Farmers talking about changing weather

Ryan Martin explains the Ontawa Farms milking parlor to Zakaria Issahaku. | Photos by Dave Klassen

MEDA staffer from Ghana visits Ontario dairy farmer to discuss how climate shifts impact agriculture in Canada, Ghana

When a farmer from Ghana meets an Ontario peer, both have concerns about changes in the weather. But Ryan Martin’s Ontawa Farms near Elmira is far better prepared to mitigate climate challenges than the people who Zakaria Issahaku works within northern Ghana. Martin, 45, is a fourth-generation dairy farmer. He, his wife, Lori, his father, Ralph, and his brother, Phil, milk 130 Holstein cows and crop 280 acres of corn and alfalfa. Their crops are used to feed their herd. They buy 15 percent of their feed, primarily corn gluten, protein, and mineral supplements.

The Martins also have 180 Angus beef cattle. Three-quarters of their income comes from milk, the rest from beef, a commodity with cyclically volatile returns. The farm has two part-time employees who help with milking. Their cows each provide up to 60 liters (about 15.9 gallons) a day and are milked twice daily.

On a bitterly cold late February morning when temperatures had dropped dramatically from an unseasonably warm few days earlier in the week, Ryan Martin’s thoughts were turning to spring planting. An overly wet, late spring can wreak havoc with the corn crop that feeds their herd. “If you’re three weeks late planting your corn, it can really suffer, your corn yield,” he said. “Just the way the rains fall and when the heat hits, you want a developed corn root mass to handle the heat of the summer.” As for his livestock, dramatic temperature swings can be a challenge, depending on when the changes happen.

Holstein cows and Angus cattle are cold-weather animals, most comfortable at three degrees Celsius. “The most stressful time of year (for the animals) is actually spring and fall.” Cold weather keeps away disease and insects. “If we get more and more mild winters, we won’t have the [disease] kill-offs, or they [disease problems] will come up sooner. A warm day followed by a cold snap with a strong wind can cause problems for animals that are outside. “The younger ones, we have to watch especially for respiratory disease.”

Martin vaccinates his cows twice a year for seasonal respiratory pneumonia. “The vaccine doesn’t last long, so I always have to guess when to vaccinate for that [often in late March).” “When it’s minus 10 (Celsius, or 14 Fahrenheit) and goes to minus 25 (-13F), no big deal, but there’s a respiratory bacteria that thrives… it’s always around, it’s just that when the immune system drops, they (cows) are more susceptible to it.” A quick temperature drop combined with high humidity can lead to problems, he said. Swings in seasonal rainfall have been noticeable in recent years. But while cropping seasons have been drier, improved corn genetics have allowed the Martins to enjoy good yields even in very dry years. Their farming relatives in Iowa had below-average yields in very dry years, “but they said: 30 years ago, it would have been a crop failure.”

“Plant genetics is definitely saving us from some of these disasters.” The Martins store their extra feed, sometimes up to 30 percent of their harvest, for future use within the following 2.5 seasons. Over the past 50 years, weather changes have allowed Ontario farmers to grow longer-season corn. This crop is a bit risky but has greater yield potential. Issahaku grows 1,000 acres of corn on his farm in Tamale, northern Ghana. He also works with small-scale farmers in his role as a market systems technical specialist for MEDA. Those subsistence farmers tend to do mixed farming on two to three-acre plots with free-range animals, mostly to feed their families.

MEDA’s focus is to work with clients to improve their operations. “Climate variability is having a huge impact,” Issahaku said. “These are farmers who are not using improved seeds. They are using 50-year-old seed varieties, so when there’s two weeks drought, the maize will all wither. If there are floods, everything goes away.” Because they are not managing the soil well, there are problems with erosion. Fertilizer prices are very high, “so at the end of the day, they are really struggling to make ends meet,” he said.

Ryan Martin shows Zakaria Issahaku how barn fans keep his livestock cool.

Northern Ghana’s dry season is from November through May. That restricts farming in the north to between June and October. Farmers in southern Ghana receive more rain and can grow two crops a year. Farmers in northern Ghana can only grow a single crop. MEDA and its partners try to demonstrate ways to improve common farming practices. “But there are still a lot of people who are stuck to the old way of doing things.” Insurance companies are not interested in providing coverage for farmers “because it is very risky.”

In Ghana, farmers who seek bank loans to finance their agriculture face interest rates of up to 45 percent. People who have money view agriculture as the very last option for investment “because the uncertainties are very hard.” Issahaku has a strong agricultural background. His father was a commercial cotton, corn, millet, and sorghum farmer. Martin enjoys a number of collaborative supports that Ghanaian farmers can only dream of. Canadian dairy farmers operate under a supply management system with a guaranteed price based on the cost of production. Dairy farmers are paid on the basis of the butterfat protein content of the milk they ship, not on the volume of milk produced.

The Martin farm is also part of a processors’ co-op to which one-third of Ontario dairy producers belong. This relationship gives farmers a window into the processing industry. Their farm is able to use water from a spring-fed, 12-foot-deep well to supply the entire farm and two households, as well as water cows and wash milk equipment. The farm uses solar panels that help to heat water in their dairy barn, mostly in the summertime. In many African nations, the ability to grow vegetables depends on access to bore holes as much as 100 meters (328 feet) deep, with water pumped out using power from solar panels. The cost of this is out of reach for most farmers, Issahaku said.

When Ryan Martin considers ways to shrink his farm’s carbon footprint, he recognizes the need for energy to fuel the machinery that works the land. He thinks hydrogen, possibly derived from methane or produced through fuel cells, not batteries, will be the best future replacement for fossil fuels. Hydrogen systems could be developed quicker if governments invested money in their development as they are doing for battery plants, he said. Issahaku is impressed with how farmers such as Martin share information through various industry associations. Farmers who MEDA works with in Ghana “will be better served it they work together in cooperatives,” he said.

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