My neighbour was almost apologetic when he told me his winter wheat yielded 90 bushels to the acre this year, saying he’d heard of others with better. Not having kept up with recent yield trends in wheat, his crop had sounded great to me compared to the yields of my youth.
It reminded me of an observation from a few days earlier. Some friends had wanted to attend an open house at Miller’s Dairy in Creemore and asked us to come along. There was a huge crowd on hand to sample the ice cream the family had just started producing in their on-farm processing plant which joins a milk bottling plant already taking the product of their Jersey herd directly to consumers. It was during a visit to the large, modern, airy barn that I became aware of the huge udders on the cows feeding there. “They didn’t make Jerseys like that when I was young,” I said to my friend, who also came from a farming background.
The two incidents got me thinking about the growth of farming over the years. Much of the efficiency is easy to see. My father, who’s been dead for 30 years, would hardly even recognize farm machinery today. A man who started plowing with horses, he thought he’d reached the pinnacle of modernity when he bought a Fordson Major tractor in the mid-1950s. That tractor could probably be carried in the bucket of tractors being used today on larger farms.
About the same time he bought a combine – a used Massey-Harris machine that was pulled behind a tractor and cut a swath of – oh, I’d say about a 12-feet. In those days when spraying herbicides was just beginning, grain had to be swathed to let the sow thistle and ragweed dry before it could be put through the combine. Today’s monstrous combines would have the crop harvested and safely in the bin in about the time it would have taken the swather to make a couple of passes around the field.
Likewise, the huge barns that have gone up in recent decades bear little resemblance to the bank barns of the 1950s and even into the ’60s and ’70s. All you have to do is drive down a rural road and count how many dairy or hog or poultry barns have gone up and how rare a working timber-frame bank barn is on the landscape to recognize the increased efficiency of modern farming.
But if you drive down the road and see a winter wheat field, it’s hard to see the difference between today’s crop and those of yesterday when yields were 60 bushels. Similarly, at a distance it would be hard to tell the difference between dairy herds of today and those from decades ago. Yet in both cases, breeders have made huge strides in increasing the productivity of our farms.
I was fortunate to cover the revolution in the hog industry in the 1990s. Hog breeders increased the average litter size and decreased the amount of back fat to create pigs that were more efficient for farmers while urban customers’s concerns about dietary fat were eased. Meanwhile, dietitians studied feed rations to maximize pigs’ genetic potential, eventually developing phased feeding programs.
And of course no branch of farming has seen the genetic advances of the poultry industry. Broiler chickens grow so fast they’ve barely developed their feathers before they’re ready to be processed for fast food restaurant menus. Egg production from hens has soared.
Farming’s a forward-looking business and people seldom take time to look back at the changes that have come along. Sometimes though, we need to acknowledge the work of all those breeders of animals and plants that have brought such huge changes to farming.◊