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Photo courtesy Tara Jeles, So Jeles Photography

Photo courtesy Tara Jeles, So Jeles Photography

The Howell Family, from left, Terry, Bradley, Bennett and Mary-Lynne.

Farm family blazes trail of innovation

Howells named Hamilton-Wentworth’s Farm Family of the Year

By Mike Pearson, News staff

As a reporter tours the Maplebrae dairy farm, a cow is in the midst of milking while others await their turn. A second cow gets a therapeutic back rub while the alley floor is cleaned with a giant automated squeegee device.

Sixty cows are milked daily in this highly coordinated and efficient environment. But unlike years past, when a dairy farm of this size required several hired hands to operate, there are no human operators at the controls.

2012 was the first full year for Maplebrae’s new robotic milking system. The farm was the first in the Hamilton-Wentworth region to deploy this state-of-the-art equipment that minimizes labour and maximizes milk production.

“We decided to take a leap of faith and take a step into the future and become more efficient and more productive,” said Terry Howell, who operates the Jerseyville farm along with his wife, Mary-Lynne and sons Bradley, nearly 14, and Bennett, 12.

That big step towards innovation has helped the Howells win the Hamilton Wentworth Federation of Agriculture’s 2012 Osborne L. Sager Farm Family of the Year Award. The Howells were nominated for the award by the Ancaster Agricultural Society and the Hamilton-Wentworth Dairy Producers.

Even with the latest gadgetry, Terry’s work days are still long. But instead of his usual 4:45 a.m. start time, he begins at 6, and usually finishes by 5 p.m.

With extra time now available, Terry can attend more of his sons’ skating, school and 4-H events.

“Nobody used to see me,” Terry joked. “They used to think my wife was a single mom at the arena because they’d never see me.”

Instead of physical grunt work, Terry’s job is more managerial. And when he needs a hand, whether an animal gets out, or the barn needs to be checked, Bradley or Bennett can assist.

Terry, a sixth generation farmer, took the reins of the dairy operation from his mother in 2005. Maplebrae Farms includes 250 acres of hay, corn, and wheat along with the flagship dairy operation of purebred Holsteins with a few Brown Swiss and Jersey crosses.

After acquiring a 50-year-old facility built by his father, Terry is confident in his decision to upgrade the cattle barn. The new facility and equipment came with a hefty six-figure price tag, but after examining where they stood with their business and where they wanted to go, Terry and Mary-Lynne knew it was time to modernize.

Thanks to the new robotic system, the Howells are constantly connected to the farm with electronic activity monitoring for the cows, milk quality monitoring, a water treatment system, automatic temperature controls, a 300-bushel grain bin and more.

The food-based robotic system draws in cattle with a high energy pellet, loaded with essential vitamins and minerals. The food is flavoured with vanilla for a taste the cattle love.

Terry used to milk his cows twice per day. Now each cow is milked on average about 2.5 times daily, resulting in a 10 per cent increase in overall milk yields.

An android smartphone connected to the robotic milking computer provides an instant alert when something goes awry. To ensure a good night’s sleep, Terry makes sure that all machines are working, that equipment is kept clean, and the cows are fed according to schedule.

If his cows could talk, Terry believes they would have good things to say.

“It’s a much better environment for them,” he said. “They’re much happier, I’m happier and I’m doing it with much less labour.”

Mary-Lynne works in Toronto but remains actively involved in agriculture with three agricultural societies. She is an 18-year member of the Ancaster Fair, participating with the Old Mac’s committee, entertainment committee and school fair committee. Her volunteer commitments also extend to the Paris Fair and Rockton Fair. With the Hamilton-Wentworth Milk Producers, Mary-Lynne has coordinated the Ancaster Fair’s milk booth for five years.

Terry and Mary-Lynne are both actively involved at Jerseyville United Church, Hamilton-Wentworth 4-H and Brant and Wentworth County Junior Farmers.

Bradley and Bennett also participate in the Jerseyville United Church youth choir and the Hamilton and Brant 4-H associations.

On the family farm, Bennett knows most of the cows by name.

“Bennett’s the cow guy,” said Mary-Lynne. “He can tell you a lot of what these cows’ names are and who they’re brother and sister are.”

“Bradley’s more the computer robot guy,” Mary-Lynne added.

With top-notch tools already in place, Terry is confident the farm will be in a good position when he chooses to retire.

Bradley has thought about taking over the farm someday, but he’s also interested in becoming a veterinarian. The boys have raised animals like ducks and chickens as part of their 4-H activities. Working on their own, Bradley and Bennett’s newest venture is raising meat rabbits.

In addition to hosting delegates from Junior Farmers, the Katimavik student exchange program and 4-H, the Howells have volunteered for Wesley Urban Ministries serving hot lunches to the homeless in Hamilton.

The Howells will receive the Osborne L. Sager award at an HWFA banquet in Binbrook on Feb. 23.

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