New dairy farmer program gives farmer a future for his family
ATHENS — Nearly four years ago, John Newman, 30, realized his dream of reviving the dairying tradition that had long since disappeared at his family’s ancestral farm.
His grandfather exited the cow-milking business about 50 years ago, due to health issues, and switched to beef and cash-cropping. Those were the farm’s mainstays as Newman was growing up.
But Newman, who farms with his father, Ed, got the itch to become a dairy farmer in his teenage years, when he began helping out with cow-milking chores at a neighbouring farm. It was the aftermath of the BSE crisis, “and I started relief milking just to get a little bit of income while I was in high school,” he says. He continued to milk for other farmers even as he completed a two-year college program and also worked back at the Newman farm.
Newman says he and his father initially looked at buying existing dairy farms, with an eye to moving production back to the home farm after the requisite five years, but that option never panned out.
“I knew I loved it. For a long time, I thought it would never be possible to have a dairy farm at home, but then you start researching and looking at ways that it could be possible,” says Newman, who managed to find his ticket into milk production through the Dairy Farmers of Ontario’s New Producer Program. “I was doing 2 or 3 milkings a day for other people, and figured I should do it for myself.”
The New Producer Program — currently suspended — granted aspiring dairy farmers access to the quota exchange to buy up to 35 kg of milk quota, in one shot, at the regulated price (currently $24,000 per kg). It’s not to be confused with the somewhat similar New Entrant Program, which offers a combination of loaned and purchased quota to a restricted number of approved people and employs a lottery system when the number of applicants exceeds available spaces (with eight spaces available this fall). By contrast, the less restrictive New Producer Program allowed all prospective dairy farmers to wait their turn for the opportunity to buy 35 kg of quota — but the queue got very long.
Newman says he expected to wait 7 years to get his turn at the exchange when he applied to the New Producer Program around 2016. He was caught off guard when it took only half that time. He initially put down a $1,000 deposit to join the queue and, as per the rules, gave another $10,000 to verify that he was serious when DFO notified him that he was within one year of his shot at buying quota.
“I wasn’t expecting that call,” he recalls. DFO granted him and his father a few extra days to make up their minds on whether to proceed earlier than expected. They decided to pull the trigger.
To make the necessary capital investments, they lined up financing through FCC Canada and put up part of the farm as collateral, he says, declining to reveal how much they spent in total.
A 40 ft. by 100 ft. open-front barn and a 40 ft. by 50 ft. calving barn were thriftily repurposed into the new dairy barn. The open-front barn now serves as a 48-stall free-stall, and the smaller building houses a used double-five milking parlour purchased from a farmer who switched to robotic milking.
“We did all the work basically ourselves, all the construction work,” Newman says. “My dad is very, very handy with that sort of thing.
“We always kind of joke that the only thing new we put in was the concrete because we sourced a lot of used stuff. Used self-locks, used stall dividers and the used parlour.”They did invest in new automated take-off units in the parlour and new heat-detection on the cows, he says.
Their innovations include a system of hanging fabric curtains — recycled from a Coverall-type building — along the open side of the big barn. The curtains are held in place along the floor by an attached metal bar that runs the length of each curtain. He manually lifts the curtain upward and hangs the horizontal bar on the stall headrails. That exposes the cement feed manger. Newman employs a used, upright TMR unit to dispense the feed along the manger, while driving the length of the barn from the outside of the barn. “I was very adamant about the TMR,” he says. “I didn’t want to be rolling baleage out in front of them. It’s a lot of work to do that.”
In preparation for the changeover to dairying, Newman had built up the beef herd to about 65 animals. He sold off 45 of those cattle to buy the Holsteins that became the core of his current milking herd of 32 to 35. “I didn’t start out with any heifers. I still needed to buy a few here and there to fill in the holes,” he adds.
While he still runs about 15 beef cattle, those animals are kept mainly to get a return on some of the scrubbier areas of the farm, he says.
While he acknowledges “a little bit of a financial burden” in the loan taken out for the dairy quota, the operation does pencil out, he says. More importantly, he says he’s doing what he enjoys at ‘Newjen’ Holsteins, the name for the new dairy herd.
“It’s not without its struggles, but nothing is. It’s been going well.”
His cows took some time to adjust to their new home, he says, recalling one of the challenges after move-in. “The first lactation after you move the cows, with the change of barn and the change of environment, they don’t really recover fully. The first year was a struggle to get the cows where they should be in production.” Today, he’s pleased to report that the herd is averaging around 35-37 litres per cow per day at almost 4.3 % butterfat.
He’s continued to buy a small amount of quota every month, bringing the farm’s total to nearly 45 kg, and he can see the farm gradually growing in its current configuration to 70 kg or more over the next 20 years. He’s already thinking about the potential dairying aspirations of his three young children.
As for the old saw that such quota-access programs only “give a young farmer enough quota to hang himself,” he says it is not true for him because he had an existing farm to work with. “I had the farm here before I started, and the machinery for the beef cows,” he points out, adding that his father has been a big help. “It would be tougher” for a new producer going it alone from scratch. “That would be their decision if they could make it work or not.”
He believes there should also be a program to assist young producers with taking over existing dairy farms. It would be better than “all of these dairy farms selling out and nobody taking them over, and then they sit there idle,” he observes.