part of the dairy quota system or growing chickens. There’s controlled income. They love it if you have an off-farm job. It’s hard as a young farm business…unless you’re doing what everyone else is doing. That’s been hard but you find a way to make it work.
I always compare our farm to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm. I visited a few years ago and it was very refreshing to see that it looks like my farm. It’s not this glorious pristine farm with a big sign at the front. There was mud, there were pig manure piles, there were a lot of animals and some were inside the fence where they were supposed to be and some were out, and that was encouraging. It was nice to see that it wasn’t perfect. I got to see that I wasn’t the only one that has these problems.
Farm community – that’s another thing. There are a few other people with similar farming operations near where I live, but not many. Most people who are farming just do what everyone else does, you know, the big tractors, GMO’s, crop insurance, all that. So it would be great to have more of a community where we could share our woes and learn from each other’s experiences. There’s a lot of things I’m having to learn from scratch, especially with the heritage breeds that I raise. For example, I experimented with raising a heritage breed chicken called the Nova Brown breed from Nova Scotia last year. What I didn’t know was that they couldn’t handle cold nights. So I lost a bunch of them, just not knowing this peculiarity of the breed. But that’s farming, you have to figure things out.
You and I have talked about heritage breeds before, and how interesting it can be to work with some of these older breeds. Could you tell me about the heritage breeds that you raise?
I’m not doing too much with heritage breeds with the cattle. We’re using an old line of Hereford cattle from Wyoming that were established in 1927, they’re shorter, they’re stockier. I really like them because I’m trying to go back to those grass-fed cattle that grandpa used to have. So I’m crossing those with the Angus.
With the pigs we’re using Berkshire, Tamworth, Mangalica, Large Black. We’re focusing on the Large Black because we’re trying to replicate a good forager like the Iberians in Spain. What we want is pig that we can raise slowly, for 12-14 months and will forage – eat grass, and they will eat a lot of grass especially in the later few months.
For chickens, we have Barred Rock, New Hampshire, and some dual purpose breeds that are slower growing. For geese, Emden and Toulouse, Toulouse being more of a heritage breed. Ducks, Aylesbury from England, Muscovy, and some Pekin. And then the French Guinea fowl.
I love all those names.
Yes, all of those names have so many stories behind them.
OK, so here’s the tricky question. Chris Smaje of Small Farm Future has a litmus test that I like – he asks what would happen if you had to reduce your (fossil fuel) energy inputs by 90%? Would your farm still be viable? What would you do to adapt?
I think about this quite a lot, actually. The hardest thing would be the electric fence. Everything is electric. So we’d have to use barbed wire or we’d have to set up some solar panels to power the electric fence. The other big thing would be water. Right now we pump water from a well on the farm, so we’d probably have to figure out how to do a gravity-fed system from the pond.
The other thing would be winter. The problem is not so much warmth because as long as the cattle can get out of the wind they’re fine. They stay out all year. But having feed for the animals through the winter. We’d have to harvest the hay the old-school way, by hand. Or we could stockpile the grass, just let it stand in the field. We’d have to cut our numbers in half, probably, Same for the pigs.
We’d still have a successful farm though. Less animals and we’d need to pay more attention to them. There would need to be more people involved. Like we’d have to have someone shepherding, moving the animals around more. Certain breeds would do better in that kind of situation. You’d have to weed out the genetic types that would not do well without grain.
The best meat I’ve ever had was two Berkshire sows that were four years old and they were just perfectly fine on a patch of grass for most of the year, pigs outdoors can do fine but they have to be the right type. I have one friend that I buy Berkshires from and what he looks for are the old types, just a basic pig like you would see in a picture from the 1950’s. I have another friend that also breeds Berkshires but they are muscled up like a Duroc. They look good but the old type pig will do a lot better roughing it. Same with chickens. With less power, you’d have to be more selective with your genetics.
I guess I aways look at my farm in terms of everything having multiple uses. All the barns could be used to house something else; they aren’t specialized structures. We can move the animals and the structures, just like on Joel Salatin’s farm. He would say be portable. Compared to a big dairy or hog operation we are already very versatile with low inputs.
This is winter?
Not exactly a snow scene for a February Newsletter, but perhaps it sparks a little excitement for upcoming spring time.
It is not the “winter for the ages” that we are used to, but I will take it. With our new hoop houses just nearly completion, I am personally happy that winter has not been harsh. Thanks to a handful of family relatives who are good at carpentry, I have some nice buildings to look at now & so do the animals! The cows are able to escape the wind, the pigs can burrow deeply into the straw pack, and the chickens get a whole building all to themselves. As nice as the barns are, the animals are equally excited for the grass to grow again so they can get out and roam. I can only imagine that they get the winter blues as well.
For those of you who are interested in our Beef Cattle and why we use the breeds we do, read on. For those who do not, skip a few paragraphs.
In a nutshell, we have the following breeds on our farm: Black Angus (refer to our farm name, example, Blackview), Horned Hereford, and Wagyu.
Our goal was to be always a purebred Angus farm because of the breed’s mothering ability, their popularity, and my familiarity with them growing up.
Hereford came into the mix when I read about them in Mark Schatzker’s Book, ” STEAK”. The Hereford cattle he speaks about is from a farm called Brae Arden (click to read more), and he refers to them as a “genetic jackpot” for grass fed genetics. We bred some of our cows to the “brae arden” line and this beef will be available mid-summer this year for the first time at Blackview, and Canada for that matter.
Trying to improve our cattle genetics has been fun. The genetic makeup of your herd has to work together with your farm environment and needs. Not all beef cattle are created equal. In fact, it is difficult to find cattle that “fit” a grass fed/finishing farm these days. For Grass finishing, you want a moderate frame, easy fleshing, easy doing cow. In simple terms, you want a type of cow that will convert grass to beef – efficiently. (I hate to use the word efficient because it sounds like a factory process). In other words, every bite of grass that cow eats goes to maintain it’s body. The sooner that her needs are met, she is able to put on fat – – & grass fed fat is amazingly great for flavour and nutrition.
Next is the wagyu. The famed Japanese breed that marbles magically. They take time to fatten on grass, because as a whole they don’t fit the “grass type” criteria, however, they do marble well and have a particularly active natural gene called SCD, which can translate more flavour when being cooked.
Every year we try to get better. And that is why we rely on your feedback and comments from emails and facebook comments. For my own knowledge of taste and quality, I sacrifice one ribeye from each steer we butcher….to my own plate…for testing and research.
Thanks to the Chicken Farmers of Ontario and groups like Practical Farmers of Ontario, we are now allowed to raise more chicken. Whoo Hoo!
It’s CHICKEN PALOOZA all year!
( Palooza – definition: a word describing an exciting, larger-than-life event, party, or celebration)
Heritage, Free Range, Pastured Reared Chicken will now be more available. In the past years, Chicken has done well for us. We will be raising only heritage and slow growth breeds (no big breasted, young birds). They will be hatched here, or brought in as day old chicks. As soon as the chicks are old enough they go out to the pastures to forage for bugs and grasses and supplemented with flax seeds and non-gmo grains. Each bird, depending on breed, will live on the farm from 12 to 18 weeks. The breeds will be Nova Brown, Frey Dual Purpose, Barred Rock, New Hampshire and Jersey Giant. The breasts are small, the meat may even be a bit dark, but boy are they super tasty.
Here is Dr. Richard Bazinet regarding our chicken and Omega 6:3 ratio:
“Often chicken comes in at 30 or 40:1. Bill’s chicken leg is 11.5:1 and the breast is 30:1. Both I would say are better than conventional. However, chicken does something interesting the beef doesn’t with the alpha-linolenic acid. Chicken turns this omega-3 into the omega-3s we would find in fish (EPA and DHA). EPA and DHA are not found in plants. So whereas these fatty acids (EPA and DHA) are pretty much not detectable in commercial chicken Bill’s samples have about 0.5 percent as EPA and 1 percent as DHA. For a reference, beef is less than 0.1% (usually) for DHA and wild sockeye salmon is 10%. Farmed salmon is 6%. So, while chicken is not salmon, it is a step in that direction. The simple omega-6:omega-3 ratio is a bit misleading and one has to look at the EPA and DHA here. Nutritionally speaking, this is, again, a solid product.”
There will be 300 /month available, starting in late June. Keep that in mind please. We have never raised this many and would like to sell every one of them fresh if we can. It will be a great learning experience, I am sure.
On that note, enjoy the rest of your winter. And may spring come soon!