Cottonwood Holsteins, near Steinbach, has been dairying for three generations now.
But when Brent and Kirsty Oswald took over the family operation in 2008, big changes were in store — starting with the robots.
In 2009, the couple raised a new barn, moving dairy operations from the building used by Brent’s parents to a new facility equipped with robotic milking and a customizable feed conveyor.
That technology, and the efficiencies the farm has reported since it was installed, is one reason Brent and Kirsty Oswald have been named the 2017 Manitoba Outstanding Young Farmers.
“They’ve really been aggressive in their dairy operation and, for young farmers, have been highly productive for their quota while being able to do that without much manpower or much overhead,” Dustin Williams, chair of the Manitoba Outstanding Young Farmers program said.
Now in its 37th year, the nationwide Outstanding Young Farmer competition highlights producers between 18 and 39 years old. One farm, or farming couple, is chosen from each of the program’s seven regions, to compete in a national competition later in the year.
Farms are judged on their operation’s progress, achievements, environmental conservation, financial management, community and social impact, a presentation highlighting the farm’s contributions and workers, as well as other factors.
The Oswalds beat out Clint and Shannon Desjardins of Cattle Drive Ranch, an 840-head beef operation near Laurier, Man., for the distinction.
Making the change
Brent Oswald now touts his robotics system as a means to increase flexibility, efficiency and farm productivity, but it started with him adapting to a future with one fewer pair of hands.
“When I grew up, my dad looked after the grain farm side of the business and my mom looked after the dairy side,” he said. “I had to somehow come up with a way to replace both people, not knowing at the time what my wife’s role would be on the farm. So then robotics became an attractive way of reducing labour so that I would be able to manage the business by myself if it was required.”
The transition was planned over the next year and a half. The barn began construction in March 2009 and completed in October, a $2.2-million investment.
“The cows transitioned better than expected,” Oswald said. “We fully anticipated chasing cows through the robots for a week, maybe more, and by the third night we went to bed and left the cows on their own to sort of find their way. We went to the barn that morning and over half the animals in the barn were already flowing through the system on their own. Within about 10 days, we weren’t chasing any cows anymore. They were all getting milked as they were supposed to through the automated facility.”
Since becoming the farm’s primary operator in 2008, Oswald has increased milk production from 115 kilograms of quota to 184 kilograms, the milking herd has increased from 115 to 130, total cows have jumped from 240 head to 340 and cropped acreage has gone from 1,550 to 2,400 acres.
“We’ve expanded almost a third on all the facets of our farm and we’ve done it without adding any labour and without incurring a whole lot more debt,” Oswald said. “Most businesses with that kind of expansion, somewhere along the lines there would be some pretty significant growing pains and here it’s just been one smooth step after another.”
Although his goals are still subject to change, in the next five to 10 years Oswald hopes to see his milking herd almost double, bringing it up to 250 cows, and his land base increase to farm over 3,000 acres. Kirsty Oswald, meanwhile, will soon take over the farm’s bookkeeping, one of the last aspects to transition from Brent’s parents, he said.
Meeting the competition
Having cleared their provincial hurdle, the Oswalds are making plans for Penticton, B.C., in late 2017. Two of the seven regional champions will be named Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers Nov. 29 to Dec. 3 at the national event.
“I’m excited to see who we’re going to meet,” Oswald said. “All the past national winners, at least the ones I’ve read about, they always do something unique. They’re never just a normal dairy farmer or just a grain farmer or just a chicken farmer. There’s always something in their operation that really makes them stand out.”
This year’s national award candidates include an Alberta turkey farm that has doubled its production every year for the last five and a mixed dairy and hay operation out of British Columbia.
Winners from other regions have yet to be announced.
“It is an excellent networking opportunity,” Williams said. “You get to meet and make lifelong friends with other individuals in your industry who are as passionate and as excited about agriculture as you are.”
Manitoba has previously been represented by farmers such as Jason and Laura Kehler of Carman, Cori and Mark Pawluk of Birtle and Myron and Jillian Krahn of Carman, who went on to win the national competition.