It’s certainly a smile-inducing sight to see — a 600-pound-plus Holstein dairy cow over-the-moon using a self-serve automatic back-scratching machine, like a puppy in belly-rubbing heaven.
“Whenever I’m talking about cow comfort, that’s what I’m talking about. Nothing worse than having an itch you can’t scratch, so that’s why these (rotating cow) brushes are a great thing for the cows,” laughs Logan Jewell, co-owner of Jewell Dale Farm Inc. in Meadow Bank.
He is one of three generations of Jewells who have derived their living from this family owned and operated business; he, his brother Kyle and sister-in-law Jane being the latest to join in. His other brother, Joel, is a mechanic who’s always got his hand in fixing some piece of machinery on the farm when he’s not at his fulltime job off the farm with the local John Deere dealer.
The patriarch of the family business, Roy Jewell, grew up just down the road in Meadow Bank on his parents’ farm, which was eventually sold.
“Dad always wanted to farm so he bought this (property) and started from scratch here in 1959,” says his son, Kevin Jewell.
From that original 75 acres of land, Jewell Dale Farm Inc. has expanded to include another 400 acres that they own and an additional 500 acres of rented land.
“It’s a fairly large acreage but not for the amount of people that are involved. There are three generations of us making some degree of living off this farm,” says Kevin, whose wife, Cheryl, works off the farm but does some of books for the family business, just as his mother, Elaine, has done.
“We’ve gone through stages. We started with beef cows and hogs and then switched things to pretty much all dairy in 1973,” remembers Kevin, who started fulltime on the farm in 1978.
“Milk is our major food product, but we grow soybeans, wheat, corn, barley, hay. We pretty well grow all our own feed for our cattle besides selling the excess as a commodity, like soybeans, barley and wheat.”
The sand on ice crackles underfoot as Logan makes his way to the newest big barn addition to the ever-expanding structural conglomerate on Jewell Dale Farm Inc.
“I started when I was basically old enough to milk cows, that was back in the old barn, probably when I was five years old,” he says.
“Early on I always said I’d do something (on the farm) — that kind of thing that you want to do what Dad does. There was a time in my life where I thought I might do something else, but I kind of came back to it when I was in junior high. I realized that I liked working with cows; that was the biggest thing. I like a lot of the genetics part of it, the new innovations. It’s a very complex industry. There is a lot of new technology. It kind of keeps you interested. Things are always changing.
“And running your own business is interesting. You’re always trying to improve and you can kind of make your own decisions rather than work for somebody else.”
One of the biggest decisions in recent years was the construction of a modern tarped dairy barn system in 2009 that has all the creature comforts: in-floor manure scrappers that run 24/7; rubber floor mats to reduce hoof stress; foam mattresses in the stalls; loads of natural light and ventilation; and instead of being tied in stalls, cows move about freely on their own accord.
“We tried to put the most up-to-date technology in it. There’s no limit to the technology you can get out into a barn in this day and age. It all comes down to dollars and cents,” Kyle says.
“We were working on a budget as well,” Logan adds.
“And we were coming from a 40-cow herd trying to work up to a 100-cow herd. It was just where we needed to be (income-wise for three families),” Kyle says.
Jewell Dale Farm Inc. may have the capacity for 100 cows, but quota is a limiting factor, so at present they are milking about 86 cows.
Some of those bovines belong to farmer Frank MacDonald, with whom they have a working partnership to milk his cows that are onsite following the loss of his barn in a fire at a time when the Jewells were considering an expansion.
“With the quota system it’s all based on (kilograms) of butterfat so that’s based on the fat percentage of your milk. It’s not actually based on the amount of litres (of milk) that you ship,” Logan says.
“Basically the whole market is all based on components. We measure our butterfat, protein and other solids, which are your main components of milk. Milk is 80 per cent water so the processors don’t want to pay you for water. They only want the good stuff for making cheese and ice cream....”
Jewell Dale Farm Inc. has a quota of 113 kilograms of butterfat that it can produce each day.
“Obviously if your butterfat percentage drops you have to produce a lot more litres of milk to get the same k-gs of butterfat.
“So it’s a game when you have to play around with your litres to figure out where your max revenue is,” Logan says.
“It’s not all about just getting litres of milk in the tank; you need high butterfat and high protein. Nutrition is part of that (as are) breeding and genetics. With genetics we can breed for more milk and more butterfat.”
Where farmers of old may have relied on the luck of the prized bull draw in the barnyard or within the local gene pool, Jewell Dale Farm Inc. now purchases frozen semen from companies that source bulls from Canada, the U.S. and some other countries.
“(Artificial insemination) AI allows us more access to different genetics so I can buy different bulls depending on what I want in my herd to meet my goals,” Logan says.
“Basically we have a certain margin that we have to meet. If we can milk less cows and produce more milk from genetically superior cows obviously it’s going to cost us a lot less.”
While Logan is more on the cow management side of things, Kyle is pretty much the go-to crops guy in the family.
“We have more technology to balance for a cow’s needs. In the past you fed a bale of hay and some grains but you probably guessed. We used to feed with a scoop and a wheelbarrow, but now we balance everything to the individual cow’s needs,” says Kyle.
“We have computer program (and a nutritionist) that basically balances everything for you and tells you what to put in. And we have a (giant) food processor.”
“I call it his Mix Master on wheels,” his father, Kevin, adds with a laugh.
“The beauty of that is that every time they take a mouthful of it they’re getting a little bit of everything. Whereas before we’d give it to them individually, we’d give them their grain and give them their hay. Of course they’d like some things more than others, so they’d eat more of this and less of that. This way when they get a mouthful of that (mixture) it’s like a glorified salad. It’s got all the good things in it with the mineral hidden in there, it’s like getting your vitamins and liver oil mixed in.”
While some things have changed, others have remained the same for Jane, who grew up on a dairy farm in Nova Scotia and shifted from one family business to another when she married Kyle.
“Not much has changed as a whole, but it’s a larger scale, I guess you could say. You still have calves, you still vaccinate them, you still raise them the same. It’s just a larger scale now,” she says from the calf barn, which is definitely her preferred turf.
“I don’t see it as work. It’s fun. If you didn’t like doing it, you wouldn’t be doing it,” she adds.
Multi-generational farming life does have its ups and downs.
“It’s a family and it is a business, so there are challenges there. And a lot of times you have to think of it, we’re running a business here and it’s a business with tight margins so sometimes there are some decisions that aren’t always easy to make. We’d be lying if we stood here and said it was easy. But it has its advantages, too,” Kyle says.
“If I had to go on my own and do this or if Logan had to try and do it — I’m not saying it’s impossible — but when we can work together everyone gets a break.”
Logan looks back on his grandfather’s beginnings as a strong model as to how the family farm will continue to thrive and grow in this increasingly technological age.
“Something that he’s always instilled in us is to never be afraid to take that step and borrow money to build something new because you have to spend money to make money,” he says.
“As times change you have to keep moving ahead and never be afraid to try new things and new technology and I think that’s what we’ve done here.”
AT A GLANCE
This is the first in a series of profiles of P.E.I. family farms in honour of the 2014 International Year of Family Farming (IYFF), which aims to raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farming
Family farming is important because:
Family and small-scale farming are inextricably linked to world food security;
Family farming preserves traditional food products, while contributing to a balanced diet and safeguarding the world’s agro-biodiversity and the sustainable use of natural resources;
Family farming represents an opportunity to boost local economies, especially when combined with specific policies aimed at social protection and wellbeing of communities.
For more about 2014 International Year of the Family Farming, visit www.fao.org/family-farming-2014/en/.
Watch for upcoming features of P.E.I. family farms in future issues of The Guardian.