Couple takes slow, steady approach to manage risk

Number crunchers | Alberta dairy farm operators make sacrifices until expansion is feasible

ST. PAUL, Alta. — Nicole and Richard Brousseau would have liked to have built a new dairy barn when they returned to the farm eight years ago.

It would have been easier than milking in the old parlour, which was so small that four workers were needed to milk and move the cattle.

However, they delayed construction until they could afford it and knew better what direction they wanted the dairy to go.

“We make choices. We take one step at a time,” Richard said from the kitchen of their old farmhouse.

Now they’re waiting for the right time to build a new house.

“If we grow little by little, it takes longer, but it feels safer,” said Nicole.

It’s that kind of risk management, sound decision-making and willingness to make sacrifices that earned the northeastern Alberta couple this year’s provincial Outstanding Young Farmers award.

The Brousseaus say they do nothing by chance.

When they returned to the family dairy farm where Nicole was raised, they first prepared a business plan, studied the finances and presented it to Nicole’s parents, Bert and Yvonne Poulin, who are also their business partners in the dairy and grain farm.

“We’re very, very big number crunchers,” said Nicole.

Their first step before moving home from Vermilion, Alta., where the two worked in Lakeland College’s dairy division, was to buy quota and cows from Nicole’s parents. Then they started driving home on weekends to help milk and manage the dairy operation.

The couple made the move to St. Paul in 2006 and began working full time on the dairy farm a year later.

Sixty-three farms shipped milk from St. Paul County at its peak in 1981. The community even had its own cheese plant.

Two dairies are left in the county: the Brousseaus and another across the road. At one time, five dairies were located on the same county road.

Nicole’s grandparents moved to St. Paul from Quebec in the 1950s,and her parents took over the farm in 1976.

The two couples meet for a family meeting every Monday morning to discuss and plan the week’s schedule of harvest, milking, silage, machinery purchases and family events.

They are not always easy meetings, but keeping the communication open between the families is important, especially when one set of partners is getting closer to retirement and the other partners are just starting their agricultural career.

“It allows for discussion on any issue,” said Nicole.

The Brousseaus milked 25 cows when they moved home. Their Holstein and Jersey herd has now reached 50, and the new barn is de-signed for 110 cows.

“When we first moved here, the idea was to use what we had,” said Richard.

However, it wasn’t long before they realized they needed to expand.

“Ultimately, the dairy has to grow, be viable and sustainable,” Nicole said.

The Brousseaus have implemented a strict crop rotation system since returning to the farm, which has improved soil health and increased yields and crop quality as well as milk production.

They have also replaced canola meal in the dairy ration with peas grown on the farm as another way to control the dairy ration.

The farm is slowly stockpiling enough feed for a year and a half to cushion it against drought or high grain prices. The dairy and grain farms run as separate businesses so the Brousseaus know what each entity costs.

“We’re always assessing the risk,” said Nicole.

Leaving the farm after high school was a valuable experience for the couple, who always knew they wanted to be involved in agriculture but weren’t sure where or how.

They learned marketing and production skills at Lakeland but also made important connections with students, staff and others in the agricultural industry. It’s those new connections within the Outstanding Young Farmers’ Program that are exciting for the couple.

“We had such free flowing conversations and had the same goals. It was so cool,” said Nicole.

“We’re so pumped about meeting other farmers from across Canada.”

The couple’s enthusiasm about agriculture is reflected in the school tours they host to help children and their parents learn more about agriculture.

“We’ve done so many kindergarten and school tours. We like to teach people where their milk and food comes from and that it is done in a humane manner,” said Richard. “We want to be as transparent as possible.”

Schoolchildren are encouraged to touch and smell the cattle feed. Instead of bombarding students with milk yield numbers, Nicole sets out milk cartons to visually show how much milk each cow produces each day.

Even the parents on the tour appear to soak in the information.

The couple is proud of their new barn, which was designed for cow and worker health.

There is no concrete under the open concept barn, just hard packed clay and straw to help maximize cow comfort. Large open windows allow for good ventilation and plenty of light.

The Brousseaus don’t know if their three children, Ethan, 10, Cassie, 8 and Emery, 6, will take over the farm, but they want their children to have a positive experience on the farm.

“If we are enthusiastic and we are enjoying it, it’s natural for them to follow suit,” said Richard.