Herd mentality: Hay River farm school looks to livestock

Herd mentality: Hay River farm school looks to livestock
A thick-coated Galloway-Dexter cow sniffs out its new owner at the Northern Farm Training Institute in Hay River, where the tally of cattle recently rose to four thanks to some new calves.Photo: Photo courtesy of NFTI.

A new baby heifer steams under heat lamps in the straw as her mom licks her nose and ears clean, just minutes after becoming the first calf born at Hay River’s Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI) last Monday morning.

The calf – whose name is now the subject of a local contest – brought the cattle count up to three, but that tally grew again over the weekend as a second, massively pregnant cow gave birth to a little bull cousin on Sunday morning.

“They’re clearly thriving here on local hay; they’re healthy and fertile, so we’re really happy to be able to have a couple cows that are adapted already to the area,” NFTI president Jackie Milne said of the wooly Galloway/Dexter-cross animals the institute recently inherited from a local farmer in order to supply lessons to students on animal husbandry along with dairy products.

It might be a tad premature to call the growing family an official herd, but as the blossoming farm school contemplates adding sheep, pigs and reindeer to the mix over the next few years, it’s clear the new calves are just the start of a growing Northern livestock venture quite unlike any other in the NWT – one fully founded in food production.

“When it comes to food security, something that’s really important to add into the equation is your total calorie needs,” Milne said. “A lot of the foods we grow in the garden are not calorie-dense foods; they’re more of your essential mineral and vitamin foods. So getting enough calories to eat – of quality calories, not just empty sugar – in our area…we turn to animal products.”

Sights set on forest-grazing sheep

With a small herd of cattle on the go, NFTI has now turned its attention to a woollier species, one that Milne said shows high value in terms of food sovereignty.

“Sheep are a rare animal in that they can be triple purpose: you can of course have meat, you can have wool and you can also have dairy based on sheep,” Milne said. “So because of that, we’re really wanting to research ahead of time the most appropriate breeds for our area, because we think that could be a staple animal here.”

Unlike cattle, Milne said sheep are easier to raise in the NWT because they are smaller, better at wintering and have a more flexible diet that can take them into forested areas rather than cleared pasture land.

“They’re of course a herbivore like a cow, but they’re more of a browser,” Milne said. “Like deer and goats, those animals can eat a wider variety of vegetation than a cow. Cows are 90 per cent grass, whereas with sheep, deer and reindeer, it could be a third grass, a third leaves from edible trees like willows, and the remainder could be fireweed, dandelions – a diverse range, which is something we have. The vegetation we naturally have here is ideal for sheep.”

Last week, a special guest visited the farm school to give recommendations on potential breeds that could thrive in the North, as well as lessons from his work employing sheep in silviculture, or the practice of managing healthy forest growth, in B.C.

Dennis Loxton shared his 20 years of experience being contracted by logging companies to pasture sheep in replanted forests in the heart of grizzly bear country with the help of large guardian dogs.

“In delicate ecological areas, like around rivers and in parks and protected areas, they would hire him to bring in his sheep to help with re-vegetation,” Milne said.

Milne said a similar approach could be used in the NWT, where sheep could help to regenerate forests after wildfires or logging. Last week, she and Loxton met with officials with the territorial government to get a sense of the forest inventory and discuss the possibility of combining agriculture with forest management.

“We might get a pellet mill one day, so what are our options? Wouldn’t it be cool if we could produce food in a long-term sustainable way and have the impact of the sheep be an accelerated growth of the forest?”

Once they have their sheep, NFTI is going to experiment with forest thinning at their site to see just how much space and what kinds of vegetation the animals need to thrive.

“We’re trying to see what is a way to rapidly create an environment that can support animals without drastic alteration to the landscape. It’s a lot of work to clear a forest and transition it to a perennial pasture,” Milne said. “Realistically the food systems we need in the North are going to be very unique, and what we have a lot of is forests, so how do we use them and keep them healthy?”

School also considering reindeer, pigs

The same logic applies to reindeer, which NFTI is also looking at incorporating into the campus one day as a wholly domestic herd. Though more research needs to be done, Milne suspects the sheep and reindeer will support one another’s health.

“What (Loxton) discovered with the sheep was that in some areas they actually complimented and, because of their influence on the terrain, actually stimulated vegetation that supported the wildlife better,” Milne said. “Sheep, cattle, reindeer, some animals can be herded together and some can be herded in sequence, so this is the other thing we want to do research on.”

The same is true of pigs, which are naturally forest-dwelling creatures, Milne said. NFTI currently has three pigs and is hoping to breed more to incorporate into pasture and forest management based on their proclivity for rooting in the ground.

“We have a 40-50 acre spot we are looking at for pasture where we want to maybe do trials for growing hardy grains,” Milne said. “So maybe the pigs could be part of that.”

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