Sunday, September 21, 2014

Our 6th Generation Family Farm; Poised for Growth & an Exciting Future

Trevor, Helen, Jim, Mike, Jenn, Jen, and Marie Christie - 6th Generation family farm
Our family - the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th generations to farm on the original homestead, settled around 1855.
This past year, my family embarked on a major milestone in the 155+ year history of Christhill Farms; we built a brand-new dairy barn, complete with robotic milking technology and a composting pack bed for the cows. (For a full account of the robot start-up, search #countdowntorobot on Twitter) This past week, we opened our doors to those who wanted to see the progress since the July 2 move-in. A special thank you goes out to the team at Avonbank Ag Solutions for their excellent efforts coordinating the open house; not a detail was missed! 

It has been exciting to follow the entire process from planning to construction to start-up, but for me (and likely our entire family) the real excitement has been seeing my parents reaction now.

When you meet my father, you know I come by my social nature honestly. We joke that he likes to talk, and he has never been able to give a full tour to a curious visitor in less than an hour. Even in the old tie-stall barn, whether they were interested in cows or not, he would ensure they knew who every cow was, her mother, grandmother and how many daughters she had in the heifer barn. For all the jokes we make, my dad has earned this verbal license. When my parents purchased the 200-acre century farm from my grandparents in 1980, they milked about 25 beef and grade Holstein cows in the original bank barn with a "Wondersteel" Quonset addition. His focus on genetics and balanced breeding, and I'm sure he would credit some good friends in the cow business, are why we enjoy working with a purebred Holstein herd today, over 3/4 of which are classified Excellent or Very Good cows.

My parents worked tirelessly when we were growing up, and often, we were right there alongside. I don't recall my mother, a seamstress who can boast the Stratford Festival on her resume, ever complaining. Growing up on a dairy farm herself, the daughter of Dutch emigrants, she knew what hard work was and she shared my father's dream of building a good herd of cows and a farm for future generations. 

They instilled this work ethic in us from a young age. Chores were always priority before friends' houses and during harvest, all other plans became tentative. Unloading hay and straw, my job was to push the bales down to my mom's reach on the wagon. When we were done, hot, sweating and hay stuck to every exposed part of our body, we’d be off the wagon, guzzling ice cold water from a blue Coleman cooler jug, before the clanging elevator chain had even come to stop. You could taste the minerals on your tongue as if the water was being slurped right off the limestone rock that cropped up in our fields every spring. Then we’d race down to the pool, throw off our clothes and jump into the water, enjoying the refreshing break before the next load was pulled into the lane and we’d have to shimmy our jeans and work shirt back over our bathing suits. The bits of hay on the water’s surface were excused and the air always smelled of sweet alfalfa. 

We rarely went on vacations, but once in a while we got away, though we almost never stayed in a hotel. I have fond memories of trips to Marineland, African Lion Safari, Alberta and Ontario's north. There was certainly never a trip to Disneyworld but I don't feel we ever missed out. Living in Bruce County, there was ample snow and snowmobiling afforded us an afternoon together as a family where we could be home by 5pm. My friends envied this, and as I got older, I realized that I wouldn't trade their brand-name clothing for the lifestyle my parents had worked hard to provide us for anything. 

After 34 years, pouring literally everything they had into the farm, my parents finally are able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labour somewhat. "I never imagined we'd be milking cows with a robot," my mom said the week we moved the cows into the new barn. A few hours later, after finishing dinner she sat down in the chair in the kitchen and smiled. I realized it was the first time I had ever seen her sit down after dinner. There was no rush to clean up dinner. No cows waiting to be milked. They were already being milked. 

For my brothers, the next 30 years will bring a different kind of hard work. They'll hopefully get to more of their kids' soccer games and won't have small square bales to unload, and there will be new memories created feeding calves and riding in the tractor cab. There will also be new pressures with increased economic uncertainty and high operating costs, and they will make mistakes and learn just as my parents did. Hopefully though, the investment made today in new facilities and technologies will position them better to weather future storms and allow them to continue the legacy started by William Davis in 1855.

Arran Township Davis Family Farm
The Davis homestead - circa 1970. My Grandma, dad, brothers & I grew up in this house & milked cows in the barn.
Clearing land for the new barn - October 2013.
Foundations poured and buried under heavy snow - winter 2013.
John Ernewein Ltd dairy compost pack barn
Framed and the roof trusses going up - February 2014.
Lely A4 Astronaut Robot arriving from Avonbank Ag Solutions
The robot has arrived - June 2014 
John Ernewein Ltd compost dairy barn
Nearly complete and ready for move-in - June 2014
Compost pack dairy barn with Sun North fans
Cows getting familiar with the new barn - June 30, 2014
Milk cows tie stall
My mom milking for the last time in the original tie barn. 
Lely A4 Astronaut Robot
Getting milked for the first time in the new barn - July 2, 2014
Holstein cows eating
Feeding time! 
John Deere 2130 cultivating compost pack
My dad cultivating the composting pack. 
Happy Canadian dairy cows compost pack
Happy cows in their new home! July 2014

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