Pleasant Hill Farms, a dairy farm run by the Pierik family, has about 400 milking cows in Central Alberta. A second-generation farm, Henk and Karen have been farming with Henk’s parents since 2008, and have continued the tradition of top-quality animal care ever since. While Henk was born and raised on the dairy farm, Karen came to it from pig farming. Early on in their relationship, she came to help Henk with his chores one day, and she has been hooked ever since. They are now raising their four boys on the farm, where they can learn amazing life lessons while taking care of their cows.
Dairy farming is more than just a job, it’s a lifestyle and a labour of love. Dairy farmers spend every day with their cows and are committed to the highest standards of animal care. Canadian farmers have a strict set of guidelines to produce safe, high-quality milk, while working to protect the environment and improve animal care.
Every cow in Canada has an individual ID tracking number, which allows the traceability of where every cow is born and sold to, but it also allows individual farms to keep detailed records for their cows, such as milk production, eating habits, temperatures, and even medical histories. At Pleasant Hill Farms, this is all tracked through an app which is accessible on their mobile phones, meaning that they can see updated information on every single cow in their care from anywhere on the planet (not that they get to take many vacations as dairy farming is a 24-7/365 job). The app is connected to what they call a “cow fitbit,” which is essentially a collar that they wear that tracks their movements and records every detail of their daily lives.
Technologies like this app have been vital to animal care improvements, as it can let them know instantly if there’s something going on with one of their cows. According to Karen, Henk (who she calls the Cow Whisperer) can spot a cow in the middle of a herd whose needs some extra attention, and when they check their vitals, sure enough the cow’s temperature has risen the slightest amount, which is a likely indication that they could be getting sick. Not everyone was raised on a dairy farm like Henk, so for newcomers to dairy farming, technologies like this are a welcome tool to help farmers respond quickly when something is off with their herd.
Amenities at the Cow Palace
Pleasant Hill Farms has some fantastic amenities to help ensure their cows have some of the best animal care possible. This includes two parlors – the Rotary, and the Hospital Parlor.
The Rotary is an interesting piece of technology. Used for milking, it is almost fully automated to give the cows not only the best experience, but some autonomy as well. It looks like a hydraulic merry-go-round, and essentially serves as one too. Consisting of walkthrough stalls, a cow will walk on into an open spot where a staff member will make sure their udders and hooves are clean, and then attach the milking device to them in one pass. This device is attached to a cord, so that when the sensors read that there is no more milk, it will immediately dislodge from their udders, and it sanitizes internally to ensure no residues or bacteria are left for the next cow.
It is a casual process, as the cows will naturally fill the empty slots, and once they have completed their round and are done milking, they will back out and return to the cow palace. The Rotary has a computerized system that will alert the staff if there are any issues. It even shows on the diagram exactly which cow needs their attention. From there, the milk is picked up every two days for processing (yes, even on Christmas!).
The Hospital Parlor is a really special feature for Karen, who used to be a nurse. It is used for cows who need some extra attention and care. Sometimes this is cows who have recently calved and therefore their milk is colostrum, a highly concentrated milky fluid that is packed with antibodies and nutrients which is important for the calves to develop healthy immune systems. It’s also used for any cow that is sick (yes, cows can catch a flu), as this could taint the whole milk supply if it gets mixed with the milk from healthy cows. As it is a separate space, it also allows them to give these cows a little extra attention when needed and the veterinarian to tend to them as needed. (They also have protocols with a local vet who can be at their farm within 20 minutes if there is an emergency.) The cows that are treated in the Hospital Parlor are kept separate, so that they can keep a closer eye on them until they are ready to be moved back to their regular pack.
Heifers and cows that are going to be calving in the next 21 days will be moved to the Close Up Pen so that they can keep a close watch on them.
In addition to the parlors, there are also some other amenities that the Pieriks have to make sure their cows are receiving the royal treatment. The Hoof Trimming Shoot is like a pedicure for a person, but for cows.
At Pleasant Hill, the average cow weighs about 1300-1400 pounds. That’s a lot of weight to put on four legs! So, to take the best care of them, they will give each cow a “nail trim” a couple of times per year to keep them comfortable. As cows spend most of their time on their hooves, it’s important that they are well taken care of, so if a cow is showing signs of foot problems, they will give them an extra trim to try to alleviate some of the stress (and address any other foot-related issues if there appears to be any others). They even get a foot bath – talk about spa treatment in the cow palace!
They also have round-the-clock access to feed and water, meaning that they never go hungry. In the summertime, they will feed twice a day to ensure the freshest feed possible for their cows. Working with a food nutrition expert, they design feed rations (food recipes) for the cows to ensure they have the right mix of proteins and nutrients so that they are healthy. The average cow at Pleasant Hill eats approximately 126 pounds of food, but that’s no surprise – they are doing amazing things. Karen likes to compare them to Olympians, as their bodies are performing amazing feats every single day. Except instead of flips and tricks, these cows are producing an average 40 litres of milk per cow per day. That’s a lot of milk jugs!
Alberta winter brings its own set of challenges, and dairy farmers will go the extra mile to make sure the cows are comfortable and happy. This means enhanced daily routines, including extra “bedding” (straw) for them to lay in, and checking the water troughs hourly to make sure they don’t freeze. Just like your car not starting, their equipment can also not start in freezing temperatures, which can lead to a whole other set of challenges.
Investments in the Future
For the Pieriks, they are always thinking about the future. The next generation, the next impact on the land. As stewards of the land, dairy farmers are always looking for ways to reducing their environmental impacts. In fact, by 2050, the goal is for dairy farming to be net-zero, meaning that they are working to balance their greenhouse gas emissions for the sector and increasing farm efficiency. This could include green energy technologies, and finding ways to capture carbon emissions, and cutting food waste. They are constantly looking at new ways to improve sustainability, including working with agronomists as part of their environmental farm plan.
It is also important for them to invest back into the cows to give them the best quality of care. This means constant improvements and upgrades (like the new barn that they are in the process of building), and new technologies to make them the most comfortable and happy that they can be. There’s even talk of a new VR technology being developed where farmers will be able to wear a VR headset to look at their cattle and be able to see a display that shows all that cow’s vitals. While the technology is not currently financially viable for dairy farmers, it does give a sense of excitement for what the future may hold!
The Blue Cow Promise
Canadian Dairy Farmers like the Piereks take great pride in the work that they do to produce top-quality dairy products for Canadian families. They have a dedication to their farms, their families, and their communities, so no matter what is happening in the world, they will wake up and milk the cows so that people have steady access to those products. This promise is one that every Canadian dairy farmer has made, so when you are buying dairy products, be sure to look for the Blue Cow.
When you see the Blue Cow on a dairy product, it means that the milk used to create the product came from a local dairy farm, and that it has met the highest standards in the world for biosecurity, traceability, milk quality, environmental, food safety, and animal care. That means that you can buy your dairy products with confidence, knowing that every precaution was taken to ensure the health and safety of your family, the animals, and the environment. And all you have to do is look for the Blue Cow to know that you are getting the best quality dairy products – it’s so easy that even kids can help to spot the logo!
To learn more about the Blue Cow and Dairy Farming in Alberta, visit AlbertaMilk.com or DairyFarmersOfCanada.ca.