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Holberg Farm transitions through generations

Alice Guthrie for Progressive Dairy Published on 17 April 2020
Holberg Barn

One of the stops on the B.C. Dairy Expo Farm Tour earlier this year was the Holberg Dairy Farm in Agassiz, British Columbia.

This farm was established in 1960 by Guenther and Marianne Schwichtenberg, who emigrated from Germany three years earlier. At that time, they milked 19 cows in a new, homemade, double-three milking parlour, one of the first in the valley. This was upgraded to a double-six in 1997.

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Their son Holger runs the farm today. After graduating school in 1979, he took a “gap” year, spending time in Germany before entering the University of British Columbia for a degree in animal science. Following a trip around the world, he returned home to begin farming with his parents in 1987. He married Catherine in 1997 and the couple became parents to three sons, Alex, Philip and Mark.

Alex, Holger, Philip and Mark Schwichtenberg (left to right)

Holger’s dad passed away unexpectedly in 2005, followed by his mom in 2009, leaving him as the main operator, although his brother, Detmar; and sister, Kerstin, share ownership with him. Detmar, who holds a Master of Arts in resource management, helps out as needed. Kerstin is a veterinarian and is very involved with the farm as well.

Holger works just under 200 acres, growing corn silage, grass silage and hay. He also grows some tall reed canarygrass, which he harvests as straw for the 19 horses that board on the farm.

The double-six milking parlour had long ago seen its best days; it was inefficient, overcrowded, labour-intensive, and the equipment was just old. It was no longer possible to find parts for repair. The family conferred about options. Holger says they had to “do something or get out.” It was a gut-wrenching decision, but they were not going to continue farming that way. The family made the huge decision to build a new facility, a decision that “intrigues and entices the next generation,” he says.

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New facility for milking herd

A new barn, 265 feet long and 150 feet wide, was erected on the property. It has 176 freestalls, a TLC section with space for 12 cows, a sick bay with space for eight and a large calving pack area. He also installed alley scrapers, curtains and fans, and an office, lunchroom and vet room.

The new milking system consists of three robots. These are the latest model, with cameras for attachment instead of sensors. Holger noted the herd’s udder health, which was already good, has improved and he has virtually no mastitis with the new system. Cows average 3.3 visits to the robot per day; the somatic cell count (SCC) is under 100,000 and the plate count under 10,000. Average milk yield is 40 litres per cow per day, with butterfat ranging from 4% to 4.2%. He has been using the new system since June 2019.

He is milking 143 cows now and plans to increase to 160. Quota stands at 207 kilograms, and he would like to increase to 240 within five years. His cows are all registered Holsteins, type-classified and on DHI.

Holger feeds a partial mixed ration (PMR) consisting of corn silage, grass silage, alfalfa, straw, barley, corn mash and a protein, vitamin and mineral mix. An automatic feed pusher runs every two hours to keep feed in front of the cows all the time. Concentrate is fed at the robotic milker, with amounts dependent on production, stage of lactation and body condition.

Calves are housed in individual pens in the new barn for the first 10 days, then heifers are moved to the remodeled loafing barn in groups, while bull calves are sold. Heifers are weaned at 10 weeks.

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Nearly 1,000 visitors arrived for the B.C. Dairy Expo Farm Tour in January and expressed their liking for the bright open barn and calm, contented cows. Holger, Philip, Mark and Tara – Holger’s main employee – had spent about a week preparing for the tour, making sure everything was in shape for visitors.

Catherine, who holds a Master of Arts in nurse education, works at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and is eligible to retire in eight years. Holger has a similar timeline, with plans to retire in five to eight years. Alex, Philip and Mark, aged 20, 18 and 15, respectively, are all involved with the farm. They are paid for their time as any other employee except for chores any kid would have at home. Holger says, “I want to be sure the kids have opportunity but not obligation” to take over the farm in the future. He expects them to work elsewhere for a while and come home with an education before that can happen.

Alex has recently returned from Australia; plans for further education are vague at the moment due to the pandemic. Philip will graduate high school this year; his plans for a gap year are on hold for now. He has been helpful in making the transition to the robotic milking system and is able to troubleshoot the new equipment. He also does the night check every night. Mark is in grade 10 and is involved in hockey and wrestling, holding the provincial championship in the 74-kilogram weight division.

Since his new operation started up, Holger is able to be more involved in family and community events. He is chair of the British Columbia Dairy Association and a member of the local Kent Agricultural Advisory Committee. He serves as a director of the Mainland Milk Producers. He spends a lot of time driving Mark to his hockey and wrestling events and enjoys that time, commenting, “It’s good, it’s fun, and I love watching him.” He is a steering committee member for Provincial Climate Action initiative and Environmental Farm plans.

He is very much involved with his community. Plans are to host a “Settler’s Tea” at the farm for the 125th anniversary of Agassiz and the District of Kent – although this is likely to be cancelled due to the pandemic. They had previously hosted the 100th anniversary tea, as their house was the first one built in Agassiz.

One thing that is non-negotiable for him (except during social isolation) is his Saturday morning hockey game with some friends. As he explains, “a bunch of has-beens and never-was-es, and after (the game) we have breakfast and fix the world.” end mark

PHOTO 1: The new barn also includes a calving pack area, individual hutches for newborn calves, an office, lunchroom and vet room.

PHOTO 2: The second and third generation are working together at Holberg Farm in Agassiz, British Columbia. They are (left to right) Alex, Holger, Philip and Mark Schwichtenberg.

PHOTO 3: When the double-six parlour was no longer working well, the family decided to build a new facility for the milking herd. It includes three automated milking units, alley scrapers, curtains and fans. Photos courtesy of Holberg Farm.

Alice Guthrie is a freelance writer from Hagersville, Ontario.

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