May 10, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
4674 Highway 41
By Tom Collins
TAMWORTH — Angus MacLaughlin had reservations about taking over the family dairy farm. He detested milking in the tie-stall barn.
The 24-year-old spent a few years mulling it over while studying agriculture at the University of Guelph while his dad, John, 59, continued to milk in a 40-ft.-by-190-ft. tie-stall barn at Tamworth, 20 minutes north of Napanee.
If milking weren’t bad enough, he didn’t like waking up early in the mornings, being whipped in the face with manure-covered tails, getting stepped on, kicked, spending long hours milking and watching milkers get kicked off into the gutter.
As a just-in-case scenario, the father-and-son duo spent a couple of years looking at new barns and visiting open houses while Angus wrestled with the idea of coming home or having an off-farm career. Going into his fourth year at Guelph in 2016, Angus saw that the opportunities in agriculture were not as attractive as running his own show in a barn he designed. He also had that little nudge from his father to thank.
“It was kind of my dad giving me a kick in the ass, and saying ‘You know, if we want to do this, I need a decision from you because we have to start thinking about actual plans,’” said Angus. While his dad would have continued to milk, there was no backup succession plan if Angus had decided to not come home.
Angus became a partner in the farm a year ago, without spending a dime. No money down. Angus gets a 50 per cent share in the increase of the farm’s value from the time he became partner. This succession planning strategy is increasing in popularity. Angus said a representative from Farm Credit Canada recommended it.
“It doesn’t require me to take out a huge loan, which is attractive to a young farmer,” he said about the benefits, adding that he was able to take out a separate loan to buy a house. “Taking out another huge loan would have been a daunting task.”
The plan is for Angus to eventually buy out his father’s half, but there’s no timeline since his father has shown no signs of slowing down. Angus has two siblings, younger brother Stuart and older sister Hilary, but neither of them has shown an interest in the family operation. There is also a four-year-old half-brother. The succession plan can be adapted to incorporate all of them.
But since Angus has first kick at the can, he had a lot of say in the new barn. Robots were a must for a next-generation farmer. They installed two.
“Technology is at a place where it just doesn’t make sense not to put in robots because what you’re able to do with these robots on a daily basis is really amazing,” he said. “Waking up at 4:30 a.m. and milking cows wasn’t my thing. The culmination of the technology and me not actually liking milking cows led us to the obvious conclusion.”
While some say robots require a farmer to be on call 24/7 in case an alarm goes off, that doesn’t matter to Angus. He’ll take the trade-off of being woken up once every couple of months due to an alarm than getting up early for milking every day. He also believes as technology continues to improve, he should be hearing fewer middle-of-the-night alarms than farmers that installed robots five years ago.
Like most farms with cows switching to a robot system, production dropped for about five months. They averaged 37 kilos per day per cow in the old barn. Production dropped to 23 kilos the first day after the 74 milking Holsteins moved in last October. That was up to 30 kilos by the end of the first week, and steadily increased back to the old production highs. Pushing the cows into the robot also took its toll.
“From what I heard from the other Lely guys, it went really well,” said Angus. “From my perspective, it was horrendous.”
The MacLaughlins — who are now milking 86 cows — are working toward filling the barn to the 115-milking cow capacity.
What Angus loves most about the new three-row freestall barn is all the natural light. Whereas the original part of old tie-stall had no natural light and was dark and dingy with low ceilings, the new multi-million-dollar barn is equipped with a 16-foot skylight down the middle of the 72-ft.-by-292-ft. barn.
The barn is equipped with a custom-made Leuvers system for the curtains. Four rows of long clear plastic shutters run along the expansive windows of the barn, which allow plenty of light. The curtains do not roll up like typical barn curtains. Instead, the stiff curtains open out horizontally, creating a small awning effect.
“You don’t feel like you want to get out of the barn all the time on a really nice day,” he said. “Going into an old tie-stall, it’s very low ceilings and a little dark and dingy. It’s just not fun to go into. When you walk into this barn in the morning, it’s bright and a pleasure.”
The prefabricated barn means each of the wall panels is individually insulated, but there’s no insulation between walls. The barn is a little colder than most barns, but the curtains help provide a little bit more insulation. Five Big-Ass fans are located over the freestall bedding area.
The farmers went with a common bedding type, but an unusual way to deliver it. In the old tie-stall barn, the cows lay on straw on mats and it took an hour a day to add new straw to the bedding. In the new barn, the farmers wanted deep-bedded stalls for cow comfort reasons, so they went for a lime-straw-water combination. The bedding is mixed before being loaded onto a conveyor belt about 10 feet above the stalls. As the mix moves down the belt, a plow moves down the belt from the opposite direction, pushing the bedding off the conveyor belt and into the stalls. If a cow is lying in a stall, she will have the bedding dumped on her head, but the cows don’t seem to mind, said Angus.
It takes about an hour a week to put down new bedding.
Although the MacLaughlins say sand is best, it is hard on equipment. As well, the manure pit is 800 feet away from the new barn and sand mixed in manure shouldn’t be pumped that far.
The new barn saves the farmers about six hours a day in chores. While the extra time will come in handy during planting and harvest, Angus is also focusing on learning how to breed the cows himself as it’s sometimes difficult to get technicians into the barn when a cow is in heat.
The old tie-stall will be converted into a holding area for young calves and dry cows.
Even though the barn is only six months old, there are things Angus would change. One of the biggest is not adding a pack area behind the robots for cows that are lame or sick so the cows would have easy access to the milkers. A sick or lame cow is now kept in the maternity pen, but that means Angus or John has to fetch that cow a couple of times a day to bring to the robot.
“Anyone who says they wouldn’t change anything is lying to you,” he said. “There are always things that can be improved.”
Here are some of the features of the barn:
Milking system: Two Lely A5 Astronaut robotic milkers.
Bedding system: A deep-bedding lime-straw-water combination that is distributed via a conveyor belt.
Manure handling: Two alley scrapers and the manure is brought to the old manure pit 800 feet away.
Ventilation: Five Big Ass fans over the freestall area, along with a Leuvers curtains system.
Video cameras: Two over the maternity pen.
Feeding system: A TMR mixer for feeding once a day on a stainless steel feed alley.
Office: On the second floor to have a view of the barn.