By Lilian Schaer
It’s hard to imagine a prettier spot in Ontario than Bob McKessock’s farm.
Nestled in the picturesque rolling hills of northern Grey County between Chatsworth and Owen Sound, the 100 acre farm where he raises beef cattle has been in his family for over 100 years.
About two decades ago, McKessock was one of the first farmers in his area to take part in a unique demonstration project designed to improve water quality in the Bighead River watershed where his farm is located.
Today, as the project has matured over time, the benefits of McKessock’s work and the proactive vision of the program’s leaders are clearly evident.
The Bighead River demonstration program was part of the Wetland, Woodland and Wildlife (3W) Program, which was designed to prevent potential conflict between agriculture, wildlife and fisheries.
The focus was on working with local farmers and land owners in the watershed to improve water quality by reducing livestock access to open water sources, controlling soil erosion, and rehabilitating fish habitat.
McKessock is fortunate to have several fresh water springs on his farm that served both his house and barn, as well as the cattle in his pastures.
As part of the Bighead River project, McKessock built two cattle watering stations on his farm and then fenced his stream and swamp areas off to keep the livestock out of that water.
Both watering stations use gravity to pipe water into them from the nearby natural springs.
“We fenced the cattle out of the swamp; it gets kind of mucky and they could get stuck in there. Sometimes they’d go into the swamp area to calve and it would be hard to get them out,” says McKessock. “There are 20 acres in there with good water and grass, so it’s not insignificant to take that out of production.”
McKessock has 20 cow calf pairs now, but when the project was underway, his herd included about 75 cows.
There’s definitely more wildlife in the fenced off area now, and keeping the cattle out improves the quality of water, which McKessock says flows out of his property and is in Meaford – a town on Georgian Bay about 25 km away – the next day.
“One of the cattle watering tanks is actually a burial vault, but it works really well,” explains McKessock. “The company that did watering tanks went out of business and the burial vault people had an extra vault. It has an outlet in the bottom that you can use to drain it in the winter, and we also installed a mineral deposit on the side for the cattle.”
The fencing also makes it easier to corral or round up the cattle when they need treatment, for example, or when they’re being sent to market.
The fencing included multiple gates so that the cattle can be moved from one pasture to another.
This practice is called rotational grazing – not only does it ensure cattle have access to a steady stream of ready grass, but it also helps keep the pastures growing evenly and can reduce soil erosion because there’s continuous ground cover.
As part of the project, McKessock also installed culverts and pipes at various points on his farm to prevent flooding.
The water is now semi-controlled, whereas it previously just flowed freely, which helps with controlling erosion.
It also helps keep the trees that are growing in his bush stable, and the ponds on his farm have speckle and rainbow trout populations.
The Bighead River program was active in Grey County from 1993 to 1997, with more than 120 individual projects completed during that time.
These projects, including McKessock’s, have matured over that time and the environmental benefits are still being felt decades later.
Through the 3W program, many innovative and low cost solutions were implemented that have now become common practice on many farms today.