Ten years ago Linda and Ron Catt came up with an unusual strategy for cutting the cost of feed for their cattle. They went into a corn-breeding partnership with Mother Nature.
The husband and wife team knew if their small mixed farm north of Treherne was going to survive, they would need to keep feed costs down, especially after the 2003 downturn in the beef market.
“We just thought there was a cheaper, better way to do it,” said Ron. While modern corn varieties are hybridized and high yielding, they decided to pursue open-pollinated varieties, often associated with heritage seeds, because they require fewer inputs and fertilizer.
In 2001, the Catts purchased a sack of open-pollinated seeds from Ontario and planted plots. The result was corn that matured with heat units ranging from 2250 to 2350, and a lot of hand shelling to harvest the seed corn.
“The first years we shelled by hand… it was a lot of work,” said Linda.
Yields and quality were good during the first two years, with corn growing from seven to nine feet, with a cob length of eight to 10 inches, said Ron.
But hand shelling was no longer an option as crop size increased. So the pair looked once again to the past for an economical solution to the time-consuming work, buying a hand crank corn sheller circa 1907 for $40.
“It got the job done,” said Linda.
As the operation grew, the Catts realized they needed more than a crank sheller and purchased a PTO-driven sheller they continue to use today.
After some weather-related setbacks and an August frost in 2004, the Catts had enough seed to begin selling the corn seed commercially.
Although they have sold seed to farmers across the Prairies as well as in Ontario, the work is still done on their farm, much of it by hand. “We’d rather do it small and do it well,” he said.
Corn cobs are picked and husked by machine, then hand sorted and shelled one cob at a time. Shelled corn is then cleaned and graded.
He believes allowing open pollination is key to providing a strong and healthy variety of corn, shying away from genetically manipulated offerings.
“We’d rather let Mother Nature do the breeding, it’s what she does best,” he said.
Ten years in the making, the Catt’s open-pollinated corn today is leafy and still grows between seven to nine feet tall depending on the conditions. Early maturity is also a trait.
“We plan to keep going with this and see where it goes,” said Ron, adding they are continuing to improve storage and drying techniques as they move into the future.