On this farm, profit is all in the family

Some farm families admit their foray into a multi-generational family business happened over time and without much of a plan.  But that’s not the story for the 2014 winners of the Outstanding Young Farmers’ program award for Alberta/NWT region.  Nine years in, the Brousseaus are reaping the rewards of a wellprepared, detailed 10-year plan.

Nicole Brousseau describes the dairy operation she and her husband Richard run in partnership with her parents as a two-party partnership that is “together, but separate.  ” Richard, on the other hand, likens it to being part of a game where there are always “four players at the table.  ”

Details of their business structure aside, one thing is certain: this farm’s management approach prioritizes positive cash flow for its inter-generational partnership.

The Brousseaus run Moo-Lait Family Farm near St.  Paul, AB, about two hours northeast of Edmonton.  The couple grew up on farms in the area and met while studying livestock management close by at Vermilion’s Lakeland College.  While they married soon after graduation, their journey back to the farm where Nicole grew up was nine years in the making.

Those years were spent in Vermilion, where Nicole worked for the college’s dairy operation and Richard worked in the hog business.  When Nicole took her first maternity leave, Richard took a job in the dairy barns at Lakeland College.

In 2006, when their oldest child was three, they moved back to 7P Dairy, the farm where Nicole grew up.  There, they and Nicole’s parents, Bertrand and Yvonne Poulin, created an entity called Moo-Lait Family Farm and signed a 10-year contract setting out how the farm could serve the interests of both families.

“We started our farm on their land, but each with our own cows,” explains Nicole.  The deal meant the farm could grow without either party having to take on immediate debt to get the expansion started.

With Bertrand already running a farm-based local trucking business, the younger couple took on managing the herd as if it were one entity.  Nine years later, Bertrand still has that off-farm business and the Brousseaus still head the day-to-day management team.  Still, Bertrand rarely misses the daily milking, and Yvonne handles the calf chores, easily moving to milking if Nicole and Richard need to be elsewhere.

A sustainable business 

As part of their 10-year plan, the couples agreed the farm needed to grow to support Richard and Nicole’s growing family.  Determined to do that over time and without compromising cash flow, the management plan outlined how it would work.  “We agreed that once buildings and equipment were maxed, we would use that as our jumping-off point for expansion, and cost-share further development,” says Richard.  Actual profits are shared according to each couple’s contribution to the business.

On the operational side, that shared approach to sustainable growth soon prompted a review of the farm’s land base.  “When we moved back to the farm, its land base wasn’t even able to sustain the thencurrent herd,” recalls Richard.  With memories of a 2002 drought still fresh, the four opted to rent more land to ensure they wouldn’t be caught short under similar circumstances.

Today’s operation comprises about 110 head (including 50 milking cows), 550 acres of cropland »  and 310 acres of hay.  About two-thirds of their land is rented and “we make sure we always have surplus feed inventory,” says Richard.

As part of their focus on producing their own top-quality feed, they grow only crops that can be used as forage if needed.  Still focused on cash flow, some of their land is rented on a cash basis, the rest through a crop share arrangement.  “We sell any excess feed that is over and above the inventory targets we have set for ourselves,” he says.

The partners also cost-shared construction of a new 60-head milking barn completed in March 2014.  “We needed something to reduce the amount of labour required to actually milk and house the cows.  That was number one,” says Richard.  “And the second requirement was an environment that was comfortable for the cows, promoting their health and productivity, while providing comfortable working conditions for us.  ”

Located about three hours from most of Alberta’s other dairy farms (there is only one other in their county), Moo- Lait lacked access to the experience of neighbours when it came to barn ideas.  So, the Brousseaus tapped into relationships with their semen rep and nutritionist, who both helped them get information they needed.  “We designed and built the whole barn ourselves, with the help of contractors,” says Richard.  “It was a two-year process and we were very satisfied with the outcome.  ”

The loose housing barn includes space for the cows to sleep, as well as a herringbone-style milking parlour and a single scrape feed alley.

Communication Critical

The Brousseaus say they and the Poulins went into this partnership with their eyes wide open.  Knowing that communication would be critical, the original deal even called for weekly business meetings — although that’s not exactly what happened.  While Richard still has a copy of the agenda prepared for their first meeting back in 2006, he admits the meeting never happened.  Instead, the four managed the operation with a less formal approach.

Nicole says that changed in early 2013 when they agreed to meet every Monday.  “It’s really easy for me to get caught up in the decision making but there are four players at this table and we all need to know what’s happening,” says Richard.

As for whether those Monday meetings will eventually include their own kids, Richard and Nicole say it’s far too early to tell.  Ethan, 11, Cassie, 9 and Emery, 7, operate their own grass-fed egg business in the warmer months and have always been proud to participate when local schools tour Moo-Lait.

“We’re trying to use the farm as a learning tool to develop a really good work ethic and values, and if they do not stay in agriculture, they can apply that training to anything they want to do,” says Richard.  “We want them to be who they are meant to be,” says Nicole.

That said, the Brousseaus do think a lot about their farm’s future.  Still focused on the big picture, they say there might come a time when someone from outside the family steps into a relationship similar to what they have with Nicole’s parents, who farm land homesteaded by Nicole’s grandfather.  Says Richard: “Our goal is to keep this farm growing.”