48% nitrogen 26% potash 26% phosphorus and 22,000 seeds per acre
THIS LAND IS MY LAND
48% nitrogen 26% potash 26% phosphorus and 22,000 seeds per acre
MARRYING A FARMER always used to be a guarantee of a life of drudgery for a girl— 18-hour days that began with the six-o'clock milking, egg gathering and milk-pail washing, and didn’t end until the last cow had its nightly bundle of hay tucked in the manger.
But when Carla Knell married Bob Bechtel late in May, she already knew that being a good farm wife in her case would have little to do with toting milk pails and churning butter. What she didn't know was that she would have to try to remember the chemical formula for his corn ensilage if she wanted to talk to him over the breakfast table about his plan to switch from one feed to another for his 500 beef cattle. Nor did she suspect she would have to act as tourist guide for the farm groups that visit while her husband is in the back-40, planting corn or hustling to town in his red
Mustang convertible to pick up parts for repairing his push-button silo unloaders.
For Bob is a modern farmer, an unusually successful example of a progressive breed of college-bred agriculturalists who are spectacularly turning farming into modern businesses. His green-and-white barn, longer than a football field, and the five silos that tower as high as ninestory apartments, draw stares from Sunday drivers passing his 300-acre farm about 10 miles from Kitchener, Ontario.
With the exception of two riding horses, nothing hut beef cattle is raised in the barn, and almost all the land is used to grow corn for them. It is one of many revolutionary farms springing up across the country from the Fraser Valley to Nova Scotia — farms that J. J. Greene, federal Agriculture Minister, calls “the biggest
thing to happen in Canadian agriculture since the 17th century.” (Two out of five Canadian farms provide their owners with an income of $2,500 or less, and farmers are abandoning the land at a rate of 900 a month.)
Bob Bechtel is in one sense an “oldfashioned” farmer — he decided to farm because he likes the freedom it offers. But he approached farming with a hard-headed business mind. He has little sympathy for the oldfashioned farmers. "Their barns aren't economical and their methods are often as outdated as the horse and buggy,” he says. “They don’t bother to figure out whether or not they're making money, but keep on farming the way their fathers did.”
Today new farming concepts are born at the rate of two or three a week, and Bechtel is as hard-pressed as a space scientist to keep abreast. Some of the new discoveries are so
diametrically opposed to accepte« methods that only the new breed oi farmers dare to use them. For ex ample, farmers wouldn't plant con until May 24. for fear of frost. Evei though experiments proved that con planted in April yields up to 20 per cent more than corn planted May 24 only the modern farmers dare t¡ ignore frosts, and rely on figures Among old-timers, the tallest corn iij still the best corn, even though cont puters have proven that corn as hid as an elephant's eye won't grow bel cattle as well as runty stalks. Shon corn produces more cobs, and it's thi cobs that count.
Bechtel first became interested ii farming on a visit to an uncle’s farni when he was five. “I fell in love with animals,” he says. When he failed some subjects in grade 13, he begget his father to let him farm. “I can understand /
Bob Bechtel, young push-button farme
City-bred Carla Knell was married to Bob Bechtel early this spring and became a farmer’s wife, a description that amuses her. “I never think of him as a farmer. He’s really running a business.”
)ersonifies the biggest leap forward in our agriculture since the 17th century
SWINGING FARMER continued
Bechtel’s programmed feeding puts one pound of beef on a steer for 13 cents. Herd must gain 1,000 pounds a day
why I have to go to university to learn how to shovel manure,” he said. His father, Pete Bechtel, insisted on a college education because his own college training had helped him to rise from a village feed-mill manager to the head of an international complex of farm-related industries. Bob repeated grade 13, then went on to Ontario Agricultural College, in Guelph, where he maintained a first - class average during the four-year animal-husbandry course.
His college training is the most important ingredient of his business. He could hardly wait to graduate in 1963 to try out some of the discoveries he had made. The first thing he did was borrow about $250,000. He admits he couldn’t have set up his farm on such a grand scale without his father’s help, but he is paying back the loan plus interest over a 10-year period. Besides paying it back faster than he had estimated, he had enough money to buy a second $35,000 farm last winter.
He planned his farm as a one-man operation because he knew experienced farm helpers are scarce. He acted as his own architect when the $50,000 barn and five silos were built, and he chose the machinery that would link the network into the most modern food factory in Waterloo County. The 300-acre farm is not large in terms of land, but he raises more cattle on fewer acres than almost anyone in Canada.
Most of his time is spent in the nerve centre—a modern office in a
corner of the house. His desk is piled high with university research reports, farm-journal articles describing new methods and detailed analyses of soil tests, cost studies of each phase of his operation, and chemical analyses of feeds. His reports fill the bookshelves that take up an entire office wall.
Unlike conventional farmers, he forgets his troubles at the end of the day, and joins Carla for a horseback ride, a buzz in a chartered plane (he has his pilot’s licence) or a night in Kitchener or Toronto. They enjoy dances, cocktail parties and banquets, but spend little time on such rural activities as church socials, juniorfarmer meetings, auction sales and Women’s Institutes. Although their business is farming, their social life is urban.
ON A TYPICAL DAY, Bechtel spends three hours feeding the 500 cattle and the rest of the day compiling and studying reports or repairing machinery. Conventional farmers spend four hours feeding 50 cattle, and the rest of the day either working in the fields or tending livestock. Their records are usually either skimpy or nonexistent.
Carla spends her day exactly as a city housewife would. She cleans, washes and cooks, but she doesn’t grow a garden or sell eggs at the famous Kitchener market, as many of her neighbors do. Bechtel's day begins at 7 a.m. with a breakfast that includes three glasses of milk (which he has to buy because his cattle pro-
duce beef, not milk). Minutes later he is in the feed room, flicking buttons and adjusting scales as he measures out rations in intricate detail for each of his four cattle pens. An automatic silo unloader jets two and a half tons down an 80-foot chute and onto a conveyor belt. As the belt whisks it into a self-propelled wagon, he adjusts a tap from the molasses tank, pushes a button to add concentrates and keeps an eye on the scale. When the scale tips, he pushes the master button that stops everything, then drives to the main barn where the cattle are lining up for feed.
By experimenting with different rations, he has boosted the average gain of each animal by an eighth of a pound a day—the difference between profit and loss during a poor year. Bob figures he has added more than $7,000 a year to his profits by his feed experiments.
But things don’t always work out as planned. Last year he tried a new type of grass that grows to 12 feet in three months. The experiment almost ended in disaster. He had just finished feeding one pen of 80 cattle with the new grass, and was preparing to leave for Montreal when he noticed that one of the cattle was drowsy. In a few minutes it lay down and died. Bob didn't even take time to cancel his plane reservations as he hurried to call the veterinarian, then scurried back to the barn to examine the other cattle. Minutes later another one died. Bob cut a neat slit in the skin /
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An adding machine tells Bechtel when it’s go-to-market day
around the belly, folded back the hide and inspected the animal’s stomach. It was as black as ink. The veterinarian arrived and took a look at the incision. “I think it's prussic-acid poisoning.” he said, basing his decision on reports he had read that even a light frost could turn the new sorghum - sudan grass into deadly prussic acid.
"Frost hasn't touched the grass yet.” said Bob. “I think it’s nitrate poisoning.” They didn't stop to quibble, however, because the same medicine treats both conditions. For five hours that night Bechtel, his brotherin-law Bill Cavanaugh, and two veterinarians worked feverishly to save the remaining $7,000 worth of cattle. Bechtel chased the cattle into an alley, one veterinarian punched a needle into their jugular veins and Bill Cavanaugh held the four-dollar bottles of medicine as they drained into the animals’ necks.
Three weeks later Bechtel had a report from the Ontario Veterinary College: nitrate poisoning. In the
meantime, he had plowed under the eight acres of grass. What had looked like a new inexpensive feed turned out to be an expensive flop.
Despite the risks involved in farming, Bechtel is usually relaxed and fun-loving. He enjoys teasing visitors, using his flair for detail to surprise them. "There are 80,000 nails holding the barn wall, and 1.500 concrete slabs in each of the silos.” he will say with the dry tone of a university lecturer. He can also tell them how much it costs to produce a pound of beef to a fraction of a cent.
One of the most important days of the month is weighing day, when all 500 cattle are driven over the scales in groups of 25. By keeping weigh-in
records, Bechtel can use his adding machines to figure out exactly when a pen of beefers should be sent to market. “They go stale,” as Bechtel explains. “You would, too, if all you had to eat was mashed potatoes day after day. You’d gain weight for quite a while, but eventually you’d lose your appetite. Cows do, too, and that's when it’s time to sell them.” Other farmers still sell when prices are high or when the animals reach a certain maximum weight. Few bother to figure out how much it costs to raise a pound of beef at different times of the year. Bechtel buys his cattle from the west at 500 pounds, then feeds them until they stop gaining two
pounds a day—generally at the 800to 1,200-pound level.
The two busiest times of the year are seeding and harvest when he puts in between 12 and 14 hours a day. Seeding has become a scientific operation in which Bechtel adjusts dials on his planter to drop exactly 22,000 seeds of corn an acre—because he has calculated that number will result in maximum yields. He pours on fertilizer at almost double the usual rate—200 pounds an acre of commercial fertilizer and another 60 pounds an acre of nitrogen pumped into the soil from gas tanks on the tops of cultivators. He also uses the conventional fertilizer, manure, but
THIS LAND IS MY LAND continued
How to shoo a salesman: invite him to the roof—80 feet up
there is no straw or bedding in it. When seeding is complete, he sprays the ground with a fine mist of atrazine weed killer applied at 60-pounds-asquare-inch pressure with the nozzles exactly 18 inches from the ground. No plant except corn will grow if atrazine is properly applied.
Harvesting is not as complicated, but takes longer. The corn is precision-cut by a windmill of knives that chop stalks, cobs, leaves and tassels into ensilage. It has to be cut at exactly the right time to ensure the correct moisture and keeping qualities. He gathers samples of ensilage from each silo, sends them to Guelph for a chemical analysis, then uses computers to figure out feed rations that will yield the exact daily protein and energy his cattle need. The same process is used when he is planting corn. The chemical analysis of the soil is computed, then he adjusts his fertilizer requirements to the exact amount of nutrition the corn plants need to mature.
Welcome with a bang
Last fall he was so busy harvesting corn that he tacked a sign to his feed-room door: “Every third salesman will be shot. The second one just left." Because his farm looks so obviously progressive, it attracts every passing salesman, who tries to sell everything from back scratchers for his cattle to weed spray for his crops. He found the perfect solution to his problem last year when a particularly persistent salesman called for the third time in a week. Bechtel was spread-eagled over the edge of his silo, 80 feet from the ground, repairing one of the automatic unloaders. He invited the salesman to come up. The man climbed back into his car and sped off without so much as a word. He hasn’t been back since.
At home, Carla spends much of her time making dresses — she designed and made her wedding dress — or decorating their home according to the 20-year plan she outlined while studying at MacDonald Institute, in Guelph. Before the wedding, she redecorated the entire house even though it was only three years old. She lives on an allowance Bob gives her.
"What happens if I run out?” she once asked him before they were married.
Then you'll just have to work and next time plan better,” Bob told her with a grin.
If you had told me five years ago I was going to marry a farmer. I would have died,” says Carla. “My roommate and I used to tell each other we would never go out with one ot those country hicks while we were at college.”
She went out with Bob for the first time three years ago when he phoned during the middle of exams. “I knew who he was before he phoned, even though we had never met. He was quite a football and basketball player, and besides that, he was an eligible bachelor. I never thought of him as a
farmer and I still don't." She used to think farmers were naïve, but now she laughs at her city friends who tease her about being a farmer's wife. “They don’t have any idea what it's all about. They think I have to work in the barn and keep a big garden, but one visit to the farm ends that impression.”
It's not only her city friends who don't have any idea what it’s all about; some of the farm neighbors eye the operation with curiosity. But the Bechtels have earned the respect of their neighbors, who at first thought Bob was a playboy who didn't know what farming was all about. Now when farm groups plan tours of Water-
loo County farms, his is always at the top of the list. This spring a bankers’ conference also toured the farm to get ideas about the investment necessary to run a successful farm. And every group sees something different because the operation is in a constant state of flux.
"Twenty years from now I’ll probably tear down this whole set-up and begin again.” says Bechtel, "but right now it’s the cheapest way to raise a pound of beef in Canada.” ★
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