By Tom Collins
HILLIER — Lee Nurse knew a move from his old farm in Georgetown, west of Toronto, was imminent. So he began designing a new barn. He didn’t know where the family would be moving to. Nor did he know it would be years before they moved.
He just knew that expansion in an area close to the city was impossible.
“We were in an area where there were very few farmers left,” said the 34-year-old Nurse, who milked 35 cows on 150 acres under the Monteith Holsteins banner, with his wife Mal, who worked full time off the farm, and his parents Jeff and Kenda. Much of the land has been sold for speculation — land that is sold with the hope it will be worth more money later on — and there are only four dairy farms left in Halton. “The traffic was terrible and it didn’t feel very farmer friendly anymore. The land values were such that it made no sense to expand there. It made sense to sell and set up somewhere else.”
His tie-stall barn used manual milkers that would hook up to a pipeline. The barn was short — the height ranged from six feet to 10 feet — and it took about 80 minutes to milk 30 cows, which was done twice a day.
Nurse was looking to buy in Western Ontario until Walter and Valerie Miller’s dairy farm at Hillier in Prince Edward County went on the market. The farm came with more quota and more land, which he could afford since land prices are much less pricey than Western Ontario. Nurse bought the farm, renamed it Nurseland Farms, and moved up to Eastern Ontario in January, 2015 armed with his plans to replace the Millers’ tie-stall barn with a pack barn.
He now milks 67 cows in a two-robot pack barn on 600 acres, a few minutes from the eastern shoreline of Lake Ontario and in the heart of Eastern Ontario’s wine capital.
Nurse started milking in the new 400 ft. by 85 ft. pack barn, built for 90 milking cows, on Jan. 5, 2016, exactly one year after moving onto the new farm. With two Lely robotic milkers, it’s only the second farm in Prince Edward County to have robots — there are 35 dairy farms in the county.
The cows quickly adapted, with some now going to the milker as many as five times a day, and the somatic cell count has decreased.
The best part of the robots is the flexibility of when to spend time with the family. His three kids, ages six, three and 10 months, now have a 400-ft. long cement feed alley for riding scooters and bikes when Nurse is in the barn doing chores. He is also able to spend more time with them away from the barn.
“It’s a lot less stressful,” said Nurse. “We had to start chores in the morning around 4 a.m., but now I can virtually go out whenever I want. You’re not tied to your milking time. You still have to put in the work, but you can choose when it happens.”
Here are some other features you can see at the July 29 open house:
Compost pack bedding: Meant to increase cow comfort, the compost pack bedding plus the manure that winds up in the bedding is tilled twice a day with a cultivator. This allows for more air flow to heat up the bedding, kill the bacteria and dry the bedding.
Nurse adds peat moss and sawdust to the bedding at most three times a week during the winter in a worst-case scenario and once every seven to 10 days in the summer to keep the bedding relatively dry.
Compost pack bedding does increase the chances of a higher somatic cell count than other bedding types if it’s done incorrectly. But it will reduce the somatic cell count when done properly.
“If you get it going properly, you can just incorporate the manure and the cows stay clean,” said Nurse. “If you don’t get a proper compost in action, it could be a disaster. It’s not for everybody.”
Wall curtains and ceiling fans: The barn also has Faromor automatic wall curtains as well as six Big Ass fans on the cathedral ceiling. The fans are running 24/7, which not only helps keep away the flies but creates plenty of air movement, which is also good for the bedding.
Calf nursery: Keeping an eye on the cows is key. With all cows — including heifers and calves — under one roof, it’s easier to keep track of the animals, he said.
Office with a view: The barn has an office that, instead of a standard second-floor office, is just three steps higher than the main floor and is located at the side of the middle of the barn. With three windows, Nurse has a view of the entire barn.
“It’s been really good for having consistent health, growth and happy calves,” he said. “They go from young to pregnant to calves to milking. It’s a very easy flow. You can have your eyes on all your cattle at once, so we’re able to manage them with less time and labour.”
The system also saves on labour and costs, as the same manure scraper for the milking cows is also used for the heifers.