The evolution of elite dairy breeder Comestar Holsteins is a good indicator of the future of Canadian dairy farming, with greater focus on milk production instead of genetics.
Comestar, the Victoriaville, Que. dairy farm, has been a prodigious provider of top dairy females and bulls around the world over the past 30 years and recently held a virtual open house of its new automated dairy barn, in conjunction with Semex, the Canadian-based global provider of dairy genetics and DeLaval, the milking equipment company.
The focus in the new barn is on making milk, with the next generation of the Comtois family creating aggressive goals in milk output on the farm.
Marc Comtois, named at the start of 2020 as the most influential Holstein breeder of the past 25 years by Holstein International, took viewers of the virtual event through a history of the farm.
The farm thrived during the 1980s and 1990s as a top supplier of cows, embryos and bulls to buyers around the world.
The dairy genetics market has changed dramatically in the past 20 years as genomic testing has encouraged genetics companies to focus on elite heifers, which they then manage to get the desired bulls.
That’s meant that even the top breeders in the world have had to focus more on profit from milk production.
The Comtois dairy operation now includes multiple family members, with Marc and his wife France bringing their daughters, Kathleen and Julie, son-in-law Julien Turmel and son Steve into the business.
Six robots, with room for eight
Steve led the tour of the new dairy barn, where six robots milk cows. There’s room for another two robots to be added eventually when finances and timing make sense. The barn has a capacity for 586 cows. The family continues to milk some cows in an older barn.
Steve says his goal is to fill 1,000 kg of dairy quota with eight robots in the barn. That’s a high level of production, and will require 1.8 kg of quota per cow to meet that goal, made possible with the high level of genetic merit of the cows in the Comestar barn.
The barn is organized with outside feeding alleys, as is common with robot milking barns. However, a hybrid, feed-first traffic model was employed at the farm, which isn’t the most-common arrangement of cow flow on robot-milking farms.
Feed-first traffic guides the cows through a milking selection gate before they can go from stalls to feed. That has the effect of making sure they have more chances to be milked, making better use of the investment in the milking system. The selection gate can also keep cows who have already been milked enough that day away from the milking system. A majority of robot-milked farms are run with free-flow cow traffic, where the cow is free to decide it wants to be milked, with no selection gate between stalls and feed.
Steve says the family chose the DeLaval robot system after visiting many barns. They have been using DeLaval equipment for 40 years and knew their local dealer. They also were sold because of Herd Navigator – DeLaval’s automated on-farm lab that allows for testing for pregnancy and other reproductive issues along with BHB, which is an indicator of the metabolic disease ketosis. Their robot milking systems are DeLaval V300s, the latest model.
The Comtois run their barn from their phones, so much so that they didn’t install the touch screens normally found on each robot.
The Comtois have three different feeds that can be sent to each robot, including a 16 per cent protein pellet fed to the main herd, a glycol supplement for fresh cows and a 44 per cent high protein pellet for high-producing cows.
Steve says they have been happy with the cost of feed, which often increases with the use of robotic milking.
“The data with Herd Navigator, it gives you a plan of everything you should check,” says Steve, adding that their use of reproductive hormones has declined with the ability to more accurately monitor a cow’s reproductive status.
Marc says he’s impressed by how quiet the barn is, with individual management of the cows, only when needed.
“It is always quiet in the barn. I’m proud for the cows.”