Robotic milker reinvigorates Alta. family farm

Next generation | A son’s investment in the family farm has improved family and herd health

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HOUSE, Alta. — What started as a joke ended as a farm succession plan.

Cody Nicolay didn’t know how he could join the family dairy, beef and grain farm until he saw a YouTube video of a robotic milker.

“I kept putting the idea into Dad’s head,” said Nicolay, who believed buying a robotic milker would solve the farm’s labour problems and allow him to join the farm business.

His parents, Brenda and Stan, eventually agreed that a robotic milker would be a way to allow their son to invest in the family farm and solve the farm labour shortage problem.

Nicolay borrowed $650,000, bought a robotic milker, an automatic calf feeder, five cows and quota and joined the family business.

Payments for the new robotic equipment are the same as wages for a hired hand, but more importantly, Nicolay isn’t tied to the farm twice a day, 365 days a year for the rest of his life.

“I don’t mind the work, but I have to have a balance,” said Nicolay, 19.

The robotic milker could be paid off by the time Nicolay is 24, and he will know if he wants to continue milking or find an off-farm career.

The family has taken time away from the farm, herd health has improved and there is more time to do other work since they installed the milker in July 2013 and the automatic calf feeder six months later.

“One person can easily manage this system,” said Brenda.

The family milked 70 cows two times a day before the robotic milker. Fifty-five cows are now milked 3.6 times a day by a robot and produce the same amount of milk, even with 15 fewer cows. The cows line up to be milked by the robot when they feel it’s time.

“I just love this system,” said Brenda.

“For us it has been life changing.… We now remember why we love farming.”

Brenda and Stan took over the family dairy farm from Stan’s parents in 1997, who live nearby and still help driving equipment and doing other farm jobs.

The couple and their children, Cody and Nicole, spent long hours milking cows, repairing equipment and building the farm.

“It was long hours and hard work, but it paid off,” said Brenda.

Along with the work on the farm were off-farm activities, including Cody’s hockey career. Cody left home at 15 to pursue a hockey career but returned in 2012.

Cody convinced his parents that living away from home with 19 other hockey players had given him the skills needed to stay on the farm.

“He said he never had a tougher boss than a Junior A hockey coach,” said Brenda.

“It’s what he wants to do. If he doesn’t after six or seven years when the robot and quota are paid, he can sell out. He has time on his side.”

She said a busy nearby oil patch and few people willing to milk cows part time made buying the robotic milker key to keeping the cows and having a realistic farm succession plan.

Her son uses some of the free time between harvest and haying and other farm work to help coach local hockey players.

“I’m proud he uses some of that free time to give back to the community that helped him out,” said Brenda.

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