Winter Farming in Alberta

Posted Monday, Jan 16, 2017

    It’s been a demanding winter so far: multiple days below -20°C, biting winds, and plenty of snow. Yet we still have local greens, peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes. 'How?’ you might be wondering, ‘surely there’s been some sort of mistake.’

    We get locally-grown kale from Schipper Farms, located near Bow Island, AB, and peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes from Gull Valley, located near Blackfalds, AB. Both farms operate hydroponic greenhouses that are able to operate year round because of assimilation lighting. 

    Levi Tiemstra of Gull Valley Greenhouse admitted that growing in the winter is certainly more challenging than in the summer, even with a greenhouse. He pointed out that grow lights are required due to significantly lessened daylight during the winter months. Without the added lighting, tomato plants would have a very difficult time flowering and producing fruit. At Schipper Farms, Dee Schipper said that even with assimilation lighting, kale just seems to grow slower during the winter.

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    Sunlight isn’t the only issue. With the cold winter days piling up this year, there is more demand to heat the greenhouses, which means more energy is required. This can be a tough pill to swallow in an organic industry that aims at being more sustainable. For their part, Gull Valley uses LED technology as a more efficient method for supplemental lighting. They also use energy curtains to reduce heating needs as much as possible when temperatures dip. Both farms are hydroponic because it allows them to produce more in a smaller space, and recycle water. 

    Levi sees more greenhouses moving to year-round production in Alberta, due to the ever-growing demand of fresh local food - even in the winter. Currently there is very little fresh local produce available in the winter months, and the greens and tomatoes that come from California or Mexico just aren’t as desirable. A big thanks to Gull Valley Greenhouses and Schipper Farms for all the hard work they do. It allows us to enjoy delicious vine-ripened Alberta tomatoes, and fresh, crisp local kale even when our own gardens are covered in a blanket of ice and snow. 

   Vegetables aren’t the only thing that are hard to grow in winter: ranchers have their hands full trying to keep their animals healthy through the cold weather. 

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Pictures by Dylan Biggs, @tk_ranch

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    Raising animals through the winter can be challenging. Cold wind and temperatures put the health, and in some cases the life, of animals at risk, and deep snowpack can cut off the food supply of grazers. TK Ranch is one of the few grass fed & finished ranches on the Prairies. They go above and beyond for the health and wellbeing of their cattle, and it is why they are one of the only Animal Welfare Approved ranches in Canada. Their commitment also gets them through Alberta's often harsh winters. 

    Because pasture is often covered in deep snow here in Alberta, most ranchers supplement their cattle with grain throughout the winter months to ensure they're receiving enough calories. 

    On TK Ranch, however, cattle are kept on pasture until the snow gets too deep to graze. After this, cattle are brought 'home' to the hay-lands where they are bale fed for the remainder of the winter on grass grown on the 320 acres set aside for hay each summer. This way, cattle are still grass-fed throughout the winter, and allowed access to ample outdoor space. 

    Rather than grain-feed cattle for additional nutrients, TK Ranch provides cattle with barley sprouts, with the barley grain having been removed. It is a highly nutritious plant that does not negatively affect the pH balance of an animal's rumen the way grain supplements do (potentially causing acidosis). 

    To protect the animals from the elements, portable wind breaks are set up, and energy efficient waterers are available to ensure animals still have access to fresh drinking water when it is below freezing. 

    "As soon as the snow cover is gone in the spring, we turn our animals back out onto native pastures and put the sprouts away for next winter," Colleen Biggs states. "Our native northern fescue grasses are very high in protein and nutrition, and unlike tame grasses, maintain their quality when dried. These wild grasses sustained the buffalo for millennia and we are very fortunate to have them available for our cattle."

   

Matt Gigg Posted Jan 16, 2017