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Haywire Farms

“You have profit, you have weeds, you have yields and you have soil health,” says Trevor Riehl. “You have all these levers in front of you. You pull one and it sends the other ones all haywire.”

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Haywire Farms

Family Farm:

Trevor Riehl and Ryan Carroll.

Farm Location:

Leduc, Alberta.


Started taking over Trevor’s family farm in 2012 and researching transition in 2014. They certified the first quarter in 2017 and the last in 2019.

Approach to Farming:

Growing comfortable being the odd duck surrounded by mainstream monocultures.


  • Acreage: They own four quarters and rent two, with 800 acres cultivated.

  • Soil: Black chernozem, Zone 3b, 10-20 inches annual precipitation.
  • Crops: Wheat, oats and yellow peas-barley intercrop.

  • Cover Crops: clover and phacelia with wheat; multi-species blend (oats, double cut red clover, hairy vetch, proso millet, Siberian millet, sorghum-Sudangrass, forage turnip, forage radish, phacelia, sunflower and buckwheat) cut for silage, then left as green manure; experimenting with seeding oats, Dutch white cover and tillage radish immediately after harvest.

  • Livestock: Katahdin sheep (100 ewes), Speckled Park cattle (30 cow/calf pairs).

“You have profit, you have weeds, you have yields and you have soil health,” says Trevor Riehl. “You have all these levers in front of you. You pull one and it sends the other ones all haywire.”

Finding the right balance between these factors is a challenge, particularly when making joint decisions between farmers of different generations. But at Haywire Farms outside Leduc, Alberta, three farmers are striving to achieve this delicate balance. Trevor Riehl and his partner Ryan Carroll have a certified organic grain operation with Bill Riehl (Trevor’s father) and also raise sheep and cattle.

Trevor and Ryan both grew up close to the land. As a teenager in Alaska, Ryan hunted in the bush and enjoyed vegetables from his grandfather’s greenhouse. Later, he moved to Washington State and volunteered as a WWOOFer[1]. Working on organic farms, particularly with livestock, is his passion.

Trevor was raised on the Riehl farm, his great-grandparents’ homestead. “In my childhood, I was never interested in spraying, in fertilizer rates or spray timing,” Trevor recalls. “It seemed crazy to me, even as a child. We were running around figuring out when to kill things. I wanted nothing to do with it.” He left the farm as soon as he could, going to university to study aerospace engineering.

Both men ended up working in healthcare. Ryan as a medical lab scientist and Trevor in healthcare analytics and project management. Farming became a retirement dream.

In 2011, they had a “big lightbulb moment,” Trevor explains. His mother died of cancer at age 63 “after waiting for this retirement that never came.” After he and Ryan questioned “the point of this rat race,” they quit their jobs and moved from downtown Edmonton to Trevor’s great-grandparents’ old farmhouse.

They started farming in 2012 with Trevor’s father. Trevor and Ryan were on “intersecting paths” with Bill, whose farm was “no longer financially viable. Four quarters is too small for a conventional grain farm now,” says Trevor.

After farming conventionally for a couple years, Trevor and Ryan envisioned organics as a way to allow the farm to survive. (They had always been committed to organics on a philosophical level.)

The timing worked well. “We had been hailed out of a big canola crop and lost a whole bunch of money. So there wasn’t a big opportunity cost of switching to organics…Luckily at the time, organic wheat was almost $25 a bushel. That helped push my dad along,” adds Trevor. [Non-organic milling wheat was selling at ~$8/bushel.][2]

Changing Crops

During transition, the farmers dropped canola and started growing peas instead. Hard red spring wheat remains their primary revenue generator. They grow it after a green manure when the fields are at their best in terms of fertility and weed control. The farm’s wheat yields didn’t drop during transition. Trevor explains that they weren’t “high-input farmers” before and their yields of 45-50 bushels/acre were “on the lower side of conventional.” Now they get a premium price with lower input costs compared to before transition.

They continue to grow Titanium wheat. Before transition, they chose it for its milling characteristics. Later, at an Organic Alberta field day, Trevor learned that tall grain varieties are recommended for organic production because of their ability to suppress weeds. He says it was a “happy accident” that they were already growing one of the tallest varieties. They use a slightly higher seeding rate than when they were conventional, aiming for 32 plants/ft2.

The wheat is underseeded with cover crops at a cost of about $10‐15/acre (seeding rate: 2‐2.5lbs/ac). At first, they seeded cover crops with an air seeder (1⁄2-inch deep) a few days after seeding wheat. They now do post-emergent harrowing before broadcasting phacelia and Dutch white clover, then harrowing again three or four days later.

After swathing the wheat, the cover crops take off. The clover fixes nitrogen and the phacelia improves the soil.

“For 10 bucks an acre,” Trevor says, “I’m getting soil health benefits of having phacelia in my crop and the tame bees are getting a good meal out of it as well.”

A local beekeeper keeps hives on the farm and gets bumper honey yields wherever phacelia is grown.

In the fall, they till the cover crops. The farmers don’t like fall tillage’s negative impact on soil life or the fact it removes stubble that would otherwise trap snow and protect the soil. However, without fall tillage, they face serious quackgrass problems in the spring. Their compromise is to seed a cover crop of oats and radish after fall tillage. 

Finding that fine balance between controlling weeds that cause economically significant damage versus soil health is definitely a complicated struggle for us, Trevor explains.

After the wheat year, they intercrop Amarillo yellow peas and Xena barley. They tried using oats with peas but in wet years, the peas matured far earlier than oats. In contrast, peas and barley ripen at the same time, are harvested together and then separated. The farmers are experimenting with seeding a winter cover crop of oats, Dutch white clover and tillage radish immediately after harvest. They find this works well when the first snow isn’t too early.

Finding a Balance

The following spring, they seed a cover crop/silage mix of oats, double-cut red clover, hairy vetch, proso millet, Siberian millet, sorghum-Sudangrass, forage turnip, forage radish, phacelia, sunflower and buckwheat. The goal is to control weeds, build soil fertility and “supercharge biological activity.” They take one cut for silage and then let it regrow as a green manure. If there is a serious weed pressure, like quackgrass or thistle, they use spot tillage then reseed the cover crop. Trevor points out that tillage isn’t free – there is a cost in terms of damage to soil health.

“It’s funny,” he adds, “the non-revenue crops – the intercropped cover crops and our polyspecies silage mix – have become the most interesting part of our farm experience. We love looking at those and find their growth really encouraging.”

He acknowledges that while longer rotations have many benefits, he feels that “using multi‐species intercropping likely mitigates most negatives of a three-year rotation.” 

Using a cut of cover crops as silage is another way of finding a balance on the farm. Taking that first cut contributes to the farm’s cash flow by feeding the silage to livestock. And the growth that could be a second cut is left for the soil. “We’re sharing between the needs of revenue generation versus the needs of the soil.  I get that a full year of green cover is banking revenue for the future but there’s the matter of what makes sense with your overhead,” says Trevor.

Soil Management Byproducts on the Hoof

“It’s a weird way to think about it,” Trevor says, “but the livestock are a byproduct of our soil health program.” The sheep and cattle provide value to cover crops and failed crops by converting these to meat. Composted manure is applied to low-fertility spots to provide nutrients and boost soil life. Growing hay can control perennial weeds, such as Canada thistle.

In the farms’ e-newsletter, Ryan and Trevor describe the trend of switching from mixed farms  – farms that have grain and livestock – into highly specialized monocrop-type producers. They explain how mixed farms are able to be more resilient. They are “happy with a more holistic approach which also factors in food security, stability and lower stress into the equation.”

Ryan and Trevor started with sheep because they are easy to move between fields and manage. They chose a low-maintenance breed – Katahdin. They don’t need shearing nor tail docking, which means less stress for the sheep and the farmers.

“They’re super maternal and self-sufficient,” Trevor adds. The farmers rarely need to assist with lambing. Their lambing rate is an average of 2.2 lambs/ewe.

Also, Katahdin have fairly high natural parasite resistance. In the regular fecal egg counts, virtually no worms are detected. This is likely because the sheep are moved weekly and never graze an area more than twice a year. On pasture, they are protected from predators by strong fences, a llama and guardian dogs (Maremma/Pyrenees cross and Anatolian shepherd).

Even though the Katahdin have hair, not wool, they are very tolerant to cold. In the winter, they stay outside in wind shelters on a good bedding pack. Even at -40C, Trevor says the sheep’s ears are warm and the animals are “happy and chewing.” The farmers use a traditional lambing schedule with lambing on pasture in May. The ewes’ peak lactation is synchronized with lush pasture growth.

The flock is healthy. “We have very little sickness and some of the ewes are still breeding at ten years old,” Trevor says. “After that, they go into the ‘retirement pen’ and ‘babysit’ the weaned lambs. It is great because when we call the retired ones, all the lambs come along. The old ewes definitely pay for themselves with ‘babysitting’ and ease of movement.”

The lamb was initially processed at a certified organic abattoir, a 2.5-hour drive from the farm. Recently only the pasture and forage to feed the sheep have been certified organic even though the farmers still follow organic healthcare practices. To reduce transportation stress on the animals, they use a local, non-organic abattoir.

Haywire Farms also raises Speckled Park cattle. The breed was developed in Saskatchewan and selected for high efficiency on grass and winter hardiness.

“They’re well-tuned to our system,” says Trevor. They have small frames and low birth weights so “all around lower stress and lower time commitment. We very rarely pull calves[3] which is a high priority for us. We don’t want a high-intervention breed like a Limousin or Charolais. We want to wake up in the morning with our coffees and find new calves running around and that’s pretty much what we get.”

Up until 2022, the farm had two marketing streams for their livestock – grassfed meat directly marketed to consumers and grain-finished animals for auction.

Trevor and Ryan enjoyed direct marketing. Rather than deliver meat, they asked their customers to come to the farm to collect their orders. “It was really important to us that people came out and saw the operation. It was also a product differentiator.” If people asked, for example, why the beef is expensive, they explained that the animals live 10 to 14 months longer than what’s in the supermarket.

“Unfortunately, this is our last year of direct marketing,” says Trevor, “even though demand for our grassfed animals has far outstripped what we could supply. We’re expanding our sheep numbers but they’ll go into the commercial conventional system because we can’t find a consistent butcher.”

He recalls the frustration of, for example, spending 28 months raising a beef animal, asking for inch-and-a-half T-bones but getting ½ to ¾-inch T-bones. Racks have gone missing from lambs and the spine was left on a loin roast. “It’s insulting and infuriating and unacceptable.”

In the past, such poor butchering practices would lead farmers to simply switch to another butcher, but that is no longer an option due to the huge demand for abattoirs and butchers.

“In my lifetime we’ve had four butchers close within an hour-and-a-half drive from the farm with zero new entrants. Demand has doubled. There’s a huge bottleneck.”

Grain Marketing

When selling grain, the farm uses “an opportunistic marketing strategy,” Trevor laughs, by storing grain until they find a good market. They found that growing to contract was too stressful. For example, if it rains the week before harvesting wheat, the falling number plummets.

“It’s easier for our broker to know it’s in the bin. It’s clean. It’s been tested. She knows we can load with six hours’ notice if somebody’s in a bind [to meet their contract].”

Trevor has created spreadsheets to track the cost of production. Rather than focusing on crop yields, they focus on the profit over the course of the crop rotation. Even with a year in green manure, the profit is greater than it was before going organic because their input costs have dropped. Their only input is cover crop seed.

They don’t have crop insurance because they don’t want to be constrained by its rules and restrictions, particularly as they relate to intercropping. Instead, the farmers assume all risk and are free to choose how to deal with bad crops, such as treating them as green manure or silage. Their area isn’t prone to serious hailstorms, although they’ve had very dry and very wet years lately. Ryan and Trevor consider cover crops to be their insurance for climate extremes because of their ability to improve soil health.

Weeds, Tillage and Interactions

“You need to work out what’s going to control weeds while having the best economic outcome with the least damage to your soil,” says Trevor. “That’s a hard call.”

Their worst weeds are Canada thistle, quackgrass and wild oats. However, Trevor considers Canada thistle a ‘political’ rather than economic weed. It doesn’t have a great impact on yields “but it gets the county and the neighbours riled up.”

Wild oats and quackgrass need to be managed differently. Wild oats thrive after tillage whereas quackgrass thrives when the soil isn’t tilled.

To control weeds, they till weeding patches in the spring and seed late (3rd week of May). As they seed, they perform light tillage with the 12-inch shovel on the air seeder. Sometimes, they rodweed after seeding if there is enough moisture and the soil is loose. Lately, however, the benefits of late seeding are compromised by rainy Septembers making it difficult to harvest late-planted crops.

“One of our weed management strategies is that every weed comes off the field with the harvest,” explains Trevor, “whereas with the conventional mindset, your combine is your primary seed cleaner. It would be set to blow out all the light weeds and light kernels so the crop is 90% clean coming off the field.”

In contrast, the Haywire farmers keep the combine fan turned “way down.” Their crop might have 40% dockage but this is beneficial because they are harvesting weed seeds.

An early step in their transition was buying a seed cleaner. This saves them having to transport grain to a seed cleaning plant and they get screenings to feed to livestock.   

Changing Mindsets

The main challenge in the farm’s transition to organics has been, according to Trevor, cultural. He recalls hearing that it’s easier to teach organic farming to people without farming backgrounds than convert the mindset of conventional farmers.

“If you’re from the Green Revolution mindset where chemistry drives agriculture and soil is just a medium, that transition is going to be much harder.” Trevor explains that for his father’s generation, “black summer fallow was held in high esteem and 10 tillage passes in a summer was normal.” Meanwhile, Trevor and Ryan are using regenerative organic soil health practices to increase soil organic matter and soil life.

“It’s taken a long time to demonstrate that some of these things actually work. But, sometimes I’m wrong and he’s right.” Trevor recalls how they “tried to throttle back tillage and had a quackgrass disaster.” His father’s main goal is zero weeds whereas Trevor wants to manage weeds while maintaining soil health.

Ongoing Education

Trevor and Ryan attend conferences and field days, seek out channels on organic farming, and have bought a number of books from Canadian Organic Growers (COG). Also, Trevor took Dr. Brenda Frick’s organic weed management class from University of Saskatchewan Extension.

They share some of what they learn with their customers and neighbours. For example, when white flowers appeared throughout a field, the neighbours thought this revealed a serious weed problem. Ryan and Trevor explained that the flowers were from tillage radishes in the cover crop mix, which is grown to improve the soil.

The two men enjoy “seeing the weird things that are growing,” says Trevor. “I think that’s really changed. We’re not trying to figure out how to kill things. I think my favourite farm practice is crop observation. It’s now positive and interesting.” 

Changes in Transition 

“When we first started transitioning, some fields had flush after flush after flush of wild mustard – an extraordinary amount of wild mustard,” Trevor recalls. They would let it get eight inches tall, till it and wait for another flush. “The weed seedbank is extraordinary – there’s a lot hiding in there.”

As they depleted the weed seedbank, the soil has improved. 

“Fortunately, we’ve stuck it out long enough that we’re finally seeing soil texture changes,” Trevor says. “When we started, one quarter had giant, unbelievably tight lumps of dirt. Now most of our fields are quite ‘tilthy.’ We don’t see those big boulder-type lumps.”

Infiltration rates have improved. Recently, after heavy rain nearly drowned crops on a neighbouring farm, there was no standing water in their own fields.

Levels of soil organic matter have increased and soil life has thrived.

“When digging around, it’s really neat to see how much life is there. You’re seeing those changes in earthworms and other organisms, and visible changes in the soil texture,” Trevor says. “We’re doing something right.”

“Also, when you get lab analysis back on our organic wheat and it’s 14.9% protein, that makes me proud. We’re producing a really good quality product that’s feeding people. That makes me happy.” 

Lessons to Share

  1. Don’t postpone following your dreams; live the life you want.
  2. Use one cut of a green manure for silage.
  3. Incorporate livestock to improve soil health and control weeds.
  4. Take weed seeds off the field when combining.
  5. Measure success by profit over the whole rotation not yield in one year.


[1] WWOOF: World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms is a program where people work on organic farms in return for room, board and an educational opportunity.


[3] Pulling calves means manually intervening in delivery by actually pulling a calf out of the cow using equipment such as ropes, chains or a cow jack.


The Prairie Farmer Profiles (Sundog Organic Farm, MJJ & A Organic Farm, Haywire Farms, Mill Creek Organics Ltd, Pristine Prairie Organics, Upland Organics, Our Farm, G & G Farms, Marshall Farms and Penny Lane Organics) were written by Janet Wallace.  The Ontario Farmer Profiles were provided by the Organic Council of Ontario.   The Farmer Profiles were developed as part of the Prairie Organic Development Fund’s Canadian Organic Ingredient Strategy (COIS).  The COIS was funded by the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, Government of Canada.  Translation services were provided by the Government of Manitoba.