By Tom Collins
FOURNIER — An Eastern Ontario farm couple constructed a dairy barn designed for the future. But whose future is still uncertain.
Ken and Peggy Wilkes of Wilkridge Farm at Fournier, a half-hour west of Hawkesbury, erected the new barn even though it’s possible none of their three kids will take over the farm: Leigh-Ann, 27, is an agronomist researcher of canola with Bayer Canada in Saskatoon; Hannah, 26, is a social worker in Edmonton; and Andrew, 22, is finishing his fifth year of civil engineering at Ottawa’s Carleton University. Andrew has shown interest, but is focusing on school and his career for now.
“We felt that we owed it to the next generation, whoever it is, to offer a competitive farm,” said Ken Wilkes. “We built the barn for us — Peggy and I. We feel we’re good farmers and we enjoy the challenge, and farming is fun right now. We didn’t build it to put pressure on the next generation to farm. Somebody is going to get a very good farm someday, whether it’s my son or somebody else.”
The Wilkeses, both 54, are the fifth-generation Wilkes on the farm since 1856. Ken purchased it from his dad, Orville, in 1992.
The old 38-ft-by-140-ft tie-stall barn was built in 1979 and had become too physically demanding, said Wilkes, adding it felt like cattle always had to be moved around. The barn was at capacity. Milking using a DeLaval track system and automatic takeoffs took 100 minutes per milking.
While some farmers take five, even 10, years to decide on a barn, Wilkes had it figured out in under two years. They started contemplating a new barn in February, 2015 and shook the contractors’ hand seven months later. Construction started around Thanksgiving a year ago and was finished this past May.
“I’m 54. I don’t have 10 years to decide,” said Wilkes. “When my wife and I make a decision, we go. We just work at it together. Every morning at breakfast, we make little drawings and sketches and then when it falls in place, we say ‘Okay, let’s go ahead and do it.’ ”
The Wilkeses went a slightly different route for milking in their 75-ft-by-289-ft Houle steel structure, which also includes a 40-foot-by-40-foot milkhouse, an office and a new 14 ft. by 124 ft. cement manure lagoon outside. They chose to milk with two GEA Monobox robot milkers. Only a few Ontario barns have them, and Wilkridge is one of the first Ontario farms east of Toronto to install one.
The machine attaches the teat with the help of a 3D time-off light camera and sonar, which reflects light to measure the distance from the teat to the camera to hook the machine to the cow more accurately, similar to a bat using sonar to measure how far away things are. An individual teat cup then washes, milks and disinfects the teat. The machine also gives real-time quality milk results as the cow is milked.
As with most robot installations, production dipped after move-in. The cows were averaging 41 kilos in the tie-stall, which has now been torn down, but dropped to 33 kilos in the three-row 120-stall freestall barn. That number has steadily risen to 36 kilos from 74 cows averaging 2.75 visits a day by the middle of October, but cows in the 1-to-100-day range are averaging 42 kilos.
Wilkes’ goal is to milk 80 cows with a 40-kilo average but the two robots could milk about 120 cows if needed.
The move came at a busy time for the farmers. Ken’s father passed away on March 17, milking began on May 15 when there were still 850 acres of crops to be planted, and his daughter was married in June.
His grandfather “never saw the benefit of tile drainage because he died a month before dad tiled his first field,” said Wilkes. “Dad hasn’t seen how this barn is working. He would have been proud of it.”
With so much on the go, Wilkes credits his son Andrew, part-time employee, Sam Ryan-Brunet, and Lawrence’s Dairy Supply for help during the move in. Lawrence’s Dairy had employees in the barn 24 hours a day for the first week, helping push cows into the milker.
While he has zero regrets about the decision to move to robotics, Wilkes said there was a point at the two-month period where he had buyer’s remorse for a couple of days.
“It was physically, mentally and emotionally, the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “It’s emotionally draining because you’re leaving a barn you’re comfortable with and the cows produce well in, and it was physically demanding because I was alone to manage. I was crying and I said ‘Am I ever going to get out of here?’ I just felt like I was trapped. The cows were easy. Us, we had the hardest time.”
Here are four other aspects of the new $2.3 million barn.
In between the two robotic milkers is a pit that is 30 inches lower than the barn floor. This allows the farmers or employees to be at the eye level of the cows’ udders as if they were in a parlour. The workers can walk behind the robots to assist in attachment.
“My wife can do it and she’s never milked a cow in her life,” said Wilkes. “We had one heifer. She had a cut on her teat and we had to apply salve to it, and it’s a lot easier to do it at that level than it is bending over.”
WOOD SHAVING BEDDING
Used to straw in the tie-stall, the Wilkes chose to go with a pasture mat with 1.5 inches of foam and wood shavings for bedding in the new barn. He uses a bag of wood shavings per stall per week. Some people have told him that is too much, but Wilkes believes it works well for his cows.
He did the calculations before the switch and found it was costing him 73 cents per stall per day using straw in the tie-stall barn, and 58 cents per stall per week in the freestall.
While he acknowledges sand is the best bedding option for cows, Wilkes never even considered it. “We live on sand,” he said. “I know how heavy sand is. Sand gets in everything. I did not want to manage a stall. At my age, I have enough stuff to manage, and deep bedding stalls require management.”
Wilkes said wood shavings are absorbent and clean, and the somatic cell count is now at 110,000, down from 180,000 in the old barn. Wilkes was bothered by an article in a farm paper earlier this year that said a farmer is not “cow conscious” if he doesn’t choose sand.
“I challenge anyone to come and look at my cows and to tell me they’re not as clean or as comfortable as a cow on sand without the physical demand and the machinery wear that sand brings,” he said.
The Wilkeses went with Ventec automated curtains with weather sensors where the curtains close if it’s rainy or windy. There are also five Big Ass fans hanging from the cathedral ceiling.
“We were told we only needed four, but we went with five,” he said. “We want lots of wind. In the heat this fall, production actually kept climbing. It didn’t go down in the heat.”
While many farmers use the real-time video feed to check on the barn when they are away from the farm, Wilkes uses the six cameras to check on the cows when he wakes up. One morning he checked and saw all the heifers were up, which was unusual. That’s when he noticed one heifer was calving. Because of the camera, Wilkes was able to move her to a pen before she calved.
While he checks the video feed when he’s in the house, he refrains from doing so when he’s on vacation as he trusts his employees and instead chooses to forget about work.
“If I’m in Mexico and I look at the camera (and see something), there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said.
One test was passed when he spent a weekend away in October for a wedding while his son ran the farm. “He sent me a text one morning that said ‘You built a great barn dad, ‘cause I slept in and was still done on time.’”
Dec. 2, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
4646 Ridge Rd.