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How I Work

Jill Nelson for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 May 2017
Jill Nelson

From my hotel room on the outskirts of Regina, Saskatchewan, I was greeted this morning by the sight of fresh fallen snow. The vast prairie landscape, which had only yesterday showed signs of spring, had instantly been transformed back to winter.

It’s April 24, and I’ve left my winter clothes at home in Ontario.

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I work as a dairy breeds classifier for Holstein Canada. In this role, I evaluate 24 traits that describe the physical conformation of a dairy cow. The information I gather helps to identify the strengths in a herd and traits of the cow that could be improved through corrective mating.

I’ve been a classifier since February 2012 and, as of recently, this role has expanded to include that of an animal care assessor as part of Dairy Farmers of Canada’s proAction Initiative.

I travel across Canada from Newfoundland to British Columbia (excluding Quebec because I can’t speak French), visiting some of the 11,000-plus dairy farms in the country. In a typical year, I score more than 13,000 cows or roughly 65 cows each day.

Right now, I am completing a two-week stint in southern Saskatchewan, covering an area that stretches from Manitoba to the Alberta border. The rental car I’m driving this trip has seen more than its share of mud and kilometres already, and like many trips to the prairies, I’ve already put a stone chip in the windshield.

My first farm visit today is at 8 a.m., and with the extra time I’ll need to brush the snow off my car and travel out to the farm, my morning routine gets accelerated. Instead of visiting the breakfast room at the hotel, I opt for the Tim Horton’s across the parking lot.

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I grab my usual 12-grain bagel with butter and a vanilla yogurt to go before heading east on the Trans-Canada Highway.

I arrive on time at my herd, grab the handheld computer I use from the car and go in the barn to meet the farmers. I’m wearing my overalls and rubber boots, and am anxious to see if the repair patch I put on my boots yesterday will hold.

The animals have been sorted for me to classify, and I immediately notice how quiet the cows are. They are completely unfazed by me being in the barn, and it makes for a quick and accurate evaluation of each animal. Before I leave, I print out reports for the cows that were classified and disinfect my boots.

It’s a short drive to my next herd, and the directions I have are easy to follow. I struggled last week navigating and found myself lost on more than one occasion.

Saskatchewan is by far the toughest province to navigate, and my GPS is of little assistance since many of the roads aren’t marked and the homes don’t have 911 numbers. They say you can see your dog for three days if it runs away on the prairies, but I was really struggling.

Like my first herd, the heifers I’m classifying are sorted and waiting for me in the holding area. They look like a milky group of 2-year-olds and belong to a farmer with a desire to learn more about our program.

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Holstein Canada's classification program

When we discuss the results together at the end, I highlight the heifers are well-grown animals that score well for dairy strength but could use some work on their mammary systems, particularly by strengthening the fore udder attachment.

After a quick lunch break, I’m at my third and final herd of the day. Unlike my first two herds, which were freestall barns, this one is a tiestall barn. As we make our way around the barn, I can’t help but notice the longevity in the herd. It’s not very often I have the pleasure of seeing a cow milking in her ninth lactation.

Back at the hotel and with a trusted internet connection, I upload the day’s work back to Holstein Canada. From here, it will go to the Canadian Dairy Network, where the information will be used to help make bull proofs; it will go to the A.I. unit the farm predominantly works with to be built into customized mating reports, and it will remain with Holstein Canada as part of that animal’s official record.

Since I am on my second week of an out-of-province trip, I have next week off to make up for the weekend days I’ve worked since being here. This means the rest of my evening is free to do as I please rather than make phone calls and schedule work for next week, which is typically how I would spend my evenings.

On the plus side, I won’t be mistaken for a telemarketer and hung up on this week.

Though the job is not without challenges, the good far outweighs the bad. One Friday, when I had my former coordinator Tom Byers riding along with me, he accidentally locked my car thinking I had the keys in my pocket.

While he waited for CAA to show up, I caught a ride to the next herd and, other than finishing the day a little later than planned, we had a good laugh about it.

And when I was in B.C. this winter and caught in a freak snowstorm that lasted the better part of a week, I was grateful for the farmers who came to my rescue to plow roads and tow me out on the three occasions I found myself stuck.

I’ve had luggage lost, been covered head to toe in manure and seen a few more rats than I would’ve liked, but I can’t think of any other job in the dairy industry that would allow me to meet so many people, visit so many farms and see as many cows.

Classification is an important herd management tool, and I am happy knowing I play a valuable role helping dairy producers improve the genetics and profitability of their herds.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Holstein Canada’s classification program covers all dairy breeds. Photo by Laura Donkers.

PHOTO 2: Jill Nelson. Photo by Jill Nelson.

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