By Tom Collins
MILLBROOK — About 15 years ago, neither Melissa Harrigan nor her two younger brothers had any interest in dairy or farming. Harrigan went to Fleming College to study business.
However, shortly after graduation in 2007, Harrigan started an office job and quickly decided she didn’t like being stuck inside an office all day. She had also gotten married. Then she decided that she did want to take over the dairy farm and 40-cow milking herd, south of Peterborough. They lived 20 minutes away and her husband supported her. There was just one issue: Convincing her parents, Rick and Kathy Carl, who were still running the farm with Harrigan’s then-76-year-old grandfather, Allan Hutchison. Her parents were surprised, but it didn’t take much persuasion as her parents realized it would be great to have an extra pair of hands on the farm.
“We had a conversation and talked about timeline and how it was all going to work if we were to do this,” said Harrigan. “I like to think my parents would like to see (the farm) be carried on. That was partly my realization too, that this is a big part of my life. My grandfather was getting to point where he didn’t want as much responsibility, so an extra set of hands wasn’t a terrible thing. It was, try it and see what was going to happen.”
Her husband, Mike, who grew up on a milking goat farm, was working for a paving company at the time. Although it was a big change to be tied to the farm seven days week while starting a new family, Mike was supportive of the decision. He continued to work while Harrigan made the trek from her home in Omemee to help with milking and chores.
More than a decade later, a succession plan has started for Harrigan, 32, and Mike, 35, to take over the family farm. Harrigan, who owns 140 acres, currently owns 25 per cent of the shares in the dairy operation (which includes the cows, quota and machinery), and figures it will take at least 10 years of buying shares before she owns the business.
When she started buying the shares four years ago, the family was milking in an old 40-ft.-by-100-ft. tie-stall bank barn when they decided to build a new barn. There was no room to expand the old 40-stall barn, but it still took three years to work up enough finances and nerve to go ahead with construction of a new 70-ft.-by-225-ft. two-row freestall barn.
The family needed to make sacrifices to make it work for the $1.4-million barn. They all took a pay cut, and Mike’s off-farm job as a trucker for a grain elevator will have to continue for at least a few more years until a portion of the debt is paid off. Her parents have been in complete support of the decision to build the new facility.
In the old barn, the farmers milked with a basic Surge system consisting of four milkers, no track system and no automatic takeoffs. It took about an hour-and-a-half to two hours to milk the 40 Holstein and Jersey cows. Fresh and treated cows were milked on a separate bucket milker, where a vacuum system puts the milk into a bucket.
The new DeLaval robot is a huge time-saver, an important feature for a mother of four kids ranging from ages 2 to 10.
“The old barn was a lot of work, a lot of physical labour, which isn’t a terrible thing, but with our four kids, it was demanding to try and balance things,” she said. “The flexibility has definitely helped us out a lot. We don’t have to be in the barn at specific times. I can go watch my son play hockey and not have to rush back and get milking done. It just frees up our schedule.”
Production dipped slightly after the cows began milking in the new barn last summer but recovered quickly. Within a month it was back up to normal and within five months, the cows were overproducing by 3,000 litres. Part of that could be chalked up to some of the pre-move-in decisions. The cows moved in the week before milking started to get used to the surroundings. Each morning, they were milked in the tie-stall barn, and then walked 50 feet to the new barn, where they would spend the day getting used to their new home. In the evenings, they were brought back to the tie-stall for a second milking. Cows were also given feed pellets — used to attract cows into the robot — for a few weeks beforehand to get the animals used to the smell.
Harrigan’s favourite part of the new barn is how quiet it is. The old barn could get noisy with the cows, milker and feed mill all going at the same time.
“When everything was going at once, it was hard to hear someone 20 feet away from you,” she said.
Although there is the rough-in for a second robot, there are no plans to expand. Harrigan says that decision will be made by her kids when they eventually take over the farm.
Here are some of the biggest changes they made.
The farmers originally went with rubber mats with a straw cover, but found the straw was plugging up the manure system. They tried just mats, but the farmers noticed the cows were dirtier than they were in the old barn, which had just straw bedding on a concrete floor. And the cows weren’t lying in the stalls properly after move-in.
It took them awhile to figure out how often they needed to run the manure scraper. They also realized they needed to add about six to eight bags of sawdust or shavings every week to help keep the cows drier and cleaner.
In the old barn, cows were fed with a portable TMR system/feed cart. However, only the grain and corn silage would go in the feed cart. A hay bale was put onto a cart and pushed up and down the barn to hand-feed the cows. It took two hours for each feed, three times a day.
In the new barn, the baleage, corn silage and grain mix all go into a TMR mixer. The corn silage is in a silo on the other end of the old barn, so a conveyor belt was added to bring the feed to the mixer. It takes about one hour to feed the cows once a day.
VENTILATION AND LIGHTING
The old barn was so poorly ventilated that cows were pastured in the summer as the barn would get too hot.
The freestall barn has four large Secco fans down the centre of the barn. There are isocell curtains, which Harrigan describes as being similar to an inflatable pillow. There are four sensors in the barn and a weather system and rain gauge outside. When the system determines that it needs to close the curtains, it inflates the airbags to close the gaps. When the temperature in the barn is too high, the curtains deflate to allow more air flow.
The old barn is being used to house calves, and every time she checks on the young animals, Harrigan asks herself how they ever milked there. The old barn was lit by single lightbulbs, whereas the new barn has 20 LED light fixtures plus lots of natural light from the wall to wall windows.
In the old barn, the farmers used an automatic stable cleaner. There was a gutter behind the cows that collected the manure, then a track system carried it out a manure shoot to the spreader to litter the fields. In colder temperatures, the manure had to be loosened before the stable cleaner could be used. It would take less than an hour to clean up the manure.
When the family built the new barn, they installed a liquid manure pit. Alley scrapers push the manure into a liquid manure tank at one end of the barn. The system agitates the manure and sends it to the pit.