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Ontario’s Innovative Farmer of the Year

Dec. 7, 2015, Paisley, Ont. – Vince and Heather Stutzki of ElmCrest Farms, sheep farmers in Bruce County, have been named this year’s Innovative Farmers of the Year by the Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario.

The Stutzkis use a system of rotational grazing, pasture remediation, manure and compost application, double cropping and minimum tillage. By building their soil, their 200 acre farm supports their large flock, and their family.

The Stutzkis moved to their rolling property near Paisley in 1988 and there they raised a daughter and three sons, two of whom bought a farm down the road and farm with their parents. “When we came here the whole place was cropped,” says Vince. He recalls how he and Heather ‘fell into’ raising sheep: “One day, we had ten ewes and a ram that just showed up here because people wanted to get rid of them. We had an old bank barn with a roof that was leaking, the walls were collapsing.”

In Ontario, there are about 4,000 shepherds and the average flock size is about 85. The Stutzkis are part of a loose network of large flock producers, numbering fewer than 50 in the province. They raise 850 sheep on 200 acres and lamb five times a year, shipping every two weeks into a value chain that brings lamb products to Metro shelves. The Stutzkis were early innovators with traceability technology, and give back to their industry through sharing data and mentoring young farmers. Vince is also a past director of the Ontario Sheep Marketing Agency Board. For the Stutzkis, managing the risks of a fluctuating global market means creating cost and labour efficiency, and so they have designed their operation and crop rotation to the very last detail.

And when it comes to innovation, they have had to look to other commodities for inspiration. “In the dairy industry, for example, there are lots of systems to look at and get ideas from but in the sheep industry, there’s not many places to look,” says Vince. The Stutzkis have been all across Ontario, Quebec and Michigan to see how others manage their livestock and pasture, and even made a trip to Scotland. They have plans for New Zealand next, as farmers there manage flocks in the tens of thousands of sheep.

The Stutzkis rotate their flock on 36 acres of pasture located on the hilliest section of the property. They have subdivided this into 27 sections and use an innovative Spider fencing system imported from New Zealand to manage flock movement between pastures. Water lines are run to every section and the intensive rotational grazing keeps both the pastures and the sheep healthy.

“Pasture is one of those things that is forgotten,” says Vince, who goes to great lengths to maintain soils in his pasture. The Stutzkis take four acre sections out of pasture on a rotational basis for two years to ‘renovate’ the soil. They use a crop of corn, sorghum sudan grass or mixed grains for the break year and they will graze it, followed the next year by a cover crop they will harvest for forage before planting the area back to grass, which they might even graze again that fall.

On such hilly ground, they never plow and use a light disking if needed. The "renovation" is important not only for thistle and other weed control, but it also breaks the worm cycle, to control parasites and worms that can build up in a pasture that isn’t properly managed. Building soil health builds up pasture health which in turn builds the health of the animals. “There’s quite an art involved in managing the pastures,” says Vince.

Vince and Heather have also had to be innovative with livestock mortality, as there are no deadstock services available for the sheep industry. A few years ago, they constructed a three-bin deadstock composting system behind the barn. The first two areas serve to alternate as the primary intake piles, with the start date marked on each and the third pile is for secondary aeration, at which point nearly everything is broken down. Soybean stubble serves as the substrate, though they use sawdust or corn silage in the winter because it will generate more heat.

The manure storage was built to hold over a year’s capacity in order to give them flexible timing of application. The addition of manure and compost into a diverse rotation has helped to build soils on the Stutzki’s farm.

Vince, Heather and the family are constantly learning, innovating and evaluating as they strive to farm in a difficult industry with limited marketing options and services available. At ElmCrest Farms, necessity is the mother of innovation.

The Stutzki family will be recognized at the Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario’s Conference on Feb. 23 and 24, 2016 in London, Ont. More details on the conference are available at www.ifao.com.