Dawne and Lloyd Grenkow finish each other’s sentences, if not each other’s thoughts. “Working with family? I love it,” Dawne says, giving her son Lloyd a bit of a sideways glance and a laugh. “Really, though, you give your blood, sweat and tears to it, but everybody does. And everybody benefits.”
Dawne founded Grenkow Holsteins near Stonewall, a half-hour north of Winnipeg with husband Allan Grenkow in 1978, milking 42 cows with strap-buckets — a far cry from the sleek milking robots used by the Grenkows today.
“It’s amazing to see,” she says. “When they are ready to go in for milking, there is never a big herd, there is just one or so, then they will finish and go on their way, and then another cow will just get up, say ‘oh, okay’, and then it goes in to be milked too.”
The operation didn’t just jump from buckets to robots, however. The farm’s move to greater automation had been hard eased by decades of business decisions designed to build more flexibility into the operation.
“We started with the strap-buckets and then the step-saver and then we put the milk line in,” Dawne reminisces. “I remember, it was $8,000 back in 1978 because every single person thought that we were nuts and it was waste of money and a terrible thing to do.”
As early adopters of technology, Lloyd says scepticism is something they’ve encountered and learned to anticipate.
“Even when we decided to go with robots or an automated voluntary milking system… at the time that was not quite acceptable yet; it wasn’t the norm,” Lloyd says. Now, eight years after they made their move, Manitoba is leading the country in automated milking systems.
Today, the farm milks between 100 and 110 cows at any given time, but both Dawne and Lloyd say expansion was only possible because of increasing automation. With just Dawne, Allan and Lloyd managing the farm and doing chores, it’s a tight operation, run with precision.
“The reason we got to where we are today is probably because you and Dad took chances back then on automation,” says Lloyd, turning to Dawne. “We’re here now because of automation, because if we weren’t able to automate like this, we’d be an old facility and maybe that would have been the push to do something different, different farming or maybe even another industry.”
The farm doesn’t rely on hired help, although Lloyd’s sister lends a hand when she can and there are other relatives who pitch in from time to time. Dawne says that while bringing in employees has worked well for other dairy producers, the size of their operation hasn’t lent itself to hired help. Likewise, the farm’s proximity to Winnipeg means there are a lot of job postings to compete with when looking for employees.
Lloyd estimates that automation in their dairy barn does the work of close to two people, but says it’s not quite a quid pro quo. While the operation isn’t spending money on additional salaries, automation doesn’t come cheap either, and robots still require maintenance, care and attention.
Still, the benefits are clear.
“Before, it took all of us to get 68 cows down and we would spend most of the day doing labour, simple tasks,” Dawne says. “Now, with the same work crew, we’re able to do 100 or 110 cows. We’re not quite double what we did, but we can do almost twice as much with the same work force and have a little better lifestyle throughout the day. We have more flexibility because of the automation.”
Lloyd jokes that his three young kids still say he spends too much time at work, but the flexibility lets him spend time with them when it’s important. That same flexibility also makes it easier to handle the cropping side of the business.
And while technology is still at the forefront of business and planning decisions, the Grenkows are also making investments in social license. You might even call them “delicious” investments.
“You’ve got to try the Salty Carl… it’s salted caramel and it’s pretty amazing,” says Lloyd, referencing one of the many ice cream flavours made with milk from the Grenkow farm through an arrangement with Chaeban Ice Cream in Winnipeg.
A portion of the milk produced on the farm goes directly to the small-scale processor, which shares information about the milk and the farm it comes from with customers, emphasizing the local nature of the product and touting the high quality of Canadian dairy products.
“They were looking for a local producer so they could use their milk and market it as being local and they picked us,” Lloyd says, noting the farm’s proximity to Winnipeg likely played a role in the decision as well.
“Of course, I like to think we’re friendly, happy people to work with,” he adds with a chuckle.
But in terms of finances, partnering with a local ice cream manufacturer doesn’t change the Grenkow’s bottom line. Under the supply managed system, milk is sold at a constant price regardless of its end destination.
“To do this, so our milk goes directly to him, is more of a nice social bonus,” says Lloyd. “But there is no financial incentive, there’s no bonus to ship our milk to Joseph (Chaeban) and make more money… everyone is the same, every producer gets paid the same.”
At the end of the day, partnering with a small processor was an important chance to connect with the broader community and show how much care dairy farmers put into their product. Given that milk is normally pooled, Lloyd also says it was a neat opportunity for friends and family to taste something made with milk from their farm.
“It was exciting because we really felt like we were a part of it,” says Dawne. “We went to the open house and we met the family, they came to the farm… we met his dad who was a very interesting, very funny, cheese-maker from Africa. I don’t care where you are in the world, if you meet another dairy farmer… you can sit there and talk and talk.”
Chaeban was born to Lebanese parents in Germany and his father studied cheesemaking in Europe before opening a cheese factory in Tunisia. The younger Chaeban then picked up the trade, moving to Winnipeg with his Syrian-born wife to work at Santorini Dairies. He then made the leap to ice cream with business partner Darryl Stewart, a man he meet through the South Osborne Syrian Refugee Initiative while helping his wife’s extended family flee civil war.
Chaeban says he knows how much work goes into milk production, and he knew from day one that having a relationship with the farmers supplying his small plant would be key for him and his customers.
“It is very hard to say thank you to Manitoba farmers if you do not put a face to it,” he says. “Now people coming into my shop know exactly where the milk is coming from and I can tell them about the hard work they are doing at this farm and how good the quality of the milk is… I know it’s only one farmer, but it’s going across the whole board indirectly this way.”
For Henry Holtmann, vice-chair of Dairy Farmers of Manitoba, every small processor that opens its doors offers an opportunity for producers to engage in the broader community and further cement their social license to operate.
“We want to tell our story and… our biggest asset is the people that produce the product, so I think it creates engagement and brings us closer to our customers by having these small processors and producers talking one-on-one,” says Holtmann, who farms near the Grenkows. “And yes, maybe we can’t get our message out to the masses this way, but every story, big or little, every contact is important in building support.”
For those who are sceptical of supply management’s ability to support small processors, Lloyd sees the partnership between the Grenkows and Chaeban Ice Cream as proof positive that there is room for everyone to thrive in the supply managed system. He adds that it’s not about asking why small processors should enter a supply managed system, it’s about asking, “why not?”
“Of all the different processors out there, Joseph (Chaeban) is on the same level as any other processor, so if small processors like Joseph want to buy milk and make a product, they can do it, supply management is not a restriction to what you can do,” Holtmann says. “If everybody communicates, anybody can process anything knowing they get a great product because it’s a supply managed product, so it’s great for producers, consumers and everybody.”
Holtmann says that dairy boards across Canada hold back a certain allocation of what is called discretionary milk, specifically to facilitate small- and medium-sized projects.
“If somebody comes to us with an idea, we’re able to support them,” he says. “And we don’t mind if they want to come on stream with a traditional product, but we are very much interested in specialty products… that may be something that’s behind a single-source farm, or a totally new product or maybe a new process. These are all things we want to encourage, and supply management has that built into the system.”
Lloyd adds that supporting small processors also helps build processing capacity across the milk pool. For several years, Manitoba had been lacking in processing capacity, but over the last year new plants have opened, both large and small.
“You’re not driven by profit, you’re not saying, ‘Well, I’m going to end it here to make more money,’ but it’s something that makes the whole industry better,” says Lloyd, adding that at the end of the day, having a healthy industry with a solid social license to operate is good for the farm’s bottom line.
To that end, Grenkow Holsteins has also opened its doors to the public during the province’s Open Farm Day in years past.
“I’d like to do it again, but it is a lot of work,” Dawne says, noting it was Lloyd’s young son Connor who first suggested they take part so his friends could see what dairy farming is all about. “But what I loved about it, what I really, really enjoyed, is because of our location, there are so many young families that come out from the city, and we just love to show them, you know, that this is what it is like on the farm. People really don’t know what a dairy is like, what it does; you’re distanced from the farm.”
Already four generations deep, the Grenkows say it’s too early to know if there will be a fifth generation of dairy farmers in the future. But they do know what direction they’d like to see their farm move in the coming years.
More automation could mean more cows, more time or both, and Dawne adds it could also draw those younger generations of Grenkows towards farming. “I wouldn’t want them to work like we worked,” Dawne says. “That’s not to say they shouldn’t work hard, but hard in other ways.”