Yukon outfitters run on horses, and on hay

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

In the early part of the 20th century, a new market emerged for hay and oats in the Yukon in the form of hunting guides, now known as outfitters. The earliest outfitters were pack train operators in Dawson and Whitehorse, but by 1912 guiding of non-resident hunters in search of big game had taken hold as an industry.

After big-game hunters wrote books about their hunting experiences, the Yukon developed a reputation as a hot destination. Legendary outfitters Louis and Eugene Jacquot, Thomas Dickson, Charles Baxter, Johnny Johns, Alex Van Bibber, Curly Desrosiers, and Louis Brown were all in operation by the early 1920s. They took hunters on horseback deep into the Yukon wilderness on one- or two-month-long trips to hunt bears, sheep, caribou, mountain goat, and moose.

Outfitters use a lot of horses. By 1966 there were 22 outfitters in the Yukon, half of whom used aircraft. The rest employed between 20 and 60 saddle and packhorses. In the early 1980s there were 20 outfitters who typically used 25 to 35 horses each. In 2016, there are 19 registered outfitters, most of whom use some combination of planes and horses. Outfitters became, and remain, one of the biggest markets in the Yukon for farmed and foraged hay.

Outfitters need to feed and house their horses in the winter off-season. Often they board them, sometimes at farms in northern B.C. or Alberta, but just as often on Yukon farms, providing local farmers with both an income and a market for their hay.

Dave and Tracey Andrew started off as Yukon outfitters in the early 1990s, with 20 head of horses and an eight-hectare parcel on the Carcross Road. They soon moved to a larger piece of land on the Alaska Highway, about 19 kilometres from the Mayo Road cutoff. Once they were established, Tracey Andrew, the horse-lover in the family, started boarding horses, as many as 120 head a winter, often for outfitters.

The Andrews cleared their land in 1996, and though they soon had about 50 hectares in grass, it still wasn’t enough feed for the horses. After consulting outfitter Pete Jensen in Carmacks, who was successfully irrigating his land, Dave applied for a permit to run a line under the Alaska Highway and pump water from the Takhini River.

“We were just going to do a few acres, but once you’ve bought all the equipment you might as well do a few more, so it just kind of mushroomed,” he says. He ended up with 40 hectares of irrigated hay, about 140 hectares of improved pasture and 53 hectares of dryland (non-irrigated) oats — feed for his horses and a small herd of cattle. He sold the rest of the hay, mostly to horse owners, plus a few cattle operations.

Learning new methods in the hay business

The ’80s and ’90s were a time of experimentation and learning in the Yukon hay business. Challenges were many — they included figuring out when to fertilize, what fertilizer to use, and learning about which grasses grow well. There were no farm dealers, so getting parts and equipment was tough. Dave and Tracey Andrew bought used equipment and hauled it up the highway in the winter, and, like many Yukon farmers, Andrew became his own mechanic.

Andrew also learned how to reseed his hay pastures gradually.

“The hayfields are getting close to 15 years old since we first seeded, and that’s unheard of. What we did, with a no-till grass seeder, was over-seed certain areas every year at a lower rate. In my mind, that was putting new grass in as old grass was dying off, and it worked for us. We didn’t have to re-seed.”

Mike Blumenschein started farming in the mid-1980s and for the next 20 years, farmed some of his own land and custom-farmed for other Yukon farmers. A lot of the soil Blumenschein saw in the early days was “just powder,” he says. “It was so hard, it had never been prepped properly since day one, and there was no moisture in it.” When the ground is that hard, the moisture stays on top and just evaporates instead of going into the soil.

Through experiments, consulting other farmers and “just paying attention to what was going in the ground,” Blumenschein helped develop a system of feeding the soil and the crops using aeration and fall fertilization. He invented and built his own field aerator, based on the lawn aerator.

Typically, Blumenschein aerated the land when the hay was newly cut and was growing aggressively. Aerating splits plants in two, and pokes holes in the soil to let in both fertilizer and moisture. Applying fertilizer in the fall means that the spring meltwater takes the fertilizer down into the root system of the plant. Whether the fertilizer is manure or chemicals, the same principle applies.

Horses lead to hay, hay leads to cattle

Hay starts out as grass — it’s only called hay once it has been harvested, bundled and fed to animals. Compared to other crops, grass is relatively straightforward to grow, and it’s a good crop for marginal land.

After years of experimentation by hay farmers like Andrew and Blumenschein, and at government experimental farms in Dawson, Haines Junction and now McCabe Creek, we know which grasses are best suited to the Yukon’s soil types and short growing season (meadow brome and smooth brome).

These factors help explain why hay is the biggest crop grown in the Yukon. In 2014, of the 10,646 hectares of agricultural land in the territory, 63 per cent was being used for pasture, green feed or preserved forage (bundled or silage hay).

The market is another important factor. In 2016, the price of Yukon hay is competitive — the same price as Alberta hay plus shipping, which makes it a viable option for the local market. In an interesting twist, hay farmers, who grew hay primarily for the horse market, sometimes become small-scale cattle farmers in order to extract optimal value from their hay. These cattle are then sold as beef to Yukon householders through farm gate sales. Blumenschein observes that most cattle farmers are now raising their own hay.

Hay started out for horses, but without horses we might not have had hay for cattle.

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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