Dahlia Holsteins: Celebrating the first year of Dairy Farming

Most dairy farm profiles that are featured on websites and in-print feature a long history of development spanning over sometimes many generations, but for Kristin Dahl, one of BC’s newest dairy producers, the history is happening now as she celebrates the one-year anniversary of becoming a full-time producer.

  • Dahlia Holsteins officially starts on "World Milk Day" 2017

Kristin’s parents, Ken & Janice, started dairying in Abbotsford, BC, in 1992. Kristin took an active interest in the farm and spent 10 years in the Sumas Holstein 4-H Club where she excelled in all aspects of the program. She also participated on the BC Western Canadian Classic (WCC) Team, winning Reserve Grand Champion Showman, Overall Senior Judge and a few 1st place finishes in the Dairy Science Exam. Her love of cows took Kristin to the University of Saskatchewan, where she completed a degree in Animal Science. She worked at WestGen as a summer intern and, upon graduation, started full-time as a Product Support Specialist. This position allowed her to visit farms and shows across North America and lead a producer trip to Brazil. Kristin served as Holstein Canada’s Young Adult Committee Rep from western Canada for 6 years.

Kristin submitted her name to the Graduated Entry Program (GEP) from the BC Milk Marketing Board (BCMMB) in 2005. The GEP was available to those people who’ve never owned quota that were looking to be awarded quota from the board to start dairying. A $100 annual renewal fee maintained your position. At the time, the GEP invited 3 people to start production each year. However, in recent years BCMMB accelerated the rate at which names would come up for eligibility to eight per year, which would effectively finish up the current GEP list.

Kristin officially started as a dairy producer on June 1, 2017, – fittingly also “World Milk Day”. Now a year later, I interviewed Kristin during her chore time to discuss how the first year has gone and all its highlights and challenges.

Was it a difficult decision to officially start dairy farming when your name came up on the GEP list?
I knew it was coming, as I’d maintained my position on the list every year and in June 2016 I received a letter saying I could start on June 1, 2017. I’d always dreamed of and expected to end up dairy farming, but I wasn’t sure how that dream would come to be. When I received the GEP invite, I still wasn’t really sure I could do it, but figured I’d never know if I didn’t try. The decision was made easier since my parent’s dairy facility was available to lease, as they had quit milking cows in December 2015. If that wasn’t the case and I had to find a barn to lease I probably wouldn’t have done it. Plus, I knew my Product Support role at WestGen was changing so the timing was good.

What did you do to prepare for your start up?
BCMMB requires a 5-year business plan and an interview for GEP entrants, so I prepared that and received financing approval for quota. When my parents finished milking, they’d retained their heifers and I inherited them. Some were pregnant already, and since I got the letter in June 2016, I was able to breed the rest to calve around the 1st of June 2017. A couple friends/neighbours calved in some of the early ones for me and then they all came home at the end of May. I also purchased 6 cows. With the GEP program you are given 13.7 kgs of quota (earned over 10 years). If you buy another 5.5 kgs the BCMMB matches that. I now have 34kgs and milk around 25 cows.

What have been some of the highlights and challenges you’ve faced in your first year as a producer? What has been the biggest learning curve?
Thankfully, I’ve had no major catastrophes! Highlights include having four first lactation cows score VG as well as a farm visit from Holstein Canada CEO Ann Louise Carson and then Vice-President Harry VanderLinden. Little things have brought joy like a surprise heifer calf delivered on Christmas Day from one of my favourite cows who was 10 days overdue. I also hosted the “12 Days of Christmas Cookies” in December, a Facebook promotion on my farm page, where I encouraged dairy product consumption by sharing butter loaded baking recipes and inviting friends/service people stop by to enjoy them, milk and a visit.

Challenges come from dealing with an older facility. The milking equipment is older and required significant investment on the cooling unit, and I’ve had to have the milk pump rebuilt this winter. I’ve also resurfaced the heifer barn floors, applied epoxy coating to the cow’s feed bunk, and recently with partial funding from Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada’s Dairy Farm Investment Program installed a cow brush and 6 fans.

I’ve always been interested in genetics and cattle husbandry but hadn’t had much chance to apply my education in dairy nutrition. As I purchase all my feed, I’m learning what quality and quantity I need to effectively balance my ration, which has been a learning curve for me. I also had to learn how to operate the mixer wagon, something I hadn’t done until 2016. Local feed prices were also high in 2017 due to new root worm and army worm issues and an unusually dry summer. I took a bookkeeping course to get a good handle on the accounting.

What does a typical day look like for you?
Morning chores take about 2 hours and I start milking at 8am. Throughout the day I do checks on the cows/push-up feed and stay caught up on other tasks like herd health, breeding, cleaning, paying bills, and whatever needs to get done for that day. The evening chores take 3 hours and I mix feed before milking and then get the cows milked and chores done.

The daily activities are contingent on my work as a part-time proAction Validator for the BC Dairy Association. I’ve had that contract position for a year now and conveniently visit farms in the Lower Mainland (within 1 hour drive of my place). My job consists of validation appointments to observe producer compliance with Food Safety, Animal Care and Traceability requirements, as well as staying up to date with any new developments in the program. It’s a good fit as the schedule is flexible, so I’ve been able to work it around my farm activities and volunteering on the WCC committee.

What has been the most satisfying aspect of dairy farming on your own so far?
I started because I’ve always loved cows and genetics, but since milking on my own I’ve taken an increased interest in quality milk and producing a terrific product for consumers. Having a somatic cell count below 50,000 for 3 months was thrilling, and I keep challenging myself to improve on it. There are also advantages to being your own boss and making it all work without hired help has been satisfying as well.

You had quite a festive start-up date event! Share some of the details.
I had a World Milk Day/Dahlia Holsteins Launch Party! 70 neighbours and friends came out to help me celebrate my official launch as a dairy producer and what better day to do that than World Milk Day! We had a dairy themed menu and a photo booth area complete with a baby calf, milk mustaches and a cheesehead, it was a great night. I also used it as an opportunity to promote the Food for the Hungry Dairy Cow program. Based in Abbotsford, Food for the Hungry’s gift guide offers dairy cows to donate to less fortunate people in countries like Ethiopia, Uganda and Haiti. Due to the generosity of a few other BC dairy producers who contribute to a 4:1 match, cows are available for the discounted price of $120. The night of the launch, instead of bringing a gift, I encouraged people to support that cause. We raised enough to purchase 35 cows abroad!

Part of what motivates me to do the work required each day on my own is to be profitable enough that I can share proceeds from my operation with less fortunate people. I’m blessed to make a living from my small herd and I don’t need more “stuff” in my life, but there are so many people whose lives would be drastically improved by having just one cow and the milk she provides.

Do you think you have more challenges as a woman in this business?
I think I may have different, not more challenges. While there may not be many dairies around here solely managed by a woman, women have been performing all of the same tasks I do and more on many farms for years. My skill set may be different than your typical farm manager, but most producers rely on some hired help and outside expertise to complement their abilities. While I hire mechanical help and purchase feed, I do all of my own record and book keeping for instance. Many industry personnel recognize women’s natural abilities in caring for cattle, so I think the career is a good fit.

Talk about your interest in genetics and the cow families you’ve invested in.
In 2005 I bought my first cow for $1000 at a dispersal, Altervale G Muriel VG-86 (S: Gibson). She had 7 out of 9 generations of VG and EX dams and left me a couple VG daughters. My best investment was a purchase I made in 2007 with Alpina Dairy, Rainyridge Blitz Cybele VG-88 6*. Cybele’s next direct dams are EX-95-2E, EX-4E and EX-3E and combine for 27* brood stars. Her descendants include Murribrook Goldwyn Candace-IMP EX-93-AUS, Dahlia Goldwyn Cristal VG-88-2YR-CAN and Alpina Smurf Christina VG-88-3YR-CAN. Candace is a 3X class winner in milking form at International Dairy Week in Australia and was Intermediate Champion in 2013. Dahlia Superpower Zaza VG-2YR goes back to a purchase I made on my 30th birthday at the Oceanview Dispersal from the Zandra’s.

Who have been your biggest mentors in the industry and as you started this journey?
Rudy and Trudy Russenburger have been big supporters by sending some of our partnership milking animals my way. They were very supportive as we bought and developed the Cybele family and offer reasonable pricing when I’ve bought cows from them for my own herd (when cattle prices were very high). My former WestGen colleagues Tars Cheema, Finn Jakobsen and Dan Chapman have all provided advice and encouragement while I prepared my business plan and throughout the first year. My parents have been supportive by leasing me their barn, providing relief labour and mechanical support, and my neighbour Tony Driessen kindly gives me a good deal on corn silage and manure spreading.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
Be realistic in your expectations and realize your goals will take time to achieve. Celebrate the little achievements along the way! Stay involved in the industry beyond your operation and attend seminars and other conferences as well as young farmer events and social activities to continue learning and building your network while getting a break from the farm. Take the chance to go on a vacation before you start (I spent 3 months in New Zealand & Australia) as the holidays will likely be few and far between for a few years.

By: Amanda Poelman; Photo’s Supplied