Using innovation to ensure successful and sustainable dairy production
Apart from uncontrollable weather, the one other constant in agriculture is the need to meet the demands of the future through innovative management practices and nutritional and digital technologies.
Agriculture plays an oversized role in positively shaping the sustainability of our planet’s environment and food supply systems. Business owners who act as responsible stewards of the land fulfill an important environmental and social responsibility. Additionally, those daily decisions play a key role in ensuring optimum efficiency, productivity, and profitability for the business.
Ferme Robec Inc. in Mont-Saint-Grégoire, Québec, is an outlier when it comes to sustainable practices that incorporate animal well-being, soil improvement, and an overall concern for the future of their family farm and the planet’s health. Owned and operated by the father-and-son team Yvan and Sébastien Robert, Ferme Robec uses several complementary on-farm technologies and processes to improve soil and herd health.
“Agriculture has an enormous potential to influence the future of our planet,” says Sébastien Robert. “Our industry impacts several environmental spheres: soil, water, air and, most critically, our food systems. The way in which these are managed will affect the quality of life of future generations.”
The history of the farm runs five generations deep, but tradition does not preclude a desire and drive to become a model of what the future of agriculture could look like. Founded in 1920, Ferme Robec grows 1,650 acres of corn, soybeans, mixed grains and forage, 90% of which is used to feed the 80-cow milk herd.
Optimizing forage growth, harvest and ensiling processes has provided the farm with higher productivity, better efficiency and increased self-sufficiency — an important factor in an industry vulnerable to sudden and frequent fluctuations of input costs.
“Concentration of big players in the industry provides certain benefits, certainly,” says Sébastien. “For example, genetically modified hybrids that increase yields. But there can be a certain dependence when there are fewer players. For a small producer like myself, this tells me that it’s important to make sure that I vary my crops and to be as autonomous as possible in terms of what I can grow, with the exception of things like minerals.”
The goal behind milk production at Ferme Robec is to produce milk in the most economical and ecologically friendly way possible. Rumen health is essential: increasing the production of microbial proteins in the rumen is crucial to optimum milk production and composition. Ferme Robec uses Alltech technologies to help reduce excretion of minerals that could be harmful to soil health (e.g., copper sulphate and zinc oxide).
Sébastien believes that local production of feedstuffs is an essential component of a long-term strategy for a sustainable agriculture sector and business — and this is exactly what sets them apart from many other farms.
“We want our forages to be of the highest quality so that we can use as little grain or as little concentrate as possible,” Sébastien explains. “I’m not anti-expenditures or someone that uses the absolute minimum of inputs, but I do want the balance between producing the most with as few inputs as possible to be as positive as we can make it.”
Cover crops and intercropping help reduce soil erosion, especially in the spring and fall, when soils are typically left bare. In addition to careful on-farm manure management and use, these crops bulk up soil organic matter and reduce the need for synthetic fertilizer applications. Satellite imagery and geolocation pinpoint what fields and what areas within those fields require fertilization for optimal resource application.
They have also switched from dry hay to feeding only haylage, making them less dependant on the weather. “We don’t need a window of two to three nice days; we just need one day,” Sébastien notes. “This means we can harvest the best quality forage because we can cut and get it into the silo at exactly the right moment.”
Ferme Robec chooses forage cultivars that are ready for the first cut around May 23. They have removed timothy from the mix and replaced it with meadow fescue, which is better suited to an early first cut. It also means that there is always a vegetative grass in the mix that can be harvested again in 30–35 days. Combined with alfalfa, the mix matures at about the same time and ensiles and preserves well. Additionally, they have chosen a mix of forage cultivars specifically for dry cows that includes brome, timothy and other grasses that do not pull as much potassium from the soil — an undesirable nutritional element in a dry cow ration.
While each business decision is weighed primarily against how it will affect the long-term health of the farm’s soil, crops and animals, their choices have far-reaching impacts on the broader environment as well.
Multiple streams and drainage ditches crisscross the farm, and riparian buffers have been developed. Both practices help to limit soil erosion from surface runoff and maintain moisture in the soil. Buffer zones also act as habitat corridors for wildlife.
Given consumers’ increasing demand for carbon-neutral products, Ferme Robec is also preoccupied with reducing the farm’s carbon footprint. To decrease the amount of carbon per litre of milk produced, practices like crop rotations, direct seeding and satellite imagery lessen the amount of fuel used and complement the carbon sequestration created through cover crops. With a positive ratio of acres cultivated to cows in production, Ferme Robec is well-positioned to meet future carbon-neutral requirements.
“Just being nominated for Alltech’s Planet of Plenty™ award was an honour,” Robert beams. “That our Alltech representative reflexively thought of us was humbling. To win, it surpassed our expectations. But I’m not alone here on the farm; there’s a dedicated team that deserves recognition as well, including my father and mother, employees, temporary foreign workers and off-farm consultants, all of whom are as passionate and dedicated as I am and who always question and evaluate what could help us go even farther.”
Sébastien emphasizes that success hinges on the right mentality in addition to the right team. Curiosity; a drive for improvement and perfection; being observant; constantly questioning what you’re doing and how it could be better; and always looking for how you can surpass yourself are some of the traits Robert feels are crucial to a glass-half-full mentality.
“Ultimately, what motivates me is to continue to improve the soil that has been loaned to me for future generations.,” Sébastien says hopefully. “My goal is to produce more with fewer resources. So, less land, fertilizer, fuel and energy. It’s not a maximum yield/minimum input type of business, but I try to find the right balance.”