WINCHESTER — At a certain point in his career, a tie-stall dairy farmer faces an almost inevitable choice: Spend big bucks or get out. Invest lots of money to upgrade equipment within the old tie-stall environment or build a new barn befitting a highlight video from Dairy Farmers of Ontario. Or quit your life’s work.
For Evan Porteous, that crossroads came at a young age. Though the 44-year-old farmer loved his cows and was proud of the high-quality milk they produced in the 150-year-old barn at Harmony View Holsteins, Porteous made the hard “business decision” to exit the industry about a year ago. The prospect of going deep into debt for a potential major barn project just didn’t hold appeal. It was 20 years since he returned from a teaching job in Korea to buy the farm from his parents at fair market value. Recently, the old barn’s manure system was reaching end of life and that alone needed a six-figure replacement, prompting a look at building a complete new facility.
“I know how much work it took to get to this point in my life, so it was a pretty easy decision to not continue, once I penciled it out,” said Porteous, who sold his 40-head milking herd and quota on March 17. Interest rates are likely not finished going up yet, either.
But there were more than financial reasons. His children are too young to take over or even decide if they want to. You can’t buy quota to fill an expansion. The dairy board inspection regime has become onerous. He’d rather spend more time with the family and would like a day off now and again.
His three children between ages 9 and 13 are still too young to know what they want to do in the future, he said, adding he wouldn’t “saddle” them with expectations of taking over. Had he proceeded with a barn project, only to find out the next generation wasn’t interested, it would effectively force the sale of the farm where he grew up and where his father was born. “This way we’re still here, the land is still ours. This farm still has some years left in it.”
A new barn would also have to be bigger than the existing herd, adding to the capital cost. At the same time, it would have taken years to acquire the quota needed to fill the extra capacity.
Porteous is part of a gradual, continued exodus from the dairy industry by smaller tie-stall operators who once dominated Ontario’s dairy landscape. The Dairy Farmers of Ontario reports 3,274 milk producers in the province (as of Oct. 31, 2022), down by 70 from a year earlier and that 54 % of producers have tie-stall barns.
As much as Porteous is saddened to see the conclusion of his family’s 80-year run of dairy production — a tradition begun by his grandfather — he’s “just as excited” about a future without the relentless schedule of cow-milking. “It’ll be different.”
He now looks forward to having the time to attend his oldest son’s hockey tournaments and being with his family generally. After two decades as the farm’s sole worker, “there are lots of family things I missed, lots of family meals and stuff, so that’s my only priority, to be with the family right now,” said Porteous, whose wife is employed as a supply teacher in Winchester.
“There were some tears” when the cattle were sold,” he admitted, recounting how his 9-year-old daughter ruffled the fur of a favourite cow for the last time on the day of the sale.
But he won’t miss the occasional injuries that come with working alone in the barn. Last winter, a heifer jerked its head and he broke the top knuckle on his left thumb. “You’re struggling through the pain and stuff like that, and you’d like a day off,” he said.
Nor will he miss the Dairy Farmers of Ontario inspection regime that producers must regularly contend with, and he opined that those inspections are only getting more onerous for tie-stall operators.
He’s also contemplating a return to the soccer pitch as a player on a local old-timers team and is excited to begin coaching the game for a local youth league, as well as do some supply teaching at a local school.
He emphasized that he’s not retired — only retired from milking cows. He plans to find work on neighbouring farms while continuing to own the land and buildings at Harmony View.
He hopes to raise some beef and looks forward to growing soybeans and corn on his 100 acres of cropland.
And he’s not fully out of the Holstein business just yet, still owning about 35 younger heifers and calves he intends to raise and breed over the next couple of years. In addition, he’s one of 40 or 50 early private investors — three or four of them being farmers — in Dairy Distillery, maker of the Vodkow liquor brand produced from a milk byproduct generated at the nearby Lactalis cheese plant in Winchester.