John Van De Riet

(Nick Pearce photo)

JOHN VAN DE RIET (Class of ’80) operates Sunni Knoll Farms in Shubenacadie, N.S., with his wife, Angela, son, Joey, and daughter-in-law, Sarah. He installed two robotic DeLaval VMS milkers last year and embraces other technologies to help run things at his dairy farm.

6 A.M.
I’m in the barn checking on the cows. It took a few weeks for them to adjust to robotic milking; now, they mostly take themselves and line up when they want to be milked at any time, day or night. This morning, my iPhone app tells me four cows (out of 120) weren’t milked in the last 12 hours (all have a microchip in their outer ear). They’re overdue and need an escort.

7 A.M.
Morning chores include hosing down the milkers and pushing feed to where the cows can reach it. I step around the automatic manure scraper, and enjoy seeing that a cow who gave birth last evening is content and healthy.

8 A.M.
Time for breakfast with Angela, then a team meeting with Joey and Sarah, who work and live here with their three kids—my grandkids are the fourth generation of van de Riets at Sunni Knoll Farms—plus our two staff.

9:30 A.M.
The tanker arrives to retrieve our milk. Our cows produce 8,600 litres every other day.

10 A.M.
I do minor repairs around the farm, while Joey harvests our grass for feed. Joey is the crops guy, Sarah’s great with the animals and I’m more mechanic. I take a quick run into town to pick up a patched flat tire.

12 P.M.
I take a 30-minute nap after lunch then enjoy a game of cribbage with Angela (above), who’s also a Dal Agriculture grad. I walk through her beautiful flower gardens on my way back to the barn.

2 P.M. I’m in the office updating my books (dairy farms are audited every two years) and talking online with other farmers who have robotic milkers. I’m also continually learning about things like cropping practices that reduce emissions and carbon, animal nutrition, soil health, and maximizing yields. (Sunni Knoll Farm wins awards for maximizing crop yields.)

5 P.M.
I break for supper then ride my bike to the village for some cardio. In winter, I ski and curl for extra exercise. Sarah and Joey will be doing the 9 p.m. barn check so I can relax and read the news before bed. Automation has brought structure to my work life. After farming mostly manually for 40 years, the fact I can now mostly walk away from work at 5 p.m. is life changing.


John and Maddie Isenor (Class of ’91) prepare bedding for new calves.

Further reading: Sunni Knoll Farms