The business of dairy farming
Good management is crucial. But a big part of successful farming is plain old hard work.

During the past decade Lise Beauchamp and Marcel Proulx have hosted numerous agricultural students on their Saint-Placide farm. These students are typically required to complete apprenticeships as part of their degree requirements. But after a taste of what farming is really like, several changed their majors.

"It's a very hard life," said Beauchamp, co-owner of La Ferme M.G. Proulx, which has 170 Holsteins, and 80 producing milk cows. "Farming is a business. But anyone who regards it as just a business would get out, because it's just too tough."

The statistics speak for themselves. According to the Fédération des Producteurs du Lait du Québec, the number of dairy farms in the province has dropped from 20,000 two decades ago, to about 8,200 this year, as farmers fed up with the constant pressure, leave the industry in droves.

The work never stops on a farm. Like most farmers Marcel Proulx wakes up every morning at 4:45 to feed and milk the cows, a process repeated later in the day. When that's done the stables have to be shoveled.

During milking cows are checked to see if they are in heat, in case artificial insemination is required. The examination must be done religiously because any month a cow is neither pregnant nor generating milk, means a month of lost production. There are about 100 births a year in the herd, and the farmer is present for each, even though births often happen in the middle of the night.

Then farm tools, and capital stock need be checked, repaired and maintained. In the summer the hay and soya must be planted and harvested, and dozens of other tasks and minor duties constantly loom.

But while most Quebec farmers regard their farms as more than just businesses, they are businesses, and to survive, farmers like Beauchamp and Proulx must keep up to date with modern farming methods. According to one expert, effective farm management is crucial to maintaining optimal productivity.

"Technological changes have affected almost all areas of dairy operations during the last 20 years," said Alain Fournier, an agronomist with the Ministère de l'Agriculture, Pêcheries et Alimentation. "These include everything from the way cows are bread, to the way they are fed and housed."

A productive cow starts with good breeding. During the last decade, due to effective breeding the average size of milk cows has gotten much bigger, and milk yields have increased close to 40 per cent.

In fact one of the most important decisions a farmer must make is whether to buy top-of-the-line sperm to inseminate his cows, or whether to try and get by on the cheap stuff. The average shot of sperm cost about $65, but prices can range between $17 and $75, so the stakes are high. More so considering every producing cow needs to be inseminated each year and most cows need two or three tries to get pregnant.

Another big factor to consider is housing conditions for the cows. Most producing dairy cows spend the 10 months a year that they are lactating, with their necks chained to a post, so they can be milked faster. But a comfortable cow is a productive cow and many farmers line stalls with carpeting or mattresses so the animals don't have to sleep on the cement floor.

The larger cows of recent years have put the squeeze on many farmers who are now faced with the prospect of building new barns and stalls to accommodate the bigger animals, a phenomenal expense that few can afford.

According to Beauchamp, unlike U.S. farmers Canadian producers do not pump their cows full of hormones such as bovine somatotrophin, but rather rely on proper feeding to maximize productivity.

Cows must be fed the right combination of grain, hay, soya so that they get the right protein and mineral balance. Many farmers take the extra step of mixing a cow's food together, so the cow doesn't just eat the tasty parts, and leave the nutritious portions aside.

Fortunately Quebec's dairy farmers don't have to worry about marketing, which is the biggest challenge most businessmen face. Under Quebec's supply management regime, farmers are guaranteed a fixed price based on the quotas they own. These quotas give the farmer the right to sell about 30 liters of milk a day.

La Ferme M.G. Proulx owns quotas for 80 cows, which last year produced about of 10,000 liters of milk each, at an average price of about 58 cents per liter, giving the farm estimated gross sales of more than $400,000. Quotas can be bought and sold on the open market and recently traded for more than $20,000.

But Quebec's $1.7 billion dairy industry is under constant threat from the much bigger U.S. farms who are constantly lobbying for free trade. And Beauchamp worries constantly about what kind of life awaits her son Bruno, who will be studying agriculture next year and who has shown a keen interest in taking over the farm.

 

Photo caption: Farming is a highly competitive business, and entrepreneurs such as Lise Beauchamp and Marcel Proulx, need to use modern technology and management techniques just to survive. But success also boils down to a lot of hard work.

Sidebar: Getting ahead

o Lise Beauchamp and Marcel Proulx got into the dairy business by taking over the family farm from Marcel's father George, who still helps out almost every day.
o The couple own about 150 Holsteins, of which 80 produce milk. The other 70 are in their first two years of life and are not yet ready to produce.
o Under Quebec's quota system, the farm has the right to sell milk from 80 cows, and it must maximize the output from each. This is done through a variety of techniques ranging from providing cattle optimal feed, comfort, hygiene and veterinarian care.
o The couple is already thinking about succession, and is preparing their 16 year old son Bruno to take over by getting him used to vigorous work at a young age.

peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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