Sixth generation dairy farmer helping move family business into the future

·4 min read
Dennis Taylor's new barn is his second to use a robotic system, with a first-of-its-kind design in the region, using clear plastic for the walls and large fans at one end of the building for ventilation. (Spencer Van Dyk/CBC - image credit)
Dennis Taylor's new barn is his second to use a robotic system, with a first-of-its-kind design in the region, using clear plastic for the walls and large fans at one end of the building for ventilation. (Spencer Van Dyk/CBC - image credit)

Dairy producer Dennis Taylor can remember helping his dad milk cows into buckets when he was just five years old. Now, the lifelong farmer has a robot that does the milking for him.

Taylor is doing what he can to bring his sixth-generation family business into the future — by building his second robotic barn using the latest technology.

The new barn at Woodsview Farm is the first of its kind in the Eastern Townships to use clear plastic for the walls. It also has huge fans at one end that push air through the structure.

Taylor said he was sold on the idea of clear walls by the building's engineers, because it keeps the space feeling big, bright and airy. And even when temperatures drop well below freezing, the sun streaming in keeps the barn warm for the cattle inside.

"It makes you feel like you're down south," Taylor said. "It's not hot, but you feel like you're in a nice environment."

"Healthy cows are happy cows that make lots of milk."

Spencer Van Dyk/CBC
Spencer Van Dyk/CBC

In 1798, Taylor's family was granted a square mile of land — about 260 hectares — from the King of England.

The family has been farming on that land ever since.

"My interest was always this," he said. "I loved this right from the beginning."

The farm is now down to about 162 hectares, but Taylor uses it to produce milk and grow hay.

While many farms in the region are only now making the move to robotics — Taylor estimates about a quarter of Townships producers have made the switch — Woodsview Farm implemented the technology more than a decade ago.

Spencer Van Dyk/CBC
Spencer Van Dyk/CBC

Last year, when the barn was nearing its limit, Taylor invested in building the second barn and buying another robot.

"We were growing and we needed more capacity," he said.

The machine measures the milk production of each cow, records their weight and keeps track of their movement throughout the day to ensure they get enough exercise, among other stats.

The robot's gate stays open, and when the cows are ready to be milked, they walk into the machine, which brushes their teats and rinses and disinfects them before connecting to milk them.

"It's a lot to do with their health," Taylor explained. "When they go in and milk, it can give us so much information."

Spencer Van Dyk/CBC
Spencer Van Dyk/CBC

Taylor's cows are able to walk over and get milked when they please, 24 hours a day.

"They decide when they want to eat, they decide when they want to drink, they decide when they want to milk," he said. "They make all their own decisions."

And when a cow gives birth, they do so anywhere they feel most comfortable.

"We want the calf off to a good, healthy start, and to have the mom off to a good start as well," Taylor said.

The farmer said the system is better for the cows, but it's also better for him, his family and his employees, who are not limited by a set milking schedule.

Food is always set out for the animals; there's a robot that pushes it closer to them, and another robot that cleans up the manure in the barn.

Spencer Van Dyk/CBC
Spencer Van Dyk/CBC

Taylor said both the quantity and the quality of his product have gone up.

Before the robot was installed, there would be several people helping milk, all using different techniques. With the machine, it's always the same.

"For them, for us, it's just a better life for everyone," Taylor said.

He also said the challenges are different than it was before.

While he used to be up and in the barn in the wee hours of the morning, now he's at the beck and call of the robot if there are mechanical problems.

Spencer Van Dyk/CBC
Spencer Van Dyk/CBC

Taylor said while robotic farms have been around for a while — and the technology is starting to catch on in the Eastern Townships — most people use glass or tin barn walls, and his using plastic is new.

"It saved us money, but also it's a brighter barn by doing it this way, he said."

The born and bred dairy farmer said he's glad to be taking his family business into the future, going from bucket milkers when he was a kid, to the tie stall barns that are common on Canadian farms and now to an entirely robotic system.

"I'd love to see another generation take it over, but I don't know if there will be," he said, explaining his 8- and 11-year-old sons don't have much interest in it.

He may pass it all on to his nephew, but that's yet undecided.

"I just would like to see the farm continue," he said. "I don't care if it's in my family as long as someone is passionate about it."

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