AMHERST ISLAND - Fifteen minutes by ferry from Millhaven, across the Bay of Quinte's North Channel in eastern Lake Ontario, lies a piece of rural Ontario, unique in its agricultural venue. Amherst Island with its shallow soils and wind-swept countenance is more suited to pasture-based livestock farming than cash crops, and while there are fewer livestock than historically, it is still sheep and beef farming that predominate.
Like farm operations everywhere, balancing environmental and economic interests through good stewardship of the land is important to Amherst Island producers. Sheep producer Chris Kennedy of Topsy Farms, also Provincial Director and Vice Chair of the Ontario Sheep Marketing Agency (OSMA), is one of those.
Kennedy, an island resident since 1973 and founding shareholder in Topsy Farms, operates a 1200-ewe pasture-based commercial operation. For most of the year the sheep are on 1300 acres of pasture.
"But during the mud' months of mid-March to mid-May," he explains, "about 850 of them are confined to a large fenced yard by the barns to protect the pastures." The heavy clay soils drain slowly during this time, and are particularly susceptible to damage from sheep trampling.
The yard is up-slope from a seasonal stream draining to Lake Ontario, about half a mile away. With the sheep concentrated here, manure builds up and Kennedy was concerned that melting snow and spring rain run-off from the barnyard had the potential to affect the water quality of the adjacent stream and potentially Lake Ontario.
Kennedy was named June 30 as OSMA's representative on the newly-created Ontario Nutrient Management Advisory Committee, one of 12 producers on the 20-member body. He said at the time of his appointment that he is maionly concerned with resolving environmental concerns around outdoor wintering of livestock, which is common in sheep production in some parts of the province. In general, the committee will also be looking at ways to ensure maximum protection of water sources balanced with limitations in financial resources.
In late 2001 the Ontario Cattlemen's Association (OCA) and OSMA offered grants up to $5000 to their member producers to establish 25 demonstration projects across Ontario. Their is to promote Best Management Practices (BMPs) for protection of surface and groundwater resources, improvement of soil health and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Funding came from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Agricultural Environmental Stewardship Initiative, delivered in Ontario by the Agricultural Adaptation Council and the Ontario Farm Environmental Coalition. The Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) delivers the program on behalf of OCA and OSMA.
Kennedy saw the program as an opportunity to address his concerns. With approval from the Cataraqui Region Conservation Authority, he decided to establish a vegetative buffer between his yard and the stream to slow down and filter run-off.
Last summer, a local contractor constructed a berm next to the stream to channel the run-off, separate it from the seasonal stream, and then pass it through an 850-ft x 150-ft grassed area before releasing it further downstream. The berm effectively creates a shallow three-acre catchment basin, which forms the basis of his filter strip.
"We required machinery access from the yard to a field on the other side of the filter strip and stream," notes Kennedy, "so we also constructed a raised laneway with a culvert across the middle of the strip." Keeping machinery off the filter strip prevents any disturbance to the vegetation, and the culvert handles any flow during peak run-off.
"We used a standard pasture mix for seeding the filter strip last fall and have let the sheep graze it lightly once this spring," Kennedy adds. "We'll keep sheep off it for the rest of the year to let it establish well. Later we can use it as a small pasture as part of our rotational grazing."
The seasonal stream dries up in summer. Kennedy plans to seed it down to grass this summer, effectively creating a grassed waterway that will serve as a further filter. It will also minimize soil erosion from the otherwise bare soil in the intermittent channel. Total costs for the project were about $7,000.
Topsy Farms is taking a proactive approach to what may eventually be required of them as sheep producers through the Nutrient Management Act. "Specific regulations are yet to be established," Kennedy points out, "but we wanted to take advantage of the available funding and put into practice an idea that we feel will deal effectively with our situation."
"I would prefer to keep sheep on pasture year-round, if it weren't for the soft ground in springtime," Kennedy notes. "It's healthier for the sheep, and it's also a far more efficient way of handling manure. The sheep distribute the manure themselves, so there's no energy required spreading stored manure. And there's no need for manure storage, with its contribution to greenhouse gases."
Kennedy is no stranger to stewardship efforts such as this. Topsy Farms has implemented several environmental improvements over the years. These include planting shelter belts, fencing sheep out of treed areas, rotational grazing, diverting water from the barnyard, abandoning one barnyard for wintering sheep because of its proximity to Lake Ontario (to be seeded this summer), and putting fuel tanks in a concrete enclosure.
Lake Ontario is the main water source for both farm and residential needs on Amherst Island. While Islanders prefer to drink bottled water, it is in their best interests to protect the quality of the water both on the island and in the surrounding lake.
Efforts such as those of Topsy Farms go a long way in ensuring good stewardship of one of their most essential resources.