Dairy farmer Mickey Aylard is helping chart a new, sustainable course for the industry’s future in B.C. while evolving how they produce local food on her family’s North Saanich farm.
Aylard and her husband Angus are gradually taking over the operation of Brackenhurst Dairy Farm from her father. She’s the fourth generation on the farm, started by her great-grandfather in 1930. They recently had their first child – perhaps the first of the next generation to farm the 300 acres.
With new milking robots in barns almost 100 years old, the farm blends history with modern technology.
“We’re still using barns that were structured here when he (her great-grandfather) moved to the farm,” Aylard says. “That family heritage is pretty big for us. My family’s been farming for four generations, and I would love for the family to continue farming here for another four generations. We can’t do that if we don’t take care of the land and the animals.”
A key to their approach is a dual focus on sustainability and good animal care – using modern technology and understanding to care for animals and steward the land while providing local food for the community. The raw milk from their herd of 100 milking cows is picked up by a milk truck every couple of days, pooled with other milk and processed by Island Farms into everything from fluid milk to butter, ice cream, and yogurt.
The animals are the core of the farm, and their care is the top priority.
“The animals come first, they get fed and cared for before we even have our breakfast. They are the priority, our whole life, our home,” Aylard says.
On Brackenhurst Farm cows have free, open access to pasture whenever the weather’s good, and they use modern, automated milking robots so the cows can come into the barn and get milked on their own schedule. The farmers rotate access to pasture, moving the cows to a new plot of grass every 12 – 24 hours and then giving the used plot three or four weeks to recover and absorb nutrients from manure. That helps keep the land healthy and rejuvenated.
Allowing the cows to use outside pasture is only possible because they have suitable, healthy land. They grow their own corn and grass to feed the cows during the winter, when pasture isn’t available, which requires many acres of productive farmland.
“The majority of what our cows are eating is produced on the farm. They have a very local diet,” Aylard says. “Something that I am looking at a lot is preserving this land so we can continue farming for another 90 years.”
They have dug ditches where they capture the plentiful rainfall they receive, directing it to a pond and away from small farms and residential properties down the hill from them. That helps prevent flooding and reduces erosion from rainwater while also providing water they use for irrigation, reducing groundwater usage.
Every winter they plant a cover crop of rye grass or barley to hold nutrients and further prevent erosion, mixing the crop back into the soil in the spring to keep those nutrients intact before planting new pasture crops.
“For us, it is all about practicing sustainable agriculture,” she says. Such practices are consistent with the BC Government’s new Regenerative Agriculture and Agritech Network, which is helping farmers adopt technology that increases profitability and environmental sustainability while strengthening local food systems.
Aylard and her husband have plans for adding new features enhancing the farm’s environmental sustainability in the future. They hope to install solar panels on their barn roofs to power the farm, and are looking at planting about five acres of Empress trees – fast-growing trees that absorb and sequester carbon dioxide at 10 times the rate of other deciduous varieties, while also providing wildlife habitat. They take only 15 – 20 years to grow to maturity, and their blooms attract bees in the spring, which will help support pollinator populations.
“We won’t have any food if we don’t have any bees,” Aylard says. “There are a lot of really cool sustainable practices I would love to do, but it takes time to fulfill them all.”
Charting a sustainable path forward for her own farm is one thing. To contribute to the future of BC’s larger dairy industry Mickey put her name forward and was elected by other dairy farmers to the BC Dairy Association board of directors in 2019 – the provincial association all dairy farmers belong to.
“The association is all about doing the right thing for producers, trying to look five or 10 years ahead,” she says. “If the decisions the Board is making are going to impact the industry into the future I want to be part of that.”