By Tom Collins
MOOSE CREEK — About five years ago, Gaetan and Sonia Martin had some tough discussions to make about the future of their farm.
Tired of twice-a-day milking in a tie-stall barn, Gaetan wanted to sell the cows and quota and focus on cash cropping instead. This didn’t sit well with Sonia, who enjoyed milking. Although she grew up on a dairy farm, it wasn’t until she married Gaetan in 1993 that she learned how to milk. In 1994, she quit her off-farm job — as a resource teacher in day cares and nursery schools integrating special needs children — to be a stay-at-home mom and help out with barn chores.
“I wasn’t ready to give up (five years ago),” she said, adding that her husband allowed her to hold all the cards. “As soon as I would have said, ‘Okay, I’m done milking cows,’ the cows would have been gone.”
They never pressured their children to farm but had a feeling that a couple of them would one day want to take over.
She wasn’t surprised when two years later in 2016, out-of-the-blue, two of them piped up at Christmas time. Chanelle had been home for eight months after studying for two years to be a veterinarian technician. After a particularly rough day at work, Chanelle walked into the kitchen while everyone was sitting at the table eating supper.
“She sat down and the first thing she said was ‘I don’t want to work at the vet clinic for the rest of my life. I want to come home. I miss my cows,’ ” remembers Sonia. “She was dealing with customers that weren’t happy. She said ‘At least cows don’t talk back.’ ” It wasn’t a question, more of a statement.
As soon as the words were out of Chanelle’s mouth, her then-16-year-old brother Jeremie perked up. Already thinking about taking over, he enthusiastically told his parents “Well, if she’s coming home, then I’m coming home too.”
“The look on Gaetan’s face when I sat across the table from him, I knew right away,” said Sonia. “That night, after coming in from chores, he was already on the computer looking up barn plans.”
Sonia, 49, and Gaetan, 52, couldn’t support three families milking 67 cows in their 40-ft.-by-200-ft. tie-stall barn. That barn was built in 1992, and using a pipeline system, Sonia and Gaetan spent almost three hours on one milking and feeding. So the Martins built a 113-ft.-by-210-ft. freestall barn for 101 cows and a Westfalia double-12 parallel milking parlour. Although Chanelle, now 23, and Jeremie, 18, are taking over, the Martins have two other children. Benoit, 24, works full-time at Calco Soils at Moose Creek and Julianne, 20, is studying early children education in Sudbury. Neither Benoit nor Julianne have shown interest in getting involved in the operation and expansion, but both help out and the new $2.7-million barn was built to accommodate increasing the herd by 100 cows.
All the kids live at home, and Jeremie is also studying agriculture at Alfred College. The succession plan starts next year, and the family is now looking at options on how to best proceed with handing down the farm. The children are currently paid hourly wages.
The parlour was Chanelle’s idea. She had worked in a barn with a robotic milker for almost two years and didn’t like the robot. She said there wasn’t enough contact with the animals, there were too many alarms and too much time spent pushing animals to the robot.
Now the parlour is Sonia’s favourite part of the barn. “I absolutely love it,” she said. “It’s a lot less physical. There’s no bending down. It’s a lot easier on my body.”
The cows moved into the new barn on Jan. 28 and the move went smoother than expected. No cows were injured and while production initially dipped it was back to normal by the third milking. All 67 cows had to be pushed through the first day, but by day 10, all but two cows were going to the parlour on their own. No animals were culled.
“A lot of people were telling us ‘you know, you’re going to lose between three and five per cent of your animals,’ ” said Sonia. “We were expecting at least one month of having to push the cows in twice a day. I was expecting a month with a drop in milk. The transition went so smoothly, we were in shock. I kept telling our kids as we got closer to the move-in date, we’re going to have a month of pure hell. Two weeks into it, we were laughing in the pit.”
It takes about an hour to milk the cows and wash the system. The family is now milking 74 cows and plans to reach the 101-milking cow maximum as quickly as possible so they can buy the quota on the monthly exchange.
The old barn is now housing 32 dry cows and 10 calves and will be retrofitted to a freestall system for the dry cows and will include a calf pen.
In the meantime, Chanelle has saved the farm plenty in vet bills. It used to be that if Sonia thought something wasn’t right with one of the cows, all she could do was check its temperature before calling the vet.
“Now Chanelle can detect fluid in the lungs and a twisted stomach,” said Sonia. “She’ll check the cow first, and if she can deal with it and handle it, she’ll do it. If she knows the cow needs surgery, then we’ll make the call. Her knowledge obtained in college has not gone unused.”
Here are some features of the new barn:
The Martins switched from pasture mats and straw in the old barn to a deep bedding system, a mix of water, lime and straw. About 3,000 kilos of new bedding mix is added to the stalls each week. That work takes about a day, but the extra effort has been worth it as the bedding system is the second-best for cows, Sonia said. Her husband took a barn building course and was told that sand was the best.
But “we have friends who have sand bedding, and that’s all they ever talk to us about: The manure system is always down, or they’re changing something or something is broken, or the sand has eaten something,” Sonia said. “We know sand is more comfortable for the cows, but we were worried about the equipment, the maintenance and the expense of it.”
The straw-lime-water bedding system creates a fluffy grey-looking bedding, but is not wet to the touch as just enough water is used to make the lime stick to the straw. While it helps keep a cow clean and healthy, it is less expensive and not as rough on equipment as sand.
The Martins went with a Jamesway pit and flush system. The new manure holding tank works like a toilet. Inside there is a float. When the manure reaches that float, it flips on a switch that pumps the manure out three times a day to the manure pit. The alley scrapers run four times a day, and the parlour is washed down after every milking, adding more water and manure to the holding tank.
Feeding in the old barn was done twice a day with a stationary TMR mixed and a feed cart. Twice-a-day feedings took about three hours of work.
Now the feeding is done with a TMR mixer hitched to a tractor once a day. The feed is a mixture of haylage, corn mixture, high moisture, dry corn and pellets. Total feeding time is about an hour.
There are plans to get an automatic feed pusher, but for now, the family push feed closer to the cows with shovels.
The ventilation won’t be completed in time for the April 13 open house. Although the automatic curtains are already installed and functional, the fans are not. Posts are installed for 26 box fans that will be scattered throughout the barn. There are plans to add an automatic sprinkler system a few feet over the feed bunk; sprinkler systems are a rare sight in barns. When the temperature hits a certain point, the sprinklers will turn on for a few seconds every so many minutes to cool the cows. The Martins haven’t decided on timing as the sprinklers still need to be installed.
“Our vet and our nutritionist highly recommended it,” said Sonia. “The barns that we did tour and have the sprinklers don’t regret putting them in. They see a big difference in their animals in the summer time. (The cows) go to the feed bunkers more.”