Making use of no-till systems, technology and even adding a sheep flock are all facets of Mark and Sandi Brock’s Canadian mixed farming enterprise.
Being progressive and innovative in their farming practices is at the core of what Mark and Sandi Brock are about, even if their methods sometimes prompt quizzical responses from neighbours.
Shepherd Creek Farms, based at Staffa, Ontario, covers 730 hectares (1,800 acres) of clay loam and grows maize, soyabeans and wheat and is also home to a 450-ewe flock of sheep made up of Dorset hybrids.
With Mark looking after the cereal side of the business and Sandi the sheep, the two are always looking at ways to move the business forward.
Mark, a crop science degree holder from the University of Guelph, a former Grain Farmers of Ontario chairman and a Nuffield Canada scholar, says: “We have always been a progressive farm and dad was an innovator as well. He had no-till in the 1980s and we have always been in land stewardship programmes here.
“When we first tried no-till corn [maize] and soybeans we got crazy looks from the neighbours. And it was similar when we brought the sheep in.
“However, it is about the net return to the farm, rather than just yield. It is about our role in society in terms of environmental services and that is a big driver for us.”
Vocal advocates of utilising technology, Mark says they try to document every process on the farm so they can show their accountability and sustainability if needs be, with soil health a major focus.
With a 12-row strip till regulator used in spring and a six-row version in autumn, this has paid dividends this season in terms of letting the soil dry out after an incredibly wet spring.
As much of the American Midwest was hit by one of the wettest springs on record, so too was a large swathe of Canada’s Ontario region.
With a traditional maize, soyabean and wheat rotation, Mark has introduced a multi-species cover crop after harvest, which he says is leading to positive results in terms of soil nutrients and organic matter.
“We have planted a 12-species cover crop which includes oats, sunflowers and buckweed and it takes the monoculture out of the soil,” he says.
“It has also made a 2 per cent difference to organic matter within the soil.
“A normal corn [maize] to soy rotation would have about 3 per cent organic matter, but with the cover crop this jumps to 5 per cent.
“We are currently trying to transition all our farms in to this system.”
The Brocks are also trying to apply strip tillage to edible beans, which they say is not common practice in their area.
But Mark is adamant they should be trying new ideas and showing to their fellow farmers that they can work.
“We try to show it can work and farmers get to see that someone can do it successfully,” he says.
“If we have a failure, we are open about it and try to show the process of how we fix it.
“We are trying to figure out how to best apply fertiliser because, as we do not till the soil, the nutrients are not always getting to the places they needs to be.
“We were full-width tillage beforehand, but the biodiversity and microbial activity is coming back because of no-till, but there are still challenges.
“We therefore build in flexibility so we can tillage if we need to, although I have sold the plough out of the shed.”
With the belief that better soil structure allows them to more effectively carry the combine at harvest time, they also use low inflation tyres on their grain carts in an effort to aid soil health and avoid unnecessary compaction.
Mark is also drone mapping his fields so he can use variable rate applications of fungicides in a bid to be more precise, but also cut costs.
Manure from the couple’s chicken also aids soil health when it is spread on the land, as does manure from the 450-ewe sheep flock, which is run by Sandi.
Brought in because of her natural affinity for livestock farming – she grew up on a dairy farm at Paris, Ontario – the sheep also aid cashflow for the business all-year round.
The sheep, which are effectively a Canadian hybrid version of the traditional Dorset breed, are put to Dorset, Suffolk and Ile de France tups, with Sandi trying to lamb four times a year to keep the cash coming in.
Sold at about 47kg, the lambs go through auction barns at nearby Brussels, Kitchener or Cookstown, with lambs making the equivalent of £3.05/kg liveweight.
Using hormone sponges to synchronise ewes which would normally be out of season, Sandi, like her husband on the cereal side of the business, constantly monitors animal and financial performance.
Both have taken part in a Canadian Total Excellence in Agricultural Management programme, which helped them build a longterm strategic vision for the business.
Sandi says: “You cannot manage what you cannot measure and we are always trying to make things more efficient.
“Demand for the lambs has been really good because we are near to Toronto, but it has been a big leap of faith for us and a lot of work to integrate it into our farming system.”
Sandi is also very active on social media, sharing her farming story, often in the face of militant animal welfare campaigners who try to shut the conversation down.
But with more than 36,000 subscribers, her ‘Sheepishly Me’ channel is part of the couple’s efforts to communicate their farming story to other farmers and also the wider public.
That wider notion of collaborating with fellow farmers is a key strand for the Brocks and one they are passionate about.
Mark says: “Regenerative agriculture is a term which is used a lot and we try to measure things financially, but also through the environmental and social lens.
“Our biggest challenge is getting other farmers to change their mindsets. Farmers can be our worst critics, but we want to show what can be achieved by actually doing it.
“Communication is one of the biggest challenges we face in farming. People often lash out because they have a problem and that is a conversation we need to have in the sense that we need to figure out what is causing them to act in that way.
“We are all quick not to listen, but we need more diplomacy among ourselves as an industry.”