By Treena Hein
(Sarsfield) – Food safety is something that the public takes very seriously – and so do farmers like Robert Laplante. Laplante is not just a broiler chicken farmer, he’s also the owner of a processing plant and it’s critically important that data input errors of all kinds are eliminated and that product recall times (if a recall was ever ordered) are as fast as possible. To do all this and more, the owner of Laplante Poultry and Feather Weight Farms implemented a completely automated product tracking system, one that won him a 2014 Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence.
Laplante’s farm is located in Sarsfield, east of Ottawa. There, he grows a standard crop rotation of corn, soybeans and wheat on 1,400 acres. Minimum tillage helps with erosion control (although it’s not a strong concern on the farm’s heavy clay soils) and the use of GPS-based precision agriculture practices means that fertilizer and chemical use is optimized. The farm’s feed mill produces the bulk of feed ingredients for Feather Weight’s 80,000 broiler (meat) chickens.
Laplante’s father Gerald started the farm in 1965 with hogs, but in 1972, the family purchased a neighbouring dairy farm with only seven cows. Keen to expand, the Laplantes eventually became one of the largest dairy producers in Eastern Ontario, until a disastrous fire struck in 1993. “We were going to rebuild our dairy operation, but one of our advisors recommended we look into other options,” Laplante remembers. “We decided on broilers.”
Their two-barn operation is run by family as well as two full-time employees. Laplante’s parents (Gerald and Claudette, both 71) are still active on the farm. “Mom helps in the office and Dad is anywhere and everywhere I need him,” Laplante explains. Laplante’s brother was also part of the business but died in 1998 in a farming accident.
The poultry barns still have their original fluorescent lights, and although new fixtures will be installed at some point, Laplante says the present system is quite efficient and very durable.
“When you look at new lighting, you have to look not just at electricity consumption, but the lifespan of the fixtures themselves, the number of fixtures needed and so on,” he notes. The barns were quite advanced at the time with respect to their in-floor heating (using hot water heated by oil furnaces). Although they are costly to install, these systems provides significant energy savings compared to other forms of barn heating, and for Laplante, they paid for themselves within five years. Part of the ongoing cost savings comes from the fact that no wood shavings are required to keep the chicks warm. “There is very even heat everywhere in the barn, so there are no areas that the chicks try to go to more than others,” Laplante explains. “I did put in shavings for the first while, but I used less and less and saw for myself that the chicks were very comfortable without it.”
Laplante Poultry’s chicken processing plant, which provides employment for 20, is located in nearby Monkland. The fact that it’s the only processor between Toronto and Montreal was part of the incentive to install a completely automated traceability and product management system.
“Because we have the processing plant, the distribution system and also the farm, it made sense to make everything electronic,” Laplante says. “The transfer of data and documents between the farm and the plant is automatic, and if we ever had a recall, it would make it so much easier than with a paper-based system.
The system also reduces errors. A lot of things like product weights had to be input manually before, and errors can happen. Orders are filled much more quickly and all the information is integrated with barcoding. Laplante says the new system has decreased operational costs by 10 per cent and labour costs by eight per cent. If a recall is every required, it will take almost 90 per cent less time (a mere three hours, by estimates). System installation and training was completed in under four months.
The automation also means that the processing side of the business will be able to more easily accommodate expansion. “It’s useful for our current operation and also makes us ready for growth,” Laplante explains. “There is room for expansion here and from Western Quebec.”
Laplante really enjoys the challenges of farming. “It’s always rewarding,” he says, “and your efforts are directly beneficial to the family. Being a farming family also means we can see each other every day. My office is in my parents’ house, and it’s right next door, so my three daughters can come and find me anytime. It’s very nice.” Winning the Premier’s Award, he says, was both fun and rewarding. “It’s that little cherry on top.”
This article is one in a series produced by Farm & Food Care Ontario. The stories highlight innovative initiatives in the areas of animal welfare and environmental stewardship in Ontario agriculture. To submit a profile idea, email email@example.com