Ashley Brown: From Cosmetics to Robotic Dairy Barns to Charcuterie Beef
People passing Browndale Farms, off Pinehurst and West Dumfries Roads near Paris, invariably notice a large, visually-alluring free-stall barn that dominates the landscape.
Built in 2019, this structure harbours the Brown family’s 85-cow milking Holsteins, plus breeding stock and beef cattle – which are milked, fed, have their manure removed, and monitored for comfort through robots.
It is one of Ontario’s 301 free-stall robotic barns, according to 2020 Agriculture Canada statistics.
Fourth-generation dairy farmer Ashley Brown, the family’s primary researcher for creating a sustainable robotic barn, happily shares how the system boosted milk productivity, reduced the need for physical labour, mitigated risks and enabled them to diversify while continuing Browndale’s 90-year legacy.
Curiously, Brown admitted that she never even milked a cow until she was 30 years old.
That’s because Brown grew up several kilometres south in Paris, in a home which her parents, Doug and Leslie, still reside. While she remembers playing on the farm and rejoicing in her farm roots, she never participated in the work. Instead, she moved away, married, and established a successful permanent cosmetic business, which is currently in its twentieth year.
But in 2013, an unexpected resignation by a family who worked at Browndale created a labour crisis for Doug. Previously, he expanded his parents’ farmstead to 130 acres. The original herd of approximately 20 cows, begun in 1948, evolved into 90-milking cows, along with some award-winning breeding stock. Brown said that Doug won two Master Breeder Shields and sells semen across Canada and internationally.
“They’re all great gains which I can’t take credit for,” said Brown.
Concerned about her father’s predicament and the farm’s future, Brown and her husband, Steve, who were then living in the United States, returned. They intended to help out as a “temporary move” until he found reliable replacements. The couple stayed.
Ashley discovered that she enjoyed working with cows. Steve’s talent for things mechanical allowed Doug to focus on his semen business. The family became a team caring for an approximately 90-cow milking cow herd and the crops.
The new lifestyle created one drawback for Brown, who continued her cosmetics business, which paid her living expenses. Ashley rose at 4 am to milk before meeting her clients, only have to rush back to the barn for the afternoon milking.
Concurrently, the operation outgrew the existing barn, thus needing to expand it or build another one.
After crunching numbers, family chose the new barn option, along with labour-saving robotics.
“My father is aging. I’m in my late 30s and I’m already thinking about my knees.”
Once built, the Browns patiently introduced “the girls” to their new routine.
Cows wanting to be milked queue up to one of two milking units. They are incentivized with a little pellet--treat that comes in after entering. Brown said that they can get milked up to six times a day.
The cows enjoy this routine so much that some sneak in when they don’t need milking. Brown said that one cow tried to get milked 17 times.
The barn’s 44,200 square feet segregates its residents into sections for lactating, dry cows, heifers, and calves. They eat, sleep, and wander about freely. A little feed pusher travels the main aisle every two hours, quietly pushing feed back within the animals’ reach to ensure adequate feeding.
Such efficiencies make it easier to find help than they could with the old barn. Several students pitch in part time, enabling the family to focus on other tasks – and sleep in.
“With the robotics we no longer have to get up at 4 am. Now we rise at 7:30, there is more flexibility,” said Ashley. “This was wonderful compared to our first six years. I appreciated the work in the tie stalls, but I didn’t want to choose between a 20-year career and that.”
Both herd nutrition and health improved, as the robotics targets different feeds to specific bovines in designated areas of the barn. Mastitis, antibiotic use declined, said Brown.
Better yet, the changes boosted the cows’ lactation: Browndale now meets their milk quota with less cows. “In the old barn, we had 90 milking cows and approximately 4,000 litres of milk every two days. Today we have 85 cows and an additional 1,000 litres for shipment – with ten less cows.”
“The system pays for itself and we get an improved quality of life. Its downside is that the computer wakes us in the middle of the night if a robotic scraper stops or calving problem happens,” said Brown.”
Then the pandemic hit. The resulting closures shut down Brown’s cosmetics business for nine months. To compensate, they sold freezer beef directly to area stores and then opened their own store within the barn. “We thought of doing the store eventually, and had a full freezer, therefore we decided to help out the community and it grew from there.”
The store sells value-added items under the Browndale name. They expanded with pepperettes –their best seller -- charcuterie beef items, local cheese, jams and condiments. Their social media advertises monthly beef boxes and happenings in the barn.
The family arranges visits for families, community groups, children’s birthday parties and sometimes permit customers in the store to meet the cows.
“It was part of our choice for a barn as there is less knowledge of agriculture by the public. We created a space for community connection so that people can physically walk in and see and touch the cows. They see our animals are happy, healthy and well cared for.”
Browndale Farms began working with other agrarian outlets to prepare occasional meal boxes, donating some of the profits to area charities. The store also hosted at least one Makers’ Market for local artisans.
“It’s a great community event – a great day of shopping and visiting with the cows -- you can’t get more country market than that!”