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Technology key to dairy farm’s future

Brant County farmers Pam and Terry Charlton demonstrate the computerized, robotic features of their new dairy barn at Elm Bend Holsteins on McBay Road. MICHAEL-ALLAN MARION/The Expositor

The venerable Elm Bend Holsteins on McBay Road has all the charm of a five-generation dairy farm with its century home, big barn and silos.

But the present operators, Pam and Terry Charlton, want to show a gleaming, modern barn standing on a neighbouring farm they bought next door.

“We’ve skipped a century here,” Terry Charlton, 48, says as he and Pam, 42, usher the way into their office with the latest desk and computer and a big bay window showing a complete view of the interior of the barn where cows appear to roam at will.

By the view, the Charltons have just become the latest dairy farmers to go “robotic.”

The barn is bright and airy with curtains helping maintain temperature and climate control. Under the Charlton perusal the cows move from “flexible stalls” along guiding rails to common areas, a holding area, and step into a robot milker and feeding spot.

“The old barn in the home farm next door was built in 1896. It went through a lot of renovations and redesigns and got us through four generations,” Terry said.

Terry and his wife had taken over the direct running of the farm from his parents Ruth Ann and the late Ron Charlton a few years ago.

“We were at the point there were no economically feasible options left if we wanted to expand,” said Pam.

The family had bought the neighbouring farm in 2004. When Pam and Terry reached the conclusion that the grand old barn could yield no more worth for expansion, they set to work building a new barn with state-of-the-art technology. They studied minimum distance separations, and did nutrient management studies to ensure the viability of a new barn on 50 acres.

Excavation of land and construction of the new barn, complete with the computer monitored feeding, milking, breeding and record-keeping, cost the Charltons more than $1 million. Pam and Terry and their four daughters Raechel, 14, Reegan, 11, Cailyn, 9, and Kelsey, 6, all helped move in the cows and took over the computerized controls on Jan. 18.

All the kids stayed home from school that week to help. Raechel and Reegan were able to learn the robot software quickly and even teach their dad a few things about how to make it work.

The barn is equipped with cameras that allow Pam and Terry to monitor the operation from the house. As long as there’s Wi-Fi, Terry can keep track on his cell phone from anywhere in the world.

The system also brings the Charltons up to the latest traceability standards and the regulations of the Canadian Quality Milk Program, and record keeping. It also gets them ready for the ProAction Initiative a program led by the Dairy Farmers of Canada to get dairy producers to use responsible stewardship principles in the breeding, keeping and milking of their cows.

It dictates stall size requirements, space and animal numbers for a sustainable, responsible operation.

“If the kids want to take over and expand, there are more options on this property,” said Pam. They are all in 4-H clubs and take an active hand in helping.

With 43 milking cows, 17 dry ones, eight calves and up to 20 heifers, the Charltons’ 88-head herd, with another 30 back at the home farm, is the most recent robotic operation, but still in the early part of a growing trend in dairy farming in Ontario. There are 52 registered dairy operations in the Brant, but fewer than a dozen with robot systems.

“It’s the coming thing,” said Pam.

“As with anything new, there are kinks and bugs to work out, but it’s going well.”

Terry grinned at that comment.

“It’s an adaptation as much for us as it is for the cows,” he said as they watched another cow walk into the robot milker and begin to eat while being milked.

“Actually, I think the cows probably take it easier than we do.”

Source: Brantford Expositor

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