Just like any farm kid, Owen Fijala grew up helping out on the family grain farm near Manitou in south-central Manitoba. Things got a bit different, though, when he got a part-time job helping out a neighbouring beef farmer and he began to get interested in livestock production as well.
He’d kept his eyes open, too, and was alert to the challenges in both sectors. In fact, with wildly fluctuating grain and beef prices, “challenges” can be an understatement, and Owen, just in his mid-teens, began to think about potential ways to add another income source to grain farming.
That’s when he decided to look in a direction that would provide him some security and certainty, and it’s why he took an unconventional next step.
Owen began to investigate the supply-managed dairy industry.
It meant a huge departure from the norm for both Owen and his parents. None of them had any experience in dairy. But then, the Fijalas are an enterprising family; Owen’s dad, Mark, started a sideline grain trucking business years ago, and his mother, Alison, has long juggled the farm books and administration with a full-time, off-farm job as resident care co-ordinator of a local personal care home.
In other words, the idea that their son might want to diversify into a dairy business didn’t really phase them; they were only too keen to roll up their sleeves and help him get there.
But there’s another wrinkle in the story.
Owen was only 16 when he set dairy farming as his goal, despite that being an age when many teenagers haven’t a clue about where they are going with their lives.
Over the next three years, while still in high school, Owen spent weekends and summer holidays working for a local dairy producer, Readore Farms, owned and operated by Rheal and Diane Simon with their sons, Mitch and Mark, learning the ropes and getting more hooked as he went.
“I literally didn’t know a thing about dairy,” says Owen, who graduated in 2018 and turned 19 in March of this year. “The first year, I was just trying to do the job right, but by the second year, I was taking more of an interest. I liked it and once I figured out how to do everything, then I started to learn about things like different sicknesses or what could cause cows not to milk as much.”
Getting into dairy
Learning about how to operate a dairy barn day-to-day was one thing; getting into the dairy industry was quite another.
That’s where the Dairy Farmers of Manitoba New Entrant Program came in. Other provinces have versions of the program, but in this case it is designed to assist Manitobans to get into the dairy industry, and each year it awards a certain amount of unsaleable, daily butterfat quota at no cost to the successful applicant, who must also purchase a matching amount of quota. Once licensed and registered as a dairy farmer, the new entrant can produce and ship raw milk, retaining the free quota as long as he or she continues to be a registered milk producer with a minimum 51 per cent ownership in their dairy.
Owen applied and was one of three successful new entrants for 2018, and admits that he probably would have had to put his plans on hold if he’d not been successful. “If I didn’t get the new entry, I was going to go to the University of Manitoba to take an agriculture diploma and would have re-applied for the New Entrant program the following year,” says Owen. “At the time, though, I wanted to farm, I didn’t really want to go to university, so with Mom and Dad’s help we really pushed hard to try and get the new entrant award.”
Owen says Alison and Mark’s help was invaluable to him in applying for the program. The application was significant; he needed a two-year, detailed business plan including balance sheets and cash-flow statements, none of which he’d yet learned to do. He also needed to draw up design plans and cost estimates for a new barn, because part of the criteria is that the new entrant must be new to the industry, not an existing dairy. Then there was financing to consider.
It was a lot to contend with, and the family brought in dairy industry consultant, Roger Mills, to help them.
Another issue was Owen’s age. Applicants had to be 18 years old, and at the time he was applying, Owen was only 17. So he applied together with his parents as a family, knowing that a decision would be made in December before his March birthday.
The upshot is, Owen received a free annual quota of 30 kgs of butterfat through the New Entrant program, and purchased an additional 30 kgs, which allows him to produce and ship 60 kgs of butterfat (approximately 1,575 litres of milk) a day. Getting half his quota for free has been a huge shot in the arm for Owen’s business.
“Quota is about the biggest expense in dairy farming,” he says. “To win half of my quota is pretty big and it means I could spend a little more on better cows or add something to the barn. It would have been too much to finance it all.”
The clock starts ticking
Once Owen was awarded the quota by Dairy Farmers of Manitoba in December 2017, the time clock was ticking. The program requires that the new entrant begin production within the year of being selected.
Construction on the new 22,500-square-foot barn began last April, but there were a few setbacks; like the walls blowing down in a strong windstorm before Owen graduated in June.
Owen had the luxury of being able to design the dairy facility to his own specifications, taking the best elements of many different ones he and his parents visited over the fall of 2018 from Ontario to Manitoba. In the end, it was a dairy barn at a Hutterite Colony closer to home that inspired the design, which is free-stall, where cows can move back and forth freely between their stalls and the robotic milking machine that came from Europe. His fully automated barn is very different from the tie-stall barn where he learned the business, although he still says that’s the best way to learn.
“If you want to learn about dairy, you have to learn in a tie-stall barn because you have to pretty much do everything manually: feeding, milking, moving cows and so on,” he says.
The cows are fed via conveyors leading from the stationary feed mixer in an adjacent room, which eliminates the need to bring feed to the barn with a tractor. “It keeps the barn a lot cleaner, and it’s a lot more efficient” says Owen. “Instead of starting up a tractor at 10 at night, you just click a few buttons on the mixer and the feed will start flowing.”
The barn has individual stalls where each cow can lay down between milkings, as well as bull pen, calving pen and separate stalls to wean calves away from the main barn. The dry cows have their own area to enjoy their “honeymoon” from milking. “The cows get dried up 45 to 60 days before calving, when they get a break from milking so they can get back in perfect shape for calving,” says Owen, who adds that calving is the most stressful time for the cows. “They have a lot of milk 100 days after calving so just think of how much milk they have right when they calve.
“That’s probably where you see the most headaches if you don’t properly feed them or give them enough of a break.”
The cows are milked an average of three times a day, and each wears a collar that allows the robotic milker to identify them and only lets them in to be milked at appropriate intervals. The whole milking process is completely automatic.
To attract the cows to the milker, they are provided with feed pellets, but if a cow that has already been milked less than five hours before tries to enter the machine, it won’t dispense any pellets and lets the cow out. Over time, the cows learn the routine.
The milker also sanitizes and washes the teats before and after the cow is milked to prevent disease or cracked teats.
An automated manure scraper slowly makes its way up and down the barn to remove manure and pump it to the storage tank outside. The whole operation is extremely clean and sanitary which is important for cow health and milk quality, says Owen.
Every time a cow visits the robot it feeds the information back to a computer system where Owen can see how many times each cow has milked and the volume produced, which allows him to detect any issues or problems with an individual cow or equipment. “I’ll receive an alarm on my phone if a cow goes down in milk, like she’s milking 45 litres and the next day she’s down to 20 litres,” says Owen. “Same thing, if, in the middle of the night, there’s something wrong with the robot, it’ll alarm my phone and tell me to check the robot.”
Currently, Owen has 48 milk cows and the capacity to milk around 60 to 70 each day, but he has the potential to double that number by adding another milking robot.
What do you know, kid?
The barn is a large investment and again, Owen probably wouldn’t have been able to finance it without help from his parents, who introduced him to their contact at Farm Credit Canada, and helped provide some valuable leverage against their own farm property, because once again, Owen’s age inevitably led to the assumption that he might be too inexperienced to take on such a large responsibility by himself.
“The first thing they told me is that maybe I need someone to work here that’s like an ex-dairy farmer because they were worried that I didn’t know what to do, but I said just trust me, I know this stuff, and sure enough I’m doing well,” says Owen. “If I had been 25 and in the workforce for a long time it would have been easier, but I would have had to wait a lot longer to get into the industry I think if I hadn’t had my parents behind me.”
Owen learned early on the importance of assembling a good team of mentors and industry experts and leveraging their advice and guidance. “You need to trust people to help you out,” he says. “When we bought our cows, we knew and respected the guys we bought them from quite well, and when the veterinarian tells you to do something, you need to take their advice because the feed representative and veterinarian pretty much work for you. If I have problems and can’t figure it out on my own, I can always phone them and they are always there to help.”
Owen admits that, like everything, running a dairy business is a bit of trial and error where he learns from every mistake he makes or new issue that arises. “I can’t just expect someone else to always be here or to be available by phone, so if I have a problem, I have to try and figure it out myself first,” says Owen. “As an example, one time I could see that one of the quarters on the robot was only milking at 75 per cent on every single cow,” he says. “I figured there must be something wrong with the robot and sure enough there was a little slice in the hose, so it was sucking air and not sucking all the milk out. I learned that’s something I need to check every single day.”
A 24/7 business
The dairy industry offers predictability that many other agricultural commodity sectors might envy, and it’s exactly the reason that Owen decided on it because he can plan and grow with a degree of certainty about his income and expenses.
“I know basically how much I am getting paid every month, and it can fluctuate a little; prices might go down five cents a litre or something, but it’s not like beef where prices go down and jump up,” says Owen. “If I want to buy more cows, I know exactly how much milk I need them to produce to pay for themselves. Bills for feed, the veterinarian, hydro, semen and so on are close to the same amount every month, so it’s easy to cash-flow in and out; this is how much can go for the loan for the barn, this much to next month’s feed and so on.”
It may sound like a dream business scenario — predictable income and relatively stable expenses — but that doesn’t mean the dairy industry is a cakewalk. It has risks and uncertainty just like any other business and it’s a lot of hard work and a 24/7 commitment, says Owen, which people need to understand before they come on board.
“Anyone wanting to come into the dairy industry should understand how much work it actually is before they get into it,” he says. “I suggest working on a dairy farm for at least three years to get the experience and understanding that it’s an every-day job, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, everyday, there’s no days off.”
For new entrants who took his path and are building a barn from scratch, the important thing is to research and design the barn the way that works best for them. “Take your time and make sure you pick what you want because you’re going to have to spend pretty much the rest of your life in there, so even if you have to spend that little bit of extra money to make it the way you want, it’s definitely worth it because you’re going to pay for it in the long run if you don’t,” he says.
Still lots to learn
Like other dairy farmers, he has some concerns about trade deals like the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) that has given the U.S. access to around 3.6 per cent of Canada’s dairy industry, a move that the Dairy Farmers of Canada has said could jeopardize Canadian dairy farmers, but he’s confident that it’s a good industry to be in and strong enough to weather any challenges on the trade front.
“When you think about it, if you’re a grain farmer, one year you might get $10 for your canola and the next year you get $14,” says Owen. “It is what it is and I think the uncertainty out there over trade deals is bringing everyone a little bit closer together in terms of what we can do to help each other out because it seems like all dairy farmers are willing to help each other. There’s lots of support to see each other succeed.”
Owen knows he still has a lot to learn, especially about the administrative and financial side of the business, which his mom, who has always done the accounting for the farm and trucking business, is currently helping him with. But he’s got plenty of time to learn and knows he will take all of it on eventually.
“I will learn more and more about that side of the business,” says Owen. “I already know more than I did when we first started. It’s just like anything, it takes time.”
Owen’s business smarts are growing fast and he knows the key to success is making the most of the resources he has. “The plan is to eventually put in another robot to milk at least 100 cows and get the most milk out of every single cow,” he says. But he also has his eye on costs. “I want to have minimal cows as possible and fill as much quota as I can. The less cows you have, the less cost you have. It all comes down to management. If you put the work into it, you can get the production out of every animal.”
He began with good stock and plans to concentrate on the genetics of his herd to make sure he has a breeding program that will result in the most productive cows he can get.
“I plan to do all the cows via artificial insemination and am doing a lot of research and learning about what bulls to use, and which cows need help with what traits,” he says. “When you find a bull, you see the traits he has and what he has that’s better than other bulls and then you can look at his sire, his mother, his grandmother and great-grandmother and see what traits they had… It all comes back to getting the most milk out of every cow that you can.”
Obviously, Owen isn’t put off by a challenge, and as he rolls with his own operation, it’s the challenges that he’s enjoying the most. “Every day it seems like I learned something new there, but they always said, you’re going to learn the most when it’s your own because then you make the decisions yourself,” says Owen. “It’s not just, ‘Oh there’s a problem, phone up the boss, what should we do?’ It’s actually fun, it’s like now I can do what I want, I’m going to figure out what to do.”