In throes of a pandemic

Just after Patrick and Cherylynn Bos celebrated as 2015 national award winners of Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers Program, they came home and flipped the switch on their new milking parlour near Ponoka, AB. This was their state-of-the art, “first of its kind in the world”, 90-stall rotary parlour for milking goats.

Coupled with a facility for cheese and fluid milk production for customers across Western Canada, the business setup represents the kind of innovative thinking that earned the couple national recognition for their commitment to agriculture.

More than five years later, the operation is still turning heads. Thanks to Patrick’s hard work with manufacturers and other goat farmers, his pioneering rotary parlour has since grown in size and improved in design.

The milk processing facility is the backbone for a cluster of other goat farms in the area, as well as a nearby organic cow dairy farm. And while the couple’s dedication to their business model hasn’t wavered, the current pandemic and its ongoing effects have certainly tested their tenacity.

EFFICIENCY THROUGH AUTOMATION

The biggest benefits to the farm’s more automated approach to milking goats are time and labour savings. Currently, Rock Ridge Dairy is milking around 500 goats, each with an RFID-tag that tracks individual animal data, including feed intake and milk production.

“Rather than being a four-hour slog, now it’s a one and half hour job,” says Patrick of the twice-daily milking process. “It’s comfortable, and each animal gets to be an individual again, and gets fed appropriately for itself.

“It makes a difference for all of us,” he adds. “For sorting and managing, I can pick a number on a computer and, at the next milking, that goat is put in a pen and I can find it. Whereas if you have 500 of them and you want to catch a white number 780, have fun, and I’ll come see you at noon!”

Tracking each animal’s data helps the couple make better herd decisions. Patrick says some goats can milk for up to three years straight without needing to be rebred. Production data helps him identify these “persistent” milkers, which are also the ones he wants for breeding so they can pass their genetics on to their offspring.

The data also allows them to identify less productive animals that would have otherwise been lost in the herd, says Patrick. “We make adjustments depending on market demand too.”

ABSORBING SOME BIG HITS

The Bos approach to farming is a holistic one. Patrick sees the goats as “value-adders” to the crops he grows on the farm, meaning he doesn’t have to go off-farm for feed supplies, a practice proving its worth as feed prices soar this year. He’s even added a canola press, so he can make his own canola meal to supplement the goats’ diet.

Value adding continues when the milk flows into the processing part of the operation, which also receives goat milk from seven other farms. There it’s turned into either cheese or processed as fluid milk, both destined for Western consumer markets.

But here’s where the COVID-19 shutdowns drove a big spoke into their wheels.

“About 50 per cent of our market was represented by the restaurant and food service industry,” says Cherylynn. “It’s been really hard on our business. All those farms have increased in volume gradually over the years, but now we’re actually having to look at reducing all the herds.”

When the pandemic first hit in 2020, the couple processed a lot of milk powder to help them cope with their surplus milk supply.

“We managed to mitigate it until November,” says Patrick. “But over the winter months, we’ve definitely been getting quite a stockpile of cheese on hand, so we have to do something.” Fortunately, the feta cheese they make has a long shelf life, but some of the fresher cheeses, like chèvre, are now only being made to order.

“With animals and dairy, you can’t just turn on and off the taps,” says Cherylynn. “It takes a lot of planning and management to reduce the herd effectively and to bring it up into production.”

But diversification into cow’s milk did provide a bright spot. The farm processes organic milk from a Jersey operation at Wetaskiwin, AB. Home delivery service for that product soared by 30 per cent during the initial lockdown, and is still holding its own.

Demand for the fluid goat milk has remained steady after the initial lockdown supply chaos settled down. But the dairy still faces difficult supply issues and has yet to completely adjust for the lag in demand from the restaurant trade.

At the same time this was happening, the two were delivered a hard lesson at the hands of a major retail chain. Around 2019, Rock Ridge was excited to supply nine Planet Organic stores throughout Alberta with milk and cheese, trusting that a big company would be good for their receivables.

But when money owed was first delayed, then dwindled, Rock Ridge stopped shipping, only to watch the company declare bankruptcy a few months later. That was in early 2020, just before the pandemic hit.

“Thank goodness we did pull out, but a little too late,” says Cherylynn, of the more than $50,000 they were out of pocket because of the bankruptcy. The lessons they took from the experience are that bigger isn’t always better, or more secure, and to always stay on top of any overdue accounts.

SECURING THE FUTURE AND FINDING BALANCE

What’s ahead for Rock Ridge? The farm continues to partner with Happy Days Dairy in B.C., as both companies look at the possibility of using goat’s milk for some pet-based products.

And Cherylynn is exploring another rather unique route to expanding their business. “I’m working on different levels of food-safety certification, so that I can hopefully open up more doors with the bigger retail industry, which demands a higher degree of food safety than our federally operated and inspected plants,” she says. “They want third party certification, and it’s a very costly, long-drawn out process. But if I want those doors to open to us, then that is a necessity.”

The days are still long, and Patrick and Cherylynn are grateful for the ongoing involvement of Patrick’s parents, who help with both farm and family. But with no major construction or engineering projects on the horizon, and production waiting to ramp up, it has been important for the hard-working couple to pay attention to balance.

“I worked 18 to 20 hour days for 19 years,” says Patrick. “Now is the time to stop that and focus on other things as our kids start to get older.We’ve definitely cut back a little bit on the hours worked.”

Part of that approach has been making time to keep up with their connections from the Outstanding Young Farmers Program and national event tours, where they get to see first hand how other likeminded young farmers operate. They say the positivity of other farmers they interact with through the program continues to provide important support, and they can’t wait for the live events to resume.

“I still have the title of ‘last man standing’ in the hospitality suite,” chuckles Patrick. “We’ll have to meet in person for someone to try and take that away!”