The phrase, “you are what you eat”, expresses the idea that in order to be healthy, you should eat nutritious food. Food nutrition, in turn, depends on the quality of inputs lower down the food chain, be it nutrient-rich soil or comfortable living conditions for farm animals. Putting that into practice is Bill Vanderkooi, an Abbotsford dairy farmer whose 32-hectare Bakerview EcoDairy is the first demonstration farm of its kind in Canada to showcase innovative and sustainable dairy farming practices to the public.
Bakerview is home to 45 free-run Holstein cows that produce over 45,000 litres of milk per month. But instead of being milked by farmers, the cows milk themselves whenever they feel like it. At least twice a day, they walk individually into a Swedish-made robotic milker that completes the process in five minutes. The cows can also groom themselves at any time with an automatic rotary brush nearby.
The EcoDairy’s barn is designed to provide year-round comfort for the cows, minimizing the incidence of injury, stress, or sickness that can affect milk production and quality. Eighteen hours of light per day simulates springtime. Soft rubber covers the floor of the barn, while open stalls with “PastureMat” flooring – each made from eight recycled tires – offer cows a secure place to rest or sleep at leisure.
Picked up every two days, Bakerview’s milk is processed and packaged by Avalon Dairy into products sold under the Vitala brand. What is different about VitalaMilk? The cows receive a specially-formulated diet of fishmeal, flaxseed, forage, grain, minerals, and vitamins that produces milk richer in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), vitamin D, and selenium for improved health benefits without the addition of synthetic supplements. Chickens receiving a similarly-enhanced diet, produce free run Omega-3 VitalaEggs.
In addition to milk, the cows are a source of energy. Manure gathered by a mechanical floor scraper is mixed with rainwater collected from the farm’s Learning Centre roof. The mixture is fed into an anaerobic digester that produces fertilizer, fibrous livestock bedding, and biogas. The biogas generates 15 kWh of electricity and hot water. To reduce energy use, a computer-controlled ventilation system in the barn manipulates chimney exhaust louvres and side-wall fresh air inlets to help naturally control the barn’s temperature. Heat from the cows not only creates air movement, it warms the barn in colder weather.
Bakerview EcoDairy’s facilities are designed to reconnect the public with where their food comes from and to educate people – especially school children – about sustainable farming, veterinary management, and nutrition. A guided tour explains sustainable farming practices through displays, an animated short presentation, and seeing the cows in action, first-hand. Family-oriented facilities include an animal exhibit with goats on the roof and a park with trails, benches, and picnic tables. Nutrifoods Market sells local food products, including dairy products directly traceable to the Vitala cows.
Last year, the Investment Agriculture Foundation of B.C. awarded Bill Vanderkooi the 2011 Award of Excellence for Innovation in Agriculture and Agri-Food.
1356 Sumas Way, Abbotsford