Alta. dairy farm innovates its way to success

On the Farm: The ter Borgh family believes in adopting new technology but says supply management is also crucial

CALMAR, Alta. — The ter Borgh family continues to evolve, adopting newer technologies on their dairy farm to make tasks easier.

The family recently installed a rotary milking system, a merry-go-round-like structure that can milk 250 to 270 cows per hour. Without it, milking would’ve taken about six hours, said Johan ter Borgh.

“There would have been no time for other work,” he said, sitting beside his wife, Riekje, at their home near Calmar.

“Now if we want to milk 100 cows more, it would just take 20 minutes longer. It allows us to expand later on if we want to.”

The family milks 340 cows and harvests about 960 acres for feed. Their sons, Gerard and Berend, work full-time on the farm. Their daughter, Miriam, is studying agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan.

Johan and Riekje originally dairy farmed in Holland, but moved to Alberta in 1995.

Johan said the city back home had purchased their land for expansion. It allowed them to sell the farm there and determine where they should go next.

“We were thinking to start a farm in the northern part of Holland or look somewhere else,” Riekje said.

They ultimately chose Alberta.

Their relatives in the province told them they liked it. As well, Johan said it made financial sense at the time. Canada had a quota system, which is something that worked well for them.

“When you have a good-running farm, you don’t leave,” Riekje said. “But we had this opportunity to look around, and we wanted to make the best decision.”

The family initially milked 90 cows, slowly increasing their numbers. They made a major expansion in 2012, adding the rotary unit and building a new barn, when Gerard and Berend returned from college to work full-time.

“After 24 years, this becomes your home,” Riekje said jokingly.

Any mention of the newly signed North American Free Trade Agreement, which saw Canada give 3.59 percent market access to the United States, spurs lively discussion.

Johan said Canada’s quota system has allowed their farm to remain successful.

He’s worried the country’s dairy industry could be dismantled if more quota is given up.

Riekje pointed out Canada also made concessions on dairy through the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership between Canada and 10 other Asia-Pacific nations.

“It’s a slippery slope,” Johan said. “If we keep giving more, when will it stop? If this uncertainty gets worse, you’re in a spot where you just sit back and wait.”

He referenced issues in the United States, where many farmers are producing too much milk and seeing marginal, if any, returns.

“We need a guaranteed price to cover our costs. Costs of production are higher, we’re in a colder climate and we need to cover our barns,” Johan said.

“If more milk is coming in cheap, we will never be able to compete. It won’t just affect us. It’ll affect equipment dealers, nutritionists, trucking companies. Processors might as well close their doors.”

However, the family forges ahead despite potential uncertainty down the road.

They are developing a succession plan with their sons, but won’t be retiring anytime soon.

“We would like to expand more, but in a cautious way,” Johan said. “We’ll be here to help the boys, but we’re in that beginning phase.”

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