Agriculture Hall of Fame: Robert Lang

Feb 09, 2017

Lang reflects on his career in the livestock industry

By Jennifer Jackson

The Ontario Agricultural Hall of Fame Association recognizes a vast array of leaders that have shaped the agriculture industry. This year, the association will induct four new leaders into the hall of fame – among them is Robert Lang, a teacher, leader and icon for not only Canada’s livestock producers, but also producers across the world.

Lang was a farm boy from eastern Ontario and studied agriculture at the former Kemptville College. After the completion of his program, Lang remained on campus working as a herdsman – here, he had his first experience in training other farmers. At a time when the Government was investing in training farm workers, Lang, at 19, was teaching skills in livestock handling and dairy management.

When the opportunity arose to continue his education, Lang travelled to the University of Wisconsin to study dairy science.

After his studies, Lang began his career specialising in livestock development and management. He worked as an agriculture representative and dairy cattle specialist for the province of Ontario for some time before becoming the associate director of the livestock branch, developing programs to better the breeds of all livestock.

Eventually, with a passion for livestock genetics and the power that computerized data can have in livestock management, Lang worked as manager for Eastern Breeders Inc. and became chair of the Ontario Association of Animal Breeders. During this time, Lang also assisted Semex with its international genetics program.

Ultimately, Lang decided to take a leave of absence from EBI to focus his time on developing and executing training and technical assistance programs for Semex clients. A planned two-year leave quickly turned into a 16-year leave for Lang.

At the time, Semex exports were growing and represented a large portion of the company’s sales – supporting these international clients was crucial.

Lang travelled to some 130 developing countries to train and educate workers on how to run sustainable and productive operations. This included training on how to handle the animals properly and how to use the latest in production technology. The programs encouraged sharing ideas amongst farmers and even provided opportunities for some of the farmers to visit Canadian operations.

Lang is now settled in the Ottawa area. However, he still travels to speak at events sharing his international and livestock development experience. was recently able to connect with Lang for an interview. (Farms): What has been the most valuable benefit you found in travelling abroad?

Robert Lang (RL): The people, the farmers and the extension (staff). People have a tremendous capacity for creativity – if you can help them to have the confidence to give birth to that creativity. It’s amazing how many different ways there are to do (something) and (how many ways to) do it all right.

Way back, when I was fresh out of university, I thought I had learned pretty much everything. It didn’t take me long to realise I had a few tools but not the whole toolbox.

Farms: How have international perceptions changed of Canadian livestock over your years in the industry?

RL: When I was first exposed to (any perceptions) in the 2000s, we had farmers from Cuba come to Kemptville to see how our livestock performed – Holsteins, in particular. The (farmers from Cuba) thought what they were seeing in Canada (production-wise) would (equate to the same performance) in their country, using the same Canadian genetics. However, the cattle did not perform as the Cuban farmers wanted.

(But, you had to consider) what are the farmers feeding the cattle? How is the livestock health care programs? How is their housing? These factors were being missed.

In an animal’s performance, 38 per cent is (shaped by their) genetics and 62 per cent is (reliant on) its environment, (including) types of feed. That’s when we started to get the story across that people had to change as the genetics changed.

One of the changes that took place is that people began to understand the need to change the whole management structure of the genetics by looking at Canada’s (techniques). People look at Canada and see one of the top appliers of technology, genomic, statistical testing of genetics and new feed products.

However, we have an environment that’s alien to a lot of the world. We have had people say ‘you have to bring your genetics here and show how they work here in my market. If you can show that to me, I can show more people.’ Farmers learn (well) from (other) farmers.

Canada is seen globally as a leader in terms of applying and developing tech. We are leaders in transparency on how we do things.

Farms: What’s a central piece of advice you’d give to livestock farmers?

RL: Keep your minds and ears open, and keep learning – tomorrow is more than just another day.

Sustainability on farms has become much more than simply producing more milk, chicken or eggs, for example. It has become much more complex. People are looking at how their food is being produced. It’s now an urban world – there’s more than half of the population living in cities. They are not aware of the production challenges for the food they have.

There used to always be the perception that as long as your (farmers’) milk and meat was safe, there would be a market for it. Today, consumers are able to decide what (products) they want to spend money on.

Farms: What did you like best about working in the livestock industry?

RL: No doubt, it would be watching people change as they change their management (skills) – in everything from genetics to crop production. It’s almost as impressive as watching my grandchildren grow up. I enjoy looking at how people change and how it affects everyone around them and the livestock that they work with.

I had my eyes open from watching the changes. Not only in the animals’ production but also how (the farmers we taught) would change others.

Farms: What drove your vast career in the industry?

RL: Curiosity. How do other people do the same thing that we do? (Do they work) differently? How do they do it better? Can we each learn something from one another?

From the earliest times I can recall, I was never allowed to drive the concept of a ‘win-lose.’ (Rather, it was) always (the concept of) a ‘win-win.’ Being raised in a rural community, there was always this concept you do unto others as you would want done unto you.

I was always looking for the win-win (in every situation). It was the curiosity that kept me going and still keeps me going. That is what makes the farming community successful – it (has the) win-win mindset.