Arie and Anita VandenBroek and their five children, then aged three to 16 years, moved to Olds, Alberta, Canada from the Netherlands in 2000, in pursuit of “the freedom to farm” in the way that they wanted.
Having endured a severe swine fever epidemic back home, the former pig-producing family identified a climate and lifestyle along Canada’s Calgary–Edmonton corridor that offered something close to the Dutch experience, and decided to move forward with dairy.
Though many strict rules, responsibilities and regulations still apply at their now 580-cow dairy operation, originally purchased as a beef and grain farm, Arie says “there isn’t one thousandth of a second that I regret we made the move”.
Today, the family farms 2,300ac, comprised of about 800ac of pasture. All their livestock over the age of six months graze the pasture ground during the summer, while the remaining land is used to grow barley, peas, silage mix and alfalfa to feed their herd.
Transitioning to organic
Speaking to the Irish Farmers Journal during a farm visit as part of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ Congress 2023, Arie and his son Teun explained why they transitioned from conventional dairy to organic.
“We decided to move and not to start in hogs because hogs are even more risky here than in the Netherlands, so we decided to go with dairy,” said Arie.
“We started in conventional, then made the switch to organic. Alberta Milk was looking for producers to fill the organic market and we wanted to move ahead with the demand there.
“We had to farm organically for three years before we got certified organic, so it took us 36 months to get completely recognised through the Pro-Cert programme of Saskatchewan in 2009.
“Organic milk was new for producers here. Funding was made available, and everyone had a chance to take advantage of the programme.
“While there were quite a few interested in the final year, there are just six or seven organic dairy farmers operating in Alberta out of 480 producers.
“We put lots of time into it and took some risks to get production and processing up to speed, and finally it all came okay – but it didn’t look too good in the beginning.
“In the last year of transition, you get an extra premium, because you are going to start feeding your cows on organic feed, and that is the most costly thing,” Arie said.
Big on-farm changes during the conversion period and afterwards included building two new sheds to allow for a maximum stocking rate of one stall to one cow; and securing enough fresh pastureland every cow needs to access one third of an acre of pasture each day.
On the animal health side, while they are allowed to treat cows, when this happens they must withdraw the milk from the food chain for a minimum of one month. If a cow is treated more than twice a year, that cow is removed from the farm.
The premium on organic milk within the province is generally quite good, ranging from 15 to 20c ahead of conventional milk price at around 90c to 95c/l. However, the consumer market for organic milk is considered quite small at just 3-4%.
Increased grocery prices have put new pressure on consumer-purchasing power for organic and plant-based produce, with a recent dip in demand noted by the Canadian dairy industry.
Nevertheless, the VandenBroeks are forging ahead, commanding a premium of 23.5c/l above the conventional price this year.
In 2022, they produced over 4.7m litres of milk, with 90% of their milk being supplied to Dairy Land Saputo in Edmonton – a conventional and organic processor. The remainder is supplied to all Costco wholesalers in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
‘Steady market’ but an uncertain future
Arie described Canada’s milk supply management system as “a steady market” for producers, but also acknowledged an uncertainty about its future.
“The big positive I could see from day one, is that I know exactly how much income I’m going to have on day 356,” he said.
“The cost is something else: you have to manage that, you have to control that, and you have to stay up-to-date on how you farm, always planning ahead for the future.
“The Dutch are really sharp dairy farmers, we don’t put up with stupid discussions – when you start from scratch, you have to go for it all or you just stop.”
At VandenBroeks, the cows are milked three times daily, at 4am, 12pm and 8pm, in a 28-cow external rotary parlour – still the original installed back in 2000. The cows are milked by three people with each milking taking about four hours.
In addition to their own family members, they also employ four full-time workers from Mexico who they brought over with their families during the last five years.
Teun adds: “They all come from the most concentrated dairy region in Mexico, north/northwest of Mexico City, on a two-year visa and we offer to extend their visa – when they are good, they can stay as long as they want.
The Dutch are really sharp dairy farmers, we don’t put up with stupid discussions – when you start from scratch, you have to go for it all or you just stop
“We also have around 15 part-timers, mainly local people that help with the fieldwork.”
Each cow produces 31 litres per day at 4.2% butterfat and 3.4% protein. In between milkings, the cows, largely Holstein with a couple of Jersey and Brown Swiss, have free access to graze, with groups rotated throughout the day.
Teun continued: “We don’t like big cows, they give more milk but they are more problematic. We prefer smaller cows with more or less a nice udder.
“We AI all our herd. We don’t have any bulls. We use sexed semen on all of our herd. Any cows where we don’t want to pass on their genetics, we breed back the beef with black Angus and supply them as beef to feedlots down south.
“We raise all of our own replacement heifers at a farm three miles away. We breed them at 14 months and calve them out at the 23 to 24 month mark. Average lactation is roughly six years at the moment.”
For slurry management, the VandenBroeks have a manure pump that pumps into a lagoon out back. They direct-inject the soil twice every year and soil-test once a year to check nitrogen levels.
When asked what being organic means to him as a young farmer, Teun replied: “I like knowing exactly what goes into our land, what comes off our land, and what is going into our animals.
“The biggest challenge of converting to organics has been outside opinions, but that’s okay, we can handle that. It’s something different, so sometimes our fields might not be as clean as the neighbour’s because we don’t spray, but you have to shoulder that.
“Older generations might not see it, but younger generations are starting to be more accepting of organic. They go for it because they are really self-conscious about what they put in their bodies and they also try to support the local side of it.
“We allow the land to give us what we put into it without artificially pushing or manipulating it. We prefer to do it our way, that’s not to say there is anything wrong with conventional, but that is the driver for us.”