Chilliwack dairy farmer Devan Toop was 21 when he took the reins of the family business, Toop Farms in Greendale.
For some that may seem a little young, but he’d already been helping out around the farm since he was about six.
“Even at a young age, I’d feed calves or shovel poop with a pitchfork. That was just a part of life.”
It took him some time to come around completely to the idea, but today he’s proud to be the sixth generation to farm the land his family has owned for more than 140 years.
Back when he was 17, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, as the only son of his family.
As a teen, you don’t necessarily like to think your life is predestined.
He worked retail jobs when he was in Manitoba at school, and even spent a summer out in Winnipeg doing landscaping. Two years into his business degree, still unsure of what the future held for him, he came back to the farm during spring break.
Once he was back on the farm, it became clear.
“It all just clicked. You don’t really appreciate working with family until you get out and do something else, which I did.”
He returned to university and discovered he could incorporate his previous studies with the faculty of agriculture, and in 2005 graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Agri-Business Management.
The next step was rebuilding the farm. To account for the future family that would need to be supported by their dairy, Richard, Allan and Devan created a plan to expand Toop Farms and grow the herd significantly. They went ahead purchased more quota and updated their facilities; building a new main barn with larger stalls, easier access to feed and better ventilation for the cows, a new parlor to milk the cows faster in a cleaner, quieter environment, and renovating heifer and calf barns, calving pens and creating a separate maternity area and hospital pen for better management of their herd.
His management style these days?
“I aim to create an environment where everyone enjoys being here — especially the cows.”
Devan, 31, works with his dad, Richard, 58, and grandfather, Allan, 83, for Toop Farms.
Grandpa works with the young stock, while dad takes care of the feeding the milking herd and field work.
Devan is the herd manager, and in charge of human resources. If he isn’t called to aid in the delivery of calves in the morning, his day usually begins with helping with the end of the morning milking before looking after the hospital cows. After the milking is finished, cows that have come into heat are gathered and artificially inseminated by either Devan or their main farmhand Ron. After that, there is young stock, dry cows and the maternity cows to feed. The afternoon usually involves feeding calves, cleaning bunkers and getting feed ready for the next day.
“A healthy cow is happy cow,” Toop says simply. “The better the shape they’re in, the better it is. It sounds simple but it is a lot of work.”
The fertile Fraser Valley has been good to them.
This is true despite the fact that it is an exceedingly hard time to be a dairy farmer right now.
Dairy abuse allegations at one the largest dairy farms in Canada have rocked the very foundations of the tightly-knit community. Everyone is holding their breath awaiting Crown counsel’s decision about forthcoming cruelty charges.
Before the animal welfare group Mercy for Animals Canada released the video earlier this month, with scenes of horrific abuse against dairy cows, the industry, through groups like the B.C. Dairy Association, had been working steadfastly toward updating practices and strengthening the regulations.
“I want the world to know that the overwhelming majority of dairy farmers were very disappointed by what happened.
“We have a conscience. We care about what we do.”
When he, and the rest of the farming community, watched the story break, and go viral in terms of its reach, many grew enraged.
What he saw on the video was completely inexcusable and certainly not the norm.
As usual, everyone has an opinion.
“The loudest voice however, doesn’t always have the most correct information,” he says judiciously.
It’s been a supremely emotionally charged debate.
“I hope that we can ultimately grow from this, with some improvements coming forth.”
The industry has to withstand and move on from the many critics tarring all operations with one brush.
“I’m not setting us up to be the gold standard. There are a lot of great dairy farms and great farmers. We need to get a message out about our industry. We want people to know we are hard-working members of the community and we take our jobs very seriously.”
Every day they employ high standards of care with their animals, and don’t tolerate abuse.
“Take hock lesions for example. There’s been some suggestion that the infected, open sores seen on the video are normal with dairy cows. They’re not. We work hard to prevent them by properly bedding the stalls, and if necessary moving those cows to packs so their condition can improve”
They have fairly large sized dairy herd at Toop Farms in Chilliwack on Yale Road West and other sites. They are milking about 270 cows (double the province average of 135) twice a day, once at 2 a.m. and then again at 2 p.m. There are about 570 head in total, including dry stock and calves on the 200 acres or so of land the family owns.
But the whole debate about animal welfare is not easily tied to the size of the operation.
“There are farms much larger than mine are run fantastically well, while in contrast there are much smaller ones that are not.”
The most important factor, like almost every business, is the employees.
“In the end it’s the people that make or break who we are, and we hold ourselves to a very high standard.”
Their family farm is not a “factory farm” operation. But that may be a distinction some have trouble making.
Devan has always been welcome to opening his farm to anyone who would like a tour. They raise their young stock, grow grass and corn that they feed their cows, and have pasture up the road from the main farm where they keep pregnant cows over the summer.
“These are animals I have personally raised and I have a connection with them. I want all my cows to be happy.”
He knows that very loud noises can spook a 1,600-lb cow.
“I’m very calm when I walk into my barn and when I am handling my cows, but not all people have the patience and control to work at a dairy farm. I have fired employees in the past who were loud and abusive to my cows. I don’t tolerate it.”
It’s care and attention to the details. That means sticking to the very high standards of the Canadian Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle. Many in the industry are working with BC SPCA to get it into law.
“We as dairy farmers already have the Quality Milk Program, and if they were to incorporate any animal welfare standards into it, or if they were law, I have no problem with that. I have nothing to hide. There is no down side to being good to your animals,” he says.
Chilliwack was developed on the strength of agriculture, and he is fully aware and cognizant of the history.
“Some days are long, some days are dirty, some days are blood, sweat and tears, but I couldn’t imagine not wanting to go to work every day.
“I feel very fortunate to do what I do and I never take it for granted.”