Haymakers: Meet the Whitehorse farmers who keep local cattle fed

Hay farmer Joanne Jackson Johnson’s motivation is to feed the animals that feed people, and to do it organically.

The production of hay is a cornerstone of Yukon’s agriculture sector. This is third in a three-part series on hay farming in the territory.

Hay farmer Joanne Jackson Johnson’s motivation is to feed the animals that feed people, and to do it organically. Standing at the edge of her hayfield, looking out over the snowy plain, she snapped off a seed head from a piece of grass and broke it apart in her palm.

“I love hay,” she said. “Hay is pure sunlight.” She was quoting alternative farmer and author Joel Salatin, one of her mentors. “And there it is, just growing.”

Jackson Johnson has been growing hay on 60 of her 178 acres since 1991. When she bought the farm, hay was the logical place to start — the land had been cleared by the previous owners and the Yukon’s horse population provided a good market. She knew from the start she wanted to farm organically, a decision that would add a degree of challenge to her farming life. This was on top of the existing challenge — no access to water, and therefore no possibility of irrigation.

Jackson Johnson is what’s known as a “dry land farmer.” Usually located in arid climates, they cope with the lack of water by using moisture retention and deep planting techniques to cultivate their crops. The downside of dry land farming is yield: you simply don’t get as much hay.

Of the many dry land hay farmers in the Yukon, Jackson Johnson was the first to receive organic certification. In 2008, she fertilized with six tonnes of rock powder sold by Bob Snider, an organic farmer from Alberta and one of Jackson Johnson’s mentors. She applied the rock powder with an old-fashioned seed drill. The results were interesting: “The hay got thicker,” she said. “Instead of being tall, more individual plants grew with less space between them.”

The “chicken tractor” was another success. Essentially a portable, bottomless chicken coop, the “tractor” contains the chickens in a small area where they poop and then scratch the poop into the ground. Every day the farmer moves the coop by one-pen length to fresh grass. It’s an easy, hands-free fertilization method that keeps the chickens healthy too.

There have been years when Jackson Johnson hasn’t been able to get the hay in — the rains came at exactly the wrong time, or she was busy slaughtering her chickens when she should have been haying. Her yield remains small — about half a tonne per acre, and so does her client base of two or three customers.

Her yield may be small but it’s mighty: customers have told her that their horses, goats and sheep prefer her hay to other local and imported hay.

Gail Riederer also grows hay, but her first and enduring love is horses. Riederer was born and raised in Juneau, Alaska. “I was fortunate to have a mother who was an Idaho farm girl. When her youngest expressed an interest in farming and horses, she cultivated that,” Riederer said, as she showed a couple of visitors around Heart Bar Ranch, her homestead off the Alaska Highway near the Takhini Bridge.

“I used to ride my pony along the beach looking up at the Muskeg Meadows and fantasize about living on a homestead in the mountains surrounded by horses.” Her gaze swept from the horses in the corral to the mountains that surround the homestead. She grinned. “And I got a chance to do it.”

Riederer “bought the paper” on the titled property in 1990 with her first husband. The ranch started as a place to grow forage for a horse operation. They cleared about 48 acres that first year and planted oats. At harvest time in late August they brought in a binder to make oat bundles and the next morning it snowed. “All the oats went down. So we put up a quick electric fence and got an outfitter herd out there and grazed it.”

After she and her husband parted ways in the mid-1990s, Riederer started a riding school as a way to use the property and to spend more time on her land. She started boarding horses for outfitters and for horse owners who lived in town.

Though she has a day job, Riederer gives lessons on evenings and weekends and runs summer riding camps every year, on top of the regular chores that come with caring for three donkeys, about 20 head of cattle, 27 horses (19 of which belong to the ranch), and three elderly horses in a back corral who are part of the Heart Bar Ranch “extended care” program. Life is busy. “Sometimes we don’t sit down to dinner until 9:30,” she said.

The other half of the “we” is Riederer’s husband Dirk, who joined her, and the operation, about six years ago. The first cows came to the farm at about the same time Dirk did. He’s worked with cows all his life, first in a family dairy operation in Holland and more recently on a dairy farm with a beef operation in BC.

The couple started small, with two steers. Now they try hard to keep the herd down to 20 cattle.

“It’s just like a bad disease, you want to do more and more,” said Riederer. “But you put money into what you enjoy, and we do enjoy the cows.”

A couple of scruffy Highland cows and their three calves are currently at the ranch, along with several Gelbvieh cows and one majestic Gelbvieh bull. Riederer said that in cattle breeding, crossing continental European breeds — the Gelbviehs — with the British breeds — the Highlanders — produces stronger hybrids. So Riederer will breed the bull with the Highland cows and see what happens.

“Who knows?” she said. “It’s a fun experiment.”

Riederer developed more land when she could and now has approximately 160 acres of pasture and hay land. The hay is a combination of smooth brome and meadow brome. “That’s what does well here,” she said.

Heart Bar Ranch is also a dry land farm where Riederer works “with what we have, rather than forcing things.” She fertilizes with manure, harrowed back into the ground, and chemical fertilizer. The yield is about 1.5 tonnes of hay per acre, not enough to feed all the animals, so they supplement with locally bought hay and higher protein imported alfalfa. Riederer also grows a few acres of cereal forage and oats, which the cows love.

The meat operation at Heart Bar Ranch is small. Beef sales happen through word-of-mouth, and when Dirk brings in weaner pigs every spring to sell to local farmers Riederer puts an ad out on Kijiji to let people know when they’re coming.

Every farmer raises hay for a different reason. At Heart Bar Ranch, the forage crop allows the farmers to manage the ground properly, and most importantly, to feed the animals. “We’re animal people that grow some forage,” said Gail. “We’re all about the husbandry and enjoying all these creatures that we care for.”

This article is part of a series commissioned by the Yukon Agricultural Association and funded by Growing Forward 2, an initiative of the governments of Canada and Yukon.

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