Money & Career

Amy Darroch on her life as a dairy farmer

Career advice: The 27-year-old is one of Ontario’s few female organic dairy farmers, single-handedly managing 40 cows and 100 acres.

female dairy farmer, organic

Amy’s more comfortable in a pickup than she is putting on makeup

dairy farmer, female

Amy with one of her favourite cows, Helena

What made you become a dairy farmer?
I grew up around cattle, following my dad [who is a farmer] until I was old enough to help with the chores. I started out feeding the baby calves by bottle, and from then on I was hooked. Even when my sisters and I played Barbie, I always handled the ranch sector.

What characteristics does it take to work in your industry?
You need a great deal of kindness, because animals don’t respond well to harsh personalities. Cows sense if you have a short fuse. We communicate through touch, so you’ve got to be calm.

Apparently, cows produce more milk when Beethoven plays in the barn. How do you keep your team motivated?
Cows are a product of their environment, so I always think about their comfort and play music. I like country and rock. Pearl Jam is my favourite; Eddie Vedder’s voice is soothing.

Is it always that easy?
There are moments when I need to be incredibly strong. Today, I was about to take my break when one cow had her first calf out in the field. I had to carry her into the barn, because cows are clumsy and can fall on their newborns. Calves can weigh up to 110 pounds, but my adrenaline kicks in to keep them safe. This lifestyle throws different challenges at me every day, and with each one comes a sense of accomplishment.

Do cows have different personalities?
Farming is so entertaining because of all the different characters in a herd. There are “boss cows” that are a little mean. Some drive you nuts by swatting you with their tails. Others are ridiculously friendly and like to lick you. The “divas” are proper girls who don’t like walking through the mud. Some love being filthy dirty. The “show cows” know they’re beautiful and
like to flaunt it.

Who’s your favourite?
It’s hard to choose. Sparkle doesn’t have the nicest temperament, but she loves performing in shows. Siesta is a huge diva. She carries herself like a princess. I have a fondness for Helena, because she comes from the oldest family in our herd — it goes right back to the first three cows my dad bought for his farm 25 years ago.

Great names — how do you pick them?
I think that if one of my cows wins a prize, she’d better have a memorable name. I try to stick to a particular genre with each family, making sure the names of the calves start with the same letter as their mother. So Sasparilla’s daughters are Shanty and Sangria. I’m on the fence right now with a few M names for the calf that Lady Marmalade just had.

Describe a typical day.
At 5:45 a.m., I make a pot of coffee and head out to the barn. I start by sweeping all the feed away, then I put down new grain for the cows — the first of their many feedings. They get a homemade blend of organic corn, grains, minerals and omega-3s. Then I start milking, which takes an hour and a half. After that, I feed the calves three to four litres of milk by bottle. Then I start the great wash-up. Everything I use to collect milk goes through three washing cycles for sterilization. Afterward, I feed the cows haylage [high-moisture fodder] and let them outside. Before I milk again in the afternoon, I run errands in town. My chores are finished by 7 p.m., so I unwind with supper. I give the barn a final check at 9:30 to make sure everyone is happy. If I know a cow is due to give birth, I set my alarm for 2 a.m. to check her.

What part of the day do you look forward to?
Getting the cows ready for bed. I put a big pile of haylage in front of them, but most of them aren’t interested in eating it right away. They lie down, stretch out and relax, sometimes using it as a pillow. They let out a little snort, and it’s just the cutest thing. The radio is softly humming and they’re all camped out. It’s like winning a prize at the end of each day.

How do you keep a healthy work-life balance?
I’m surrounded by people in similar industries, so if I’m busy, they’re all busy. The wisest thing my parents told me was to find time for myself. I’ll paint my nails, watch my favourite television show or cook a nice meal. If I want to go out, it just takes a little planning. Luckily, I’ve got  supportive parents and close friends who can care for my cows when I need a break. Last year, I went to Las Vegas with the girls. At home, I go out to bars, and I love dancing. On those nights, I’ll give the barn a final check in my heels. The cows do a double take when they see me all dressed up.

Was anyone ever skeptical of your decision to farm?
I remember discussing my future with my high-school guidance counsellor. He didn’t take me seriously. He tried to find other careers that he thought were more suited to the person he saw sitting in front of him.

You dropped out of high school — is that one of the reasons why?
I’ve always liked to think outside the box, and I’m pretty stubborn. All those factors combined in the second semester of Grade 11, and I left school. My parents were disappointed, and we fought a lot. But I never gave up on education; I just had to find a different route. Eventually, I went to Kemptville College at the University of Guelph. I finished toward the top of my class, because each course had the agriculture emphasis that I was looking for. I was so enthusiastic that the university created a new position for me as a recruiter.

Did you ever question your decision to quit school?
In the first few months, I went to bed thinking that maybe I should stop being so stubborn. But I knew deep down that I was doing the right thing. Growing up, I had terrible self-esteem. I was a little heavy-set, and I was teased. When I told people I loved cows, I was teased even more. So when that guidance counsellor questioned me, I felt teased all over again. It made me angry, which motivated me even more to pursue farming. In the right instance, anger can help you accomplish a lot.

What are your long-term goals?

To become a master breeder. The award is given to people who for years have bred certain pure Holstein cows with bulls, and the resulting daughters are structurally beautiful and produce a lot of milk. I also want to win Grand Champion Holstein Female at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, which, in my opinion, represents the best cow in the world.

What’s your stance on raw milk?
I believe in the pasteurization system. The milk in my tank is as good as gold to drink. But I don’t know if there’s a cow in my barn, or in any barn for that matter, that might produce something that could affect one kid with an allergy. To me, that’s too much of a risk.

What should consumers look for?
Whether it’s milk, cheese or yogurt, make sure it’s Canadian. Our standards are among the best in the world.

Do you lean toward a vegetarian life?
I eat everything, except cows. I feel like you either eat them or they’re your buddies.

Do you have any advice for someone looking to escape to the country?

Stop by my barn! I love to show people where their food comes from.