More Than Farming — Managing a Dairy Herd

By Jean Clavelle, Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan

MorethanFarmingAgriculture is much more than farming. It’s a diverse community of people who work closely with and support those farmers who grow our food, and without this supporting network, farming would not be what and where it is today.

This month, RealDirt spoke with Morgan Hobin who is the Manager at the Rayner Dairy Research and Teaching Unit at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. The Center boasts one voluntary milking system (robotic) and a parlour (or conventional milking system), and is currently milking 104 cows with an additional 150 calves and cows that are not producing milk.

Hobin explains that although they are a commercial facility, they are not a conventional dairy. Among the requirements to produce milk that you will buy in the grocery store, they have extra space to allow for teaching dairy production to students and have two different milking systems which allows for different kinds of research.  “We also have the interactive cow walk suspended above the dairy so consumers, farmers and anyone, really, can observe the cows in their day-to-day life and to see where their milk comes from. And the other unique thing is that we are a commercial dairy in the city, which is quite rare.”

Morgan acts as the liaison between the barn operations, the research faculty (from the department of Animal and Poultry Science and the Western College of Veterinary Medicine) and the public and teaches dairy management labs to Animal Science students.

“It’s a very quiet and calm environment and you don’t hear banging or yelling or animals in distress. The animals get to take their time. It’s a pretty relaxed place.”

RealDirt: What do you feel are your most important responsibilities?

morgan-hobin-dairy-manager-1Morgan: My number one most important responsibility is taking care of the cows. This includes making sure the staff is on board for the day’s activities and goals for the week. I make sure the cows are fed the right diets, calves are taken care of, and cow’s reproductive systems stay healthy. We are a commercial facility but we have research responsibilities on top of the general day to day management so all of the team needs to be on the same page.

The second is to make sure that the research that is being done is high quality resulting in publishable data. And under that scope the most important thing goes back to the cows being taken care of. Our ultimate goal is that the research that happens here directly transfers and is practical for Saskatchewan farmers and their animals.

RealDirt: What does a typical day entail?

Morgan: I get to the barn around 7:45 am and I do my rounds. I see how much feed is left over in the bunks, and then I make adjustments for that day’s feeding schedule based on how much is left over from the day before. I look at the cows and the manure (which is important because manure tells you if they are healthy or not) and make sure that all of the cows are doing well. A healthy manure patty has good consistency, piles firmly and is a brownish colour. Manure that is too runny, too firm, has gas bubbles or grain in it, indicates a problem! Then I check the notebook – these are the notes that tell us if there were any issues from the night shift (we have people here from four in the morning until 11 at night) and deal with anything that has come up. This is followed by a team meeting so everyone can get up to speed about what is happening in the barn that day and if anything out of the ordinary is happening like a tour, or a special research project that might be starting. Then it’s all up in the air from there! I usually have a plan but every day is different.

There are a lot of tasks that happen on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. An important one is to make sure to look at our computer programs which provide specific info about each animal from the day before and a snapshot of the previous week which is another indicator of how the cows are doing and their health and well being. I look at animals that are due to calve and determine if any cow needs special attention or if we need to bring them in if they are getting close to  their due date.

And then there are all of the regular dairy farm duties. I need to pay bills, order feed, make feed sheets based on the morning bunk checks and check the bulk tank (the stored milk that will eventually go to the grocery store) to make sure we are on track for our quota (the amount of milk expected to be produced each month). And of course there’s scheduling all of the workers (we have six full-time, five casual employees, and four students).

In the afternoon, I often have meetings with faculty and researchers to hash out and schedule upcoming research projects. I also go to check on the calves in the calf barn and on the heifers and the rest of the animals outside, to see if they are doing well, body condition wise. Every second week we have “herd health” where the vet and several fourth year vet students come to check for pregnancies and do general post-calving checks on each cow to make sure they are all healthy. And, because we are a teaching centre, I teach dairy management to Animal Science and Veterinary Medicine students.

RealDirt: What do you love most about your job?

I love the fact that when I come to work I know that every day is going to be different. I love the combination of office work and caring for the animals and getting to be a part of the neat research we do.

RealDirt: What is the most challenging part?

Finding the sweet spot between meeting the demands of research and teaching while still being a productive and profitable herd.

RealDirt: What has changed since you started doing your job?

I’ve been here for two years and in that time, we’ve seen an increase in the technology that is available to help us on a cow-by-cow basis and for overall herd management. Everything is constantly evolving and improving.

RealDirt: What kind of training and education do you have to do this job?

I have a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture and a Master of Science in dairy nutrition from the University of Saskatchewan. To do this job, I think it is important to have practical experience. I went to Australia and milked cows there for a year, so I understand and can work better with the team that’s out in the barn because I understand what they are doing. And having management experience definitely helps.

RealDirt: How do you interact with farmers?

Our researchers work with the provincial dairy industry so we can link the research with industry priorities which is the ultimate goal. Often farmers will stop by to view our facilities or they might have a guided tour. Farmers want to know the research that’s happening here so they can understand what’s new and what they may be changing in the future. They also want to see how our facilities work and often compare their own to ours.

RealDirt: What is the biggest misconception you encounter in your job?

I think it’s just general animal care and how cows are housed. I think visitors’ minds change when they tour our facility. For example, we have brushes in each pen, that lets the cows brush themselves and you can see how happy the cows look while getting scratched. I think visitors are surprised at how easily cows come to see you when you are on the floor which is a clear indicator to me that they aren’t scared or being mistreated – they want nothing more than to lick you. Plus we milk three times a day and people can come in (most of the time without us even knowing they are there) and see us moving the cows. It’s a very quiet and calm environment and you don’t hear banging or yelling or animals in distress. The animals get to take their time. It’s a pretty relaxed place.

RealDirt: What do you wish consumers knew about the dairy industry?

I guess I wish consumers knew producers respect the animals and the consumers. It takes commitment and attention to detail to make sure that there’s a high quality product coming out of the farm. And we wouldn’t pay attention to detail and try to constantly improve if we didn’t care. We want to make sure the consumers are getting a high quality, safe product because we care about them.

RealDirt: What do you think surprises visitors the most when they come to visit the Rayner dairy facility?

The biggest thing is that most people are surprised how much cows produce in a day: our cows produce about 40 kg of milk per day.  That’s the “holy cow” moment. There is a lot of work behind milk production like this and we need to pay attention to every detail of the cow’s life to help them be this productive. Stressed, sick, or unhappy cows do not produce milk like that. We also like showing people the robotic milker. A voluntary milking system is a great tool because you can have a 400 cow dairy and seven milking stations and it can be managed by one person. Voluntary systems are also good for animal welfare because cows can choose to be milked three or four a times day if they want, while others may choose not to be milked more than twice, so it gives them an option.

Robots can improve welfare for the animal and improve welfare for the farmer, too. These days in the dairy industry we work hard to find staff that we can trust our animals with. People ask me do you have kids? And I say “yes, 250 of them”. I can’t trust their health and comfort to just anyone. So having robots lets farmers provide great care to the cows and allows the farmer to have a quality of life too.

RealDirt: Is there a way for interested readers to connect with you (blog, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)?

Visitors are welcome at the barn between 12:30 pm and 4:30 pm,  seven days a week, or you can contact the Dean’s office to arrange a personalized tour at 1-306.966.4058

We’re blogging about Canadians working in agriculture. Each month, we’ll feature someone different on www.realdirtblog.ca to show how diverse our Canadian agriculture industry is! Know someone that we should feature? Send us a note at info@farmfoodcare.org.

 

 

Blogger Spotlight: Adrienne Ivey’s View From the Ranch Porch

We’re putting the spotlight on Canadian farmer bloggers. Each month, we feature a different farmer blogger to uncover a bit about life behind the blog and on their family farm.

Adrienne IveyMeet Adrienne Ivey of Evergreen Cattle Co., located near Ituna, Saskatchewan. She blogs at www.viewfromtheranchporch.wordpress.com. You can also find her on Twitter @adrienneivey and Instagram @aderivey

Here’s what Adrienne had to say about blogging and her family’s farm in our Q and A.

RealDirt: When and why did you start blogging?

Adrienne: Growing up on a grain farm in northeast Saskatchewan, and now owning and operating a cattle ranch have helped me to see that I love all parts of agriculture — from canola to cattle. I started blogging about a year ago to share my passion for all things ag with those not fortunate enough to live this life. Although I had been sharing my story frequently on social media, I needed more space! Blogging also helped me share another passion of mine: amateur photography. Life on the ranch is beautiful, and I love being able to share that beauty with those not as lucky as myself.

RealDirt: Tell us briefly about your farm.

Adrienne: Our farm consists of an 1,100 pair cow-calf herd, a 1,000 head yearling grasser program, and a 2,500 head feedlot. For all of these animals, we manage over 9,000 acres of land.

Our cattle are intensively grazed, and are out on pasture 365 days per year. Forages are the heart of our operation, in fact we like to say that we are not cattle farmers, we are grass farmers and the cattle are a tool to harvest that grass.

Our cows calve in late spring and early summer. The pairs are moved every few days onto fresh grass through a grazing plan that is set out at the beginning of the year. The calves stay with the cows until around February when they are weaned. After weaning, calves are fed in our feedlot until they can be turned out in early spring. Those calves are grazed as yearlings, or “grassers” for the summer. At fall, they are fed in a feedlot until they reach a finished weight.

Our farm is very much a family operation. Nothing makes me more proud then to be raising two small ranchers. Our children are actively involved in the daily chores of the farm, and even own their own goat herd. We like to say that we do not use our children to raise cattle; we use our cattle to raise better children.

Adrienne Ivey 2RealDirt: What is the biggest misconception about your type of farming?

Adrienne: I think that non-ranching people don’t realize just how well ranchers care for their animals. We lay awake at night thinking of ways to improve our herd health, and create a whole-farm system that keeps every animal both healthy and happy. Ranchers are often portrayed in the media in two ways, as uneducated country bumpkins (dusty cowboy hats and manure-stained boots), or as money-hungry corporate types that have little to do with daily ranch operations. The reality is that ranchers are highly-educated (we have over 12 years of post-secondary education on our ranch alone) business people that choose to get their hands and boots dirty on a daily basis. We truly love working with animals.

RealDirt: What is your greatest achievement thus far?  What are your goals? 

Adrienne: It is really difficult to choose our greatest achievement, because most days just being able to live this life seems like the highest possible achievement. One moment that really stands out was being named 2014 Saskatchewan Outstanding Young Farmers. Saskatchewan is full of really amazing farms and farmers, so being chosen for this award was a huge honour.

Going forward we really only have one goal: to build a ranch that is sustainable both environmentally and economically, while bringing the best and most delicious beef to the marketplace.

RealDirt: What do you love most about farming? What has been the most challenging part of farming for you?

Adrienne: I absolutely love that cattle ranching is the art of combining nature and human will. Our vast grasslands are home to so many species of wildlife and birds. We are fortunate to be able to spend the majority of our days surrounded by that kind of beauty. As ranchers, it is our job to take the power of nature and use it to produce delicious and nutritious food. 

As for challenges in farming, there are too many to count! Cash flow and business planning are a constant juggle. Like many entrepreneurs, we are tied to our farm on a daily basis. Whether it’s Christmas Day or our child’s first birthday, our cattle must be fed, and their daily needs come first. To be a rancher you need to be a jack of all trades: accountant, veterinarian, mechanic, mathematician, animal nutritionist, sales manager, teacher, plant pathologist, and much more. Even though we take every opportunity to learn more about all parts of ranching, sometimes it is overwhelming to try to know everything about it all. 


Adrienne Ivey Family Barn
RealDirt: When you’re not farming and blogging, how do you like to spend your time?

Adrienne: I am a mom first, and a rancher second. I spend the majority of my time off the farm hauling kids to their activities. Most of my winter is spent in a hockey rink or volunteering at the arena’s kitchen. Summers will find me hooked to a horse trailer hauling my daughter and her mare to horse shows. We are fortunate that our ranch life allows us to make horses a part of our lives.

Because we live in a very small rural community, volunteering is a way of life. We like to spend as much time as possible helping out at the local skating and curling rinks, leading 4-H, or being part of the local school or daycare boards. We also feel that it’s our responsibility as farmers to be active in our industry. I like to spend time with organizations such as Farm & Food Care, Agriculture in the Classroom, and most recently I have been acting as a mentor for the Cattlemen’s Young Leaders program.

RealDirt: What is one message you’d like to get across to the general public about what you do?

Adrienne: Ranching is a complex business, and there is no one right way to ranch. Every single cattle ranch is different — from when calves are born, to what breeds are used, to what medicines are needed. Ranchers are highly educated, passionate people that ranch for only one reason: they love every part of what they do.

RealDirt: What advice would you give to anyone interested in getting into farming?

Adrienne: Farming and ranching takes more than just passion — it takes dedication, drive, intellect, and involves so much risk. You need to be comfortable to put everything on the line every single day, and roll the dice that Mother Nature, the markets, and the animals you are caring for will all work in your favour.

Farming is an open community — we love newcomers — but to succeed you must be willing to learn new things every day, work endless hours, and put yourself last. I like to think that farming is like parenting: the moment you think you have it all figured out, everything changes!

Be sure to check out Adrienne’s blog: viewfromtheranchporch.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter @adrienneivey and Instagram @aderivey

An egg farmer examines hen housing

By Ian McKillop, egg farmer and vice chairman of Farm & Food Care Canada

Hen HousingGrowing up in the 1960’s, I’ve fond memories of my brother and me helping collect eggs. We had a small flock of several hundred hens in chicken coops. We’d reach into nests for eggs, put them in a basket and wash any dirt or manure off. Often the hens would peck us – or each other, sometimes causing death. If they became scared, they’d flock to a corner and could even suffocate themselves.

In the 1960’s, conventional cages became popular, providing a healthier and safer environment for hens and the farmers caring for them. So in 1967, my parents built a new barn with conventional cages.

The barn held 6,000 hens, large by 1967 standards, with three hens per cage. Pecking and suffocation were virtually eliminated. Gathering eggs by hand was easier, plus the eggs were seldom in contact with manure anymore. Overall, the cages allowed a safer way of housing our hens with fewer deaths, improving the quality and food safety of the eggs, while keeping costs down. The birds were content and so were we. Continue reading

Barn fires are devastating to all involved

By John Maaskant, chicken farmer and chair of Farm & Food Care Ontario

barn fire 4a

Stock photo

There have been a lot of news stories lately about barn fires in Ontario. Without exception, the stories have been tragic and the incidents devastating to these farm families in so many ways – with the loss of animals being at the very top of that list. Often, a barn fire affects an entire community with neighbours joining together to support each other and help clean up the terrible aftermath. Economic concerns, while very real, are always secondary to the loss of farm animals that these farmers have raised and nurtured.

And it doesn’t matter what type of farm animals are involved. The dairy farmer who milks his or her barn full of cows every morning and night – and knows each of their individual traits – is as emotionally affected as a pig farmer, horse owner or chicken farmer like me. Continue reading

Farming with a focus on learning

By: Matt McIntosh

2010 calendarWalt Freeman loves to learn and has no doubt that farming has been one of the most engaging educational opportunities he has ever had.

Walt and Heather – his wife of 35 years – are the owners of a Battersea-area mink farm. The farm backs up to a small lake and was built on land originally purchased by his grandfather in 1921. The couple still live in the original farmhouse, and currently produce an average of 15,000 fur pelts every year. Continue reading

Different areas, same challenges

By Matt McIntosh

In September, I had a chance to visit Alberta for the first time since I was a child, and while there, I visited a few farms in conjunction with the annual conference of the Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation.

I come from farm country in Southwestern Ontario, and the diversity between farms in my own province is staggering; the level of diversity between farms at home and out west is even more intriguing. The funny thing is, farmers all seem to encounter similar problems and find similar solutions despite what they produce, where they produce it and on what scale. Continue reading

More than a hobby

By Resi Walt

More than just a hobbyI first joined a 4-H club when I was 10 years old. My brothers had encouraged me to try it and even though I was nervous at first, it was the best decision I could have made.

The 4-H program started in the United States in 1901, when one gentleman offered a group of local boys a bag of corn seed and challenged them to grow it and show it at their State Fair. And so the concept of a youth-focused program in agriculture began. The concept spread north, with the first Canadian 4-H club beginning in Manitoba in 1913.

Today, 4-H Canada is one of the most highly respected youth organizations in Canada, with 25,000 members and over 7,000 volunteers.

When you sign up for 4-H, you can join any of the clubs offered by your local organization. There all kinds of different clubs revolving around agriculture, food or the environment, as well as clubs with non-agriculture topics. For example, you could join a club to learn about beef cows, goats, woodworking, outdoor living or plowing.

Fundamental to the 4-H organization is the motto, “Learn To Do By Doing”. Every club you join will be based upon hands-on learning. That’s the beauty of 4-H. Continue reading

Thinking like a cow is harder than you think

By Kristen Kelderman, Farm Animal Care Coordinator, Farm & Food Care

Thinking like a cow is harder than you think. (2)

Dylan Biggs works to get cattle to go through a gate one at a time by pressuring into the group of cattle.

The morning starts out the same each day. Staff wake early, drive to a small town meeting hall, unpack supplies, set up the projector and flip chart and try not to forget the ever important coffee and doughnuts.

After coffee cups are filled and neighbours enjoy a quick catch up with each other, everyone settles into their seats for the morning.

We begin.

Recently I had the opportunity to travel around with Alberta rancher and cattle handling expert Dylan Biggs, his father Tom, and ranch employee Elizabeth in a series of handling workshops for Ontario beef farmers. These workshops were put on through Farm & Food Care’s IMPACT animal care program.

After a week of workshops, I’ve become familiar with the content, but each day is a little bit different and they’re certainly never boring. Continue reading

Some thoughts on the Food “Free” Frenzy

By Crystal Mackay, CEO Farm & Food Care Canada

Trends continue to snowball with labels about what’s in a food product being expanded to how that food was grown or processed. Gluten-free, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, cage-free, everything-else-free labels are multiplying. It seems almost every day I see a new announcement from a company or a grocery store ad or a label on something I go to buy that has a claim like this.

With so much noise, how does one cut through the clutter and make an informed decision about what to buy and eat? Here are a few principles I feel that need some attention:

1. Isn’t choice awesome?
Let’s start here. I think we are extremely fortunate in Canada with so much food that we can have all these choices. For example, the fact that the egg counter at the grocery store can be a 10 minute experience reading about all the options for types of eggs is awesome. Some people in other countries might be happy to have one egg. Continue reading

The real dirt on hen housing

By Kristen Kelderman, Farm Animal Care Coordinator, Farm & Food Care

The Real Dirt on Hen HousingHaving recently become a new homeowner, it’s amazing how many different housing options there are are out there. You might be a high rise condo dweller living in one of the many buildings that populate the horizon or maybe in a single detached family home that is more your style.

Townhomes, executive penthouse lofts, cottage living – the options are endless with each choice presenting different benefits and amenities. If you’re anything like me, the only restriction is your bank account!

It’s not that different when it comes to housing options for farm animals. Modern barns today offer many benefits that the traditional red bank barn of our grandparents’ age would never be able to provide. New advancements in technology have allowed the reconstruction of modern barns to provide things like climate-controlled environments, enriched amenities, access to feed and water 24 hours a day, smart phone alerts if an issue arises in the barn and much more.

But how do we know what good and what bad environments for farm animals actually are? Science helps to tell us this. There has been a lot of research around the globe on housing of farm animals and on how different environments affect them. Many researchers have dedicated their entire careers to this area of science: studying animal behaviour, environmental impacts, natural behaviours and many more aspects of how housing influences an animal’s life.

Let’s talk about laying hen housing – housing for the birds that lay the eggs that you enjoy for breakfast. Continue reading