By Hetty Stuart
Dairy farming is about constant improvement believe Jeff and Yvonne Van Soest of Hensall, along with their 24-year old son Connor. Nine years ago, the Van Soests purchased a dairy farm on 17th Line near Hensall and recently achieved their goal of transforming a herd of 270 grade cows into a registered herd.
All the while, success comes in small steps, observations and restructuring that reshaped the farm into the productive dairy operation it is today.
“There is a real shift in the dairy industry: a lot more focus is put onto the calves,” says Yvonne, as she proudly walks us through her job in the calf barn. Built a few years ago, this automated calf barn has replaced the outside calf hutches and provides huge benefit by removing most of the stressors that can cause a calf to become sick. The temperature is controlled, the pens are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected before bringing a newborn calf into the barn, the food is delivered in a timely fashion, and there is an intensive record-keeping process that transmits all information to the central computer. Yvonne underlines the importance of the calf barn: “When a young calf gets sick, she will turn into a cow that gives us trouble. Our goal with this calf barn is to start them out as well as we can to avoid later trouble in life.”
Connor makes the sweeping statement that seems to be the backbone of this farm: “We are working towards achieving full genetic potential.” When a calf is born, it is born with all the genetics it needs to perform. Jeff expands the idea: “Everything that a human does to them from the day they are born may limit them. Yvonne’s job is so critical, working with the calves - if she can do a good job in the first 90 days, the rest is so much easier.”
There are approximately 30 to 40 calves born per month on this farm. Within twelve hours of birth, the calves receive Selon E (vitamin E), and Vitamin B through injections. They also receive two vaccinations, one for BRV (bovine respiratory virus) and Calf Guard for scours. They also get a carbon bolus orally, a natural product which helps to promote gut health in the calf.
The mother’s colostrum milk is separated from each individual cow, tested, then fed back to her own calf for two days before the Uddermatic feeder system begins its program. A milk powder is mixed with warm water in the feeder, then it moves along the rail system to feed the new calves three small meals per day. The increased meal ensures a uniform growth rate amongst the newborns, with less than one per cent mortality rate. Within two months, the calves will have more than doubled their birth weight. “There is always something new to learn,” says Yvonne with satisfaction.
In addition to some milking shifts, her full-time employee cares for the calves, constantly recording the data on the computers as they move through the first three months of their lives. Less than 10 per cent of the calves need any antibiotic treatment. “We only treat if they display signs of illness. There is no blanket antibiotic treatment. Overuse of antibiotics kills good and bad bacteria in a calf, to the point where they may no longer be strong enough to fight infection on their own. We focus on prevention,” says Yvonne. It is easy to comprehend that the investment spending on this calf barn will have a great payback.
The calves will stay in their own pen from the day they are born to the day they leave the calf barn. Their pen is in one of the four rooms of thirty-six pens in this barn, continually and seamlessly upgrading their diets until by the eleventh week when they are fully weaned. At this time, the bulls will eat a whole corn diet with a protein supplement and the heifers will be eating several kilograms per day of a farm-made calf starter ration. The amount of care given to both bulls and heifers is identical; there is no difference in their treatment. “This is why our beef program is doing so well,” says Jeff. “The bull calf is started properly, not just a by-product.” The bull calves and the heifers are separated at this point. Another of their farms will raise the veal calves to 850 pounds. The Holstein heifers will now enter the loop of the next barn where they will prepare to be bred at 12 months.
Connor takes over the next phase: a necklace device is put on each heifer to track movements and health, as well as her breeding schedule. When the heifer is fully in heat — which happens every three weeks —her step-monitor shows increased activity and she is then artificially inseminated. There is only a 24-hour period for this A.I. to occur, so Connor monitors this pen often. “It seems like I don’t do much,” he says candidly, “I basically walk around and make sure everything runs smoothly.”
His father comments that Connor’s observation of small details is what makes him an outstanding farmer. “Dairy farming is comprised of a lot of small things. Skip a few little things, and it will catch up with you,” he admits. “Connor can walk the 300-foot walkway through one barn and notice five small problems such as a water bowl not working, the feed is too damp, the scraper turned off … observation, observation, observation! And communicating the troubles amongst all the staff is key.”
Cow breeding also has a system. The semen that is stored in tanks is either sexed (female only) or beef: an older cow will be bred to birth beef calves which are fattened for red veal. The new heifers are bred to birth more heifers. Jeff says, “Genetics change by the day, just like cell phones and computers. We breed all our heifers to sexed semen as we only want heifers out of our heifers versus older cows, because these new calves are going to be genetically superior to our older cows. I am a numbers guy, and numbers never lie. It took my son a long time to convince me to do it this way, but it works.”
There are different rations of feed for every stage of the cow’s life: from the two-month-dry stage, throughout the nine-month pregnancy, and then to the fresh stage, after the cow has birthed her calf. “I can usually tell on the quality of the calves if the cows were stressed during birthing,” says Yvonne.
Again, there are many trained eyes watching the whole process as the Van Soests try to raise the healthiest calf possible to turn into a healthy cow. Connor checks on a birthing cow hourly, but allows her to do the work unassisted. “No need to rush them,” he says. “If you do, infections happen, placentas are not pushed out properly, and the milk will not release readily. The cows are quite capable of taking care of themselves.” If the calf is lying wrong in the womb, in most circumstances, he can manually move it.
Every two weeks, the vet comes to check on the welfare of the herd. If there is trouble with the feed, or the breeding system, the vet can help sort out the cause of it. Pregnancy checks are done with very little invasion through a special ultrasound. A scope is inserted rectally, and the image isshown on the vet’s glasses. “Our vet is quite proactive,” says Connor. “He will show me how to do certain things to help the cow. We have a stethoscope to listen to the heart, lungs and stomach. Also, an artificial insemination company taught us their skill and we do that ourselves too.”
Walking past the “sick pen”, Jeff notes that only some of these cows are being treated with antibiotics, and their milk gets dumped automatically. “The milk truck driver takes a sample of our milk when it is picked up from the farm. It is tested for antibiotic residue and bacteria levels before processing. If there is even a chance that our cooler is contaminated, it gets dumped, and we purge the whole system. If our milk is tested at the lab and shows some discrepancy, we could be fined, and after two incidents, we would have our licence revoked. There is no room for error.”
High school students are hired to work in the milking parlour. “We like kids with zero experience. We’ll teach them our good habits, and how to milk our way,” says Connor. “A cow that is calm and not stressed will milk a lot easier and give more milk. You can save a cow a lot of stress by having calm interaction with them. We never use canes, and never raise our voices. Even our walking is measured and even.”
Cows are milked two times daily, 20 at a time. The milking procedure is quite logical -- spray the teats of the first 10 cows, wipe the teats and udder with a cloth towel, return to the first cow who had been prepped and she will be ready to be milked. “Timing is so important. If a cow is not properly ready, she is unable to release all her milk. Up to one litre of milk could be withheld, if she is stressed.” Within one hour, over 100 cows can be milked in that parlour. A cow is milked for 300 days per year, and will average 35-40 litres of milk daily.
As the cows are being milked, her anklet will be scanned by the transponder and relay information to the computer. Her milk is tested for conductivity, a measurement of salt in her milk which could be a precursor to infection. Constant notations and adjustments are made in order to maintain optimum health and productivity. There is a “non-specific health report” that is checked after each milking which will show any deviation for individual cows from previous milkings. “We don’t just milk cows here, we produce food,” Jeff claims proudly.
The bulk tank holds 30,000 litres of milk, and gets emptied every other day. It was purchased with the intention that there would be room for growth both in the herd size and production. There is a timed temperature recorder that takes readings 24 hours per day, and will send an alarm for any unusual activity.
Inspections are done yearly, but sporadic ones can occur as well. The Van Soest farm gets the Gold Seal most years — a standard that shows a Grade A facility, low bacteria and somatic cell count for that year. “You can complain about these inspections all you want,” says Jeff. “But we make food and we have to do a quality job. How well you take care of your cows, and how clean everything is will reflect on the Gold Seal.”
Cleaning is a priority. The separate rooms in the calf barn get washed monthly as the calves are moved out and the rooms are emptied. The dairy barn gets completely foam-cleaned annually. While Yvonne’s main work area is the calf barn, and Connor’s is the young heifers and the milking parlour, Jeff’s eyes light up when he shows us his work area - his “kitchen” - a shed where a tractor and mixer sits, ready for its load of nutritious ingredients. He says, “It takes 24,000 kg of food to feed our entire herd, on a daily basis, and there is a precise recipe for each stage of the cattle. The bulk of the food is haylage and corn silage. Protein levels in the feed are supplemented with the combinations of canola meal, soya meal, corn distillers, fine ground corn, bypass protein, mineral and more.” It all gets dumped into the mixer with a front-end loader, every ingredient measured according to dry matter. Cows are fussy eaters - if the face of the bunk is damp, due to rain, adjustments have to be made. Every morning, leftover feed is monitored to measure the “refusal rate”. Between Connor, Jeff and a feed consultant, the “stew” is adjusted to meet the cow’s requirements.
Behind the barn, accessible to the tractor, are the bunkers, huge cement walls that contain their alfalfa and corn. Plastic sheets encase the new crops, allowing the corn to ferment, for optimum feeding, and no spoilage. Jeff usually has more than a year’s worth of crops in advance, in case of crop failure.
Their employees help with the field work and equipment, as well as the milking and cow management. All spring long, until the geese fly south, there is constant field work that needs to be done. Yvonne states, “There is a perception that farmers don’t care for the land or the animals. That is not true at all: on a personal level, we take our stewardship very seriously as our responsibility. Our ultimate goal is to take as good care for the land, and for the cows as is possible.”
Jeff relaxes with a cold drink in the cool of the kitchen. He twinkles as he says, “It’s nice to see someone coming along behind you, he gets all the hard jobs. I'll get the easy ones.” He is referring to the new GPS that Connor had put on the tractor last year. “I was dead set against spending $8,000 on the GPS to cultivate a field. But, I did it, and I loved it. No overlap, no break in the rows, just a perfect field. And I’m not tired at the end of the day either. I listened to my son.” Yes, Connor has the hardest job somedays, it is clear to see.
Yvonne sums up the overriding philosophy of the workings of their farm: “You must adapt. You have to, if you want to stay in farming.” With this wise attitude, and inspiring leadership beside him, 24-year old Connor, of Huron County, is part of the next generation of dairy farmers who will keep Canadians fed and alive! ◊