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den Haans share passion through Sheldon Creek Dairy

Alice Guthrie Published on 31 August 2012
John and Bonnie den Haan

As you look around from the front door of the store, you are struck by the uncluttered peacefulness of the scene.

The homestead of Haanview Farm, near the village of Loretto in Simcoe County, Ontario, is nestled among rolling hills, picturesque valleys and sweeping vistas.

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John den Haan grew up here and took over the family dairy business in 1976.

Bonnie joined him 30 years ago. The couple raised four children.

Son Scott and partner, Steacy, own a dairy farm in Grey County, Ontario, where they make cheese.

Son Andrew and partner, Amanda, operate a farm near Fergus where they raise and show Holsteins under the Glen Islay prefix. They also have two daughters, Marianne and Emily – more about them later.

Their dairy herd consists of approximately 50 milking cows, plus heifers and dry cows, totaling about 130 head. All are registered Holsteins – 13 are classified EX, 35 as VG and 19 as GP.

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The herd is consistently in the top 10 in Simcoe County and the office walls are lined with multiple awards from Holstein Canada, Dairy Herd Improvement and the Milk Quality Recognition Program. Bonnie laughs as she explains that a lot of their award certificates are in a binder instead of on the walls.

John and Bonnie den Haan
The cows are housed in a tiestall barn with extra-wide stalls and a front bar configured to allow lunge room for the cows.

Milking occurs twice a day, using six milking units with an automatic take-off feature, allowing cows to be milked according to individual needs.

Every cow in the barn appears clean, well-fed and contented. Very few helped themselves to hay as a bale passed slowly by on a track system. These cows are individually known. “We know all our cows by name,” states Bonnie.

She was also able to correctly predict which cows were most likely to enjoy that extra snack.

Feed is delivered to the cows five times a day by robots pre-set for individual feeding, a mixture of dry hay, high-moisture corn, corn silage and haylage, along with supplements. With the exception of supplements, all feed is grown on their 400 acres.

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The barn is bedded with straw. During the summer months, the cows are outside overnight and come in for the morning milking at 6:30 a.m.

They stay inside during the hot daylight hours and go out following the evening milking at 6:30 p.m. Ten fans keep the air fresh and circulating inside the barn. During the winter months, the cows are inside but turned out for about two hours for some exercise most days while the barn is cleaned.

Several sleek and pretty heifers on the farm are used for 4-H projects. The den Haans have only one daughter, Emily, who is still in 4-H, but some calves are on loan to several neighbouring young people.

Bonnie sums it up, “We love what we do ... strive to do our best ... wouldn’t be happy if the cows weren’t.”

With a barn full of contented cows, John and Bonnie felt it was time to take on a new dream – a vision of providing their products directly to the consumer, where they could be purchased and used within a week of production.

In the last year, that dream has yielded fruit: Local people are finding their new business, they are coming and they are buying.

There is still a long way to go, but the on-farm creamery is launched. This dairy produces and processes only its own milk (white and chocolate, whole, not skimmed), which is packaged in glass bottles.

John and Bonnie den Haan
They also make yogurt, which has a delightful tang. Ice cream is available at the farm store but it is purchased from Kawartha Dairy.

Cheese from their son’s operation is also sold at the store.

It began three years ago when John and Bonnie signed up for a pilot project with the Dairy Farmers of Ontario.

Tours in the U.S. had provided the spark of an idea for the organization, which helped with consulting and marketing.

The local Economic Development Corporation supplied an accountant, business strategist and marketing expert.

“They were very helpful,” Bonnie said. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), through their rural economic development branch, provided a grant toward equipment.

Much research was required to determine the best way to build. As much as possible, purchases and services were sourced locally and, if not locally, then at least in Canada.

A neighbour’s company was able to build the pasteurizer, a high-temperature short-time (HTST) unit which uses a heat recovery process to warm the milk.

The den Haans have designed a system that is very green in nature, re-using heat generated in one process to help run the next, making the overall operation very efficient.

For example, heat reclaimed from various compressors is used to heat the water for cleaning and heat reclaimed from the bottle washer is used to heat the water it uses for the next washing.

In addition, the building is heated from the floor, providing a comfortable working area without the cost of heating the high ceiling areas in the plant. Savings from these green initiatives add to a considerable amount each year. The 36,000 glass bottles are also a long-term cost-saver.

The den Haans are committed to producing a great product and see their dairy as a way to connect with the people who use their product.

People are able to buy their milk products, then stroll over to the barns to visit with the cows. Several customers bypass stores closer to home for this opportunity.

Customer Sue Fletcher comments: “Just love it (having a dairy just up the road).” She dropped in for milk and an ice cream cone and enjoyed a friendly visit with Bonnie – a personal touch the den Haans can add to their products.

Bonnie says she “knew we could produce an excellent product.” The steady stream of customers dropping by to return bottles and pick up a fresh supply of milk attests to this.

They appreciate being able to purchase a product that is as close as possible to the way the cows produce it. The den Haans add only the required minimum of Vitamin D and are very gentle with the milk, keeping the molecules intact for better taste.

So far they are able to use about 20 percent of the milk produced by their herd, but hope within five years to use all they can produce.

Bonnie states, “We’ve got great help, great kids ... live in a great community.” They employ two people full-time – herdsman Matt Baird for the barn and dairy production worker Matt Reetburg – as well as a couple of part-time workers.

Daughter Marianne, a teacher, has been instrumental in marketing and customer relations for the new dairy store. She will also be planning an educational program over the next few months.

Daughter Emily, in her final year at the University of Guelph, works for Pioneer and helps her family by guiding farm tours. She hopes to eventually come home and work with her parents, specializing in the cows and crops part of the operation.

It took more than two years of planning, building and finding the right people for each step, but Sheldon Creek Dairy was born, and began processing milk on June 8. Their grand opening took place on June 23, with approximately 2,000 people coming to visit the new business on the block.

Bonnie is delighted and satisfied with the progress so far. “Couldn’t be happier,” she beams. “Sharing your passion is like sharing ice cream...makes it even sweeter.”  PD

Alice Guthrie is a freelance writer from Hagersville, Ontario.

PHOTOS
TOP: John and Bonnie den Haan, in front of their home near the village of Loretto in Simcoe County, Ontario.

MIDDLE: One of the den Haan cows grabs a snack from the moving hay bale.

BOTTOM: Bonnie (center) rings up the sale of fresh-from-the-farm milk in a glass bottle for Sue Fletcher (right), while Bob Waller (left) waits. Photos courtesy of Alice Guthrie.

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