Two and half centuries is a long time for a family to be farming. But brothers Craig and Brian Newcombe are leveraging the latest cropping techniques and business smarts to build the farm for the 10th generation of Newcombes.
Part of the ninth generation of Cornwallis Farms near Port Williams, N.S., the Newcombes manage a large and diverse operation including 1,700 acres, 65 dairy cows, 120,000 broilers and 20,000 layers, a grain handling facility and a feed mill.
The Newcombes began farming in the Annapolis Valley in 1761, making it one of the oldest farms in Canada. (Although Brian says a few older farms are still operating in Quebec.)
Brian looks after the cropping and dairy divisions while Craig oversees the poultry operation as well as the feed mill. They also employ six full-time staff along with some summer students.
With dairy and poultry, self-sufficiency is important to the sustainability of their farm, so they try to grow and process much of their own feed. It’s also why Brian uses two separate rotations. One is a straight grain rotation, with corn-corn-soybeans-winter wheat, and the other is the same rotation with an alfalfa-grass blend for five years, after which it comes out into the straight grain rotation.
“We try to grow as much as we can,” says Brian Newcombe, adding that includes all of the forages. “We also have our own soybean extruder on-farm, so that cuts down on the amount of protein we have to bring in. We used to have to buy a lot of soy meal and now, with this extruder, that replaces a large portion of that, although we still have to bring in some canola meal and some other proteins.”
They grow brown mid-rib (BMR) corn hybrids for silage, as well as conventional corn as feed for the chickens. They mix their own grain rations for both the dairy and poultry operations.
The farm itself is located on what is known as the “floor” of the Annapolis Valley, flanked by the North Mountain and South Mountain, with the river flats east of Port Williams running into Minas Basin. The mix of topography provides a unique microclimate which allows for a diversity of agriculture in a fairly small area. Row crops, fruits and vegetables grow well in the Valley, and it’s a very important agricultural district in the Maritimes.
At the Newcombe farm, they work with variable soils, from heavy marsh clays that are protected by a series of dykes, to clay-loams and everything in between. As if the soil types aren’t challenging enough, the ground tends to be rolling hills (except for the marsh clays) meaning erosion can be a problem.
To help mitigate any erosion, the Newcombes began no tilling in 1993, when Brian returned from college. Today, most of their wheat and soybeans are under no till and they strip till their corn.
“And that’s all good, but there’s a step further that we can take it, and what we’ve started to do now is to bring in cover crops to the rotations, to try to build that soil diversity and organic matter, and create some of our own nitrogen,” Newcombe says.
In the past couple of growing seasons, the Newcombes used eight- to 10-way mixes of cover crops. In 2016, Brian started seeding corn into standing green cover crops (then killing off the cover crop), a move that’s being tried by more growers across Eastern Canada. He’s also made a connection with some of those growers, including Dean Glennie from the Niagara region.
“It’s challenging to manage that, but if it works the way you want it to work, it’s really quite exciting,” says Newcombe, who was awarded Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmer in 2003. “If you want to change your soil structure and improve it, that’s the fastest way to do that. Eventually, once you have that system built up, you can really start to cut back on your inputs, getting away with fewer sprays and chemical fertilizers, and once you get that soil biology working for you, you can do some amazing things.”
To help continue with learning and networking, Newcombe also attends the National No-Till Conference in the U.S., every year. He says it’s a great place to connect with other progressive farmers and listen to top-notch speakers on the subject. The other thing that’s important when trying to reduce tillage and improve soil health is not to allow yourself to be swayed or influenced by those who say, “it can’t be done that way.”
“You know it can work, it’s just a matter of finding a way to make it work on your operation with your own climate,” says Newcombe. “We’re a little more challenged in Canada than they are in the U.S. Midwest where they have a longer growing season and they can get cover crops in usually, but here we have to be a little more creative to get covers in before winter hits.”
When it comes to no-till farming, the Newcombes were one of the first in the area to try the practice. There weren’t many other farmers they could consult at that time, so they had to learn as they went along, finding the technologies available and adapting them to their situation.
“Once we were into no till, then we got into cover cropping and planting grain, and that’s all innovative,” says Newcombe. “There is information out there, but there isn’t a lot of local input to figure out how it works. You just have to figure out how to make it work on your own operation.”
They have invested heavily in upgrading the technology used on their farm, including RTK guidance, yield monitors, variable-rate seeding capabilities, GreenSeeker technology and variable-rate fertilizer. Newcombe says they’ve also added swath control on their planters and their sprayers, along with a hydraulic down-force sensor on their new corn planter. Additionally, they’re using yield monitor data to map the various zones in their fields and manage accordingly.
Asked how things have changed in the years since he won the Young Farmers award in 2003, Newcombe says the technology has certainly changed. He’s doing things now that he wouldn’t have dreamed possible 13 years ago. The outlook on farming has changed considerably, as well.
“Margins are getting tighter so you have to start looking at where you put your investment dollars, the equipment you want to invest in and what kind of inputs you want or cut back on,” says Newcombe. “Or you can grow your own inputs, whether it’s cover crops or green manures and get organic matter to help supplement the costs. You have to watch those dollars you’re investing and make sure you invest them wisely.”
In the Maritimes he has seen more farmers in the region adapting to more corn and soybeans in their rotations, and many are constructing their own grain-handling facilities and feed mills. Farmers in the Maritimes are more likely to feed what they grow to their own livestock or poultry. There isn’t a lot of processing available in the region.
Newcombe acknowledges there’s a rich diversity across much of the three provinces, particularly in the Annapolis Valley, where they can grow most of the same crops as southern Ontario.
“There are other areas of Nova Scotia that just don’t have the microclimate and heat that we do in the Valley,” he says. “You don’t realize how diverse our cropping is, depending on what area of the Maritimes you’re talking about. But our soils and climate here are as good as anything in Quebec or Ontario.”
This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of Soybean Guide