For 13 years, Gary Esselink has been getting up at 4:30 a.m., going to bed between 9-11 p.m., and spending pretty much the entire day outside.
The number of dairy farms in Rainy River District has been slowly dwindling and for Esselink, the reason is obvious.
“There’s not a lot of time to sleep and it’s seven days a week,” he noted.
“Sunday I take the day off and I only work about four or five hours,” he added as his cows followed one another out of the barn after being milked and fed for the evening.
The cows depend on habit. When it’s time to be milked, they are already strolling towards the barn before Esselink even heads out into the field to herd them in.
Inside, they head past the stalls and after a short traffic jam, the first dozen cows head single file down the two rows of milking booths. Every morning and afternoon, the same cows take the right side of the milking parlour, the other half always stick to the left.
One cow is unusually nervous as she is milked because she somehow ended up on the right side rather than the left side she is accustomed to.
Esselink has had to accommodate those habits, milking his cattle at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. every day for the past year.
“I was going to say you’re your own boss but you’re not, they’re your bosses,” said Esselink, indicating a row of cows. “Each one has its own personality.”
The Esselinks built a new barn about five years ago after their old one burned to the ground. The new barn is bigger, allowing the cows to run free rather than be held in individual stalls all winter.
The barn’s new milk parlour also is more up to date, where a dozen cows can step into milking stalls, be milked, and then replaced by the next 12 within a matter of minutes.
“Before you’d milk 25 cows in an hour and a half. Now you can milk 40 cows in half an hour,” noted Esselink.
During the summer, the cows are out in pastures and when it’s time to milk, Esselink goes out to herd in the stragglers on his four-wheeler. Once inside, the cows are ushered into a holding pen and those in the front row automatically lead the way into the milking stalls.
While the Esselink farm is much more efficient and uses technology similar to that of the majority of Ontario’s milk farms, there are ones with $250,000 robots milking the cows. But with such high installation costs, most dairy farmers still have to get up each morning to run the machines themselves.
Another crucial part of the dairy business is ensuring the cows are always calving. Each cow will produce milk for about 10 months after giving birth.
Dairy farmers must purchase a quota or a contribution share in the market to ensure there isn’t more milk than there are customers. As long as it’s within his quota, Esselink will receive 54-56 cents a litre, some of which must go towards the companies’ shipping and advertising costs.
Anything above the quota is unwanted milk as processing companies already have all they need. It sells for as low as 10 cents a litre.
The benefits to having a quota system is that with 100 head and 440 acres, Esselink always knows about how much milk he will produce and how much money that will make—unlike some areas in the farming business.
“We end up with a guaranteed income as long as I get up in the morning and milk the cows,” said Esselink.
The problem is that to there is little quota available and if a dairy farmer wants to expand, it is very expensive to purchase more.
Esselink runs the farm with his wife, Betty, and their children, Adam, Luke, and Emily. But the family is putting their farm on the market this year so they can relax and sleep in after 13 years of early mornings.