Farming and technology has certainly changed and improved over the years. Nowhere is this more evident than in pork production. More than 60 years after his parents came to Canada from Holland and started a modest dairy farm where rudimentary tools and clunky machinery were part of the daily grind, John Van Engelen marvels at the impact technology has had on his farming operations.
“It used to be that if something broke in the barn, you’d simply fix a handle or replace a part, but nowadays you’re more likely to call a tech who’ll look at your automated systems or IT infrastructure,” says the Lambton County-based producer, who looks after a 250 sow, farrow-to-finish herd, with his wife Joan and their 22-year-old son Mitchell.
While his brothers took over the family’s dairy farm in the mid-80s, John made the transition to hog farming. He quickly became an industry leader in innovative pork production with barn improvements including the installation of a state-of-the-art ventilation and heat recovery system, electronic sow feeding (where each sow can take her individual ration of feed in a safe and comfortable environment) and auto-sort finishing, in which an automatic scale is used to sort pigs in a finishing barn.
By modifying the ventilation system to meet his specific needs, it improved air quality, increased growth rates, and made barns safer and more environmentally friendly. Twelve fans support 16 rooms at the facility compared to the one to three fans per room in traditional hog barns. His system has shown that the pigs are ready for market in 15% less time.
“I’ve always liked to experiment and try new things to ensure we were fully land-based, diversified and integrated so that we’d be able to do more with less,” says the recipient of the 2010 Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence, who has recently transitioned to group housing. “Innovation has played a big role in our success, however technology is only good if you use it and you need to embrace change.”
One of the most visible signs of that commitment came a few years ago when the Van Engelen brothers looked at alternative energy sources. This led to the installation of Ontario’s first on-farm 250 KW windmill which, given the close proximity of the farms, supplies power to both operations.
Despite seeing the number of Ontario pork producers dwindle over the last decade, John is optimistic about the future. “We’re taking all the necessary steps to build a sustainable, best-in-class operation and I’m proud to see my son share the same passion for farming and taking care of the land and the animals.”