By Tom Collins
OTTAWA — When Peter Ruiter made the decision to rebuild after a 2017 fire destroyed his barn and most of his herd, his plans considered every type of barn: Flat parlours, swing parlours, freestalls and tie-stalls. He even briefly considered milking goats, but couldn’t come up with a profitable plan for that.
The one thing he was sure of was that it was going to be an automatic barn. Every decision was made with the philosophy of how to make the barn work for a one-man operation. Most of the barn is automated, from milking to feeding to curtains.
“It became more and more obvious that robots were the way to go, and then it became a way to design a barn where all the animals are all under one roof, which is pretty rare,” he said.
By having the entire herd under one roof in the 114-ft.-by-224-ft. five-row freestall barn, Ruiter can keep an eye on all his animals. He’s milking 45. In the middle of winter, he can take his coat off and just stay in one barn without having to leave to check on dry animals or calves. He joked with his wife Rosemary that he built the barn to be labour efficient so he could keep milking until he is 75. He is 51.
Ruiter and Rosemary have three kids: Lindsay, 24, Sharon, 22 and Mark, 19. Mark has expressed an interest in one day taking over, but Ruiter said he hasn’t put any pressure on his son to do so. Mark just finished his first year of agricultural studies at the Macdonald Campus at McGill University in Montreal.
Ruiter said robots are also a lifestyle change for him and the next generation.
“I grew up milking cows at 5 and 5,” he said. “And I know in my lifetime, I missed out on a lot of my kids’ sports activities because they all happened at 4 o’clock, 5 o’clock, 6 o’clock, and I wasn’t done milking until 7:30.”
The robots came in handy during this tough planting season. With a small window to get everything into the field, he didn’t have to stop each day at 5 p.m. to do the milking. The cows moved into the new barn just before Christmas.
He also installed an automatic Lely robot feeding system. In the old barn, the feeding was done by putting the rations into a TMR mixer and feeding the cows using a feed cart. Feeding would take about 2.5 hours a day.
Now, the robot starts off in the “kitchen” where corn silage, haylage and straw are scooped up by an automated metal claw that dumps the feed into the feeder. The robotic feeder drives itself around the feed alley to serve the mixture. During each feeding, the robot uses a laser to measure the amount of feed left in the alley. If the feeder senses there’s not enough feed, it goes back to the kitchen to mix another batch before heading back out to feed the cows.
Ruiter gets a real-time alert on his phone each time the robotic feeder starts mixing, which also informs him exactly how much feed is in the mixer. The kitchen is also designed so if someone goes into the feed area, the claw and feeder stop working until someone pushes a button in another part of the kitchen.
The robotic feeder will check the feed at least every hour, and Ruiter estimates it makes 35 loops around the barn each day.
Ruiter even considered going with a robotic manure vacuum system, but the timing to get the equipment never worked out.
While many farmers say sand is king, Ruiter said it wasn’t the right fit for his barn. Instead, Ruiter went with a two-inch foam mattress with two inches of sawdust on top.
“Everyone who has sand will say sand is the best,” he said. “Sand is best for the cows. I don’t think sand is the best for anything else. I tried to pick something that is a really close second for the cows but is the best for everything else.”
It takes Ruiter about 25 minutes each morning to scrape down the stalls and bed the cows. Once a week, he adds more bags of shavings, which takes less than an hour. He says the new bedding helped reduce his somatic cell count to around 34,000 from 58,000 in the old barn.
The time savings have been tremendous. It used to take Ruiter about 10 hours a day on average in the old barn to do the milking, feeding, bedding and other chores. That’s down to about five hours a day in the new barn.
What does he do with the extra time? “I sit back, bug Rosemary,” he laughed. “Currently, it’s all taken up by showing people the barn.”
Even after all the design decisions were finalized, there were a couple of weeks when it appeared as if the barn wasn’t going to be built. Ruiter needed a bank to finance the $2-million barn. He had been with Farm Credit Canada — a Crown corporation established in 1959 solely to provide loans to farms — and Ruiter assumed the FCC was on board with building the barn. However, the FCC head office said they wouldn’t finance it as Ruiter leases the land from the National Capital Commission (NCC).
“They said because of the situation where I’m on rented land, I don’t have equity everyone else would have,” he said. “This is a large cash outlay, and I couldn’t afford it without support from a bank.”
If he couldn’t get financing, he was out of dairy completely unless he bought another dairy farm. At the same time, he was negotiating with the NCC about his lease, but if he couldn’t get financing, there was no use haggling about that, he said. However, after two weeks, he was able to find a lender in the Bank of Montreal. If he didn’t get another bank on board, “that could have shut down the whole thing,” he said. “Everything was hinging on this. That was a very stressful couple of weeks.”
Despite all the technology throughout the barn, Ruiter’s favourite feature is how quiet it was during winter. “I can stand at one end of the barn and talk to Rosemary at the other end of the barn and we’re not yelling,” he said. “The cows are quiet and the cows look very content. A happy cow makes a farmer very happy.”
Production is down slightly from about 40 litres per cow per day in the old barn to 36 in the new barn. While most farmers see a dip in production with a move to a new barn as cows get used to the new facilities, Ruiter’s situation was different. He had to replace most of his herd. After the fire, Ruiter had calls from farmers looking to sell their tie-stall herds, but Ruiter figured bringing tie-stall cows into a freestall robotic barn would make the move-in more difficult. Instead, 42 cows were purchased from Manotick farmer Todd Nixon to go along with 10 that had survived the fire. Those new animals were on either their first or second lactation and Ruiter is confident production will rise as the cows get older. Nixon was milking those cows at his farm using Ruiter’s quota until the cows were able to move into the new barn.
It didn’t take long for the animals to get used to the robot as they were milked three times a day in Nixon’s freestall facility. Within three days, 23 of the 45-cow milking herd were going to the robots on their own and now the entire herd averages 3.1 milkings per day. The long-term plan is to milk 55 Holsteins.
Here are some barn features:
Milking system: 1 Lely Astronaut A5 robot for 45 cows.
Floors: Cement. The heifers walk on grooved cement but the milking cows are on grooved rubber mats. “Longevity should be better — (they’re) walking on something a little more like pasture,” Ruiter said.
Ventilation: Automatic Ventec bag system (plastic transparent curtains fill with air to cover floor to ceiling windows) and five Ventec Cyclone 360 fans that hang from the ceiling by chains and disperse air in a larger vicinity. Ventec began offering the hanging fans last year.
Video cameras: Eight are located in the barn. He can watch video live feeds of any camera from his phone.
Feeding: An automatic Lely robot feeding system that includes an automatic metal claw that scoops and dumps corn silage, haylage and straw into a mixer. The feeder then drives itself around the barn to feed the cows and measure if more feed is needed. There is also an urban robot calf feeder with a flap duct above the calves for ventilation.
Bedding: Two-inch foam mattress with two inches of sawdust on top.
Manure handling: An alley scraper that pushes manure to a cross gutter, that then sends it to a manure pump that empties it into a manure pit.
Command centre: The raised corner office equipped with computers and two bay windows offers a generous view of the barn.