Beef Environment Day offers lots to chew on

Last Saturday, about 30 local beef producers met at Norway Bay’s River View Inn for a presentation on a program called “Cattle Manure Management Practices.” I was invited to attend the session, which was presented by Shawville MAPAQ officers Roger St-Cyr, Engineer and Agronomist, and Mavis Thompson, Agricultural Technician.

The two-part session included a slide show and talk on the program, which brought participants up to date on the fundamentals of the initiative and its guide. Secondly, there were two site inspections: one at Willow Hollow Farms, to view Bob Younge’s operation in Clarendon; the other was at Erwin Mohr’s farm in North Onslow.

Many changes in both Québec’s Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Environment (MEF) regulations are deeply and fundamentally affecting how beef producers do business. Life on the beef farm as we knew it is over. It’s a new game and producers must be compliant by 2005. That’s not a lot of time to completely alter an operation.

Most changes relate to keeping sources of water that are both above and below the ground clean of contamination from fecal matter. Changes are far-reaching and particularly involve the precise location and layout of wintering-over pens -- not to mention the management of cows and calves within them.

Guidelines stipulate how many cattle can be wintered over in these enclosures, which can be either high- or low-density. High-density pens have a maximum of 125 cows/acre, with pens being a minimum of 60 m from any watercourse. Low-density pens take 30 cows/acre maximum, with a recommended limit of 18-25 cows/acre.

What are some of the other issues? Mr. St.-Cyr presented the first part of the talk, which described the overall “Philosophy of the Guide.” During this, he outlined its main principles:

1. Keep cattle out of watercourses. There are specific distances to be respected, water bowls must be provided.

2. Keep cattle out of bush lots: fence bush and collect manure.

3. Cattle must be fed in a concentrated area.

4. Cut off water before it gets to pens.

5. Choose pen location for reduction of odours. There are precise distances that must be respected. (This is quite new: many of you may recall stories of farmers are being increasingly hassled by “city folks” who object to ordinary farm smells as housing development encroach on our agricultural land. Fair or not, it’s a problem.)

6. Use bedding to reduce run-off and slow down the spring melt.

7. Use a buffer zone to filter run-off.

Those of you in the cattle business know these rules and regulations. Those of you who are not should pause for a moment and imagine how you would react to such wide-ranging new laws that directly affect your beef business enterprise. For the guidelines impose great changes.

For instance, consider principle number one: Keep cattle out of water courses. Sounds reasonable, but it begs the question “what is the definition of a watercourse?” Someone asked whether spring meltwater streams that dry up come early summer constitute watercourses.

Mr. Mohr noted, “Whatever appears on the aerial photos and maps is a watercourse.” Bob Younge agreed, adding that whatever runs year-round is a watercourse.

Once a watercourse is defined, how can producers keep pens clean enough so that during the melt, water full of fecal matter doesn’t pollute the underground water table? Trying to figure that out is a thorny issue. When to scrape dung from the pens is a crucial point. However, because the rules and regulations are so new, producers are grappling with these issues.

One of the factors influencing how the water table and watercourses are affected is the slope of the land: wintering-over pens cannot have a slope of greater than 7 degrees. So if you have a hilly property full of knolls and gullies, the runoff will be difficult to control. Indeed, just having a knoll on your property can cause problems and some producers are bulldozing them away.

Mr. St.-Cyr noted that when he first looked at Mr. Mohr’s property, his first reaction was that he was lucky and had lots of space for pens. But once the MAPAQ engineer started taking measurements, recording the number of springs coursing down the mountain, and taking stock of the meandering creek bisecting the property, he realized that even here there was limited space, especially when considering the required buffer zones.

And after the producer, MAPAQ officers and other officials have agreed upon the layout of pens, exactly how to manage them is the next issue. Ms Thompson gave an excellent presentation on the ins and outs of this, including topics like the rotation of the feeding area and the use of portable windbreaks to keep cattle near their food so they’ll defecate in one area of the pen to keep it as clean as possible.

In this short column space, I only have room for some highlights of the program. But whether you are a beef producer, a hobby farmer, or live in one of our villages, you can surely sympathize with the massive changes our beef producers must contend with.

I was deeply impressed by the workshop and the sites I visited. I have a hearty respect for these people who grow our food and who must grapple with ever-changing rules and regulations.

In many ways, these rules and regulations are “moving targets.” I say this because people like Erwin Mohr and Bob Younge (and their families) are, to all intents and purposes, “guinea pigs” or test sites. I think of them as pioneers, trying to figure out how a brand-new manual and set of instructions is really supposed to work.

Mr. St-Cyr and Mavis Thompson alluded to this during the day, noting that some of the guidelines are negotiable simply because the rules and regulations are not 100% tested yet.  The MAPAQ officers encourage (and are getting) feedback and appear to have the respect and confidence of the producers I met on Saturday.

Hat’s off to our Pontiac beef producers. It’s a hard life, complicated by our environment laws. Producers I spoke to appear to think the changes are generally positive. After all, there’s only a finite supply of water on earth and we must be responsible about keeping it clean.

However, there are far more beef producers than the 30 or so who showed up. What do others think of this program? It’s clear that there are many far-reaching ramifications to the redefinition of how this industry works, and how agricultural land will be used in Pontiac. This is particularly true in the light of creeping urbanization and its pressures.

Really, there’s a lot to chew on here..


Special note: Oklahoma! is coming to Shawville’s high school. The popular musical runs from Wednesday March 8 to Saturday March 11. Tickets are $10. One particularly appropriate song for our rural Pontiac is the one which asserts “The farmer and the cowboy should be friends…” Considering the cooperation we still need today, among different users of the land, this musical deserves our enthusiastic support. Shall I see you there?


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer based in Quyon. Contact her at