By Connor Lynch
PORT PERRY — One farm in Western Ontario was awarded its third Master Breeder shield in January from Holstein Canada, joining a select club of three-time winners. But there’s still only one farm in Canada that’s won four.
Robert Smith, aged 69, milks 35 cows at Port Perry, 84 km northeast of Toronto in Durham Region. Smith is getting a bit “long in the tooth,” but still does most of the dairy work himself.
His farm, High Point Farms, is the only farm in Canada to have won four Master Breeder shields. Holstein Canada used to give out shields more regularly but changed the rules as farms got bigger and genetics improved: Farms these days can only win every 16 years. To win a shield means having a herd with high-production and good classification, or “the whole package,” as Holstein Canada puts it.
He milks his registered Holsteins in a tie-stall barn, and still uses an automatic takeoff system that he has to lug around manually. No robots, or even a line from which to hang the milker. Twice a day, he’s in the barn, milking cows. “It’s all I can handle.”
His family’s been raising registered Holsteins since 1914. He can trace some of his cows, including the All-Canadian and All-Americans bred at his farm, back to a calf from 1932, though he didn’t recall its name.
Smith’s grandfather died young and his father had to quit school at 13 to run the farm. His father and uncle farmed together for some time as the Smith Brothers and won the farm’s first shield together, though they went their separate ways in the 1970s.
Growing up, Smith remembers first knowing which cows he liked, and didn’t like, by the time he was five years old. By the time he was a teenager, he was talking over with his dad which animals to sell and which to breed. Working closely alongside his father, the breeding strategy on the farm stayed pretty consistent through the generations.
They were always more interested in milk production than type: They erred on the side of high-producing cows and avoided major flaws in type. In the earlier days when Smith was farming, everyone was all about type. As improved milk evaluation came in, suddenly everyone was only about milk. But High Point Farms stayed the course.
The embryo flushing boom of the 1980s and 1990s brought a lot of high-level genetics into affordability for a lot of farms. He saw animals from top-end families selling for $30,000 to $50,000 at the Sale of Stars before embryo flushing took off. In its heyday, he saw their offspring selling for a 10th of the price.
But Smith was, and is, cautious about flushing his own herd. “We grew up with the idea that you found a bull that would cross well with that cow.” Modern breeding emphasizes Lifetime Performance Indexes, a complex calculation designed to account for every production metric of the cow. Bulls are coming out topping off LPI’s but “his sire doesn’t have a proof, his mother’s never had a calf, so we have no idea what we should breed him with. “
True to an old-school dairyman, Smith’s favourite job on the farm is milking. “There’s lots of jobs I’d like to give up on the farm, but a robot would be the worst thing in the world for me.” One job he doesn’t like is paperwork. Sweeping the barn is another. “It’s all a pain in the neck. And it’s becoming more and more that, less and less cows.”
He’s got no particular plans to retire anytime soon. But daily dairying is hard on the body, especially when your body is doing all the work. He had his knees replaced last year but still enjoys his daily chores. “If (one day) I’m not enjoying it, we’ll call it quits.” His kids all have jobs off the farm and he’s not expecting to pass his operation on. The barn isn’t suited to a modern commercial dairy, and “I don’t know how anyone can pencil out a new barn.”
When it comes time to sell the farm, it’ll be the end of a dynasty. The farm has shown cattle every year at the Ontario County Holstein Show in Port Perry since it began, in 1938. “There’s a lot of history that ends the day I call it quits.”
High Point Farms only farm in Canada to win four Master Breeder shields
By Connor Lynch