Alberta dairy pleased with hands-on approach

Operators returned to a milking parlour system after experiencing an increase in mastitis with robotic milking

TEMPEST, Alta. — The Van den Pol dairy farm is bucking the trend when it comes to robotic milking.

Though many dairy farms are moving to autonomous technology, Gys Van den Pol removed his robotic milkers and went back to an eight-stall milking parlour at the family dairy operation near Coaldale, Alta.

Some may say the parlour is old-fashioned, said Van den Pol, but his 80 purebred Holsteins produce 45 kilograms of milk per day, on average, amounting to about 14,000 kg per cow a year, and each cow produces about 1.7 kg of butterfat daily.

“The first year, it went pretty good,” said Van den Pol about the venture into robotic milking.

“We were pounded with mastitis the second year. The second year, our production went down about seven or eight kilos per cow per day and we had very bad mastitis.”

Bacteria and water in the milk compounded the problems and the maintenance bills were high.

“It was not going right in any direction so we decided to change. We have no problems with quality milk anymore.”

The shift away from robotics doesn’t mean the Van den Pols eschew technology. On the contrary, each cow wears an electronic ear tag through which Van den Pol can monitor the temperature, feed intake and movement of each anima, and receive an alert if patterns shift from the usual norms.

The cows are milked three times per day, and one person can usher about 50 cows an hour through the milking parlour.

Van den Pol and his wife, Silia, have one full-time employee and several part-time workers to help with milking. They and their three daughters, Corien, Djoeke and Tilly, came to Canada from Holland in 1999.

They used to operate a hog farm, but Van den Pol said excessive regulation was making it difficult to continue. Though he acknowledges that regulations in Canada are increasing, “it’s a more relaxed way of living here.”

The three daughters are not directly involved in the dairy. Gys and Silia doubt any of their daughters will want to take over the farm, so a succession plan isn’t on the priority list.

“They all help. If they’re home, they help with the farm. They spent a lot of time on the farm through 4-H and a lot of other stuff.”

It was all hands on deck earlier this year, when Van den Pol Dairy hosted Breakfast on a Dairy Farm organized by Alberta Milk.

About 700 people visited and received breakfast and tours of the operation. The Van den Pols volunteered their farm for the event because they believe it’s important for people to see how milk is produced.

“I think it was a good thing to do. It’s important for the industry. Somebody has to stand up, otherwise nothing gets done,” Van den Pol said.

“Lots of people liked it, to see what’s happening in reality and how things are handled and how cows are handled, how you treat the cows.”

Added Silia: “It was nice. It was busy, and the day (weather) was nice.”

The operation grows its own feed for the cattle, farming 65 acres of silage corn and 65 acres of alfalfa for hay. Another 90 acres are rented for hay production, and rations are mixed in the on-farm feed mill.

“We try to do as much as we can ourselves to keep costs down,” said Gys.

The cows are housed in an open concept barn with a compost bedding pack that has canola straw as a base ingredient. Cow comfort is paramount and the sign on the barn indicates the dairy is the “home of contented cows.”

“Cows have to be content,” said Gys. “If we are not content with them, they will not be content with us. Cow comfort is a very important thing so they don’t deal with obstacles if they have to get up. And they just can lay down wherever they want. It helps for production.”

Good breeding is vital to the operation. The farm is ranked among the top 100 herds in Canada for its genetics. It has an embryo flushing program and sells breeding bulls.

The herd is also free of Johne’s disease and has participated in a University of Calgary study by providing disease-free calves for research purposes.

Like most dairy farmers in Canada, Gys is following developments on the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, but he isn’t worried that supply management will be dealt away.

“Our government guaranteed that they won’t beg out of supply management because it’s a good system,” he said.

“Our dairy products in the store are about the same price as in the States, in the store.”

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