Respect is a Two-Way Street

What would you do if you noticed a local celebrity sharing a blog post that calls into question your integrity? Would you respond with anger? With outrage? Or would you take a minute to calm yourself and respond with kindness and respect?

Recently, a local news anchor shared a post from Mercy for Animals on Facebook. Mercy for Animals is an animal rights group. Like all of these types of groups, Mercy for Animals campaigns for the cessation of all animal agriculture. They do so by sharing opinions that are biased and slanted against animal agriculture, using wording like this: “As shocking as it may seem, sexual assault and stealing babies are common in modern animal agriculture”. They share horrific videos of animal abuse, claiming that abuse is common practice on farms. And they promote a vegan diet that eliminates all animal products.

This local news anchor is a celebrity in her own right. She’s been featured on local television for nearly 20 years and has gained many well-earned accolades for her work. She is a respected advocate for Down Syndrome and blogs about her life as a mom of three. In short, she’s an esteemed and popular voice in British Columbia. As such, she has a large following on social media.

So you can imagine that when she shared that she was having misgivings about consuming dairy products after reading a Mercy for Animals blog post that accused dairy farmers of abusive practices, I was dismayed. In fact, I was hurt, upset, appalled and, truth be told, angry. Not at her, but at these animal rights groups. These groups smear my honor, my integrity. I’m proud of my life as a dairy farmer. I’m proud of the stellar care we give to our cows – our “girls” – 365 days of the year. And I’m proud to provide my fellow citizens with a nutritious product that was produced ethically and responsibly. I know that there is nothing un-ethical or cruel about the way our cows are treated on our family farm.

Happily, there was a saving grace in this post:

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I read this post as a call for help, for assurance. I saw someone who desperately wanted to learn more about the food she served her family and consumed herself. I saw an opportunity. I could have responded with heated words and recriminations. And I saw some of those types of comments. But I calmed myself. This was not the time to be angry. This was the time to convince and reassure and support. It was a time to “err on the side of kindness”.

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And, as it turns out, it was the right thing to do. I soon received this message:

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This was huge. I was so excited. Success!
The next day, this appeared on her page:

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The hours I spent responding to comments and accusations on this post was time well spent! If I had responded with anger and outrage, the conversation would have unfolded much differently and I might have lost the opportunity to inform and influence both this celebrity and her followers.

Now, I’m not sharing this to toot my own horn. I’m using this as an example of respect being a two way street. To gain respect, we must give respect, regardless of whether or not we agree with the person we are interacting with. This definitely applies to our conversations surrounding our farms and our way of life.

Consumer perception of dairy farming but also of dairy farmers will be a driving force behind our successes or our failures in the time to come. Take the recent mayhem over Earl’s ill-advised decision to abandon the Alberta beef industry as an example. This uproar showed that consumers support those they respect and value, and they obviously hold the Alberta beef industry in high regard. Would they do the same for the dairy industry? Time will tell as we begin to see more foreign dairy imports due to the recent trade deals.

In the meantime, as dairy farmers we would do well to remember that the general public has little to no knowledge of dairy farming. Perhaps they even have misgivings or misconceptions about our farms. It’s not. their. fault. The average Canadian is at least two generations removed from agriculture. What little they do know about dairy farming comes from information that they glean either via word of mouth or the internet and social media. Groups that oppose animal agriculture and the dairy industry take advantage of this gulf of ignorance, using it to promote their vision of a farm-animal-free “utopia” by using lies and half-truths to propagate fears and concerns about our industries.

Knowing this should influence how we interact with those who have genuine questions and concerns about the dairy industry. Do not interpret questions as accusations or concern as acrimony. Instead, use these apprehensions as opportunities to share your passion for your cows and your farms. Do not be afraid to allow your enthusiasm for your way of life to show clearly in these interactions. Your love for your animals and your land will drive consumer confidence and support, guaranteed. I’m not suggesting that you allow yourself to be subject to bullying or threats. If those types of comments are directed your way, move on and definitely do not stoop to that level. Hold yourself to a higher standard and you’ll advance your status and your credibility in the eyes of those who may be following the conversation from the sidelines.

Going forward, let this example that I’ve shared drive your motivation to interact with concerned consumers with kindness and respect. There’s enough hateful and horrid material coming from the animal rights’ camps. Countering that animosity and hostility with kind and polite interactions will help to gain respect and will also lend credence to your claims of proper and ethical animal care. In my opinion, that little golden rule exactly fits these situations: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Don’t you agree?

 

Milk Myths Debunked – Part 3: Dairy is Scary – or Not?

Over the past few months, a new video about the dairy industry has been floating around the internet. Titled “Dairy is F*ing Scary”, it purports to show that dairy farming is cruel and inhumane. Erin Janus glibly rattles off dozens of myths about and misrepresentations of the dairy industry, while horrific images flash over the screen. I’ve watched the video numerous times, all the while shaking my head at the blatant lies gleefully rattling off this woman’s tongue. At the request of one of my blog readers, I’d like to try to address the claims Ms. Janus makes.

 

  • Cows only lactate when they are pregnant or have given birth, so the dairy industry impregnates or inseminates dairy cows starting at the age of 12 months, over and over and over again so they keep making milk. Ms. Janus is right in that cows produce milk after giving birth, just like all mammals. When a heifer (female bovine that has not yet had her first calf) reaches sexual maturity (begins to ovulate) at around 6 months of age, she is not bred until she can safely carry a calf to term, typically at 15 months (not 12 months as Ms. Janus states). She is bred either by a bull or via artificial insemination. After giving birth nine months later at two years of age, she begins to produce milk to feed her calf. Dairy cattle have been selectively bred to produce greater quantities of milk than their beef-type cousins and often produce more milk than a calf can drink. On most dairy farms, calves are fed their mothers’ milk, and the excess is then shipped to the processor for human consumption. After this, cows are inseminated or bred once a year, but only if their health allows. This mimics the natural cycle of a cow giving birth once a year. In the wild, a cow is bred as soon as she comes into heat after giving birth to a calf, regardless of her health or her ability to carry a calf to term. On a dairy farm, only cows in good health are bred, and only after a few months have passed after she has given birth. If the cow is judged to be unfit for breeding, the farmer will wait until the cow is healthier and/or stronger and then breed her, typically at the advice of a veterinarian. A cow is milked until up to about two months before she is due to give birth again, then she goes on a sort of ‘maternity leave’, a time in which she is not milked, but spends her time eating, sleeping, and relaxing.

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  • Artificial Insemination: On some farms cows are bred by a bull. Other farmers prefer to use artificial insemination to impregnate their cows. They prefer this method so that they can match each individual cow to a bull that will produce a strong and healthy calf. For example, if the cow being bred has great conformation but does not produce a lot of milk, the farmer may choose to breed that cow with semen from a bull that has shown promising milk production in both his family and his progeny. Additionally, a bull on a farm can be dangerous, both to farmers and farm staff, but also to dairy cows. Artificial insemination can be gentler for a cow than being mounted by a 2000lb bull. Regardless of the method used, both have one purpose: impregnating a cow during her fertile period. So what does artificial insemination involve? Yes, semen is collected from bulls. However, this is not done on a dairy farm, but at specialized facilities that house these bulls for this purpose. And it’s not the sexually charged ordeal that Ms. Janus makes it out to be. Sex in animals does not involve emotion, but rather is a biological imperative to reproduce, not an act of love. The harvested semen then needs to be introduced to the cow’s reproductive tract. This is done via a small tube called a straw which is inserted into the cow’s vagina. Yes, a hand is also inserted into the cow’s anus, gently, and for the purpose of directing the semen straw to the cervix without damaging the cow’s reproductive tract. Again, this is NOT an act of bestiality, but rather of assisting a very natural process in a safe and gentle way.
  • Calves are stolen from their mothers so that humans can drink the milk meant for the calf, and the mother cries for days in search of her baby. Calves are left with their mothers for a period of time after birth. This amount of time varies, and it depends on how well the mother cares for her calf. The truth is, many dairy cows don’t have much of a mothering instinct. Sad as it may sound, farmers can often do a better job taking care of a calf than a dairy cow can! I’ve seen cows neglect or ignore their calf, and we’ve even had some cows attack their calves! After some time has passed (usually between 24 and 48 hours on our farm) the calf is moved to the nursery where he/she is provided plenty of milk/colostrum from the mother cow; fresh, clean, soft bedding, and lots of love and attention from our family. Because of the high level of trust between us and the mother cow, which is generated by the level of care she has received her entire life on our farm, she does NOT cry for her calf, instead, she’ll usually continue eating or laying down when we move her calf. Sometimes we move the mother cow back to the herd before moving her calf to the nursery; in this scenario, once we open the gate the mother cow eagerly moves off to rejoin her herd-mates with nary a backwards glance at her calf. Neither does the calf cry for her mother, she’s perfectly content in her new surroundings. On our farm, and on all of the many farms I’ve visited, calves are fed their mother’s first milk via bottle and then milk from the herd by pail or nipple bucket as they grow older. As I have stated above, a dairy cow can produce much more milk than her calf can drink. Farmers take absolute care to make sure that the calves drink enough colostrum in the first hours after they are born. This can be difficult to judge if a calf is nursing, which is why most farm will supplement with extra bottle-fed colostrum even if the calf is nursing from the mother. This colostrum is fed within a few hours after birth to make sure the calf gets enough of this high calorie wonder food that is full of essential antibodies – the ability to absorb colostrum declines after a few hours. (Colostrum is never shipped to the processor, if a cow has too much for her calf, it is frozen to feed to other calves whose mothers may not have sufficient amounts for their own calf.) After the first few days, calves are given whole milk from the herd as opposed to colostrum. Most farms wean the calves from milk around 2-3 months of age, onto a diet of hay, grains and other forages as their digestive systems mature. But what about the horrific clips shown of cows chasing after their calves that are being dragged away by a cruel farmer or cows bellowing loudly? Unfortunately, just like in all walks of life, the dairy industry does have some bad apples. These clips are awful examples of bad cow management practices. However, this does not mean that things like this happen on all farms. Abuse does happen; it is not the norm, but the very rare exception. On all of the farms I’ve visited, separation of cows and calves is done in a calm, quiet, and gentle manner in order to make the transition as relaxed as possible. We’re not in the business of causing unnecessary trauma to the animals on our farms, but rather we do whatever we can to keep our cows happy and comfortable. Cows will bellow for many reasons, including for food, in unfamiliar situations, and when they are in heat (their fertile period). Without showing the context of why these cows are vocalizing in these video clips, Ms. Janus lets the viewer assume that these cows are crying for their babies, while this very probably is not the case!
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Calves in our nursery. Comfortable, clean, lots of food and water. They’re perfectly content!

  • Dairy cows are continuously kept pregnant their whole lives to keep them lactating. This leads to premature aging, exhaustion, and mastitis. See point #1 regarding cows being ‘kept pregnant’. As I stated there, it is natural for a cow to give birth once and year, and this would happen without a farmer’s intervention if a cow had access to a bull. Giving birth yearly does not lead to premature aging, exhaustion, or mastitis. Just like humans, cows also can get mastitis, which is an infection of the udder. It is not caused by giving birth every year, but is caused by bacteria entering the udder. It can be avoided by ensuring that barns and milking equipment are clean and sterile. This infection is treated with antibiotics. While a cow is being treated with antibiotics and until the drug-specific milk withdrawal time has passed, her milk is discarded. For an in-depth look at what the milking process involves, see this previous post, here.

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Bright and airy barns, and sparkling clean milking equipment help minimize the chance of our cows getting udder infections.

  • Bull (male) male calves are all killed as veal. Ms. Janus states that all bull (male) calves have their throats slit and are sold as veal, implying that this happens right after birth. Our male (bull) calves remain on our farm for a few weeks, and then another farmer takes over raising them for beef. The bull calves are raised on a completely balanced diet of forages and grains and then are slaughtered for beef once they reach an appropriate weight, usually near 2 years of age. There are some veal farms in Canada, but the majority of bull calves are raised as beef, not veal. Additionally, many veal farms in Canada no longer use veal crates for raising veal, but have renovated or retrofitted their barns to allow for group housing with plenty of room for the veal calves to roam around. These new standards of care, outlawing veal crates, will be mandatory in a few years. Veal are slaughtered at 4 to 6 months, not as tiny baby calves.
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This 2 week old bull calf is treated just like his female counterparts – plenty of food, water, clean bedding. He’s treated with respect and compassion.

  • Pus and blood in milk. I’ve written an entire blog post on this myth. Find it here. A short summary: There is NO pus or blood in milk. Canadian farmers like myself, as well as all farmers around the world, must comply with very strict standards regarding the components and purity of milk. Milk that does not meet these standards is not shipped to the processor and the farmer must correct his procedures in order to resume shipping milk. The myth of pus in milk arises from the equating of somatic cells with pus. Ms. Janus says it’s the “same stuff that erupts from the top of a big zit”. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Pus is made up of dead white blood cells, dead skin cells, and bacteria. Somatic cells are living white blood cells located in the udder of cows. Like all white blood cells, they fight infection. An elevated somatic cell count indicates that the cow is fighting some sort of infection. Milk is tested both on farm and at the processing plant; one of the tests run is called a “somatic cell count” test. This test shows the level of somatic cells in a sample of milk. A cow with a somatic cell count of 200 000 cells per milliliter is considered to be in optimum health, she is not fighting any sort of infection. The maximum allowable limit for somatic cells in milk is 400 000. This line is drawn to ensure that sick cows are treated and that their milk does not enter the food chain.
A healthy udder on a healthy cow. No swelling, hard quarters or redness to indicate mastitis. A few squirts of milk were expressed before milking to check for irregularities in the milk.

A healthy udder on a healthy cow. No swelling, hard quarters or redness to indicate mastitis. In the “after” photo, the teats have been coated with an iodine based substance to minimize the chances of bacteria entering the teat canal.

  • “Downers”. Sometimes cows become sick. When they do, farmers use every tool they have to help their cow regain her health, often with the help of a veterinarian. Occasionally, a cow will be too ill to stand. These cows are sometimes called “downers”. A downed cow is not killed and sold for beef…EVER. The Canadian Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle contains strict regulations on how to handle downed cows. They are NOT treated in the abusive way that is shown in the undercover videos. This type of treatment would result in criminal prosecution. Downed cows are moved in the gentlest way possible to a comfortable hospital pen. In Canada, only a cow that can walk onto a transport truck can be shipped to slaughter. It is illegal to ship a downed cow, and so these cows are either nursed back to health or humanely euthanized on farm. Cows don’t “go down” after four or five years of milk production. Neither does their milk production decline at 4-5 years of age. On the contrary, their milk production is usually still increasing at that stage of their lives! On our farm, and on many farms that I have visited, cows will often stay on the farm for much longer, sometimes well into their teens. But at the end of those 8-10 (average on our farm) years, they don’t all “go down”. Instead, they are shipped to slaughter as healthy animals in order to supply our Canadian consumers with beef.
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Happy cows on pasture. Most of the cows pictured here are more than 8 years old.

  • Milk and Osteoporosis. Osteoporosis Canada, Canada’s national osteoporosis research and education organization, recommends “3 servings of milk and alternatives (2 servings for adults under age 50) – yogurt, cheese, calcium-fortified beverages, puddings, custards, etc. This essentially means that, if you are over 50, you need the equivalent of one good serving of dairy at each meal” to help prevent osteoporosis. I’d think that an organization like this would be more informed about reducing the risks of osteoporosis than an internet quack, no? And I think Health Canada along with the actual doctors and nutritionists that recommend the Canadian Food Guide know more about a healthy diet than an activist. (Of course, there certainly are other sources of dietary calcium, it’s definitely not only found in milk, and it’s definitely possible to get enough calcium from a diet that does not include dairy products.)
  • Abuse on dairy farms. Abuse to dairy cows, and to any animal, is never, ever ok. The clips Ms Janus shares deeply saddened me; I can’t understand how anyone could treat an animal in the manner shown in this video. Along with our fellow Canadian dairy farmers, we are committed to continuously improving animal welfare. We strive to do this through funding animal care research, attending educational sessions, investing in technology to improve the life of the animals, as well as with supporting the proAction Initiative for a sustainable future. Animal health and welfare is a top priority for Canadian farmers who work with veterinarians and nutritionists to provide the best conditions for cows. Unfortunately, as can be seen in this awful video, some individuals treat animals poorly and inhumanely. This is reprehensible, disgusting, and devastating to us as dairy farmers, and to the whole industry. Dairy Farmers of Canada and all provincial dairy farmer organizations are working to continually advocate for enforcements against abuse and Canadian dairy farmers are very transparent about how they care for their animals, which can be seen by our efforts to show the public our farms and informing them in other ways about common dairy practices. All farmers are expected to adhere to the Code of Practice and treat their animals with respect and compassion. Our industry promotes on-farm training and materials for farmers to educate their employees on the importance of providing proper care for animals treating them with dignity and respect. The Animal Care Code of Practice clearly emphasizes the importance of good animal care and reporting any incidence of animal abuse immediately. Abuse is definitely not the norm, there is no motive or reason for a farmer to abuse his/her cows: even if a farmer cared nothing for the cows under their care, every farmer knows that happy, comfortable, healthy, well cared for cows produce the best quality milk, and no farmer wants to jeopardize their income or bottom line. But beyond this, as farmers we treat our cows well because it simply is the right thing to do. Period.
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We love our cows and their calves!

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For real information about how cows are treated on family farms like ours, I’d like to invite you to take a peek at our Facebook page.

You can find it in the left hand margin of this blog.

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I have nothing against those who choose not to include dairy products in their diet. However, I hope that your choice was not based on biased propaganda similar to what is shown in this video. Additionally, I will not stand idly by when my integrity and the integrity of my fellow dairy farmers is attacked. Portraying dairy farmers as abusive and sexually sadistic not only is patently false, but it verges on slander. I’m trying to do my part to slow the spreading of lies about the way cows are treated on dairy farms and the misrepresentation of common dairy practices. I’m not a corporate spokesman or a crazed activist. I’m just a hard-working farmer, and I’m not getting paid a dime to write any of this. I wanted to write this article for the sole purpose of promoting the truth and correcting the false information that I’ve seen all over my social media feeds. I hope that after reading this (rather lengthy – sorry!) article, you’ll now feel assured that dairy farmers go about their daily work with one purpose: caring for their animals with respect and compassion while providing a safe and nutritious product for consumers.

The Subway Saga: My Thoughts on Marketing and Farmer Rivalry

Subway has announced that it will begin sourcing antibiotic-free meat for their sandwiches. Consumers are concerned about antibiotic use in farming contributing to the increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria. Apparently, Subway is making this switch to satisfy customer demand. This decision has been met with uproar in the agriculture world. Farmers are concerned that marketing Subway’s meat as “antibiotic free” could help to perpetuate the assumption that conventionally farmed meat contains antibiotics. I know that this is not true and I hope that consumers realize this as well: an animal cannot be slaughtered before the drug specific withdrawal time after antibiotic treatment has passed, which is the time it takes for the drug to be excreted from the animal’s system. It seems that Subway is marketing meat from animals that have NEVER been given antibiotics. Unfortunately, this claim is also drawing assumptions and claims from farmers that are, quite simply, false.

The most common assumption is that animals that are fighting bacterial infections on an antibiotic-free (or organic farm, too, for that matter) are left to suffer or are euthanized rather than treating the sick animal with lifesaving antibiotics.

This quote from a large animal vet in Alberta, Cody Creelman (follow him on Instagram @vetpracticevahs for amazing pictures and inspiring stories) is a great example of how this simply is not true:

“I’m a feedlot veterinarian and I have hundreds of thousands of conventionally raised beef cattle that are under my care. I also manage thousands of cattle that are raised in “natural”, “hormone free” or “antibiotic free” programs. When these animals get sick due to a bacterial infection, they are treated the same as my conventional calves. They are given an antibiotic, recorded, and simply “taken out” of the system and sold as a conventional calf at slaughter. These animals do not go untreated, nor are they euthanized (unless deemed medically necessary).”

In my own experience on our organic dairy farm, I also know that this assumption is not accurate. A cow that is sick is treated. Period. On an organic dairy farm (in Canada), cows can be treated with antibiotics twice in the period of one year. If another treatment is needed, the cow’s milk is no longer considered organic. A cow that has been treated with antibiotics even once can never be slaughtered as an organic animal. As farmers, we do whatever we can to keep our cows healthy, but when or if this fails and our animals contract an infection that they are unable to fight, we do not hesitate to do whatever it takes to have that animal return to health, including administering antibiotics, if necessary. If that means that she cannot be sold as an organic slaughter animal or that her milk is no longer organic, so be it. Farming organically does not mean that we care less for our animals than our conventional neighbours. Rather, we care just as much even though we farm under a different banner. We would never allow a cow to suffer by withholding treatment just to maintain an organic product.

Obviously, the claim that antibiotic free or organic animals are left to suffer if they are ill is unfounded, as both my own farming experiences and Dr. Creelman’s extensive veterinary proficiency show. It’s regrettable that this claim has been flooding my social media channels since Subway’s decision was announced. It’s even more regrettable that so many farmers are sharing these claims without verifying their validity. I think it speaks to the spirit of the times: we are farming in an era of distrust and of pitting farming types against one another.

It’s incredibly unfortunate that this culture of pitting farmers and farm types against each other continues to grow. And I’ll be the first to admit that various marketing schemes only fan the flames of these fires. Big corporations looking to buy into the niche markets seem to feel the need to denigrate other types of farming practices in order to promote their own products. And it shouldn’t have to be like this! Truthfully, I don’t know how to fight this, besides asking these companies to rethink their methods of advertising. If we all speak up, politely but firmly, perhaps our voices will be heard. I’m not sure how Subway is planning to market their antibiotic-free meat. I can only hope that they will do so without throwing conventional farms and farmers under the bus. I guess we will see in time.

But what can we, as farmers, do to stop this repeated perpetuation of certain farm types being “bad” from carrying over into our own agricultural community and causing antagonism and rivalry? I believe that to begin to fight this culture of fear, we need to stop feeling the need to compete with one another. There really are more than enough consumers to go around! 😉 If a farmer decides to manufacture their product to fill a niche market, then we should allow them to do that without judging them or their practices and without trying to undermine their decisions and businesses. Additionally, deliberately creating fear about another type of farm practice must also end. And that goes for all “sides” (and I hate that there are “sides”) – conventional, natural, antibiotic free, organic, etc. Instead of creating fear about or questioning the legitimacy of another type of farming, explain the practices you employ and why you use them on your farm, while allowing other types of farmers to tell their own story.

I’ll continue to call for us to work together, to collaborate, and, most importantly, to support each other, and I hope you’ll join me in spreading this message. We’re a tiny fraction of the population and we need to stick together. We’re the minority feeding the majority. Divisiveness and animosity doesn’t help us to do our job but rather undermines our purpose. Our sole purpose should be feeding our consumers while ensuring that we are good stewards of our land and animals, regardless of what practices we employ and what standards we adhere to. And so, moving forward, let us try to be open-minded and accepting of others and their practices. Doing so, we all win, consumers and farmers alike.

Is Organic Farming Anti-Science?

I’m an organic dairy farmer, and this question–Is organic farming anti-science–has been weighing on my mind recently. Said another way, many people question whether organic farming is as advanced as conventional farming. This is an issue close to my heart as I’m a former conventional farmer.

Speaking for myself, and I believe for all the organic farmers who I know, I’m constantly on the lookout to improve our operation with new or improved farming techniques, often spending time online and on social media researching different methods of agriculture and interacting with and learning from other farmers and farming organizations, and not just those that support organic farming.

For the past several months, especially since I have become more active on social media, I have read multiple assumptions that purport to show that farming organically means that scientific knowledge and research is thrown out the window. I’ve also heard opinions that organic farming is not as innovative, efficient, or sustainable as conventional farming. In addition to this, I have seen consumers that choose organic products ridiculed as uninformed and unrealistic for buying into the latest scam or “woo” put forward by organic farmers and “Big Organic” and, subsequently, supermarkets’ motives are questioned when they source foods (supposedly) produced in a manner not supported by scientific research to supply these consumers.

Some recent examples

Some recent examples

Now, as an organic farmer, allow me to try to explain why I believe that these assumptions are neither accurate nor warranted. Here’s why:

When I take stock of our farm practices on our transitional organic dairy farm, I find that I can say with emphasis that I firmly believe that organic farming is just as science based and as innovative as conventional farming, especially in these three areas: sustainability, animal welfare, and technology. *Disclaimer: this is not an in-depth look at organic versus conventional farming, but rather a short, superficial analysis of how organic farming also utilizes science and technology. Technology and Scientific Research: Organic farms utilize much of the same technology that conventional farmers employ. Precision cropping equipment and high tech field mapping in crops are used by conventional and organic farmers alike.  Sometimes, organic farmers use different, but still advanced, technology, such as the new piece of equipment I came across recently that selectively weeds cereal crops. When it comes to dairy, my niche, I know that robotic milkers can be found on conventional and organic operations. Organic dairy farmers utilize the same milk testing regimen as conventional dairymen, and therefore know just as much about each cow’s production, milk quality, and milk components as their conventional neighbor down the road.  Organic and conventional farmers have access to the same breeding technology, and use the same bull proof sheets and information when finding an appropriate sire(s) for their herd. Similarly, crops fed to cows on organic farms are tested for nutritional value and the herd’s diet is balanced by a specialized nutritionist, just as is done on conventional dairies. On our farm, we have participated in scientific studies looking at different types of manure application methods and their impact on soil and crops. Being organic does not exempt us from trying to farm the best we possibly can by applying scientific research results to our operations. The one major difference in technology usage is the exemption of GM crops in organic farming. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not that is a positive or negative aspect of organics.  🙂

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New breeding bulls for our farm. We selected these bulls partly because their genetic background looks promising.

Sustainability: Both conventional and organic farmers try to ensure that their farm is sustainable. This can be done conventionally by using environmentally beneficial practices, such as no till cropping and cover crops. No or low till crops protect the soil from erosion and drought and also allow the farmer to grow crops with less passes of heavy machinery that burn fossil fuels.  Organic farming practices revolve around improving and feeding the soil and soil life rather than feeding the crop growing in that soil. Organic farmers believe that healthy, balanced soil full of organic matter and nutrients will grow good crops. This has proved to be true on our farm. Since we began farming organically three years ago (without the use of any pesticides), we have not noticed the slightest decrease in our crop yields. By utilizing natural fertilizers such as compost, animal manure and green manure crops, organic farming reduces its carbon footprint by not relying on synthetic chemical fertilizers, manufactured with fossil fuels. Both organic and conventional farms in Canada take advantage of Canada’s Environmental Farm Plan to certify that they utilize environmentally sound and beneficial practices. Also, many farms of each variety across Canada employ the use of Nutrient Management Plans, which, through soil and input tests, help a farmer make informed choices of how to best supply nutrients to their land and crops.

Our grass, cut and harvested as silage for winter feeding, is grown without the use of chemical fertlizers. We use animals manures and compost to fertilize our grass and corn crops.

Our grass, cut and harvested as silage for winter feeding, is grown without the use of chemical fertilizers. We use animal manures and compost to fertilize our grass and corn crops.

Animal Welfare: As a former conventional farmer myself, I know that conventional farmers do their best to ensure that their animals are well cared for.  All farmers know that animals that are cared for well will be more profitable, but beyond this, farmers provide the best care possible for the animals under their care simply because it is the right thing to do. In dairy, Canada’s proAction plan involves an animal welfare component, one that has been praised by animal welfare groups as being the best of its kind in the world. However, organic practices in livestock raising and housing go above and beyond this Code of Practice. For example, the Canadian Organic Standards have stricter animal stocking regulations and calf housing requirements. Animals on organic dairy farms must have access to the outdoors. For cows, this has been scientifically proven by animal researchers to result in better hoof health than being confined to the traditional concrete floored barns. Nutritionally, for cows, their diet is limited to a certain percentage of grain, which in turn limits the amount of milk a cow will produce, but, can, as we have noticed on our farm, result in a healthier cow with increased longevity and decreased vet visits and associated costs. Along with conventional farms in our area, we have participated in university studies surrounding the care and housing of dairy calves. We have responded to this research by adjusting our calf rearing habits to mirror the latest research-supported trends in dairy cattle care.  Again, being organic does not mean that we ignore the scientific evidence presented by researchers that point to the best way to care for our animals, but rather that we adopt these changes, just as conventional farmers do.

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Our cows on pasture last week. Cows enjoy grazing and relaxing outdoors, as can be seen in the way they eagerly rush out the barn door each morning.

 

Discussing calf care with researchers from the University of British Columbia.

Discussing calf care with researchers from the University of British Columbia.

Looking over the above paragraphs, it can be noticed that while some practices are different, both conventional and organic farmers have their farm’s best interest in mind. We may have slightly different goals and different methods of achieving these goals, but that does not mean that either way of farming is wrong, unscientific or less innovative .  It simply means that we are different. This is why I’ve found the recent interactions that seem to point to an “us versus them” mindset to be so troubling.  There is no need for any farmer to disparage a type of farming different from their own. Instead, farmers would do well to explain their own farming practices: what you do and why you do it, instead of attacking another’s ideas and way of life. When confronted with questions about what you do and why you do it, please try to explain your reasoning without deliberately diminishing another. I am of the opinion that when we rely on hearsay to form our opinions and then allow our stance on either type of farming to harden into ideological absolutes, we run the risk of losing the opportunity for discussion, balance and learning from one another. I personally believe that organic farming is here to stay, and I believe that we’ll see conventional farmers adopting organic principles, and vice versa. And this is a good thing: farmers working together to improve the entire agriculture industry. Together, we can achieve great things and combine forces to feed the population that relies on us for sustenance. There can scarcely be a more honorable occupation, and so, let us do our best to go about our daily lives with a willingness to support all farmers, regardless of practices employed.

(Please don’t feel that this is a rant against one specific group or individual; I’ve found this mind-set to be getting more and more common and pervasive and I have spent several weeks trying to find the words to express my feelings about this. If you follow me on social media, you’ll know that I have also spoken out about organic groups shaming conventional farmers and their practices. I think it’s only fair to do the same now that the shoe is on the other foot. Comments are always welcomed, but please be respectful.)

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“Milk is full of pus, blood, artificial hormones and antibiotics.”

“Dairy cows are viciously raped while restrained in a rape rack.”

“Dairy cows suffer all sorts of abuse, milked constantly while housed in their own excrement until they are so worn out they are sent to slaughter at four years of age, a fraction of their natural lifespan.”

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Enjoying beautiful fall weather in the pasture.

If you follow social media at all, chances are you have read these types of statements. Like you, I was shocked and horrified to hear the lies and inaccurate information being broadcast about the dairy industry. I started to speak out about this, trying to provide the truth about our industry and our farms by posting rebuttals to these types of statements and began a farm Facebook page sharing the realities of dairy farming. People began to thank me for providing the truth, admitting they were not that this type of propaganda was not the truth. This made me realize that as dairy farmers, we need to have our voices heard. While a dairy farmer’s first response will most likely be outrage and fury at these lies, we must keep in mind that statements like these stem from a disconnection from and lack of knowledge about animal agriculture. Sadly, the majority of information about animal agriculture found on the internet comes from animal rights groups. Not to be confused with animal welfare groups which aim to improve standards of care for companion and farm animals, animal rights groups have this agenda: the cessation of all animal farming. These groups present this type of information to the masses who have no idea that many of these “facts” are inaccurate, misconstrued, biased or even outright lies. Animal rights groups prey on the knowledge that the average Canadian citizen is so vastly disconnected with agriculture that they have no idea that some or all of the information presented does not at all convey an accurate picture of our family farms.

heifer and calves

This heifer gave birth in the field and needed to be brought into the barn to be milked.

This brings us to the question: What can we as dairy farmers do to provide our consumers with the correct information?

Educate, educate, educate. Our stories and the truths about dairy farming need to be told. There are multitudes of ways in which you can educate and inform the consumer about how you run your farm and treat the animals under your care.  You can open your farm doors to the public to show them how dairy farmers treat their cows with respect, compassion, and care every single day of the year.  Or if social media is your niche, you can post pictures and stories about your farm, cows, crops, and family run farm on Facebook, Twitter or a personal blog. Try approaching a customer purchasing milk or milk products in a grocery store and thank them for supporting our industry, possibly opening up valuable dialogue and providing that consumer with confidence in the product they are purchasing. Regardless of your means of conveying information, each method will begin a conversation about agriculture, bringing new opportunities for farmers to tell their stories.

When advocating for the dairy industry (or “ag”vocating as it is commonly called in the agriculture community), it may be wise to remember these suggestions:

Be aware and prepared: Be aware that some will not listen and will not hear what you have to say. Be especially aware that some of those who choose not to include animal products in their diet will do and say anything to discredit your facts. Unless you are prepared for a long debate about nutrition and ethics, some of those individuals and their responses are perhaps best left alone. Be prepared for hostility, antagonism, and disbelief from those who have been conditioned to unquestioningly believe the animal rights’ dogma. But also be prepared for sincere gratitude when a consumer realizes that the lies they have been told by these extremists are not the truth, and that the bucolic farms of their imagination do in fact still exist.

Be polite and courteous: Our first reactions may be anger and resentment when presented with false and misleading facts about farming, but we need to swallow this anger and respond in a respectful and civil manner. Outrage and annoyance will not win any support, but polite, well thought out responses will engender respect and will give credence to your statements.

Be transparent: Explain or show the consumer our common farming practices. Open your barn doors for tours. Some provinces have lists of farms that are open for tours; consider adding your farm to this list. Answer questions about your farm and farm procedures honestly, and point out the reasoning behind them.  Describe calf care. Explain AI procedures. Show examples of older cows in your herd. Talk about of Canadian Quality Milk program and the Pro Action initiative, and explain how this guarantees milk’s safety and quality. Show the consumer that you are open and above board on all aspects of farm life, and they will no longer feel that we have anything to hide.

cute calf

A new heifer calf!

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Munching on TMR (total mixed ration) in the airy and cool barn.

Be involved: If you are active on social media, consider posting pictures and stories about life on a dairy farm. Share pictures of your cows, calves, barns, parlours or robots, crops, and explain what each picture shows. Remember that what seems self-explanatory to a farmer may be a mystery to a consumer and will likely need some sort of description. Contact your local dairy groups to volunteer your farm for tours or open house days. Visit dairy Facebook or Twitter pages and courteously defend the integrity of the dairy industry by presenting the facts. (100% Canadian Milk on Facebook is a good place to start.) Some of these pages have many anti-milk industry sentiments posted. Polite and intelligent pro-dairy responses from those involved in producing that milk are invaluable.

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Showing the girls some love on Cow Appreciation Day (July 11)

I firmly believe that the future of dairy farming in Canada and around the world depends on farmers speaking up. We need to show where people are wrong or misinformed about dairy farming. Our industry’s continued growth and success relies on consumers who are confident in the milk products they purchase.  And that’s definitely some serious food for thought.

laura cows

Heading out to pasture after evening milking.