Panelists were as follows:

Coffeen peggy
Coffeen was a former editor and podcast host with Progressive Dairy. 
  • Geoff Brown, Lakeland College Dairy Learning Centre, Vermillion, Alberta – a hands-on dairy production education program with 30 students and 120 cows, with both a milking parlour and milking robot

  • George Dick, Dicklands Farms, Chilliwack, British Columbia – a 315-cow dairy seven years into robotic milking, with a strong emphasis on genetics

  • Armand Lavoie, Enterprise Lavoie Inc., St. Isadore, Alberta – the “furthest north dairy in Canada,” milking 400 cows in a double-20 parlour

Fat as a measure of efficiency

Kilograms of fat are king when it comes to defining efficiency for these dairy farmers. Each emphasized the value of butterfat.

“I don’t talk about litres of milk; it’s kilos of butterfat,” Dick said. “We have high inputs, so we have to have high outputs.”

With high fat content in demand by the current milk pricing system, Dick said he is “feeding for fat.” He aims to take his dairy’s current production level of 1.8 kilograms of butterfat up to 2 kilograms. “I think we should be able to have a 3 to 5 percent increase year-over-year with a super-intense genetic program,” Dick said.

The focus is the same at Enterprise Lavoie Inc., where butterfat is a component of the genetic selection criteria. Lavoie said, “We are very much focused on kilograms of butterfat per cow because that’s how we get paid on a daily basis.”


According to Lavoie, the dairy’s average total feed cost on a kilogram of butterfat per cow basis is $6 to $6.50. He hopes to reduce expensive feed items by improving efficiency of their homegrown forages, which include haylage, barley silage, alfalfa hay and timothy hay. 


“The hardest part of dairying is labour,” Dick stated. Adding robots to his milking system required him to find a “different kind of person.” He explained, “First, you have to find someone with a brain. Then, I engage that brain and keep it interested.” Dick described engagement and culture as key components in keeping a worker employed. That also means letting go of those who don’t jive with the culture. “Get rid of the wrong people,” he added.

Lavoie penciled the labour requirements on his dairy to be 59 hours per cow per year. He holds that number next to the Alberta dairy cost study, which indicated an average of 47 to 60 hours per cow per year. While he acknowledged some of their costs are higher than others because of taking tasks like hoof trimming in-house, Lavoie added, “There are areas of opportunity.”

At the Dairy Learning Centre, students provide the bulk of the workforce. They conduct the daily duties of the dairy using labour-saving technologies, like an in-line milk analysis system. The system alerts mastitis, ketosis and progesterone levels. Brown credited this as a huge labour-saving system, particularly with heat detection, as estrus is indicated via the milk sample versus watching for heats. They also use robotic milking for half the herd and an automated feed delivery system, thus further reducing manhours.

“The Vector system has been a big one. Robotic milking has been a culture-changer, as we look more at data in making decisions,” Brown said. With the learning centre in only its first year of operation, his focus has been on the bigger management areas, labour in particular.

When considering an investment in technology to reduce labour, Dick goes by what he calls the “20-20-20 rule.” “If your labour costs you $20, and your employee spends 20 minutes a day doing something, you are going to spend $20,000. Or you can spend $20,000 over 15 years, put it at 4% interest or higher, and you’re actually ahead,” he explained. “It’s something to think about on being more efficient and using your capital to cut down your costs.”


Both Dick and Lavoie view genetics as a pathway to efficiency, and each are taking steps to manage their heifer inventory for the greatest genetic gains.

“If we’re going to raise heifers, we’re going to raise good heifers,” Dick said. “With the high cost of raising replacements, it’s all about being really conscious of what you’re raising.”

He hones in on the heifers with the highest LPI and flushes at 12 months old, mostly to sexed semen. The bottom half of the herd is implanted with a fresh embryo. Dick said he believes this strategic approach increases returns, as animals enter the milking herd for their third or fourth lactation. “We make an extra $813 on money we spent to make that genetic change,” he said, noting the estimated cost of the embryo transfer and projection for payback based on LPI.

Lavoie also reported financial gains in LPI tied to a dedicated genetic strategy. The focus in his farm’s herd is on functional type (udder and feet and legs) and health components. “We don’t push for extreme type,” he said. “We’re looking for really functional animals.” They use primarily young genomic sires and embryo transfer on 10% to 15% of the heifers born on the farm, along with some IVF.

Both Dick and Lavoie testified to seeing higher butterfat yields based on genetic improvement. “We’ve probably improved by 20% our kilograms of butterfat over the last two years per cow,” Lavoie noted. “There’s a correlation to what her genetic potential was as well.”

“The fat [improvement] is very consistent. We see good results with the animals coming through,” Dick said. 

Beyond efficiency …

While the focus of the panel conversation was around efficiency, the dairymen acknowledged that is not their only priority.

“I talk a lot about efficiency, but that’s not the only thing that matters … long-term success of our family is very important,” Lavoie said.

Brown is equally focused on the next generation. He added, “The product we produce isn’t milk as much as it is the students going out into the industry.”

When it comes to planning for the future, Dick ended with this advice: “Get efficient so you can grow; don’t grow to be efficient.”  end mark

Peggy Coffeen