Myths and Fear: a farmer’s thoughts on promoting Canadian milk

Remember when Subway announced they were going to start sourcing antibiotic free meat? I was scrolling through my old blog posts the other day and came across a piece I had written then. I had been feeling so discouraged at the animosity that move brought out – between farmers!

Unfortunately, this feeling of competition and rivalry has not abated. In fact, the new trade agreement has seemed to acerbate the divide between farmers – especially between American and Canadian dairy farmers. This is why:

Canadian farmers and consumers’ claims of American cows pumped full of hormones and antibiotics are not accurate. Yes, some American farmers use artificial growth hormones on their dairy cattle to stimulate milk production. However, only a small percentage do — and these accusations that American milk is full of hormones are rather baseless. Additionally, American farms face the same penalties we do should antibiotic residues be found in their milk. We’ve interacted with so many American farmers over the years, farmers who farm because they love their cows, their land, their way of life. Family farmers just like us. We are more alike than we are different; this love for dairy farming should be what pulls us together, not what drives us apart. Yes, a share of our Canadian market has once again been given up to foreign imports by this trade agreement. This trade agreement will do

very little to ease the woes for our neighbours to the south but it WILL have a very real, very negative effect on our Canadian dairy industry. It scares us too! Still, I’ve seen just a few too many posts claiming that American milk is garbage. It’s just not fair to our neighbours to the south who work so hard for so little. I hope we can share our concerns about the impact of this trade deal without resorting to fear mongering about the milk produced by farmers just like us.

Instead, why don’t we encourage Canadian consumers to continue to buy Canadian by sharing the benefits of buying local milk? It benefits our Canadian economy, first of all. It’s produced by Canadians, for Canadians. That’s awesome! Additionally, we are so proud of our national quality, safety, traceability, and animal welfare standard – the ProAction Initiative. This program is extremely comprehensive and ensures that the milk our consumers purchase is top quality and is produced by happy, well cared for cows. That’s definitely something to celebrate!

Let’s put a face on Canadian dairy farming. Instead of sharing articles or social media posts that promote fear based marketing, maybe share a photo of your cows or your farm, and explain how you are so proud to produce food for your fellow citizens. Remember that our neighbours to the south are farmers just like us. They too face the same fears and hardships that we do, probably more so given the dismal milk prices there the past several years. Denigrating the work they do is not the answer here. Will you join us in attempting to stop the spread of fear simply by sharing your love for your farm, your cows, and your work doing what you love best? I think that if this were to happen, we’d all win – farmers (yes, both Canadian and American!) and consumers alike.

If you’d like to read more of our thoughts on farmer rivalry and fear marketing, check out this link:

https://inuddernews.com/2015/10/22/the-subway-saga-my-thoughts-on-marketing-and-farmer-rivalry/

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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to milk a cow 213

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.

 

add: this link has a ton of resources comparing milk to other non-dairy beverages: https://milklife.com/milk-vs-non-dairy-milk-alternatives/

Be Like Me and Don’t Cry Wolfe!

I don’t know about you, but I love this whole ‪#‎BeLikeMe‬ craze that’s making the rounds on Facebook these days. For the most part, these memes are pretty funny and surprisingly accurate! I was considering trying it out to see what kind of meme my profile would generate, when I came across another post of Facebook that made me forget all of those funny posts.

I’m sure you’ve seen David Avocado Wolfe memes, photos and posts spreading like wildfire across the internet. And it’s perfectly understandable! He posts inspirational quotes, either of his own creation or attributed to famous people, pasted on gorgeous backgrounds.

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Pretty harmless, right?!

These posts strike a chord with the people who read them, prompting them to “like” and/or share this content. In this way, Mr. Wolfe has amassed more than 4 MILLION followers! Can you imagine how many people see his posts every day? The number is mind-boggling. So what’s the issue? Well, as it turns out, Mr. Wolfe has an agenda, and a pretty nasty one at that. Now that he has generated so many followers, he has begun to show his true biases. And one of these is against milk. (There are many more, and if you’d like to find out about these, search ‪#‎dontcrywolfe‬).

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Hmmm…. Showing our bias now, aren’t we, Mr. Wolfe?

There’s absolutely no need to fear dairy products, and there’s absolutely no truth to his statements. Milk is safe and wholesome. Period.

  1. There is no blood or pus in milk. Canadian farmers 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. This myth of pus in milk periodically makes the rounds on the internet, and seems to be borne of the idea that white blood cells can be equated with pus. This is not true. There actually is no such thing as “pus cell”!  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. See here for a very in-depth discussion on the whole “pus in milk” myth.
  2. In Canada, it is illegal to use growth hormones to stimulate milk production. Yes, milk does contain naturally occurring hormones. But did you know that there are many other foods that contain hormones? In fact, one 8-oz serving of cabbage = 5,411 nanograms of estrogen while a glass of milk contains only 3ng of estrogen. (1 ng = one billionth of a gram)
  3. Canadian farms comply with very strict standards that allow NO antibiotics in milk. If a cow becomes ill and needs to be treated with antibiotics, the milk she produces does not enter the bulk tank, but is safely discarded for the required “withdrawal period”, which is the time that it takes after treatment for the drug to be excreted from her body. The milk is tested for antibiotic residues both at the farm and at the processing plant. If residues are found, the entire truck load of milk is discarded of safely, and the farmer responsible pays a very hefty fine.
  4. 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?
  5. Canada’s dairy farmers are environmentally responsible. Many are certified under the Environmental Farm Plan, which is a tool to help farmers mitigate any unwanted environmental stresses that farming may cause. Additionally, Dairy Farmers of Canada’s ProAction Initiative contains a section related exclusively to environmental sustainability. Adherence to this section will soon be mandatory across Canada. But more importantly, dairy farmers know that caring for the land is the responsible thing to do. After all, our land produces the crops that our cows eat. We are good stewards of our land — it would be counter-intuitive to waste or destroy our own resources.                                                                                                                              IMG_5704 IMG_5206
  6. Animal abuse is never, ever okay. And as dairy farmers, we do our utmost to ensure that the animals under our care are happy, comfortable, and healthy. Dairy Farmers of Canada and all provincial dairy farmer organizations work together 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 Canadian farmers are required to adhere to the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle and to treat their animals with respect and compassion.  The Animal Care Code of Conduct – clearly emphasizes the importance of good animal care and reporting any incidence of animal abuse immediately.  Most importantly, animal 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. Most of all, farmers treat their cows well because it simply is the right thing to do.  See these videos for proof that cows are happy on dairy farms!http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7cq67DZItFk

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORYprELu7v8

  7. Veal is produced from male (bull) calves. These calves are raised on a specialized diet until 4-6 months of age or 450-500 pounds, and then they are slaughtered. Veal farmers are no different than other farmers – they treat the animals under their care with respect and compassion. It seems that the issue with veal is emotional: people picture baby calves being slaughtered. But that’s not at all true! A six month old bull calf resembles a full grown cow more than a newborn calf! Only a fraction of bull calves are raised as veal; the majority are raised as beef on a diet of forages and grains until approximately 18 months of age. The dairy industry helps to provide both meat and milk for Canadians.
  8. Yes, milk is for calves. And calves are fed their mother’s milk. But a dairy cow can produce much more milk than her calf can drink. I’ve often heard the argument that milk is designed to grow a calf to several hundred pounds weight in a short amount of time. This is true. But…a calf drinks up to 12 liters of milk per day! Humans drink only a tiny fraction of this. Milk is full of essential and beneficial nutrients and has been a source of nutrition for humans for centuries. Milk really does do a body good!

 

So, back to the BeLikeMe craze. It struck me that what I would like most would be for you to join me in spreading the word about David Avocado Wolfe and his anti-agriculture agenda. Don’t “like” his posts. Don’t share his posts. And if you “like” his page, please do me a favour and hop on over and “unlike” it. If you notice your friends sharing his posts, perhaps you would be so kind as to inform them of his true agenda. Maybe we can limit the spread of these absurdities, even if it’s in just a small way.

david wolfe

* Farmers all around the world are held to quality standards — as a Canadian dairy farmer, I speak to the Canadian standards of quality and purity. Many other country’s standards are very similar.

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.

To Milk A Cow

 

A large part of a dairy farmer’s day is spent milking the cows. Each farm in Canada follows similar procedures, and all must adhere to the regulations set out in the Canadian Quality Milk (CQM) program. On our farm, we usually milk the cows ourselves; our 70 cow milking herd is easily managed by one person. We do, however, employ a lovely young lady who milks our cows on alternating Saturday afternoons. This gives us some time to spend as a family, either around the house or occasionally taking day trips together. We milk twice a day – beginning at 5:30 am and 5:00 pm – and each milking takes about one hour, excluding the associated chores, such as feeding calves and heifers. It takes about 8 minutes to milk each cow, some shorter, some longer. Each side of our milking parlour (the place where the cows are milked) accommodates 8 cows, so 16 cows are milked at once. The rest of the day, our cows are free to roam about the barn, socialize with other cows, lie down in the comfy sawdust bedded stalls, munch on their specialized ration of feed at the feed bunk or head out to pasture during the growing season.

We’ve compiled a few photos recently that document our milking procedures. Enjoy!

to milk a cow barn layout

Near milking time, the cows start to gather around the milking parlour, eagerly anticipating the moment that we will open the gate allowing them access to the parlour. About half an hour before we are scheduled to milk, the parlour equipment that comes into contact with the milk is automatically washed and sanitized. This ensures that the equipment is sterile before contact with milk, keeping it safe for consumer consumption. Of course, milk is also pasteurized at the processing plant to totally eliminate the chance of milk-borne bacteria making a consumer ill. Once the gate is opened, the cows amble into the parlour. We always treat our cows gently and calmly, but this is especially important at milking time. Cows that are stressed or agitated will not allow their milk to drop, stress and agitation can block the milk let-down reflex. A cow that is not milked out properly will experience pressure and fullness in her udder before she is due to be milked again. Repeated episodes of improper milking may lead to an infection of the udder, mastitis. Therefore, both we and our employee know that cows must be handled in a calm and quiet manner during milking. Our cows are accustomed to our parlour layout, and align themselves at a 45 degree angle to the parlour pit. Our parlour is laid out in para-bone style, a cross between parallel (milking between the back legs) and herringbone (milking from the side of the cow) styles. We attach the milking unit between the cow’s hind legs. When the cows have all moved over into the waiting area in the alley behind the milking parlour, we take a scraper and clean the manure or wet sawdust out of each stall, and spread more sawdust from the pile at the front of the stall into the area where the cows lie. We want our cows to be comfortable while they’re lying down producing more milk, and overall cow health is improved when cows lie comfortably as well.to milk a cow 213

Once all 8 cows have positioned themselves properly, the back gate is closed and the brisket bar at the cows’ chest height moves in toward the parlour pit, ensuring that the cows cannot move around too much and possibly injure themselves or their neighbor. We designed special water troughs on the brisket bar that are filled with lukewarm water from the plate cooler (the plate cooler quickly cools the milk before it is pumped to the bulk tank). The girls often enjoy slurping down some liquid as they are being milked. Many cows also contentedly chew their cud while being milked; the milking process is comfortable, even pleasurable for a dairy cow.to milk a cow front and hind view

Before a cow can be milked, her udder and teats must be cleaned of manure splatters and sawdust shavings. We use soft microfiber cloths for this (see photo above). The gentle process of cleaning the udder also stimulates milk production. Some farms also use a pre-dip that disinfects the teats. We have had great success with just using our towels. Notice on the photo above that the cow’s udder is relatively clean. We take care to ensure that our cows’ stalls are free from manure and that the walking surfaces of the barn are scraped multiple times per day. As a result, less manure is present on the udder, making the pre-milking cleaning much easier. A clean udder also results in more sanitary milk.

After waiting a few moments after wiping to allow the cow to get into the “milking moooo-d”, we attach the milking unit. A milking unit claw has 4 attachments – a specialized cup fitted with a soft, flexible rubber inflation – that are attached to each teat on the udder. Our units only produce suction when they are held upright. This eliminates the chance of manure or urine being drawn into the milking equipment should the cow kick off the machine or if it should fall to the ground. The suction produced is gentle but insistent, mimicking the actions of a calf’s mouth as it suckles from a teat. Milk begins to flow into the inflation, through the pipes to the plate cooler, then onto the bulk tank. If, for some reason, a cow has been treated with antibiotics, the hoses linking the milking unit to the pipeline that connect to the bulk tank are removed, and the milk is collected in a large bucket and discarded until the required withdrawal time has passed. The withdrawal time is drug specific, and is the period of time necessary for the last residues of the drug to be excreted from the cow’s system. Milk is tested on farm and at the processing plant to ensure that no antibiotic residues are present in milk. If the milk tested is found to contain antibiotic residues, the whole truck load of milk will be discarded and the farm responsible must pay a hefty fine.to milk a cow attaching milker

It usually takes about 5-10 minutes for each cow to finish milking. Once the sensors in the milking unit register that milk has stopped flowing, the milking unit automatically detaches from the udder. Each milking unit also measure how much milk each cow produces. This cow produced 15.9 liters at this particular afternoon milking. Cows generally produce a little more milk in the morning. This cow produces about 34 L of milk daily. Brown Swiss and Brown Swiss cross bred cows generally produce a little less milk than their Holstein counterparts, but the butterfat and protein components in their milk are higher. Our herd average butterfat currently is 4%, and the protein content is as 3.46%.IMG_3614

After the machine detach, each teat is dipped in an iodine solution. The iodine helps to ensure that no bacteria will enter the still slightly open teat end, and also conditions the skin of the teat, keeping it smooth and supple, free of cracks and dryness.

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In the photo below, you can notice the difference in udder size, comparing before and after the cow has been milked. to milk a cow before and after

Once the entire row of cows has finished milking and all of the teats have been post-dipped, the front gate of the parlour is opened and the cows can return to the barn. The cows all head over to the feed bunk to enjoy a meal of their specially prepared mixed ration. After all, producing milk works up a good appetite!

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When the entire herd has been milked, the manure piles are scraped away and the parlour floors, wall, and equipment are thoroughly sprayed down with a high pressure hose. The milking equipment is sanitized and washed once again. The milk in the bulk tank is cooled and stirred until the milk truck comes to pick it up and delivers it to the processor. From there, it is pasteurized and packaged and sent to local grocery stores for consumer enjoyment.

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After we feed the calves warm milk in bottles and nipple buckets, we check the other young stock to be certain they also have enough food and are comfortable, then finally head into the house for our own dinner. And on some nights, we’re lucky enough to enjoy a view like this:

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Now, the next time that you enjoy a glass of cold milk, a wedge of cheese, a serving of yoghurt, you’ll know exactly how the product you are enjoying was supplied by cows like ours to satisfy your hunger and cravings. And so, our girls and our family would just like to say: “You’re Welcome!”

 

 

 

Why Organic?

This week, September 20-28, is Canadian Organic Week, a time to celebrate organic food, farming and products across the country. The goal of Organic Week is to involve Canadians in organic agriculture and help them learn about the benefits of organic farming and its positive impact on the environment.

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Since announcing our plans to transition to organic farming, we’ve heard many interesting and humorous assumptions about this type of farming. When talking about our plans, it wasn’t uncommon to hear these types of responses: “Are you going to be growing a beard and sporting dread locks to fit into the hippie farming community?” or, “The only difference between conventional and organic farming is that organic farmers spray RoundUp at night.” or, “Organic? Are you sure? Your fields will soon be overrun with weeds and crop disease!” or, “Organic farmers aren’t allowed to use antibiotics, so instead of treating sick cattle, they leave them to suffer and die.”

Although these responses were sometimes humorous, we noticed that it really emphasized the lack of knowledge about the organic way of farming. We’ve learned a lot in the two years we’ve been farming organically, and we’d like to share some of the knowledge we’ve gained in that period of time with you. I think Organic Week presents an excellent opportunity to describe organic dairy farming and why we decided to make the transition from conventional dairying to organic milk production.

heifer and calves

Approximately two and half years ago, during a conversation with an organic dairy farmer friend, we were told about the demand for organic milk products, the opportunities for growth in the organic sector and the premium paid to organic dairy farmers. This conversation prompted us to seriously think about transitioning to this type of farming. After all, we already employed numerous organic practices: our cows were on pasture during the summer months, our cows were not fed large quantities of grain, and our antibiotic and fertility drug use was quite low. We researched the organic system and found that although the transition would be labour intensive and time consuming, it was a challenge we couldn’t resist accepting. This decision was originally made for mostly economic reasons but has transformed into a firm belief in the organic system’s merits.

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Our dairy herd enjoying a sunny early fall day on pasture.

So what does “organic” actually mean and how does it apply to dairy farming? Officially, the word “organic” refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed. Consumers can be assured that organic food is produced using environmentally and animal-friendly farming methods. Organic certification tells the consumer that the product they purchase has been inspected and verified to have been produced and processed according to the Canadian Organic Standard. This Standard is every organic farmer’s bible. It details the required production methods for any type of crop or livestock, and includes a list of Permitted Substances which are permitted for use in organic farming (eg manure, compost, vitamins and minerals, etc.). In organic dairying, both the crops grown and the livestock that are raised and milked must be certified to have been grown and managed according to the Standard.

The main differences between organic and conventional dairying can be divided into two categories: crops and cattle.

Crops:

  • No chemical fertilizer use permitted. We use a combination of cow manure and composted chicken manure to fertilize our crops.
  • No synthetic pesticide use permitted. Instead of using herbicides to control weeds, we utilize mechanical cultivation techniques and crop rotation to minimize weed spread and growth. Our corn crop is seeded later than usual (early June) to minimize wire worm problems. Wire worms move deeper into the soil as the soil warms, so seeding in June helps to prevent loss of corn plants to this pest, as well as ensuring that the corn grows quickly and doesn’t become choked out due to weed growth.
  • Crop rotation and cover crop seeding/mulching/integrating into the soil are integral parts of an organic farm plan
This year's organic corn crop

This year’s organic corn crop

Cattle:

  • must be fed 100% certified organic feed (GMO free)
  • must have access to pasture during the growing season
  • must gain 20% of their forage intake (dry matter basis) from grazing during the growing season
  • must have access to a walkout area during the winter months and if pasture is inaccessible due to inclement weather during growing season
  • can only be treated with health care aids listed in the Permitted Substances List
  • If these health care aids fail and other drugs must be used, milk withdrawal is 1 month or twice as long as the labeled withdrawal period, whichever is longer.
  • A cow can only be treated with antibiotics twice in one year before losing organic status
  • Organic farms in BC must also adhere to the Code of Care for the Handling of Dairy Cattle (which is mandatory for all dairy farms in BC starting next month.) The Organic Standard’s guidelines and rules with regards to the care and handling of dairy cattle are at least equal to, and, in some cases, more strict than the Code.

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Organic Certification Process.A farmer wishing to transition to organic must first become certified by an accredited certifying body. The certifying body collects all of the farm’s information:

  • a detailed list of land history and which inputs have been used in the past;
  • soil and water tests;
  • a farm plan describing all crops and livestock grown on farm, crop rotation plans, and pest management plans;
  • field maps;
  • water tests;
  • soil tests;
  • crop sample tests;
  • livestock density charts;
  • pasture log
  • herd treatment records
  • etc.

The initial application process is complicated and time consuming; subsequent yearly applications are much more streamlined and less labour intensive. Next, the certifying body arranges for the farm to be inspected by an independent verification officer. The verification officer visits the farm, inspects all fields and crops, livestock, and farm buildings and then meticulously combs over and audits the farms production records, input records, sales receipts, invoices, etc. Once the verification officer has finished the inspection, s/he prepares a report for the certifying body, identifying any problems or areas where the farm is non-compliant to the Standard, or any areas where the farm has an Opportunity for Improvement (OFI), and, finally, recommends whether the farm is eligible for certification. This process is repeated at least once a year; each farm is inspected once yearly with the possibility of extra unannounced inspections.

Our organic reference binder and organic records binder. I think they'll both be getting fatter as the years pass!

Our organic reference binder and organic records binder. I think they’ll both be getting fatter as the years pass!

Land to be included in the organic farm plan must be managed according to the standard for three years before being certified organic. Our land is currently in its third year of organic management, which means it has T3 status. The last prohibited substance (chemical fertilizer) was applied to our land in August 2012. Our land will be certified organic next August.

Cows beings transitioned to organic must be managed organically for a minimum of one year before the milk they produce is considered organic. Many farms considering changing to organic milk production choose to sell their herd and start over with certified organic cows, eliminating the need for a transitional period. We chose another route, preferring not to lose our years of crossbreeding to Brown Swiss and the superior (in our opinion!) cows and heifers this crossbreeding produced. Therefore, starting November 1, we will begin transitioning our herd to organic. During the herd transition year, farm raised crops can be fed to the cows. The first nine months of the transition, they must be fed a minimum of 80% organic/farm raised feed, with 20% conventional feed permitted. The final three months, all feed must be organic/farm raised. As soon as the herd is fully certified, all crops fed must be organic (no T3 feed permitted). After this lengthy land and herd transition, we’ll certainly be pleased to see the organic milk truck loading our first tank of organic milk in November 2015!

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In conclusion:

In our opinion, the organic industry provides valuable choices to consumers. We feel a sense of pride and accomplishment resulting from our efforts to farm sustainably, utilizing environmentally friendly, traditional farming practices, while providing consumers with the opportunity to choose foods that best align with their personal choices and ideals. Although the organic way of farming is a good fit for our family and farm, this is not true for all farms, neither should it be. I admire and respect farmers who choose to farm as we formerly did; they also are good stewards of the land, provide excellent care for their animals, and are great examples of the types of people needed to feed the world. But I believe that the organic industry is vital to agriculture as well, so that all consumers can find foods that they feel best benefits their needs and wants, either conventionally grown or certified organic. And as a farmer, I believe that is our most important, most beneficial job: supplying the world’s population with foods to fit their dietary choices. Up until this point, we are pleased with our decision, and, as we travel further on this organic journey, we’re excited to see what the future has in store for our cows and our family!