'It's a lifelong dream': Bonshaw family wins top award for dairy farmers in Canada

It's like winning the Academy Award for dairy farmers in Canada — being named a Master Breeder by Holstein Canada. And a P.E.I. family has now entered the club.

MacTalla Farms one of only 19 on P.E.I. to earn Master Breeder title since 1929

The MacQuarries and their dogs enjoy the light and fresh air of the new barn, which they believe helped them win the award Master Breeder award. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

It's like winning the Academy Award for dairy farmers in Canada — being named a Master Breeder by Holstein Canada. 

And a P.E.I. family has now entered the club.

"It's pretty awesome, it's a chance in a lifetime to get for a dairy farmer, we're pretty excited," said Allan MacQuarrie, who has operated MacTalla Farms in Bonshaw with his wife Coleen since 1981.

Holstein Canada has been giving out the Master Breeder award since 1929, and there have been only 19 winners from the Island.

This year, the MacQuarries are the only winners in the Maritimes. They'll be among 20 winners from across Canada honoured at the Holstein Master Breeder banquet in Quebec City, on April 14.

A representative from Holstein Canada scores the cows from poor to excellent. This cow, named Kerry, was rated excellent. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Ann Louise Carson, CEO of Holstein Canada, said it's the most prestigious award, "bar none," in the Canada's dairy industry.

You get screams and tears and sometimes dead silence and you're afraid the person has fainted.— Ann Louise Carson

"It's my favourite day of the year because I can't wait to make those calls, you get screams and tears and sometimes dead silence and you're afraid the person has fainted," she said.

Dairy farms are ranked, based on their size, into seven categories, with two or three making the final list.

"It's a very rigorous system, you have to accumulate points continuously over the years both in production, so how much milk your animals give and confirmation of your animal, how they look," Carson said.

"Because it's accumulating points over the years, you have to stay good every year because if you have a bad year then you slip behind."

One of the cows at MacTalla Farm enjoys a scrub from an automated brushing machine. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

The MacQuarries knew they were close in 2017, after a couple of years in the top 10, out of 750 Holstein breeders in their group.

"Ten years ago, we were about 150th and last year we were in the top 10," he said.

 "They don't tell you what place you're in, just top 10."

New barn for cows

Just over a year ago, the MacQuarries built a new barn for their cows, something they believe contributed to the win. 

"They have good air, they have good light, we can keep feed in front of them all the time," said Coleen MacQuarrie. 

"I think if you look around, I think my cows are pretty comfortable looking."

Son Jeff agrees. 

"A happy cow goes a long way to making more milk," he said. "When they're comfortable, they're going to look better too."

Coleen, Allan (middle) and Jeff MacQuarrie say they are excited, proud and still a bit shocked by the news that they have earned the distinction of Master Breeders. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

It was Coleen who received the call from Holstein Canada.

"It's a lifelong dream and we're still in shock," she said.

"I told them I could die a happy girl now, 'Oh no, don't die,' they said, 'you want to come to Quebec.'"

Off to Quebec City

The entire MacQuarrie family hopes to go to Quebec City to accept the award, but that means finding someone to take care of the cows.

"It's not like a little store that you could shut it down and turn the cows off for a week so it's going to be a big thing for us to get away," Coleen said.

The MacQuarries built this new barn about a year and a half ago and it allows the cows easier access to their feed, meaning more comfortable cows. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

The MacQuarries will bring home a special shield to display at the farm and will get to call themselves Master Breeders.

"Every time we advertise an animal or advertise the farm in any way, this little plaque will be down in the corner so it's quite a big thing," Coleen said.

"We're pretty happy over this."

The stalls have padded floors for the cows to rest in comfort. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

The MacQuarries now start over earning points toward another shield, but under the rules, they can't win again for 14 years.

"Chances are it's a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing," said Jeff, who is thrilled to share the honour with his parents.

"It means the world, I was hoping we would win it now rather than later."