Pitter patter, back at 'er: Dairy farmer starts over after devastating fire

More than a year after losing most of his cattle in a fire, Ottawa dairy farmer Peter Ruiter is back in business.

Peter Ruiter lost 80 cows, 3 barns in fire last September

Peter Ruiter stands in his new barn. The Ottawa dairy farmer lost 80 cows when three of his old barns burned down in September 2017. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

More than a year after losing most of his cattle in a fire, Ottawa dairy farmer Peter Ruiter is back in business.

With a brand new barn and a few dozen new cows, Ruiter has begun milking and breeding his new herd.

"It's [got] a new car smell, except it's a new barn! Once we open the door, it's still a barn," he said.

On Sept. 8, 2017, a fire broke out at Ruiter's Blackrapids farm in Nepean, destroying three barns — one of them more than a century old — and killing 80 cattle. The fire's damage was estimated at over $1 million. 

"It felt like a funeral for my farm," Ruiter recalled.

After the blaze, Ruiter was faced with a choice: retire at the age of 50, or try to rebuild.

He chose the latter.

Dairy farming runs in Ruiter's family. His father ran the farm when Ruiter was young and now his son Mark helps out. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

'It's who I am'

"It's who I am. I've been a dairy farmer from the time I [had] my earliest thoughts," he said, noting his father was also in the business.

Part of his herd survived the fire, so he's restarting with those 10 cows and 42 more he was able to pick up from a neighbouring farm — although he said it may take time for him to get used to the new ones.

"I got to learn these cows' personalities," he said.

"I used to know the [old] cows' personalities. I used to know their mothers' personalities. I used to know their grandmothers' personalities."

Ruiter is now employing robots to do his milking for him as part of his rebuild. He says the technology could allow him to keep farming into his 70s and 80s. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

New setup for the better

Ruiter said it's taken time to get the cows — old and new — used to the new milking routine, in part because he's started using robots as part of the process.

But the cows aren't the only ones adjusting. Ruiter said his entire routine was changed after the fire.

"It changed all my habits, what I had done for my whole life," he said.

Ruiter said he thinks it's for the better that he's no longer milking cows by hand. After almost losing it all, he says his new setup could prolong his career as a dairy farmer.

"I won't be bending my knees near as much," Ruiter said. "I've been milking cows since I was 13 years old. Now I'm pretty sure I can do this until I'm 75, 80."