By Tom Collins
Sat. Aug. 24,
10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
733 Landry St.
ROCKLAND — Worried about the future of the dairy industry?
So was the Meloche family who four years ago wanted to build a new barn. But uncertainty about supply management was on everyone’s mind thanks to two trade deals that gave away slices of Canada’s dairy market. Some farmers were asking if this was the beginning of the end of Canada’s dairy system.
“We weren’t sure what would happen long-term with the barn and the business,” said Luc Meloche, 33, who runs Mellohills Farm at Rockland, east of Ottawa, with his brother Stephane, 31, and their father Gaetan, along with Gaetan’s brother Alain and his 22-year-old son Maxime (cousin to Luc and Stephane). Gaetan and Alain own the farm while the younger generation are employees who will one day take over. “You don’t want to invest $3 to $4 million in the barn and you lose everything.”
The family, which crops 1,400 acres, decided that the safer bet was to retrofit their freestall barn, starting with the milking system. Housed in a barn that was built in 1997, the farmers were milking twice a day with a 20-cow rotary parlour. Each milking took two people about three hours. The family considered a switch to three times a day milking for their 175 milking cows but were worried about having to bring in outside employees. Many dairy farmers say the toughest part of milking three times a day is unreliable employees, as it is too difficult to find and retain quality employees.
In late 2015, they began looking into robots. Four months later, four new Lely A4 Astronauts were installed.
While it took a couple of weeks for the cows to get used to the robots, production almost immediately shot up, going from 30 kg per cow per day to 36. It now sits at 34.5 kg as ongoing construction has led to a small dip.
While some farmers have heard horror stories of robot alarms going off every night, Meloche said it shouldn’t be an issue if farmers take care of the robots. His farm averages one alarm per month.
“You need to adapt to the robot. The robot can’t adapt to you,” he said. “A lot of people (install robots) and say ‘Oh, we won’t have any more work.’ That’s not true.”
Since then, they have been looking for new labour-saving ideas. In the past year, they built an addition to the barn to give it a T shape instead of long rectangle. In that addition, they moved the robots back further to give the milking cows more room, created a new dry cow area, a new calf room and a space to house the new feeding system.
Gaetan, who is in his mid-50s, would spend about seven-to-eight hours a day feeding the 400 head housed in the barn. The feed was delivered from the silos to a feed mixer via a conveyor belt, but nothing was automatic. Hatches in the silos needed to be opened and closed by hand, and after mixing, everything was delivered by a feed cart.
“It was a good place to save time,” said Meloche, adding that everyone wanted a new feeding system, except for the guy doing the feeding. Gaetan had fed the cows for 40 years. It took about two months for the rest of the family to convince Gaetan to come into the 21st century.
“For him, it was like losing his job,” said Meloche. His father needed to be assured he wouldn’t be unemployed. “It’s a big investment, so we convinced him that no matter what, he’ll be working more in the field and less in the barn.”
Last December, the new automatic Lely Vector robotic feeder was installed. Every hour, the Vector uses a laser to measure how much feed is in the feed bunk while gliding along and pushing the feed closer to the animals. If there is not enough feed, the Vector will go back to its home base where the conveyor belt brings quantities of different types of feed — corn silage, haylage and straw — to the Vector. The feed is mixed and then automatically delivered to the cows. Two new silos were constructed to hold the feed.
The Meloches’ Vector keeps track of seven different feed rations and runs a total of 25 times a day to keep giving the cows fresh feed at all hours.
Gaetan later joked that at first, he wanted to remove the new feeding robot and go back to the old feed cart system. It took him two weeks to get used to the Vector and not miss going out into the barn every day to feed.
However, despite all the labour savings, Luc Meloche joked that there isn’t a lot of extra time. Any time savings are being put to other use. Meloche, for example, has taken over the breeding. “We have less time in the barn but more time somewhere else,” he said.
They installed a new sprinkler system two months ago to keep the cows cool during hot summer months. The sprinklers cost $10,000 plus installation. When the temperature in the barn reaches 26 C, the sprinklers spray a mist over the feeding bunk for one minute every 10 minutes. They are hoping they won’t see a dip in summer production.
“At first, the cows were wondering what the hell was happening,” he said. Now, as soon as the water turns on they head for the shower.
More fans were also added this year to keep the cows cool. There are 20 smaller fans along the sides of the barn to go with five Big Ass fans down the centre of the barn. Automatic curtains have been a fixture in the barn for a couple of decades. The curtains have bags that fill with air to cover the windows when it rains or wind blows.
The Meloches kept the same bedding of rubber mattresses topped with wood shavings. The family didn’t want the extra expense of ripping out the mattresses to replace them with another bedding type. As well, wood shavings are easy to work with, Meloche said. With shavings, you don’t have to worry about keeping the equipment clean.
There are also nine video cameras located throughout and outside the barn, with a live feed available on the phone at any time. The video is saved for two weeks so the partners can go back and watch if they think something suspicious occurred.
While the farmers don’t worry about activists, it’s nice to have the security of knowing who is around the barn at any time, Meloche said.
They also recently changed the manure management system. The barn used to be equipped with a large air tank compressor that would push the alley scraper but the compressor was noisy. The barn is now equipped with a scraper that is pulled by a cable.
Meloche still doesn’t have faith in the future of supply management while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in office, and while they are happy with the barn improvements (“I wouldn’t change a single thing,” Meloche said), if they had their time back, the family would have built a new barn instead of retrofitting the old one.
In the end, they paid the same to retrofit as they would have if they had built a new barn with robots and all the accessories, and had more disruptions to the milking cows.
“We probably wouldn’t do it again,” said Meloche.