Agriculture & food special: Corn integral part of Cowichan Valley dairy farms

More than 200 acres of the 500-acre Porter’s Dairy Farm were used to grow corn this year.

More than 200 acres of the 500-acre Porter’s Dairy Farm in the Cowichan Valley were used to grow corn this year.

But only a small portion of the 4,000 tonnes of corn that was harvested at the farm this fall is being used for human consumption, and then only for family and friends.

The rest is used to help make the feed for the farm’s 275 milk cows and heifers, which can eat as much as 20 tonnes of feed a day.

“We grew more corn this year then ever before,” said Don Porter, head of the Porter family which has operated the farm for generations.

“Corn grows easily here as long as it has lots of water. Cow feed (which also includes grain, grass and alfalfa) is our biggest bill so we try to grow as much as we can here. The number of milking cows we can sustain on the farm is based on the amount of land we can use to grow and harvest corn.”

Porter said there are hundreds of varieties of corn, and the kernels in the types grown for cow feed are not known to be very flavourful for humans, but more starchy to meet the dietary requirements of milk cows.

He said the kernels of the types of corn used for human consumption are generally sweeter and juicier.

“We’re the third largest farm for milking cows on Vancouver Island and we are always expanding operations, so growing more corn for feed is a constant priority,” Porter said.

“Corn grows easily here with lots of water unless we have cold stints after we plant in the spring.”

Porter said this was a good year for growing corn, with a rainy spring that put a lot of moisture in the soil, followed by a hot summer.

He said the farm relies heavily on machinery for all its operations, including growing and harvesting corn.

“We have a machine that can plant six rows of corn at a time and adds fertilizer at the same time, and we can harvest two acres of corn an hour in a good year, so it takes about a week to complete the full harvest,” Porter said.

“We also have an irrigation system for our crops which we use about once a week, if needed, that operates by just a push of a button. Other than the family, we have only six people employed here but we usually work eight to 10 hours a day, which is an average work day for most people.”

Porter said the growing demand for milk on the Island, due to a rapidly increasing population, will likely see more demand for more corn to help feed the growing herd of cows, but the family is always looking to the future.

“I have three grandsons who are interested in the farm, and everyone needs food and milk, so I’m hoping the future looks bright.”

According to the agricultural profile for the Valley prepared by the Cowichan Valley Regional District in 2014, there are 23 local farms that grow approximately 1,091 acres of corn annually.

According to the farmwest.com website, almost 30,000 acres of feed corn are grown in B.C. every year, with an estimated value of $20 million.

Alexis Arthur is the co-owner of Delta’s Pacific Forage, which develops and sells corn seeds to farmers across the province.

She said that for every 10 corn fields on the Island and the Cowichan Valley, more than eight of them are intended for cow feed, with the rest used for human consumption.

Arthur said Island farmers have less land and space to grow corn than on the Prairies, which has unlimited land in comparison, so they have to ensure they grow the best and the most corn they can for cow feed in the restricted land that is available.

She said the different uses for corn, and the different types of environment they grow in, has led to a wide variety of corn types being developed over the years, both for human consumption and as animal feed.

“A lot depends on the types of soil, amount of moisture and nutrients in the soil, and the amount of heat the area gets,” Arthur said.

Arthur said southern Ontario, which is a major corn producer, typically has heat through the day and night during the growing season which is very conducive to growing top-quality corn, while the Island generally doesn’t have hot nights.

“Less heat usually means farms may not yield as many tonnes of corn for the cow feed as those that have lots of heat,” she said.

“But we’re seeing changes and the last four summers in the Valley have been hotter than usual. Corn loves heat and we’re seeing good corn crops in that time.”

But Arthur said more heat also means that more water is required, and buying and maintaining irrigation equipment can be expensive.

“Good drought-resistant corn seeds are not easy to find,” she said.

“Fortunately, the Valley has had lots of rain during the spring in their last few years, so at least the crops are getting good starts to the season.”

Arthur said, even with lots of heat and water, corn is not cheap to plant and grow.

She said seeds are expensive, lots of fertilizers and manure are required, and the corn crops must be sprayed several times during the growing season to clear out weeds and other pests.

“But corn is an amazing plant,” she said.

“It defines exactly how it will grow based on the environment, soil conditions, water and nutrients. The plant adjusts itself accordingly during its life cycle.”



robert.barron@cowichanvalleycitizen.com

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