One special glass of milk 0
Dairy farming in the Lacombe area didn't stop when Lawrence Henderson quit the dairy business back in the early 1990s, in fact, during the process of selling off his farm and animals, a young dairy farmer bought Henderson's herd and set up his own dairy farm just past the QE11 overpass at Hwy 12.
A lot has changed since Henderson owned his dairy farm. Today, the herds are milked by machines that can read anything from milk production to the temperature of the cow. Most herds are all milked three times a day. Farmers no longer fear tuberculosis; instead new diseases have taken its place. And most cows have shorter lives before they retire.
"There is about 585 dairy farms in Alberta and the average size now is just over 130 cows," said Kamps.
The areas of Lacombe and Ponoka are especially involved in the industry, producing about one quarter of all the milk in Alberta, according to Kamps.
Many of these farms were started by earlier generations that came from Holland to the prairies and set up dairy farms. Kamps' family is no different. His grandfather, Albert Kamps Sr., came to Canada in 1928 and in 1948 opened a dairy farm with a herd of 24 cows.
Since those days a lot has changed, the most noticeable changes in the industry are in the way cows are milked and how they are cared for during their life.
"There's a few (farms) that still have tie stalls where you go underneath the cows and hook the machines on (.) but the majority are milking parlours," said Kamps.
The Kamps' milking parlour is a simple but effective mechanical system that corrals the cows into a stall for milking. Today, though, more farmers are moving towards robotic systems, said Kamps.
"Each voluntary milking system can handle 60 to 70 cows," said Kamps. "They are fully automated, where the cow gets milked seven or eight times a day and she goes in on her own, it washes them, puts the machine on them and lets them go."
But whichever system is in use on the farm, most are able to collect information about the cow's health, milk production, and reproductive capabilities, helping Kamps select the cows that he'll breed next.
"All of our cows are evaluated every six months. A Canada Holsteins guy comes out and he looks at all these cows and scores all their traits," said Kamps.
The cows' traits are then used to determine her best bull match. All breeding is done artificially so Kamps has the chance to choose a bull that will sire the best calf for his dairy farm. For example, if the cow has bad legs, Kamps will go through the bull proofs and find a bull whose calves are known to have strong legs and inseminate the cow with that bull's sperm.
"We are selecting from the very best bulls," said Kamps.
On top of the descriptive traits, the bull proofs also include functional traits including temperament, milking speed, calving ability, and life expectancy, said Kamps.
While the process of breeding has become increasingly scientific over the last 10 years, the issue of animal health continues to be a top priority for most farmers.
"It used to be that if you had something horribly wrong with a cow you called the vet out, and now more and more we call the vet out as a preventative thing," said Kamps.
While TB is no longer a problem, other diseases such as Johne's disease (JD) has become a major concern for dairy farmers. JD causes chronic diarrhea in cows causing weight loss and sickness, which in turn affects their milk production. It is most commonly spread from mother to calf through manure.
"Disease prevention is a big thing," said Kamps. "Rather than treating sick cows we vaccinate them so they don't get sick."
Kamps is a member of Alberta Milk and has helped with the development of an initiative to get more farmers educated about JD. The initiative is essentially a workshop where the vet goes to the farm and inspects all the practices to ensure they are safest for the cows. Keeping the calves away from their mother quickly after they're born is the most common way to prevent JD.
"Probably about one third of Alberta's dairy farmers have voluntarily gone on this prevention initiative already," said Kamps.
Despite these advances in the industry, dairy farming is still really about the love of farming and everything that goes with it.
"You have to enjoy working with animals," said Kamps.
And he really must. There aren't many people who would go to work at 4 a.m. if they hated their co-workers.