By Connor Lynch
BRINSTON — The first Lely dealership to sell 200 robotic milkers in North America said it’s all about location, supply management and being the only dealership around.
Dundas Agri-Systems, operated by brothers Bart and Luke Geleynse in the hamlet of Brinston, south of Winchester, was the first to hit the 200-sales milestone one year ago and was the top-selling dealer on the continent for more than a year. They are now at 236 sales on 116 dairy farms, Bart said.
He said he knew his operation wouldn’t be North America’s top selling robotic milking dealership for long as American interest has begun to heat up.
The Brinston dealership finished 2019 as the third-largest dealer in North America, narrowly overtaken by a Quebec dealership and a dealership in Minnesota, according to Lely’s regional manager for Canada, Tony Brazda.
So how did a comparatively small dealership, started by two friends in 1981 that now has 23 employees, covering as far west as Campbellford, as far north as Pembroke, and east along the Quebec border, end up even temporarily as top dog?
First, supply management. There’s nothing like stable and predictable income to encourage people to invest. The Americans compensate for milk price fluctuations with sheer size, but banks and lenders there know how tumultuous the market is. That can make them cautious to invest.
Another factor is the lack of access to labour, Bart Geleynse said. Farm labour isn’t easy to find anywhere, but the situation in the U.S. is nothing like the situation here. Even recognizing there are good, local people milking on farms in Ontario, the practical reality is, on average, people are impossible to find, he said. Robots aren’t a tool to replace labour, although Geleynse said they are more efficient, overall. They’re by far their most attractive when they enable you to farm at all, since you can’t find anyone to help.
It’s true that combined, the three Lely dealerships in Western Ontario outsell the Brinston location, Geleynse said. But the Brinston dealership is the only game in town.
The story of robotic milkers in Canada goes back to 1999. That year, Dutch company Lely installed its first robot in Ontario at a Woodstock farm that still has Lely robots, Brazda said. Prices, in raw dollars, have stayed about the same, he said: around $250,000 for the first robot (with the infrastructure) and around $185,000 for every robot after that.
Lely has a bigger market share than any of its competitors in Canada with 2,750 robots, Brazda said. As Geleynse explained, robots aren’t a fire-and-forget kind of product. “Management is huge.” Robotics for all companies had a bit of a rocky start. There were some early overly enthusiastic sales pitches overestimating how many cows one robot could handle. Some producers ended up tearing out a robot, frustrated by ongoing technical problems in the early models.
Eastern Ontario has had a big advantage from the get-go because Dundas Agri-Systems started with tech support. Two Lely technicians have been working in the area for about 15 years, Geleynse said. “For the first five years, Lely themselves looked after these robots,” he said. Word of mouth kicked in: Area farmers could visit a neighbor with robots and see them in good working order.
Said Bart: “That’s where Lely really shined, and why I think in Eastern Ontario (Lely has) taken off.”
Brinston dealership was first in North America to sell 200 robotic milkers
By Connor Lynch