Old Macdonald's high-tech farm

Old Macdonald's high-tech farm McGill University

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McGill Reporter
October 25, 2001 - Volume 34 Number 04
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 34: 2001-2002 > October 25, 2001 > Old Macdonald's high-tech farm

Old Macdonald's high-tech farm

It's an office like hundreds of others at McGill -- a desk, a couple of chairs, a table, and a few framed pictures on the wall. One difference a visitor will notice upon entering this particular office is a row of coloured ribbons under the window, garnered from various animal shows. Even before that, they are likely to spot the 1,400-pound Holstein gazing curiously through the glass. The office in question is part of Macdonald Farm, the only on-campus working farm in Canada.

With 200 hectares of crops, 88 dairy cattle, 6,000 or so chickens, 600 pigs and even a few dozen deer, Macdonald Farm is a fully functioning agricultural operation a mere five-minute walk away from the lecture halls of Macdonald Campus and the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Photo PHOTO: Nicolas Morin

"As I see it, the farm plays a vital role in the teaching and research activities of the faculty here," says Roger Buckland, a professor in the Department of Animal Science and the director of the farm's poultry unit.

"I liken it to the role that teaching hospitals play in teaching and research for the Faculty of Medicine," he says.

The farm provides the infrastructure, animals, and McGill know-how needed to tackle agricultural industry problems. Many projects are relatively simple while others are more high-tech. Buckland says that one research project currently running in the poultry lab involves finding the genetic markers for resistance to Mereks Diesease, a poultry affliction that costs farmers untold thousands of dollars each year in mortality, morbidity and vaccination costs.

It is the application of advanced science to farming problems that won McGill (in collaboration with the Université de Montréal) a Canada Foundation for Innovation grant to build and equip a new poultry unit. Scheduled to start construction in 2002, the new poultry unit will replace buildings that have been in use since 1905, when the land was first donated to McGill by tobacco baron Sir William Macdonald.

Of course, it isn't all research at the farm -- it's business too. The dairy products, eggs, broiler chickens, pigs and other products and services produced on the St. Anne de Bellevue campus bring in over a million dollars in revenue.

As anyone who has had the pleasure of driving the Trans-Canada highway through the farmland near Quebec City knows, pig farms produce a lot of manure -- extremely smelly manure.

The swine unit at Macdonald keeps about 50 sows for breeding purposes. These pigs produce about 700 offspring for market every year. The farm also keeps two hogs, which are used to stimulate the females, although all are artificially inseminated.

Although the effluent from Macdonald Farm is treated with a phosphate precipitator, it remains pungent stuff. A new project with a private company may help resolve some of the problem. At Macdonald Farm, both pig and cow manure is poured into huge cement vats, where it is collected for use as fertilizer. Right now the pig vat is covered with a huge black tarp, which will soon also be covered by a large dome. The idea is that this will allow the manure to decompose anaerobically, and contain the smell.

Unfortunately, the tarp is not yet sealed, so there is an unmistakable pungency as a visitor walks from the swine area to the dairy barn.

Neighbours of the farm, who may be treated to these aromas from time to time, may soon be benefiting from the stuff that produces the smell.

A new initiative will soon see residents of the nearby community bring their raked leaves to the farm. Run by Aline Grenier, director of farm practice management, the composting project is a good example of off-farm McGill research that uses farm facilities. Currently, Grenier and her students are researching what mix of leaves, wood shavings and other materials blend best with cow manure to produce top-quality compost, which can then be used for garden fertilizer.

"We've approached three engineering companies for their proposals, and we're starting to arrange the funding ... the idea is to get the surrounding municipalites to bring us their leaves which we will then compost," says Grenier, adding that the compost will then be made available to residents.

"They'll be able to get the compost in exchange for the leaves," she says.

The producers of this potential fertilizer are kept in a large barn with a series of cement silos along one side. As agricultural and biosystems engineering professor Suzelle Barrington, director of the dairy unit, escorts me into the building, we pass two students attending to an unhappy looking cow trussed up in a large metal frame, with one leg raised in a strap.

Barrington explains that cows are too heavy to support themselves on three legs, and a frame like this is needed when one hurts its foot, as this one has. The young woman affixing a wooden shoe is from Vanier College, which sends its veterinary technology students to the farm for practical experience.

Hoof-and-mouth disease fears that swept Europe this summer have not left Macdonald Farm untouched. Although there have been no cases of the disease in Canada, visitors to the dairy barn must step on a disinfectant mat, thoroughly wash their hands, and don disposable plastic boots.

It is for this reason that the farm, once a popular attraction for schoolchildren, has been closed to the public. Although it may still be visited by appointment, group visitors -- such as industry tours -- must pay for their boots, and are limited in number. School visits, unfortunately, are cancelled entirely.

"We were thinking of closing before," says Barrington. Visitors complicate the day-to-day activities. Moving the animals around can be nerve-wracking if there are too many cars driving about, for instance. "We still host 20 to 30 busloads coming through each year."

The herd is made up mostly of Holsteins, but also counts Ayreshires, Jerseys, and a lone Brown Swiss within its ranks. Full-grown cows are kept within the main barn, while calves are weaned in outdoor hutches for a period of four months. Only females are kept on the farm -- males are sent to market for beef. Cows are artificially inseminated to ensure genetic variety. The herd is therefore able to maintain its population.

"About 20% of our cows are sent to market [each year] because they get too old, and we replace them with our young stock," explains Barrington.

Built in 1985, the dairy unit has a small full-time staff. The work of the thrice-daily milkings falls to the 40 students hired on a part-time basis throughout the year. The first milking occurs at 5 am every morning.

Sounds brutal, but Roger Buckland thinks that the chance to do this sort of work makes the farm a great recruitment tool for potential students.

"There are students I have met from all over the province who recognize we have a farm right on campus," he says.

"Some grew up on a farm and come for that reason, others didn't grow up on a farm, and they come for that reason," he says with a laugh.

Even if they did grow up on a farm, chances are they would not have had to deal with close to 50 of the farm's residents before. Animal science professor Leroy Phillip is currently conducting research on the fastest growing herd animal in Canadian farming -- deer.

"Farmers are always looking at alternative livestock," explains Phillip, adding that deer meat has much less fat than more traditional livestock animals.

"From the standpoint of health, it's very appealing."

Appealing, but not very easy to manage. Unlike their bovine counterparts, the food preferences of deer are not as well understood. They are also very sensitive to seasons, taking on far less weight during the winter than other animals. From a farmer's point of view, this makes them less profitable as they have to be kept for almost two full years before reaching a reasonable market weight.

Working with Douglas Harpur of Harpur Farms, Quebec's largest deer farmer, Phillip hopes to find the mix of food that will encourage the most growth in his 48 red deer.

"I am feeding them things that they do not normally encounter in the wild ... such as corn and soy meal," says Phillip. This mixture may encourage growth, but it can cause other problems.

"If you give them too much grain it will upset the balance in the gut," he explains.

Phillip's goal is to find a food acceptable to the deer, yet that can be produced on a large scale commercially.

As a university institution, research work like Phillip's is very important to the farm's mission. However, it isn't all of it. Most of the land area of the farm is devoted to crops that will be consumed on the farm. Like other farms, eggs and dairy products are sold to market, and is beef and pork. Unlike other farms, there is a constant effort to find new and innovative ways to improve how things are done, and then share that knowledge.

As Suzelle Barrington proudly proclaims, "We're not just an experimental farm -- we're an agricultural showcase."

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