Dairy Farming In The Peace Country Has Its Challenges – for Sep. 13, 2010

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When Phillippe and Emma Lavoie came to the Peace country from a small town in Quebec in 1953 with their nine children and seven Holsteins, they couldn’t know the legacy they had started to build.

The couple had worked in the dairy industry back east and settled near the hamlet of St. Isidore in northwestern Alberta. Son Richard Lavoie said the family had been drawn west by an organization promoting agricultural opportunities. “My parents had the insight to raise their family in northern Alberta,” says Lavoie. “It was promoted as the best place in the world. I agree 100 per cent.”

In the early years, the couple added another four children to their brood. The family’s dairy and grain operation expanded too and by 1994, the family was seriously considering construction of a new dairy complex. “The existing site had capacity for only 200 cows per day,” recalls Lavoie. “We had reached capacity.”

A year later, a new 400-x 110- ft. milking barn, seven kilometres from the original site, was underway. The new facility, with capacity for 500 cows a day, was completed by late 1995. “We did our first milking in the new facility in November, and were up to 250 cows per day that year,” Lavoie says.

In 1999, the combination dairy/grain operation was separated, and the dairy operation is now known as Entreprises Lavoie 1999. Currently, more than 400 cows are milked here twice a day, says Lavoie, who is the operations manager. Joining Richard in the dairy business are brothers Evens and Jean- Guy, as well as nephews Alain, Armand and Claude, along with 10 employees. The dairy presently consists of 380 milking Holsteins in a total herd of about 950 head. The dairy is fully automated and computerized with an Alpha DeLaval system able to handle 40 cows being milked at one time in a double-20 parallel milking parlour.

While other agriculture commodities struggle with prices, weather and disease, the dairy industry is fairly stable, says Lavoie. Still, the challenge lies in keeping costs down and efficient management.

“You have to pay lots of attention to detail and make sure everything is up to snuff. It’s not as easy as you think. It’s very challenging to be in the dairy industry. You have to work as a team, work with organizations and provinces so it demands good communication on a number of levels. You have to know what’s going on, and be involved.”

Staying ahead

Lavoie certainly is involved provincially and nationally with the Alberta Milk Producers, the Alberta Dairy Council and Holstein Canada, where Lavoie worked in semen sales and sire analysis. Lavoie says it’s about being ahead of the game.

“A successful dairy producer has to maintain new technologies, such as computerized operations that include software programs to manage the herd,” he says.

Though beef producers don’t share the price stability with their dairy counterparts, in northern Alberta they share the problem of distance to market.

“Our operation isn’t close to the main core of Alberta dairy producers,” says Lavoie. “We do a lot of marketing of cows and embryos so if we were closer to market things would be a bit easier. But that’s the way it is and we manage just fine.”

Lavoie sells animals across the province; culled cows usually go to auction in Grande Prairie or Clyde.

On the positive side, cost of land is an advantage in the Peace. But with the absence of irrigation systems that are a given in southern Alberta, Peace producers are much more weather dependent. “It’s more of a challenge here when it’s a dry year,” Lavoie says. Entreprises Lavoie, operates on a section of land and buys most of its feed. It works closely with a Lavoie grain company run by his brother.

Lavoie attributes much of the stability the dairy industry enjoys to Alberta Milk Producers’ supply- management system.

“I’m a believer in the system and think that’s true of most dairy producers. In the States, the industry operates on the principle of ‘survival of the fittest.’ If the price is good, profit will increase,” says Lavoie.

“But when the price does down they lose their shirt. In Canada, we only produce what the country will use.” It helps that the federal government defends the system, he said.

All in all, Lavoie said the dairy industry has treated him very well over the last 40 years.

“I’m very happy we can farm in Peace region, and I’d hate to see all producers migrate to the core, to the larger centres of Edmonton and Calgary,” said Lavoie. “I’m very proud to be a Peace-region dairy producer, and my goal is to keep the industry going up here, especially in smaller rural communities such as St. Isidore.”

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I’mveryproudtobe aPeace-regiondairy producer,andmygoal istokeeptheindustry goinguphere.”

richard lavoie

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