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May Acres Farm embraces technology for herd management

Alice Guthrie Published on 30 April 2014
Members of the team at May Acres Farm

May Acres Farm, now run by Duncan “Hap” May, has evolved over time from the general farm established by his grandfather in 1909.

The family grew potatoes and cranberries and whatever cash crops would make some income. Dairy was part of the farm even then but is now the main enterprise.

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By 1975, Hap and his four brothers had joined their dad in working the farm and had purchased cows of their own. By 1984, the brothers separated, with the others choosing cash cropping while Hap retained the milking herd.

In 2001, Hap and his dad built a new drive-through, freestall barn. This was designed with expansion in mind – another barn and a milking parlour. In 2006, Hap purchased the operation from his dad.

Hap has been married for 33 years to Bev, and the couple has three grown children. Their daughter, Alanna, is married and has a young daughter, Cynthia, 1½ years.

May barn

Hap is the first to admit that his little granddaughter has Grandpa wrapped firmly around her baby fingers. Alanna helps on the farm as she is able.

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The Mays’ son, Jeff, is a hockey player, and their daughter Caitlyn works full-time on the farm with her dad, tending the youngstock, helping with the computer work and pretty much running the show whenever Hap is absent.

Two long-time employees are involved with the farm. Mike Molema, a fire fighter by trade, has worked part-time for 28 years, since he was 12 years old.

Gerry Van Kuyk

Dick Carree, originally from Nova Scotia, has been with Hap for 20 years. Hap says he is “our go-to guy” and does everything that needs done. A third employee, with the farm since 2010, is Gerry Van Kuyk, who has a unique story of his own.

Born and raised in the city of Vancouver, Gerry was never near a farm during his youth; his only contact with animals was at the zoo.

He did hear stories though, told by his dad, who was raised in Holland and had spent time working on a dairy farm there. “Dad spoke of that time as the best part of his life,” Gerry recalls.

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Following school, Gerry got into computers, becoming a Linux system administrator and programmer, specializing in networks. It was intense and mentally exhausting, and often included 10-hour days.

After several years, he came to the realization that there was a lack of balance in his life. He needed a change. He tried a couple of meaningless jobs, then as luck would have it, a friend’s mom introduced him to a dairy farmer friend.

This man, Lucas Kaiser, farmed in the province of Quebec and offered him the opportunity of working on his farm. Gerry took him up on his offer, even though he says he had “no experience with animals whatsoever.”

At first, Gerry’s job was cleaning stalls and moving cows, but before long he learned to milk. This job lasted about three years.

Gerry enjoyed the work but missed his family, which was still in British Columbia. He found May Acres through an Agricultural Labour Pool website ad for a milker and was able to continue with dairy work while also being close to his roots.

May Acres includes about 300 acres, partly owned, partly leased. Hap grows hay, corn and cranberries. He purchases alfalfa and other feed grains along with a dairy supplement.

The milking herd consists of 150 milking cows, along with youngstock and dry cows, with a total count of 332 animals. All are registered Holsteins. The herd is type-classified and on DHI.

The last two years have seen big changes at the May operation. Instead of building an up-to-date milking parlour, Hap was convinced by his daughters that robotics was the way to go.

parlour

All of the old barns were taken down, with the exception of the 2001 freestall barn, and replaced with a large structure that houses three robot units, maternity pens, the A.I. unit, the testing room, a utility room for tanks and pumps, an office and lunch room. The old parlour was removed and replaced with a calf-rearing and dry cow barn.

To Gerry’s delight, the robot platform was based on Red Hat Linux, the computer system he knew best.

Gerry enjoys being able to merge his two interests. “The nice thing for me now,” he says, is “different things I see can be done different, easier, better … like evolution … (being able to) use my ability to use software to do these things.”

At this point, Gerry is already using four programs that he has designed, “and there’s more to come,” he grins. He has plans in the future to release these programs to the public.

He is a happy man now, finding a good balance in his life between physical and mental work. He does not believe he would be happy doing either job exclusively.

bulk tank

Although Gerry is a whiz with the computer programs, in other ways he still has much to learn about farming. He is planning on taking a course to learn insemination techniques sometime soon and is still working at learning tractor work and such.

He is married to Jessica, and they have a 16-year-old son, Joey. In his spare time he enjoys activities with his wife, dirt bikes and tinkering with cars or bikes in the shop.

Part of Gerry’s responsibilities as herdsman is to manage the robots. He laughs as he states that he probably drove the (milking equipment) guys nuts with all the questions he asked, but he firmly believes it is his duty to optimize every feature to its maximum potential. He says he likes to do what’s best for the cows and would rather use technology than drugs where possible.

The robots have made a difference on the farm. Production is up by about 4 kilograms per cow and is still climbing. Somatic cell counts are down. Gerry’s goals are high as he aims to become number one in the industry.

In addition to the robotic milking technology, May Acres installed an in-line milk sampling system to detect heat, mastitis, ketones and other conditions before clinical signs are apparent. Hap says this has made a difference for his business. “How can it not help?” he asks.

First thing in the morning, he checks for heats, mastitis or cysts. Although he says a computer cannot replace a human for observing cows, he does concede that he now checks the computer stats first, then observes his cows.

“That’s huge,” he says, “to know where to go to look” for problems within the herd. All A.I. data is put into the computers, although he also keeps an old 365-day Arnold Nasco cow board and gestation cards as well.

Hap gives credit for his success to his parents. His father was a super hard working man who “showed us what hard work would get you, what you had to do to get ahead … everything we have here is because of my parents,” he says.  PD

PHOTOS
PHOTO 1: Members of the team at May Acres Farm, include, left to right, Duncan (Hap) May, owner; his granddaughter, Cynthia Atchison; his daughter, Alanna Atchison; another daughter, Caitlyn May; and employees, Gerry Van Kuyk and Dick Carree.

PHOTO 2: Gerry Van Kuyk checks the herd records using software he designed.

PHOTO 3 & 4: The robot and utility room. Photos courtesy of May Acres Farm.

To learn more about Gerry Van Kuyk’s software company, Boerware, follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Alice Guthrie is a freelance writer from Hagersville, Ontario.

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