Martin Miller with one of his dairy cows

As readers of this blog know, my main writing focus is agritourism. I profile farms and agribusinesses that open their doors to their public, providing a glimpse into the passion and hard work that goes into producing the agricultural products that we often take for granted.

One type of farm that rarely opens its doors is a dairy farm, whether the farmers are raising cows, sheep, or goats. The main reason is that biosecurity is a big issue in the dairy industry; everything must be kept very clean to ensure a safe milk supply. In fact, you are a bigger risk to the animals than the animals are to you, so there’s too much risk for most dairy farms to provide regular tours of their operations.

However, you will occasionally run across opportunities to tour a dairy farm – usually one-time events that are easier for the farmers to manage. So when I saw that the Cheese Festival was offering a bus tour that included two dairy farms, I immediately signed up. One of the tours was for a cow dairy farm, and the other was for a dairy goat farm.

Sadly, the dairy goat farm tour was cancelled at the last minute, due to a tragic event on the farm. The owners were provided with either the wrong food or contaminated food (I can’t remember which), and all of their goats were poisoned. As a result, they had to euthanize their entire herd of 400 goats. It’s a devastating blow for the farm, which previously supplied milk to Fifth Town Artisan Cheese and had developed an international reputation for its breeding lines. To start over will mean a delay of at least 3 years before they can even start shipping milk. It’s such a huge loss, and is yet another reminder of how difficult it is to be a small-scale farmer.

On a happier note, our dairy farm tour was still scheduled, and it was our first stop of the day. After boarding our small bus at the Picton Fairgrounds, we headed off to Maypul Layn Farms. On board were several cheesemongers from Leslieville Cheese Market in Toronto, staff from Faye Clack Communications (marketing specialists in the food industry), Wendy Furtenbacher from the CurdyGirl blog and the Canadian Cheese Society, and two professors from the University of Toronto. With our driver, volunteer tour guide, and my sister and me, we were 12 people – a nice size for our tour.

Our tour was led by the owners of the farm, Martin and Angela Miller, and their employee (whose name I did not catch, unfortunately). The Millers provided an overview of their 4th generation farm, where they keep approximately 130 dairy cows and calves, and grow 350 acres of hay, corn, wheat, and soybeans.

At any one time, there are usually about 60 cows that are producing milk under the provincially-regulated milk quota system. It may seem funny to anyone who grew up on or near a farm, but many people don’t know that cows produce milk only part of the time. To produce milk, a cow must be bred and give birth to a calf. After the calf is born, the cow can be milked for about 305 days. This is followed by a 60-day dry period (what the Millers refer to as “going on holiday”), and then the cow is bred again. So in fact, the cow is producing milk only about half the time.

On a dairy farm, female calves are far more valuable than bull calves, because they are raised as replacement dairy cows. In contrast, bull calves are suitable only for meat, and the Millers sell them a couple weeks after birth. Unfortunately for the Millers, they’ve had a bad run of luck and have produced nothing but bull calves since January 1st, with the exception of one female. All their cows are artificially inseminated, so the natural question from the audience was: can they use sex selection with the semen to produce female calves? The answer is yes, but the fertility rating is lower, so the Millers are using regular semen.

When the calves are born, they remain with their mothers for 6-8 hours, and then move to the calf barn, where they’re fed milk, calf-starter, and water for 2-3 months (unless they’re a bull calf, in which case they stay only a couple weeks). The mothers stay in the main milking barn, where they are fed a carefully-controlled diet of hay, grain, corn, soy, and other supplements. During the cows’ dry period, they are put out to pasture.

The cows are milked twice a day, around 5:30 am and 5:30 pm. The process is automated and computerized to track how long each cow takes to be “milked out”. Each cow produces about 5 gallons of milk, twice a day, which is the equivalent of about 85 pounds of milk per day. The milk is picked up every two days, and goes into the provincial quota system. The Millers can’t control where their milk goes, but most of it stays local, based on demand from cheese factories, for example.

As we were leaving, I was talking for a moment to the Miller’s employee. He’s a graduate of the Kemptville Campus of the University of Guelph, and mentioned that the campus offers tours of its dairy facility, including the “cow waterbeds” that many dairy farms are starting to use. I didn’t know about this tour offering, and there isn’t much information available on the Kemptville Campus website, but it’s something I will definitely check into and write about in the future. In the meantime, it was really great to see a medium-sized dairy farm in action, and I send my thanks to the Mapul Layne Farms for allowing us to visit.