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The Milky Way 

author/photographer: Roger Thomas

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If you think dairy farming is all peaches and cream, just spend a day at one of these operations.

It’s dark. The lights go on and the workday begins. It’s the same every day, every week, every year without fail. Christmas morning? A workday. Sick days? Not permitted. And every night is the same as every morning, same rules.

But energetic entrepreneurs with pockets full of cash should not overlook the opportunities of dairy farming: You can be your own boss, earn a decent living (minus the promise of a pension or medical plan) and work seven days week, morning and night – with shorter winter workdays (14 hours) and much longer ones in daylight saving time. You get to work with cows that not only produce milk, but staggering quantities of manure and urine. You won’t have to invoke that “no perfume, no cologne” clause in your workplace agreement; fresh ammonia and the acrid odour of cow poop in the barn negates that headache. Furthermore, you have no worries about manure disposal; a government agency attends your facility, tells you how much storage space you need and how to build it, how to store the manure and when and how to spread it. The only thing left for you to do is formulate a plan to comply with environmental regulations. Submit your plan for approval, buy the proper equipment and Bob’s your uncle! That’s the rear end of things, but many more challenges await you. Mark and Cindy Bickle, together with their three children, face these every day with gusto, pride and a strong emphasis on improvement. Cindy is the sixth generation at Stonybrook Farms north of Grafton. Her 24-year-old daughter Elyse is pregnant and the new baby will be the eighth generation raised on the same farm among the Holsteins and Jerseys. (Holstein Canada lists their place as the oldest registered pure-bred Holstein farm in Canada, dating back to 1898.) Spending a day with these people and their neighbours, the Miedemas, offers many lessons about modern dairy farming, hard work and fierce loyalty to family and tradition.

4:30-7:45 AM | The alarm clock goes off at Cindy and Mark’s and they climb into their clothes and head to the barn, where they meet Elyse, who lives nearby. Elyse left her full-time job as a dental assistant two years ago to join her parents. Questioned about the sagacity of her career change, she quickly responds, “It’s a pride thing, I love the cows and get to work with my parents. It’s a joint effort and we are working for the future.” She is true to her words: 4:30 in the morning finds her in the milk parlour with her mom, and together they milk the current batch of lactating cows twice a day, all 255 of them. (By late August the number rises to well over 300 to match autumn quota incentives.)

First they close the milk-line valves from wash/sterilize to milk, then fire up the motors powering the vacuum system and check the time temperature recorder (TTR) for any alerts. The TTR records the temperature of the milk in the holding tank, the temperature of hot water and chlorine used after each milking to sterilize the lines, as well as any power outages that may have occurred during the night.

While Cindy and Elyse prepare the double-12 milk parlour (it can handle 24 animals at a time), Mark is in the barn getting the cows on their feet and moving them into the herding gate. The gate crowds the cows so they are next to the two parlour entrances, then Cindy or Elyse opens the entrance and 12 cows go in each side and are positioned by air-powered robotic gates so they line up with the milking machines. Mom and daughter check the computer monitors above each milk station and clean and disinfect the four teats on each udder by hand, before hooking up the suction cups that stimulate the udder. Once a cow stops giving milk (after about five-to-eight minutes), the automatic milking device releases the suction cups and retracts from the cows, and the teats are treated again with disinfectant. When 12 cows on one side are finished they are released by the automatic gates to wander back to the main area to feed and drink. Twelve more cows are then herded into the vacant side and the process begins anew. The Bickles can do about 100 cows per hour.

Once the milking is done and the parlour washed down and sanitized, Cindy heads to her office in the barn, a spic-and-span room that compares to anything you’d find in a towering building in downtown Toronto. On this particular day, she checks her computer and finds four cows are producing about 55 kg/day, about 15 kg more than the average lactating cow. Another 30 are hovering around the 45 kg mark. The Bickles scope their breeding efforts towards an increase in kg/cow production for two reasons: they can produce more milk with fewer animals, thereby reducing their overall workload. “We’re also reducing the carbon footprint our industry leaves behind,” says Mark. “For me it is personal. My whole family gets involved in my passion and we increase the value of our herd at every level.”

You’ve got to milk cows two times a day, why wouldn’t you want to have and milk the best?” adds Cindy.

8:00 AM| Breakfast! The Bickles often send someone to town to pick up food and coffee, but a few kilometres north at the Miedemas, Jake and his sons Jesse (21) and Chris (27) all go to their respective homes for an hour of respite after morning chores.

Miedema Farms was established in 1954, and Chris and Jesse are the third generation. Jake milks 120 Holsteins and his herd is classified as straight Grade A, which means he does not subscribe to the pure-bred registering process that the Bickles do.

Essentially the difference in final milk production is minimal. Jake feels that maintaining the records, doing the paperwork and hiring specialists to classify each cow in a registered pure-bred herd seems like a lot of unnecessary work. He’s an expert in his own right, and has the experience and knowledge to recognize the areas of improvement required in each of his own cows. He assesses their feet, udders and longevity and selects the breeding traits in the registered bulls for herd improvement. “I want healthy feet, the shape and angles are so important for a lifetime of walking on concrete. The udders should be as square as possible with even quarters corresponding with each of the four teats. It takes two years from birth to get a heifer into the milk parlour. Longevity and production. It’s a big investment in that animal. You want her to be healthy and produce milk for a long time.”

A lactation in the dairy business is the period of time a cow produces milk for market. An average cow will stay on the milk line for about seven and a half months, then be taken off and become a member of the dry cow program, where she’s given an injection that causes her milk to dry up. “She gets to go on holidays for 40 to 45 days until her calf is born,” says Cindy.

Stonybrook and Miedema Farms do their own breeding to get the most from their cows; a first-time heifer is bred between 13 and 14 months of age, and gestation is nine months. When the calf is born, mom licks it dry and that’s their last contact. No suckling allowed. The heifer is milked and her colostrum saved and fed in a bottle back to her calf.

9:00 AM – NOON | After breakfast, Cindy deals with any health concerns that might have come up during milking. She has a vet onsite every other week to check on herd health, and she separates the cows that need attention beforehand. Cindy also deals with a multitude of sales people; some stranger is generally in her barn every day for repairs, plying products or dealing with some facet of herd management.

Despite the large size of their operation, Cindy can look at every one of her 255 cows and know which is which. So can Elyse, and she can often give you its eight-digit number, too! Jake Miedema is exactly the same way. These folks don’t have to look at ear tags, they know every one of their animals.

That said, all calves are tagged at birth, and their numbers are entered in the farm’s database – handily available through everyone’s smart phone. When heifers get old enough they are also outfitted with a neck collar or leg band. (Stonybrook uses collars and Jake prefers leg bands.) The collars and bands contain small computer transponders that are linked to the farm’s main computer system and programmed so all the cows’ information is tracked, mainly for milk-parlour records – when she was bred, number of days on the milk line, daily weight of her milk, etc. Each morning and night a scanner records information as the cow enters the milk parlour. The amount of milk given is added automatically to her daily record, and when her production drops to a certain level it’s usually time to take her off the line or check for other factors.

When a heifer or cow is expected to come into heat she’s outfitted with a special collar that tracks physical behaviour. In heat she becomes restless and very active, usually at night when no one is around to see her. The transponder records this and sends the information to the main system, so there is no guesswork to determine when it’s time to breed.

These marvellous little devices have a lot of uses. For example, when Jake has hoof trimming scheduled he selects around 20 cows and programs their sensors. As the cows leave the milk parlour they each have to enter a sort gate, which scans them and automatically puts them in a separate pen so they can be trimmed later. These devices are used for medicated cows, cows in heat or for any other reason necessary to separate a cow from the herd.

NOON | Lunch is sometimes a noon thing in the house or, during planting, haying and fall harvest, it could be ferried to the back 40 and dining takes place in a tractor cab.

1:00-3:00 PM | There’s much more to dairy farming than milking. Think about feeding all those animals, for example! This includes not just the lactating cows but also the calves, heifers, dry cows on holidays, the steer and beef program and perchance a few critters to show at the local fair. Jake Miedema is currently milking 120 cows. He also has a steer program, which means he neuters all the bull calves and raises them for the beef market. In total Jake feeds 500 animals every day.

It takes tons of food to keep them full. The 120 lactating cows get 7,000 kg of food/day – about 7.7 tons – in a precise combination of crops: 40% ground alfalfa hay, 20% corn silage, 20% high-moisture ground kernel corn, 10% roasted and ground soybeans and 10% of a fortified mineral-and-protein mixture supplied by a feed company and determined by milk analysis, overall herd health and input from the herd veterinarian.

Each portion of the crops is taken from his covered cement bunker silos daily by loader tractor and put into a large mix wagon. The wagon has a scale readable from the tractor cab and as each crop is added the weights are registered until the proper amount has been added. The mix wagon stirs everything together and it’s then driven down the feed alley and discharged onto the concrete floor in front of the milk cows. The cows reach over barriers and have 24-hour free choice of the food. Jake feeds his cows a total mix ration (TMR), which means each lactating cow gets exactly the same percentage of the mixed crops. Stonybrook Farms feed program mirrors Miedema Farms.

The daunting task of ensuring the bunker silos have sufficient crops is second nature to Jake. He grows 160 acres of pure alfalfa hay, the most important crop for Canadian dairy farmers. He watches the crop carefully prior to cutting, and harvests just before the alfalfa flowers. “I like to catch it in mid-bud,” he says. This ensures maximum protein value and nutrition levels. Eighty acres of corn silage come next, with 100 acres of high-moisture corn to follow. He also grows 120 acres of soybeans and 140 acres of wheat. The wheat is grown strictly for bedding straw and the grain proper is sold. Jake also usually has 40-60 acres of barley used as a cover crop for newly-sown alfalfa. The barley is planted with the alfalfa seed first thing in the spring and comes up quickly; it chokes out most of the weeds, giving the alfalfa a chance to grow.

Over at Stonybrook, the numbers are even bigger. “I have 250 acres of alfalfa, 450 acres of corn… right around a thousand acres of crops all told,” says Mark. Good thing his 21-year-old-son Tyler is on staff. His duties are divided between the dairy herd, calves, beef operations and field, manure and equipment tasks. Tyler left his electrician apprenticeship a couple of years ago and came home to help. “I don’t have to go very far to work and I’m with family and not punching a clock for someone else,” he says. (Most dairy farms in Canada are passed down through families. It gets in in the blood. It’s love, an affinity for cows and a capacity for hard work.)

Although Holly Bickle, 26, works in the financial industry, she swoops into the farm regularly to do payroll, bookkeeping and work in conjunction with her parents on the financial concerns of the corporation. “I manage expenses according to income and future planning,” she says. “I want to help my parents and I want them to succeed.” Holly gives about 20 hours a month of her time, with Saturday mornings reserved for her mom in the office, poring over accounts.

3:00-6:00 PM | Time to milk again and then wash down the milking parlour, launder all the disinfecting cloths and move the cows’ waste into storage tanks. Plus, more fieldwork, paperwork and computer work.

7:00 PM | Dinner and relax for a bit. Maybe get off the farm and see some friends.

9:30 PM | Off to the barn for night rounds to make sure the cows have enough feed for the night and the ladies in the maternity pen are okay.

10:30 PM – 4:00 AM | Sleep. The Bickles average five hours a night. “You get used to it,” says Cindy.

THERE ARE ABOUT 12,000 DAIRY FARMS IN CANADA TODAY (3,834 in Ontario in 2015, including 73 in Northumberland, 50 in Hastings County and 35 in Prince Edward County). In 1970 there were more than 122,000! Despite a 90% drop in farms, milk production has increased. Today dairy farmers have better access to genetics, herd-improvement programs, statistics and crop-production programs. They have bigger farms, more cows, better feed, bigger equipment and are always looking to improve. Though their milk production and daily operations are swamped with guidelines, quotas, standard operating procedures and paperwork from provincial and federal agencies, dairy farmers have responded with the tenacity and vigour inherent in their character.

Like most industries, the future in some respects is uncertain. In the United States and parts of Canada, robots milk and monitor the cows with minimal human contact. Some American dairy operations have 15,000 cows onsite in the warmer states, milk cows 24 hours a day, buy all their feed, contract manure removal and have full-time breeders, supervisors and shift managers. They even hire full-time bean counters, who hover over computers buying feed on percentages, semen and everything necessary to keep the business in the black.

But here in Northumberland, the scale of dairy operations is still manageable for a family, and the future is in good hands. Mark and Cindy Bickle’s daughter Elyse is a fine example of that future. At 24, with husband Matt at her side every day and a new generation on the way, she exemplifies the spirit and fortitude necessary to go forward. “I love the cows and can work with my parents. It’s doing something I love.” A hoot and a holler over the hill to the north, Jesse Miedema echoes Elyse’s positive outlook. He’s 21 and recently graduated from Kemptville College with a diploma in agriculture. “I was raised on a dairy farm. I love doing this. I really like the breeding and want to see improvements in our herd.” It is uncanny yet warm and settling to hear their comments and passions echo each other.

So if you’re a budding entrepreneur and your milk dreams haven’t gone sour after reading this – did you register the part about five hours of sleep a night? – don’t bother wandering up to Stonybrook or Miedema Farms with an offer. Chances are they won’t be coming on the market anytime soon.

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