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Jennifer and Geoff Bishop were wandering through the vast displays of Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show in the fall of 2010  when they spotted a soybean extruder. “When I first saw the machine, I had a few questions: How many tonnes a day can it do? How much oil does that extract? What is oil selling for?” recalls Geoff.

“Right away, I could do the math and say to myself, ‘This will pay for itself with this amount of tonnes per year.’ Then you just figure out quick in your head how much protein you feed per head per day. So within 10 minutes I could tell if it was going to work or not on our operation.”
Geoff Bishop is not a math genius able to do a complete cost analysis in his head. In fact, the Nova Scotia dairy farmer would later spend the better part of three days working through those numbers to see whether crushing soybeans on his farm, feeding the meal to his 160-cow Holstein herd, and selling the soy oil truly made sense. After all, there were a host of factors to consider, including the capital costs ($40,000 for the extruder and another $35,000 for associated equipment and hookup), maintenance, operating costs, and selling excess production. It was only once those calculations were made and double-checked that Geoff look at the protein component in his existing rations and precisely compare prices.

Still, it was worth the effort. The Bishops’ goal of building a superior herd is closely linked to implementing a superior feeding regime, and Geoff is the kind of guy who knows his cost-of-production numbers.

“On any given day, I can tell you to a ‘T’ what it costs us to make a litre of milk,” he says. “I purchase feed in advance so I can tell you today – practically to within pennies – the cost of our purchased feed for the next six to 10 months.”

As he’s telling the soybean extruder story, Geoff ventures the opinion that the quick mental calculation he did at the farm show is something “everyone does.”

“No, I don’t think so,” interjects Jennifer. “I think it’s an acquired skill. It’s like anything else. The more you do it and the more you use that skill, the easier it becomes for you. That’s my opinion, but I’m a school teacher and that’s how I look at things.”

At first glance, this may not seem like a big deal, but knowing their numbers inside and out is key to pulling off what is, by any definition, an ambitious business plan for Bishop Farms Ltd.

Geoff, 38, is the third generation to operate the family farm in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, which has undergone dramatic changes in its 42-year history. His grandfather emigrated from England in 1969 to start a new life and began with just one dairy cow. Geoff’s dad Andy built the herd up to 75 Holsteins, although the herd wasn’t registered  – a goal Geoff embraced as a teen after he worked for a Holstein breeder.

Jennifer, 36, who grew up on a farm in PEI, met Geoff at college. Both travelled extensively – Geoff worked in New Zealand and England and Jennifer taught school in Australia – before marrying and settling at the Bishop family farm. Since then, the pace of change has intensified.

Along with registering the herd, improving genetics and obtaining quota (some is rented) for the expanded herd, the couple has twice changed their feeding system and designed and built a new barn and milking parlour that can accommodate 200 head. Like the soybean extruder, but on a grander scale, the barn epitomizes the couple’s management approach.

It started with meticulous research, with Geoff going to conferences and then making quick sidetrips to scout out nearby barns. They looked at a host of options, swapping various elements in each before settling on a highly energy-efficient design (a fabric structure with natural lighting and geo-thermally heated floors). They bought an  excavator, did much of the construction themselves (the couple also has three fulltime employees), and now rent out the excavator.

“We have a lot of debt,” says Geoff. “So we need to know our costs, and we’re always looking for innovative ideas to make us more efficient. I don’t mind spending money if I can see a benefit or a payback.”

You have to have precise numbers and be able to run various scenarios to really figure out the economics of a new barn, buying an excavator or soybean extruder, or installing, as they did last year, a new computerized milking system.  That’s why robotic milkers were considered, but rejected as a poor financial fit.

“But we are looking at one of these automatic feed pushers for the barn,” says Geoff. “You know, those robots that push feed up alleyways 24 hours a day. These things cost $25,000. But studies have shown that pushing feed eight to 10 times per day increases dry-matter intake per cow per day and that translates into one or two more litres of milk per cow per day.”

Despite his fascination with numbers, Geoff laughs when it’s suggested he is channeling his inner accountant.

“Oh no, I couldn’t do bookwork for a living,” he says. “I’d rather be outside. Doing bookwork and data entry is not my thing. But I do like to cost things.”

Does he ever, chips in Jennifer.

“When he eats breakfast and lunch, he has his laptop there on the table – every day,” she says. “That’s what he does. So it’s not like he’s sitting down and taking a lot of time away from work and the cows. It’s in his spare time, but that’s what he enjoys doing in his spare time.”

Actually, spare time is an endangered species at Bishop Farms. In addition to their busy work lives, the couple has four children, aged three to 10, and both are active volunteers.

Jennifer does the books, but they rely on their accountant to craft the financial foundation of their business plan.

“He provides us with a five-year plan,” she notes. “It says if you remain the same, here’s where you’ll be; if you change these things, this is what it could look like; and here’s why it’s not recommended you go this way. So we’re able to look at the big picture but also different scenarios.”

This has also encouraged the couple to constantly think about how to improve the numbers within those scenarios. The soybean extruder and renting out the excavator are examples of trying to reduce costs while creating additional revenue sources.  That thinking has also prompted Geoff to buy a self-propelled forage harvester and then start doing custom work, and to design equipment, such as a liquid manure tanker, that he has sold to other farmers. Naturally, each decision resulted in the laptop being given a serious workout.

“On our farm, the numbers are crunched over and over and over again,” says Jennifer.

Ultimately, the Bishops hope to become master breeders – the ambitious goal Geoff first envisioned as a teen. The best possible barn and feeding system is part of that, as is anything that strengthens the farm’s financial picture.

“It’s funny how it works,” he says. “When you set a goal and then achieve it, it becomes easier to achieve the next one.”