Spe­cial e-de­liv­ery down on the farm

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

Toronto Star - - SPECIAL REPORT: ONTARIO AGRICULTURE WEEK - 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.


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.

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