Heritage Hill Farm
New Dundee, Ontario

Heritage Hill Farm

By Melanie Epp

Sixth generation siblings and dairy farmers Graham Johnston and Mary Ann Doré’s ancestors have been farming in Brampton since 1842. Like each generation before them, Graham (married to Amanda), and Mary Ann and her husband, Joe, are working on a succession plan with their parents, James and Frances. The five are now in a full joint-partnership, working together as a team.

Graham joined when he finished school, and Mary Ann and Joe joined in 2010 when plans for the new farm began. Although Claire, their sister, was not interested in joining the partnership, she was involved in creating the building plans. She also helps out on weekends.

Both Graham and Mary Ann worked on the family farm in their youth. After studying at the University of Guelph, Mary Ann and Joe took jobs to gain off-farm experience.

Since the area around the family farm has changed and grown, there was no room around the original Brampton farm to expand, so the young couples moved to New Dundee where they are surrounded by farmland. The move meant a new facility, and with cow comfort being their main concern, they decided to make the transition from tie stalls to a free stall system.

“My parents are very much active on the farm and custom cash crop,” says Mary Ann. “They are raising our heifers in Brampton while we wait for our new heifer shed to be built.”

“Like many farmers, my parents never see themselves retiring from farming,” she continues, “but they are enjoying handing over more and more labour and responsibility.”

Their goal was to create a spacious barn with features that enhance both cow comfort and the comfort of the workers who care for them. After five years of research, they finally drew up plans for the new dairy barn.

“It was very intimidating to move from tie stall to free stall,” says Mary Ann, “but education and experience made for an easier transition.”

The new barn is very spacious. The alleys are wide, allowing cows to move freely, and individual stalls are made out of flexible plastic instead of metal.

“Everything flexes,” explains Mary Ann. “We have zero injuries from the stalls.”

Currently, the barn is home to 65 cows, but could hold up to 100. Extra features have been added to increase comfort, like automatic cow brushes, which resemble the spinning brushes found in carwashes.

“The cows love it,” says Mary Ann, who recalls one cow that used it so often that her fur thinned out in spots.

The barn has been built on the top of a hill, which makes for natural ventilation. Automatic curtains rise and fall as they sense the surrounding temperature changes. Cows, says Mary Ann, prefer cooler temperatures and suffer from heat stress in anything above 18 degrees. During the hotter days of summer, an evaporative cooling system mists the cows to cool them down.

Part of a cow’s comfort is determined by its bedding. At Heritage Hills Farm, bedding is made from composted manure. Using an alley scraper, manure is moved from the aisles into a 20-foot pit. From there, it is transferred to a machine, where larger particles are separated from liquid. The particles are then transferred to an agitator, which turns twice an hour, removing the moisture and 99.7 per cent of pathogens. It takes two to three days to turn manure into clean bedding.

Heritage Hills Farm is one of the first five farms in Ontario to use such a system, says Mary Ann, and while the bedding is comfortable, it created some challenges. Initially, their somatic cell count – the benchmark of udder health – was higher than they wanted it to be. Since that time, though, they have made adjustments and lowered that number to 175,000.

“We had all the growing pains that come with new technology,” says Mary Ann.

While the focus on cow comfort is evident, it’s not all they’ve done to improve their facility. Features, like solar panels and a three-phase water system, which warms water using heat recovery, solar energy, and finally, electricity, are also present. Nothing is wasted; even grey water is reused to clean the floors of the milking parlour.

These efficiencies have not only added to the cows’ comfort and theirs, but they’ve also created a state-of-the-art facility that can be passed on to the next generation. At almost 2, Nadine, Mary Ann and Joe’s daughter, already seems keen to keep up the tradition.

“We’re very happy here at the new farm and hope that our ancestors’ farming legacy can carry on well into the future,” says Mary Ann.

The Heritage Hill farm family includes (back row from left) Amanda, Graham, James and Frances Johnston; (front row from left) Claire Johnston; Mary Ann, Joe and Nadine Doré.