From faith to strategic planning to detailed focus, these producers capitalize on their strengths and beliefs to advance their farms.
The panelists included J.P. Brouwer, Sunalta Farms, Ponoka, Alberta; Daphne Holterman, Rosy-Lane Holsteins LLC, Watertown, Wisconsin; and Jake Vermeer, Vermeer’s Dairy Ltd., Camrose, Alberta.
Faith is the foundation at Sunalta Farms
“Our values are central to what allows us to achieve success,” J.P. Brouwer said.
He farms with his two brothers and parents, as well as a number of employees, on a 350-cow dairy near Ponoka, Alberta.
“Our faith on our farm is central to the way we function,” Brouwer said.
He continued, “We don’t own the farm; maybe on paper we do, but in the end we believe God does, that He owns everything. This compels us to realize we need to be stewards – using our farm in a way that honours Him.”
The farm team focuses on three main items: animal welfare, productivity enhancement and longevity. “They all go hand in hand,” Brouwer said.
One way of achieving this was implementing sand bedding in 2011. In doing so, they have seen better animals, less lameness, less slippage and less mastitis than before.
Another way to reduce the incidence of mastitis is to always have two milkers in the parlour so they can focus on proper udder preparation and milking technique, while a third person is in charge of moving cows.
Calves are housed in outdoor hutches, and the Brouwers like to push for higher intakes. Calves are fed 8 litres a day, and within the first week they are usually drinking it all. They are currently considering pushing that to 12 litres a day.
Brouwer said, “Every single day these animals are alive, I want them to eat a little bit more....Our genetics keep advancing, but we have a gap we need to fill in of the genetic potential that is being realized.”
They feed unpasteurized salable whole milk to the calves, which Brouwer justified by stating he looks at cost of production and not the sale price when comparing it to other options.
Recently, the Brouwers have been renovating to add transition cow housing. Dry cows had been kept on pasture and had to travel over ice and gravel to get to feed. By putting them in a barn with a deep-straw bedded pack and headlocks, they plan to pamper their dry cows, which should increase intakes.
Brouwer anticipated the investment in dry cow management would push the farm’s milk production to an extra 3 to 4 kilograms per cow.
In addition, it prompted further expansion, and they are increasing cow numbers from 350 to 450 cows.
Brouwer is very involved with Alberta Milk, particularly in research activities. His farm agreed to be part of a project to see how gene expression is reflected in feed intake. They will have monitoring nodes installed at every headlock to read RFID chips in the cows’ ears. This should provide information on individual feed intakes.
Needing to retire their old feed wagon, the Brouwers decided to move to precision feed management. They purchased a new self-propelled feed wagon equipped with near-infrared technology to measure dry matter, protein, ash content, starch, etc., of the feeds being added to the mixer.
As an early adopter, Brouwer would like to see more dairy producers be in the early majority of adopting new methods on the farm.
“I think that’s what proAction is trying to do,” he said. “Some of us that manage well shouldn’t have any problems with proAction, but I think it’s trying to get some of the late majority to be more progressive.”
He would like to see continued adaption and progression in the industry and said it will take everyone working together to get there.
Brouwer mentioned that employees can oftentimes be underrated in their role in a farm’s success. “I think you can get so much more out employees if you give them time to give input, answer their questions, help them understand why they are doing what they are doing and give them a reason to be passionate to provide work for you,” he said. “I’m seeing us building a relationship with our employees, and the returns of that are awesome.”
‘Great people, great cows and great returns’ is the mission of Rosy-Lane Holsteins
In farming for 35 years, Daphne Holterman identified several strategies her and her husband, Lloyd, have used to grow the farm to include more cows and more people. They now farm with two non-family partners, Tim Strobel and Jordan Matthews, as well as 20 full-time employees at Rosy-Lane Holsteins in Watertown, Wisconsin.
“We started farming with nothing in mind other than we were going to work hard, and we love cows and calves,” Holterman said. They began with their passion, then developed and identified strategies over time.
One of their approaches is to do something others are not doing. For the Holtermans, that means a focus on genetics, never saying no to a farm tour and rewarding their employees regularly with clothing, ice cream, string cheese, pizza parties and an occasional summer picnic.
They like to study people they admire, from neighbouring dairy producers to fellow National Outstanding Young Farmer recipients, as well as seek advice from experts. “We have a great network of people all around the U.S. we can fall back on and talk to when we need ideas,” Holterman said. She also mentioned they send each employee to a seminar, workshop or trade show once a year so they can learn from others too.
Their farm is a business. “It’s a business that just happens to be a family farm,” she said. “It took me a while to get to that.” Holterman said. Good record-keeping and having control of the money, or at least knowing what comes in and what goes out, is important. In addition, they like to read non-ag publications to pick up business tips outside of the dairy industry.
Holterman said they shop around and let their suppliers know they are doing it. After a couple of phone calls and emails, they were able to save 40 percent on their dairy supplies. “All we had to do was ask,” she said. Acting bigger than what you are can help you in getting volume discounts but also in setting up quality safety and human resource practices.
Keep detailed records and compare with other farms to set a benchmark for your operation. A recent internet access installation across their entire farm will help them do more work with handheld computers in order to eliminate errors from written records.
Another strategy they use is to take calculated risks. To do so, she said you must first know your strengths and keep hold of your core business. However, through the years they have created additional business avenues in genetics, milk trucking, marketing, insurance and consulting.
“Creating some of our other businesses allows us to move dollars around in different pockets at the right times and pull things together so we’re paying a lower tax rate overall on our farming operation,” she said.
Even with the other businesses, the Holtermans always invest in cows first. “If it’s the bedding, the feed or your milking parlour, just invest in your cows first and they will pay you back if they are taken care of,” she said.
A newer strategy they are working on is to go back to the basics and focus on the little things. They installed a water filtration system so every bit of water on the farm is clean and clear. They want to make sure ventilation is working properly and that feed delivery and push-up occurs as it should.
A focus on cleanliness all across the farm keeps flies away, which helps with calf health. “We want to be tour-ready and milk inspector-ready every single day,” Holterman said.
Other advice she had was to be a leader and not a boss. Sometimes you’ve got to stay late, and you might have to go an extra mile or even a second mile to help an employee. Empathize. Take time to talk with your staff every day. Work on empowering others. Lead by example. “You can get dirty,” she said.
Their farm’s vision comes down to three things: “Great people, great cows and great returns.” Those returns aren’t just for the owners, she said, but also for the staff, the environment and the community.
Jake Vermeer finds success in managing the details
As the herd manager at Vermeer’s Dairy Ltd., his family’s dairy farm near Camrose, Alberta, Jake Vermeer keeps a close eye on reproduction, transition cow management, cow comfort and forage quality.
His family moved into its current facilities in 2008 after selling their previous farm to an oil company. They have a 40-stall external rotary parlour with an automatic post-dip system and a six-stall herringbone hospital parlour rebuilt from their previous farm.
The farm is milking 420 cows three times a day with a 39-litre average at 3.7 percent butterfat and 175,000 somatic cell count. They average 180 days in milk with a 29 percent preg rate.
“One of the things I think we do best on the farm is reproduction,” Vermeer said.
Six years ago, they had a 14 percent preg rate using a 50-day voluntary waiting period and pedometers for heat detection. They decided to implement a Presynch-Ovsynch program and put the voluntary waiting period at 70 days. They do not cherry pick, and all cows are bred between 70 and 76 days in milk. About 75 to 80 percent of the herd is pregnant by 150 days in milk.
Vermeer’s passion is genetics, and that is how he plans to put his own footprint on the farm. His genetic emphasis is 40 percent production, 30 percent health and 30 percent conformation. He said he would ideally like to drop conformation to zero and further emphasize production and health.
He has all females on the farm and sires from A.I. companies ranked on this index. The top 25 to 50 percent of heifers are bred with sexed semen, while the bottom 50 percent are implanted with embryos and bred to top sires. Since sexed semen is growing the herd, he breeds the bottom 10 percent of cows to beef.
Vermeer explained he has an embryo deal with a nearby farm with top genetics. In the partnership, the neighbour gets to keep his first choice out of every three calves. “The bottom two-thirds I keep, and they are still way better than any commercial cows I could bring on the farm,” he said.
Vermeer also focuses on transition management. “I feel if you can do a good job there, you can get your cows pregnant a lot faster,” he said.
All cows in their second or greater lactation receive a calcium bolus at calving and another 12 hours later. He relies on fresh cow reports from DairyComp and watches milk deviations from at least two milkings. Vermeer also uses BHBA testing and enrolls cows with a reading of 1.2 and higher for further testing.
“The biggest thing you can do that we have found is monitor your close-up intakes,” he said. “It does not matter what kind of microminerals you feed if you feed a kilo less intakes. If they aren’t eating enough, you’re going to have problems.”
They use sand bedding for cow comfort and rake the stalls every morning. While there is no need to trim off much of the hoof with sand bedding, the cows still need “pedicures” to model the feet for good walking, and these are given at 100 days in milk and the week of dry-off.
“Forage quality is so important here in central Alberta because we have a small growing season,” Vermeer said. The farm stopped trying to make hay and instead uses alfalfa baleage to maintain better plant quality.
It also installed a new on-farm feed mill to benefit from commodity brokering and gains in quality control.
By watching the details and running a cost analysis on major decisions, Vermeer knows what brings success to his family farm.
PHOTO: Three dairy producers, from left to right, JP Brouwer, Daphne Holterman and Jake Vermeer, discuss the various ways their farms achieve success. Photo by Karen Lee.
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