By Tom Collins
WESTMEATH — A Middlesex County farm family decided to make a five-year plan to move to Eastern Ontario, but it took only two months to find the place they were looking for. Two years later, they’ve made the move and are milking in a new barn that has robots and an automatic feed system.
Henk Schuurman runs Zola Farms with his wife Joanne. His family moved from Holland to Western Ontario in 1992 and immediately got into dairy.
Schuurman conditionally sold the 200-acre family farm at Dorchester east of London last spring, but kept the cows and quota on the farm for a year. He milked the cows for the last time in a parallel parlour in Dorchester on March 25. The same day all 100 milking cows and 100 young stock were loaded onto seven trucks and driven overnight six hours east to the new 300-acre farm in Renfrew County. The next morning, the cows were milked by two Lely robots in the new 113-ft.-by-350-ft. barn.
Schuurman said the move went smoothly, but the transition to the new barn has been less so. While the cows picked up within a week of having to go to the robots themselves, production dipped to 20 per cent below average and is still 15 per cent less than what it was in the old barn.
“It was tough for them (the cows),” he said. “It stressed them out a lot. The feed was different, the barn was new, so the production dropped a lot.”
Schuurman believes that production will get back to normal by the end of the year once the cows adapt.
After Schuurman’s father, Rudy, died in 2015, Henk and Joanne purchased the home farm at Dorchester. They also started a plan to move to Renfrew as they saw the opportunity to buy significantly more land and build a new barn by purchasing in Renfrew County, where farmers can find some of the lowest priced farmland in Ontario. The University of Guelph says the median price for average-quality farmland was $4,000 per acre in 2017 in Renfrew County, compared to $14,000 in Middlesex.
“We were able to buy significantly more land here than we sold down there,” said Schuurman. “In the back of our minds, we always said that if something around here came up for sale, we’d look at it. It wasn’t that overly serious. Then we started getting serious and said we’ll make a five-year plan (in October of 2016). When we started looking around for real estate in December (2016), this exact spot was available. By the end of the day, we made a deal. It just went a whole lot faster than we had anticipated. The perfect place is right here. There was no point in hesitating.”
Westmeath was an easy fit. Joanne was born and raised in the area.
Schuurman used to milk in a double-10 parallel parlour, twice a day, every day, with help from Joanne and a neighbour’s kid. Now he doesn’t have to rely on employees and can still be flexible between the time he has to be in the barn and the time he can spend with his five children, ranging in age from nine months to seven years. The plan is to buy more land in the future so all the kids can farm if they choose to, but the operation is set up now so it’s manageable just for Schuurman.
The Schuurmans will be holding an open house on July 21 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at their new barn at 2184 Pleasant Valley Road at Westmeath.