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Trevor Cunning tinkers, tweets and tightens his schedule to stay ahead

“Be patient and try not to get too high or too low — keep an even keel.” – Trevor Cunning

Go ahead, just ask him. Trevor Cunning will share almost anything he knows about farming and his farm. He even calls himself an “open book” and he says there’s little to hide about the family’s Starhill Farms operation in the Ottawa Valley, between Vankleek Hill and St-Eugène.

Cunning and his father Allen — who began farming in 1978 — work roughly 800 acres in a combination cash-cropping and dairying enterprise.

Between them, they know that there will be multiple challenges every year for every farmer. That’s just how it is. But Cunning also believes that for farmers today — and especially younger farmers — the challenges are different.

Challenges are coming in ways that this generation’s parents and grandparents rarely if ever had to deal with. And, he says, they’re coming fast.

For father Allen and Trevor Cunning, building their own elevator has boosted their operational flexibility and greatly reduced stress.
For father Allen and Trevor Cunning, building their own elevator has boosted their operational flexibility and greatly reduced stress. photo: Stephane Hunter / Mash Productions

Among them is growing consumer activism, especially in livestock production with today’s focus on animal welfare. But there are rising costs too, as well as other barriers to launching a farm career. And together, they are unlike anything that any other era has seen.

To counteract some of these pressures, Cunning believes in a time-honoured virtue — persistence. And he also believes in staying connected with other growers and like-minded individuals, and in being organized and focused on what he does best.

But he knows that in the end, the quality of their decisions is what will determine their success.

“I’m someone who likes to try different things,” says Cunning, explaining that from a cash-crop perspective, for instance, he’ll alter fertilizer applications or change up seed treatments or populations. “Last year, I tried a speed trial with my planter, just to see how it would work. We’re not people who let things come at us — we go out and try to do our own thing, and try not to fall in line with the way everyone else does things.”

When it comes to his questioning attitude, Cunning notes he often thinks of all the things his dad has done on their farm, like being one of the first producers in the region to switch to high-moisture corn, much to the surprise of others.

It helps explain why, in 2014, they purchased a self-propelled sprayer to apply their nitrogen in the spring, since they rely on their dairy manure for phosphorus and potassium. Yet wanting to follow new studies on splitting N applications, Trevor reasoned they needed something similar to a Y-drop system.

So he built his own.

“We go in in the spring and apply our nitrogen pre-plant using streamer nozzles, and we put enough on to get us to when the corn is just about to tassle,” says Cunning. “Then we go in and side-dress the rest with these drop-nozzles, which are from a kit from HJV. I modified it to drop down farther below the canopy, so now I can put nitrogen on corn that’s up to seven or eight feet tall. It has a ‘V’ on the bottom and it splits and goes right out to the root base of the plant.”

Thus far it has worked well, although they have picked up some bugs — literally — in the apparatus. But as with any do-it-yourself innovation, it isn’t a big surprise if it takes several times to learn how to tweak the design for maximum performance. That explains why Cunning worked on it this past winter, and modified it a little more in the spring.

Now he’s more confident. In fact, he also used the unit for some custom work for other growers this past spring, and was pleased to find they’ve been happy with the results.

“I’m someone who likes to try different things.” – Trevor Cunning
“I’m someone who likes to try different things.” – Trevor Cunning photo: Stephane Hunter / Mash Productions

Robotics and elevators

Although they’re always looking to improve their on-farm efficiency, Cunning and his dad are treading a little carefully on robotic milking. They aren’t afraid to invest. In fact, for instance, they’ve built an elevator in order to give them more marketing flexibility while also growing the value of the farm.

Given the uncertainty of how consumer demands and the animal welfare lobby may change farming, however, the idea of automating their milking operation seems in a different category. With a relatively new tie-stall barn (built in 2009), they’ve been looking at implementing a robotic system, but they’re also concerned with the Dairy Farmers of Ontario’s proAction initiative and how that will affect livestock and dairy production going forward.

“We’re not sure of where everything’s going probably in the next 10 years — it’s hard to say with quota,” says Cunning, who adds that financial analysis will be key to any eventual move. “It’s like any kind of decision — weigh it, and re-weigh it and look at it again.”

The animal welfare and consumer interest in farming is raising considerable stress in the farming community, making it difficult to predict just how some of these issues are going to affect the agri-food sector, particularly livestock and poultry. Cunning adds that he looks at the European situation and where producers there are heading. He also believes that North America is roughly five to 10 years behind the trends in Europe, whether it’s in equipment or technology or the dairy sector itself. Regardless, he suggests that those who are still in a tie-stall setup will either exit the industry in the next 10 years or they’ll have to build another barn.

Yet Cunning says building the elevator for his farm was the best decision they could have made. It was a challenge getting it built and set up, but once in place, it saved him and his dad more stress than any other decision in the last 10 years.

“With your own elevator, you can go out and harvest five acres if you have to, and not worry about trying to line up an elevator somewhere else, and trucks, or not having to worry about someone being full or having to take corn or wheat or soybeans for a couple of days,” says Cunning. “It was an investment, but the return on investment has been huge. The amount of stress it’s saved us in the last two years has been incredible, especially last year with the volumes that were coming out of the field.”

On-farm storage came into question about five years ago when engineers and retailers urged caution on farmer familiarity with the concept of storing grain. It’s one thing to build a storage bin or an elevator, but the liability for anything happening to that stored product then falls on the farmer. Knowing when to turn on the fan or to check for bugs — all of that and more — suddenly became the domain of the farmer. Cunning says he’s lucky that since he works with DuPont Pioneer as a seed dealer, he has access to resources that he’s come to value greatly. He can ask those questions about bugs or fans from within his dealer and company network.

Of course Twitter is also an incredible source of information and advice, and Cunning counts it among his most important resources.

“If you want to know what’s happening in the country, you just pop open Twitter and everyone seems to want to share what’s going on with them, or their crops or the weather,” he says, adding that he converses primarily with farmers, dealers and manufacturers. “I probably use Twitter more than Facebook or Instagram or even YouTube.”

Tough times

For all of Cunning’s optimism and willingness to try, he concedes that one of the biggest challenges facing growers on the farm today is the dollar squeeze. Commodity prices are cyclically low, and that’s the challenge for cash croppers. But the price for milk has been cut, fruit and vegetable growers are getting ratcheted down on their prices, and consumers are demanding greater accountability yet complaining about high prices for food.

“Everything is so tight, financially,” Cunning says. “Every year it seems your expenditures go up but your income doesn’t really increase much. And we’ve diversified our business as much as we can, getting into custom work and the cash-crop business and dairy. I’m happy we’ve done that because it eases the pressure on one single sector. But it’s probably the biggest concern I’ve heard expressed by other growers — the amount of money left over.”

“Guys are concerned about it,” Cunning repeats. “There’s less left over every year.”

To answer that, Cunning and his dad are always trying to stay ahead by following a fairly rigid schedule that helps organize each day and each week’s tasks. For Trevor, it’s a matter of getting everything lined up and planning everything out as best he can, and to live by the mantra “control the controllable.” He also tries to stay up-to-date with news and trends in the agri-food industry, and he’s never satisfied with the “just enough” mindset.

“Be persistent, keep your ears open, talk to lots of people and take every opportunity that you get to make connections,” Cunning says. “And be patient and try not to get too high or too low — keep an even keel.”

This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of the Corn Guide.

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Ralph Pearce

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