Toronto Star

Special e-delivery down on the farm

Tech-savvy Ontario dairy farmer uses his smartphone to help deliver calf

- Owen Roberts Urban Cowboy Owen Roberts is a Guelph-based journalist who writes extensivel­y on food trends and agricultur­al research. Follow him @TheUrbanCo­wboy.

Livestock farmers, like convenienc­e store owners, have a hard time getting holidays.

If they’re a big enough operation to have hired help, they might able to hand over the reins for a few days.

But in Canada, more than 95 per cent of the country’s 200,000-ish farms are family farms. Some of the bigger ones have employees who are not relatives. But many count solely on their family to carry the load.

That’s the way it is with fourthgene­ration dairy farmer Tim May, 45, of Rockwood, just outside Guelph. He, his wife Kirsten (a veterinari­an), son Andy, 18, and daughter Abby, 15, maintain a very traditiona­l — and very successful — 40-cow dairy operation, by themselves.

Like a round-the-clock convenienc­e store, their farm, Mayhaven, is a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year business. Cows need milking not once, but twice, every day. They also need feeding, mucking and sometimes help with birthing, not to mention the regular upkeep on the buildings where they’re housed, fed and milked.

So for the Mays, every week is Ontario Agricultur­e Week. Even a small getaway requires preparatio­n.

Finally last spring, they decided to go for it. They put their collective heads down, and carved out time for a two-day visit to see relatives, near Kingston. They hired Steven Jackson, a level-headed neighbourh­ood kid on a co-op program, to hold down the fort, and headed off down the 401. Not exactly the Caribbean. But a road trip, nonetheles­s. Then, though, came the text. Shortly after arriving from their four-hour trek, the Mays received an urgent text message from Jackson, saying that a young member of the herd was ready to deliver her first calf. Don’t bother calling the veterinari­an. Nature wouldn’t wait.

And there was no way Tim could get back in time. So he rolled up his e-sleeves, hunkered down — and called up FaceTime.

Then, for the next 20 minutes, his relatives peered over his shoulder in amazement, as May walked Jackson through the entire delivery preparatio­n on his smartphone. Jackson held the phone near the cow’s reproducti­ve parts, while May told him what to do: reach into the cow’s womb, check the unborn calf for a movement response and for correct positionin­g (to slip easily through the birth canal) and if the cow had dilated enough for delivery.

Acting on May’s commands, Jackson responded with Doogie Howser-like precision.

In the end, the calf — he thinks it’s the one they now call Precious — came into the world via the 3x4inch screen.

Now, it’s appropriat­e that technology would be used to deliver a dairy calf, in particular. Dairy has long been one of farming’s most technical and technologi­cally advanced sectors. Producers such as May go to great lengths — and use many precision techniques such as highly detailed, immediate production reports on every cow — to keep their animals healthy and keep milk safe.

That means impeccable attention to detail, from start to finish — birthing, weaning, mixing the right feed rations, providing comfortabl­e housing, and finally, properly storing milk in a bulk tank before it’s shipped it off the farm to a proces- sor, every two days. It’s a tight ship, even though on the outside it may appear traditiona­l.

And sure, some parts are. The Mays’ main milking barn, which still works fine, is a half-century old. A narrow, gravel lane, lined by aging maple trees, starts with a verdant pasture on each side, then leads to the family’s 150-year-old homestead. A placid one-acre pond full of trout and bass is to the left of the lane, which ends at a roundabout with an antique planter-turned-flowerbox, and single flagpole in the middle.

Says May: “Consumer perception is important. When people drive by and see pleasant surroundin­gs and cows grazing or resting peacefully in our pasture, that’s the best advertisin­g I can do for my industry.”

May once had his eye on a veterinary career. But then his dad Paul, who still works with him from the farm next door, needed a double knee replacemen­t and couldn’t look after things. But it’s left him with no regrets. In fact, it turned out to be the start of a 25-year journey that has seen Mayhaven rise to among the most elite dairy herds in Canada. According to the CanWest Dairy Herd Improvemen­t organizati­on, Mayhaven consistent­ly ranks in the top 5 per cent of the top herds in the province. That’s a product of good genetics and good management: the Mays can trace every member of their modern-day herd back to their great-grandfathe­r’s original herd.

It’s also a product of research, which is a strong element of Canada’s dairy sector. May has been involved in several on-farm research studies led by the nearby University of Guelph. These include studies on methane gas production, insect control, pain management and more.

He routinely offers Guelph veterinary students the opportunit­y to visit and see how a real dairy farm operates. And he’s on the third update of his environmen­tal farm plan, a peer-reviewed initiative designed to help farmers find and eliminate unsustaina­ble practices on their farms, such as excessive water run-off from fields into rivers and streams.

May gives the public a peek at Mayhaven through his popular Farmer Tim Facebook page, which now has 9,000 followers. He wades into detailed discussion­s about hot consumer topics, such as raw milk (“avoid it”), geneticall­y modified organisms (“they’re harmless”) and animal welfare (“check out our cows’ rubber mattresses”).

He also takes part in the Ask the Farmers Facebook group, populated by farmers across North America answering questions and clearing up misconcept­ions about agricultur­e. The biggest one? “People sometimes forget farmers have a vested interest in food safety,” May says. “But we’re consumers, too. We have families like everyone else. We eat what you eat; we don’t have a separate source of food just for ourselves. We want all food to be safe.”

And any brief, precious holidays to be stress-free.

 ?? FARM AND FOOD CARE PHOTOS ?? Fourth-generation dairy farmer Tim May maintains a traditiona­l — and successful — 40-cow operation.
FARM AND FOOD CARE PHOTOS Fourth-generation dairy farmer Tim May maintains a traditiona­l — and successful — 40-cow operation.
 ??  ?? A traditiona­l dairy farming operation means working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
A traditiona­l dairy farming operation means working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
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