Overview of Canadian Farming Sectors

Farming in Canada has so many different options. Everyone has their favourite industry and their dream which can be everything from milking dairy cows to cash cropping 10,000 acres. Dreams are good and they come a size too big so you can grow into them. However, you should do extensive market research when trying to determine what sector of farming you will be getting into. Each sector has unique strengths and weaknesses.

This sector includes the conventional crops like soybeans, corn and wheat. It makes up 33% of all farms in Canada, with nearly 50% of the farms in the Prairies being grain farms. It also includes specialties like lentils and hemp. It can be very capital intensive due to land and equipment prices, highly volatile global markets drive the prices, and you’ll be fully exposed to weather patterns. Custom operators are generally accessible to reduce equipment costs. Crop insurance protection helps reduce risk and financing is often available for all the inputs.

With feed shortages more frequently quality hay/forages can fetch more stable market prices. Niche crops are less saturated and local markets could be developed (barley for beer for example).

This sector produces fruits, vegetables, nuts and other horticulture crops that tend to go directly to the consumer. It requires certain soils which can be pricey (like the Holland Marsh), it tends to be labour intensive, and it can take a long time to establish. It does provide a chance to start small, possibly on rented land as some of the soils needed are less desirable for other crops. There is also a high consumer support for organic and locally grown marketing. 

Check any homesteader site and you can find out about urban gardens or community supported agriculture (CSA) especially if you want to farm closer to a large population center. Research shows that 80% of market garden sell direct to consumers in some form.

Sheep farming in Canada has a wide range of management practices including accelerated lambing, pasture lambing, and feedlot. Products from sheep include meat, milk and wool. Wool and milk tend to be niche. It is scattered industry, with processing bottlenecks in some locations. Sheep themselves are not for the faint of heart given their propensity to die from mysterious causes. There are import/export restrictions for breeding which limits some of the genetic opportunities the rest of the world enjoys. There are also seasonal cycles prices and markets.

There is growing consumer demand and sheep tend to require less investment than other livestock sectors. Grazing solar sites and orchards are newer and innovative ways of using land for more than one purpose. Sheep present an opportunity to graze marginal lands that might not be suitable for crop farming. Direct marketing of meat and wool products is common throughout the industry.

The cattle sector can be split into two broad categories, beef and dairy. Beef operations consist of cow-calf, feedlot, and veal. The average cow-calf herd is 84 head and the average feedlot is 212 head. The beef sector relies on exports and has been having on-going struggles with low margins since the BSE crisis in the early 2000s. Most recently processing capacity has been greatly reduced. With an average of 2 years from birth to plate for beef, it takes a long time to see a return on a calf.  Lots of infrastructure and knowledge is available in the beef sector as it used to dominate Canadian agriculture and is still the second most common type of farm making up 18% of all farms.

The dairy sector is supply managed with a quota system that makes entry prohibitive. The same system however does provide a stable source of income and the best margins out of any sector. The average dairy farm in Canada has 73 cows. The options to enter include buying an existing herd with quota or participating in the new producer and new entrant program. 

The goat sector has two primary products, milk and meat. Meat goats are produced similar to sheep with accelerated, pasture based, feedlot systems. Goats tend to have slower and less consistent growing rates than sheep. They are also notoriously hard on infrastructure. Like sheep there is a seasonal cycle to demand and market pricing. 

Milking dairy goats was a rapidly increasing sector in the last two decades. Growth has been limited in the past year due to processing capacity issues and consolidation. Milk can be marketed by getting a contract from one of the brokerages or by investing in processing yourself. It has been especially popular in Ontario and Quebec due to the lower investment compared to milking cows. There is still growing consumer demand for goat milk and meat.

This sector includes egg production, hatcheries, and meat birds for ducks, chickens and turkeys.
Chickens and turkeys have supply management for all products but you can have artisan amounts.
Biosecurity is a huge issue outside of the capital costs to obtain quota rights to produce. There are also strict infrastructure requirements. With supply management there is a stable price and cash flow. Overall it is a stable industry. Large scale duck production offers similar contracts to chickens and turkeys with all three major companies still in expansion mode. With the artisan options direct marketing is an opportunity especially as diversification tool with laying hens and meat birds. The costs to start with chickens, as long as you stay within the artisan option, is fairly low with decent margins.

The swine sector has a range of production systems including early wean, nursery, finishing barn, and farrow-to-finish. The industry is dominated by large producers, as the infrastructure is capital intensive. The market is volatile and export-based. Biosecurity can be a big issue. Hogs have consistent growth rates, with some of the best feed conversion rates. The sector is well established, although in decline, throughout Canada meaning there is lots of educational resources. Canada has access to great genetics. There are some opportunities for niche marketing and direct marketing. Contract barns are very common with few independent farrow-to-finish operations left.

There are also a number of other agriculture sectors that might be worth exploring:

Rabbits – supply managed in Quebec
Fibre – alpaca, llama, and angora
Fish
Horses – not technically considered agriculture
Water buffalo
Bee-keeping
Fur - mink, fox and chinchilla

Grains and other crops

Market Gardens and Orchards

Sheep

Cattle

Goats

Swine

Other Sectors

Fowl

In conclusion, there is no one sector that is better than another. Each have their strengths and weaknesses. In prior years, specializing has been promoted heavily. I would consider looking at mixed farming options for complementary sectors to diversify your operation.

Different marketing options should also be considered. In Canada one in 8 farms has some type of direct to consumer sale. Among the farmers participating in direct marketing, 96% sell unprocessed products such as fruits and eggs, while 14% sell value-added products like wine and cheese. Investigating creative and innovative ways to market products tends to take time but be worth the effort in the long run.

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