Producing more milk with fewer cows has been the management focus of Eastern Ontario dairy farmers Jason and Amanda O’Connell, over the past few years.
When they returned to farming in 2006 and began working with Amanda’s father on the family dairy farm at Carleton Place, west of Ottawa they were milking about 115 head producing for 70 kilograms of butterfat quota. Through a concerted program of culling cattle and improving genetics the O’Connells are now milking 90 head — 25 to 30 fewer cows — but producing 120 kilograms of butterfat quota.
“The emphasis has been on improving production efficiency,” says Amanda who was born and raised on the family’s Sunol Farms. “We now have a purebred Holstein dairy herd and continue to work on increasing production as quota becomes available.”
The O’Connells, who were also part way through harvest of grain corn and soybeans heading into November, are the 2014 Outstanding Young Farmer nominees for Ontario. They will be competing at the OYF national awards program in Quebec City, later this month.
Amanda’s grandfather started the dairy in 1962 with 10 head of Shorthorn cattle. Over the years the dairy was expanded by her father, Stuart Hammond, and today the O’Connells farm in a 50/50 partnership with him.
Jason was born and raised on a small beef farming operation, not far from the Hammond dairy farm.
After high school, he and Amanda attended Kemptville agriculture college south of Ottawa. Amanda then attended the University of Guelph to obtain a bachelor of science degree in agriculture, while Jason managed a family member’s beef feedlot, Hamilton Livestock at nearby Almonte, Ontario. In 2006 they returned to Sunol Farms to join the dairy operation.
Along with the cowherd, the O’Connells also produce cash crops including, 700 acres of corn, 700 acres of soybeans, about 200 acres of winter wheat, about 200 acres of grass hay, marketed mostly as a cash crop and about 100 acres of alfalfa.
They produce most of their own feed stuffs for the dairy ration that includes, alfalfa hay and silage, corn silage made with a BMR (brown midrib) hybrid corn which has improved digestibility, dry corn, and straw. Those ingredients are all blended in a total mixed ration, along with a protein supplement. While milk production can vary, the average ranges between 35 to 39 litres per cow per day.
The O’Connells have followed a management program with related objectives over the past seven years — improve herd production, and buy more milk quota.
“We have been vigilant since we returned to the farm to increase our quota and also improve the milk production of the herd,” says Amanda. “We have bid on quota every month since we have been farming.”
A few years ago there was no limit on quota so they were able to make some larger purchases, however in more recent years gains have been smaller.
“Being able to increase our milk quota has made it possible to improve the overall operation,” says Amanda. “Being able to ship more milk has increased our cash flow, which means we have been able to improve facilities and adopt new technology on the farm.”
One of the upcoming major projects for Sunol Farms is to build a new heifer barn. Planning has just started on that. At present the main 220 head freestall barn houses dairy cattle, bred heifers, dry cows and all replacement heifers over six months of age. It is at capacity.
“Our plan is to build a new heifer barn, to provide more herd segregation and free up space in the main barn,” says Amanda. “Then as we are able to buy more quota we can add more cows to the milking herd.”
There is plenty of room in the double-eight milking parlor to handle more cows, but space is needed in the free-stall barn. The O’Connells now have two hired hands working on the farm. “For the first five years we did everything ourselves,” says Amanda. “But when our first daughter was born three years ago we hired our first worker.”
Their young family includes Margaret, three, and Mackenzie, who was born in early October.