It began in the early 19th century with a few milking cows, a stool and a couple of milk buckets, when Benjamin Mayers bought a 500-acre plot of land from one Captain John Jordan, who owned the first land grant deed that was signed by one Benjamin Franklin. Down through the years the farm has been handed off from father to son, from father to daughter, from daughter to son and so on. For the last century, the name on the deed has been Canon (directly descended from Mayers), with the fourth Canon generation now making a go of it in the beautiful rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania.
Today on the Canon Dairy Farm, every cow has her own name (and a number too, of course), and a highly sophisticated, computerized collar that interacts with computers that are integrated with the Lely Astronaut robotic milking system and the farm’s computer center. Along with sensors in the milking stations that analyze the milk itself, detailed individual profiles on each cow are gathered throughout the day. Collecting more than 120 different data points, the system is an ingenious network of computers, laser-guided robotics and bluetooth enabled communications. A far cry from the days of hand milking, Mark and Marie Canon, with the help of their son, Trent, manage a herd of registered Holsteins numbering just over 100, who enjoy a life down on the farm completely designed around their comfort and health.
“Every cow is different,” says Marie, “and just when you think you’ve got them figured out and seen everything, these 1,500 pound toddlers will surprise you with some new kind of mischief.” The herd’s day begins at sunrise when Mark leads them out to pasture where they can graze, rest and ruminate at will. “They usually will spend three or four hours out there and then, when they are ready, come back into the barn on their own.”
It is then that, one after another (and at their own volition) the cows walk over to one of two Lely Astronaut A-4 robotic milking stalls that are positioned in the barn where they can still be with the other cows. Cows dislike obstacles, and the Astronaut’s design offers unhindered entrance, leading cows more easily to their milking turn. As a result, the number of times the cow is milked and the milk yield both increase. Each cow normally visits one of the robotic milking stations three or four times a day. Also, cows are social creatures: they are herd animals and they prefer to stay in the group. The open design of the robotic milking stations ensures that the cow and the rest of the herd are never out of sight of each other. This natural interaction prevents stress during milking, and all dairy farmers know that a stress-free cow is a productive cow. The Canons have misters, fans and even water beds to make sure their herd stays healthy. “If you don’t need to wear a jacket, the cows really aren’t that comfortable,” Mark says. “For winter weather, we’ve had the barns insulated so it never gets below freezing in there. The cows themselves are a big contributor to that too, because of their ruminating, the food they store ferments and that puts off a lot of heat.”
The Lely milking stations are a marvel of technology and clever robotics. Each time a cow enters, she steps through a disinfecting pool and then a gate closes behind her. As she stands and eats a special feed from a trough in front of her, custom-positioned soft rollers emerge and clean her teats with a hydrogen peroxide solution. Once finished, they retreat and another robotic arm with four laser-guided teat cups emerge and, using the data of that individual cow, sense the location of each teat and attach. Once all four are properly connected, the milking begins. It ends in about five or six minutes when the robotic sensors detect a decrease in milk flow from each quarter of the udder. Once she is finished, the teat cups disengage, her udder is sprayed with a special iodine formula, (this is where it uses the last seven milkings for teat coordinates) and the robotic arm retreats into the mainframe where it is cleaned. The front gate opens (which holds the feed trough) and the cow walks back into the main part of the barn to rest, eat, ruminate and socialize with the other cows.
Mark and Marie say that their average cow produces 10 gallons of milk a day, though they have seen some of their highly productive ones produce as much as 17 gallons. Each cow’s milk is monitored for temperature, milk fat, lactose and protein content at each milking. The Canons’ computer center is where they can analyze precise data on each cow or the entire herd from over 200 categories. “I don’t look at more than about 20 on a daily basis,” Mark says. “Lely is a Dutch firm (with U.S. headquarters in Pella, Iowa and branch offices throughout America) and the European customers have various other indicators that they use. I know what I need to know, and the 20 data charts I normally look at provide me with a lot of detailed information that helps me keep our cows comfortable, healthy and productive.”
The milk they produce is stored in a large (3,000 gallon capacity) sterile, stainless steel bulk tank at 38 degrees and is picked up every other day by the Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), which then sends it to a milk processing plant in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania that specializes in making mozzarella cheese. The DFA is a marketing cooperative and is purposed with ensuring quality control and sustainability in its work with America’s 17,000 dairy farmers. In addition to working alongside Mark to keep the farm running smoothly, Marie is also on the Board of Directors for the Pennsylvania Dairy Promotion Program, an affiliate of the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association, helping promote dairy products and dairy farming.
The Canons also grow the hay, corn and soybeans on their farm, which make up the feed for their herd. Working with a nutritionist at a local feed company (where the soybeans are processed into soy meal) George McQuiston does an analysis of the corn and hay to come up with the right balance of the three ingredients to produce the most nutritional feed ration for the cows. Adam Schettler, an Agronomist with Deerfield Ag Services, says that the Canon Dairy Farm is a very smooth running operation. “Our company helps by advising them on custom herbicide programs and crop analysis, and they do their own spraying. We also assist them in mid-season with specialized nitrogen side dressing. They do their own early season fertilizing using the cow manure that is produced by the herd.”
After studying agricultural science and business and graduating from Penn State University, Trent Canon, Mark and Marie’s son, now works for Deerfield, where he did an internship during the summer between his junior and senior years. He is involved in precision planting and also does herbicide application and spraying for many of Deerfield’s Western Pennsylvania customers. During planting and harvest times, Trent returns home to lend a helping hand.
“Life on the Canon Dairy Farm is anything but dull,” Marie notes. “With the computerized monitoring system in place, we are immediately alerted if anything goes wrong in the milking barn. For serious problems it is relentless — it can be in the middle of the night, and Mark’s cell phone rings with a specific alert, like one of the milking stations has had three failed milkings in a row. If Mark doesn’t answer and enter our code, the system then calls me, then Trent. And if the problem isn’t addressed, the computer calls again and again until the issue is corrected.”
The Canons have been valued Deerfield customers for two decades, “ever since they set up shop in New Wilmington,” according to Mark. “They’ve been great partners for us and give us just the right amount of help we need.” He also points out that, “After all, we gave them our first-born, so you know we think very highly of them.”