Around the Nation
A column by Tom Van Dusen
RENFREW — There are those who might dismiss Renfrew County dairy farmer Don Russell as a little bit whacky, quirky, a zealot who can become obsessed with a cause.
And that’s pretty much fair to say… but in a good way! I mean, a guy who devotes himself to a big dream for 20 years, who can’t be dissuaded no matter how many setbacks he encounters, no matter how much it costs him… that guy is definitely obsessed!
I first met Don and his loving leveller, wife Joanne, more than a decade ago when, as a team, they were picked as Ontario’s Outstanding Young Farmers and then went on to be named Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers for that year.
Those are very prestigious awards that they don’t just hand to anybody. I know… I’ve been on the judging panel. At the time, I was manager of the Ottawa Valley Farm Show and welcomed the Russells as our guests; later, I said a few words at the Young Farmers’ annual gathering at an Ottawa hotel.
You could see it in Don’s eyes then, hear it in his voice. He was a man on a mission to make a difference in the provincial and national dairy industry, not through politics, not through militancy… through innovation.
The jury will be out for a while but, Ladies and Gentlemen, Russell may have done it! Like the mythical man who sets out to build a better mouse trap, he may have created a better dairy barn, his goal these many years.
He believes in his design to the extent he patented it both in Canada and the United States. Now he’s offering consultation services on applying the concept to farmers with a serious interest prepared to pay for his services, an attempt to recoup some of his expenses over two decades.
After frustrating trial and error, Russell claims he’s built a better barn from several vantage points: Lowest capital and variable costs; best cow welfare; and lowest environmental footprint: “You have your free-stall, tie-stall and pack barns… now you have the patented Pasture Barn to choose from.”
There won’t be a traditional open house at Russell’s Cobden farm. The inner workings of the Pasture Barn are being kept under wraps.
For $300, a serious client will get to observe the facility and herd behaviour, and will be fully apprised of research and design details; the client will receive BactoScan counts, Somatic Cell Count, and milk production records. When a design sale is made, the initial fee will go against the charge for layout and operating procedures.
The difference with the Pasture Barn is all on the inside, Russell emphasizes; any exterior shell will do.
“The pasture barn gives cows the benefits of a soft, yielding surface like pasture… but by bringing it inside, we can create and control a safer environment for year-round comfort.”
Russell calls his barn “sustainable” because it`s easier on the environment by using much less steel, rubber and cement to construct. His own barn houses 40 milkers but the design can be expanded to accommodate any size herd. He’s on pipeline milking but the Pasture Barn will work with a parlour or robot. Russell estimates potential savings over conventional on a 100-cow barn at $120,000.
Parents to four daughters, Don and Joanne started out on their own farm in 1995, moving their cows three years later to their new place in Renfrew County; a short time later, he obtained a hoof trimming certificate in Wisconsin.
“I had the opportunity to visit hundreds of barns and observe thousands of cows. In 2000, I wanted to build a new barn but I didn’t want any of the tie, free-stall or pack designs. There had to be something better.”
He discovered there wasn’t. So Russell decided to create his own design: “I thought how can I combine all the pros of the various types of barn while limiting the cons associated with each?” After many false starts… Voila! The pasture Barn was born!
Once he had perfected his concept and put it in place at least experimentally, the focus became collecting data on milk production in the prototype barn, longevity of cows, and such details as healing swollen hocks and observing how injuries cleared up on cows transferring from tie-stall.
A milestone moment came when, after four months in the new Pasture Barn, Russell saw that swelling had vanished and hair had grown back on hocks. He decided then and there that his goal had been achieved, that he had discovered a more efficient, humane way to keep dairy cows.