Supply Management: Good for farmers, good for consumers, good for Canada. Hands off, Bernier!

Okay friends, we’re coming down to the wire here in the Conservative leadership race. With all of the uproar in the last week with President Trump taking aim at our Canadian dairy industry, we can’t forget that we also have domestic challenges facing our industry. Just this morning, Canadian businessman and Conservative leadership candidate Kevin O’ Leary, one of the polling front-runners in the leadership race, pulled his name from the race and threw his support behind Maxime Bernier. As you know from our previous posts, Maxime Bernier has pledged to end supply management if he is elected leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, and Mr. O’ Leary had admitted that he would use supply management as a bargaining tool in future trade negotiations. Both he and Mr. O’ Leary are leading in the polls, so as you can understand, this bolstering of Bernier’s campaign is rather unsettling.

Supply management keeps Canadian dairy, poultry and egg farms vibrant, viable, and an integral part of our national fabric, from both a social and economic perspective. Without supply management and our border tarriffs, our family farms would have a very hard time competing with the glut of excess milk currently flooding the world dairy market. We know that our system that ensures a fair return for farmers is the envy of dairy farmers around the world, and we personally have received many messages from farmers south of the Canadian – US border who long for a system like ours that would allow their farms to remain viable in this turbulent time for the dairy market.

So the benefits for farmers are obvious, but what about for our consumers? Mr. Bernier alleges that if supply management were scrapped, consumers would pay much less for their dairy; he’s even claimed that Canadian consumers pay twice the amount they should pay for their dairy products. Unfortunately, Mr. Bernier does not have his facts straight. Check out the photos I’ve posted below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both research from an accredited research firm and very current anecdotal evidence from a fellow dairy farmer doing her own research prove that Canadians pay a very competitive price for their eggs and dairy. In fact, if we compare apples to apples, Canadian pay LESS for dairy compared to the same dairy products in the US (all Canadian milk is produced without the use of artificial growth hormones). Now, Mr. Bernier, either you’ve been misinformed, or you’re deliberately trying to garner support from unsuspecting Canadians by quoting “alternative facts”.  Judging by the number of times dairy farmers and industry representatives have presented the correct information to you, I’m leaning towards the latter assumption. That doesn’t say much for your integrity, and, in my opinion, throws your entire campaign and character into question. Definitely not the type of individual I want to see at the helm of the Conservative party or – if the Conservatives are re-elected in 2019 – leading our country.

Friends, let’s get the word out! We’re not only facing threats to our family farms from south of the border, we have a very real challenge right here at home too. If you want to enjoy the stable, competitive dairy prices that are the current reality, produced right here in Canada according to the highest safety, quality and animal welfare standards in the world — all the while benefitting family farms and rural economies across our country, speak up! Canadians need to understand that a vote for Bernier is a vote against food sovereignty, against family farms, and against the very fabric of our rural communities. Your help in sharing this message is appreciated.

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.

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.

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* 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.

Milk Myths Debunked – Part Two: Are dairy barns dirty and overcrowded?

If you have ever searched for information about dairy farming online,  I’m sure you have noticed this common theme in the claims put forward by animal rights groups: a lack of understanding of animal confinement. It’s not uncommon to hear/read activists’ remarks similar to this: “Animals should not be confined in barns, but should be free to roam where they please.” or “Confining animals in crammed and dirty barns is inhumane.” or “Dirty and unsanitary barns lead to disease epidemics in dairy herds, requiring constant antibiotic treatment.”

Yesterday, the absurdity of these claims struck me once again. It was time for our regular “changing of the girls’ sheets”, aka putting a new, fresh layer of aromatic and soft wood shavings in the cows’ stalls. Because the weather has been quite dry for a few weeks, we’ve been able to allow the girls some outdoor access, and so yesterday was a prime time for them to get out to stretch their legs while we gave them new bedding. After we were done with bedding, we opened the barn gate. The girls ignored us and stayed out in the paddock, enjoying the fresh air. But less than 15 minutes later it began to snow lightly. I watched with interest: for many of our girls, this was their first experience of snow, so how would they react? Our mild West Coast winters mean that snowfalls here are very few and far between. Our cows weren’t quite sure what to make of this white stuff! As the snow began to fall more thickly, the wind began to whip around the corner of the barn, causing me to shiver in my thick barn coat and I wasn’t surprised to see our ladies make their way rather quickly into the barn. I smiled as I watched many of them make their way to the stalls, settle down into the soft and fluffy new bedding and begin chewing their cud contentedly, while others headed off to the feed bunk to munch on their ration of corn silage, grass silage, hay and grains. It was so very obvious to me that our cows love their barn and enjoy spending time there!

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These cows weren’t too happy out in the wind and snow!

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Our barn has stalls for 91 cows. Currently, there are 85 cows in this barn.

 

Animal rights activists fail to understand that allowing cows access to the outdoors is all well and good, but cows also require shelter from the elements, even here in our mild and temperate climate, but more especially in areas that experience harsher extremes. And that’s why farmers take care to ensure that their barns are comfortable, clean and safe places for cows to spend their days. Here in BC and soon all across Canada, adherence to the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle is now mandatory. This Code is extremely comprehensive and deals extensively with all aspects of animals care, from animal housing, feeding, and health care  to animal welfare. All farms across Canada will be regularly inspected to ensure compliance with this Code.

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Monica soaking up the rays in her comfortable stall.

In regards to animal housing, the Code states that “housing must allow cattle to easily stand up, lie down, adopt normal resting postures, and have visual contact with other cattle. Cattle must have a bed that provides comfort, insulation, warmth, dryness and traction.” In addition, the Code demands that cows not be overcrowded. As organic farmers, we are required to also abide by these regulations. In the case of stocking density, the Organic Standards supersede the Code and require a less dense stocking rate. Barn cleanliness is also dealt with in the Code, which requires that manure is removed regularly and thoroughly. Each farm will be subject to inspections which will score the farm on the cleanliness of their cows. “Cleanliness scoring of dairy cattle is a tool for measuring environmental cleanliness and the relative risks for … diseases.” I have visited many dairy farms, and I know that farmers are committed to providing a comfortable and sanitary home for their cows. This Code will likely not require any changes on these farms, nor on ours, because we already comply with these standards, but it does make it apparent that farmers and our national dairy board take proper animal housing very seriously.

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Our calves’ housing environment is important too! Cleanliness and comfort are top priority.

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Food is produced in our milking parlour – cleanliness is both necessary and mandatory!

In addition to the Code of Practice, Canadian dairy farms are also required to be certified by the Canadian Quality Milk program, an on-farm food safety program to help producers prevent and reduce food safety hazards and risks on their farms. In order to be in compliance with the CQM program, dairy producers monitor critical areas and implement best management practices, including, among others, sanitizing the milking equipment and making sure their wash water is clean. Farms are inspected to ensure compliance and to guarantee a safe product for consumers.

I recently discussed our commitment to our cows’ welfare with an animal rights activist. In our discussion, she purported that our farm was an anomaly. She couldn’t believe that farms like ours are the norm, not the exception. Our farm is not unusual. It’s just a normal farm, typical of the family farms that dot the landscape across our country. So why do people have a hard time believing this? Unfortunately, it is because it is so difficult for consumers to find real information about real farms. When trying to find information about dairy farming online, one is bombarded with biased information from animal rights groups crying murder, rape, and general animal abuse. It’s no wonder that consumers can become concerned and even disgusted, especially if this type of information meant to further the animal rights groups’ agenda is all that can be found! To help to combat this type of information, I’d like to invite you, my fellow farmers, to share stories and photos of your happy cows in your comfortable and clean barns. By doing so, we can work together to dispel the myths and lies that surround our beautiful way of life and perhaps renew a consumer’s disenchanted outlook on dairy farming and spark a new appreciation for dairy products.

 

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.)

Farmers Care

Farmers care for their cows. Verb? Noun? No matter, both most definitely apply to dairy farmers! Farmers feel sentimentally attached to the animals they own, while providing them with the necessities to ensure their health and welfare. Animal health and welfare are extremely important to dairy farmers. We know that in order for a cow to produce milk that is high quality and in good supply, she must be happy and healthy; therefore farmers place a huge emphasis on ensuring that the animals they own are properly cared for.

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Happy girls on pasture. September 2014

First of all, farmers pay close attention to the feed given to their cows. We take special care to secure high quality feed for our cows. Many farms across Canada grow the majority of their cow feed on farm but purchased feed can also account for part of a dairy farms’ ration. Both purchased and home grown feed must be high quality to guarantee cow health. Farmers work closely with trained and specialized nutritionists to provide the right feed and nutritional components for each stage of a cow’s life. In dairy farming, what goes into the cows has a great impact on their overall health and wellness, which makes quality feed a high priority for dairy farmers.

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First cut of grass in May 2014

Animal housing also plays an important role in animal care. Across Canada, there are many different styles and types of cow housing, but one thing remains constant: our commitment to provide our cows with a safe and comfortable area to call “home”. Barns provide shelter from the elements: the heat of summer and the extreme cold of winter. Proper ventilation and lighting are paramount in cow comfort; many barns have opaque curtained or paneled sides as well as large overhead doors at the front and back of the barn that allow light and air into barns. In our barns, our cows have plenty of room to move around and socialize with other cows and engage in normal herd behaviours. Our stalls are deep bedded with soft wood shavings; other farms use sand or mats for bedding and some farms even have water beds for their cows! During the growing season, our cows have access to pasture. We find this improves hoof health and strength and cow health. Farms that do not provide access to pasture often install mats on the concrete floors in the barns to provide a cushion that mimics an outdoor surface. Dairy barns are cleaned multiple times per day, removing the manure from the barns via scrapers or through slatted floors, which provides a clean surface for the cows to stand on. Regardless of barn type, farmers know that if a cow is comfortable, she will likely remain healthy and productive.

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This lovely lady is enjoying the breeze and sunshine flooding in through the opened curtained walls.

 

Farmers are often actively involved in animal health care:

Hoof care: We provide foot baths for our cows, which helps to stop the growth of painful fungi or infections of the hoof. If a cow has a sore hoof, she is less likely to consume proper amounts of feed and her body condition and health will suffer as a result. Healthy feet are a huge asset in a milk producing cow, so many farmers enlist the help of trained hoof trimming professionals who visit a farm multiple times per year to trim the cows’ hooves and treat any infections or lesions. Yes, our girls are pampered; they have more pedicures done in one year than I have done in 10! In between visits from the hoof trimmer, we will take care to treat any hoof problems that may arise.

Disbudding: Calves are disbudded (their horn buds are removed with a cauterizing iron) at 3 weeks of age, a process that is quick and nearly painless. This process ensures the safety of a cow’s herd mates as well as farm staff. Our calves are sedated and given a local anesthetic and analgesics during the treatment. By the time the sedative has worn off, the calves are unaware that anything out of the ordinary has taken place!

Antibiotic treatments: If a cow is ill or is suffering from an infection, such as mastitis, farmers will treat the cow with antibiotics to combat the infection, at the advice of a veterinarian. If a cow has been treated with antibiotics, her milk must be withheld from the food chain and is discarded until the drug specific withdrawal time (which is the time is takes for the drug to be excreted from the cow’s body) has passed.

 

Of course, we also enlist the help of a veterinarian team to care for our cows. A vet visits our farm periodically to check our overall herd health and to check each cow’s prenatal status. Additionally, our vet is on call day or night, weekends and holidays, if any problem should arise which we are unable to resolve ourselves. For example, on July 1st, Canada Day (see my Facebook post on July 2 for more details and pictures) we called the vet out to our farm for an emergency. A cow had pushed her uterus out after a hard calving. Without veterinarian care, a prolapsed uterus is a sure death sentence for a cow. Thankfully, with proper treatment, the prognosis in such cases is excellent. The vet arrived promptly and soon had the uterus back in its rightful place. The cow is now doing very well and is showing no ill effects from the traumatic experience. Farmers and vets work together to provide the best possible medical care for dairy cows.

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Cleaning the prolapsed uterus before re-insertion.

Perhaps the most overlooked but maybe the most important aspect of animal care is the frequent observation of the dairy herd. A good farmer or herd manager will quickly be able to notice any discrepancies or changes in cow behavior and health if they are familiar with the herd and normal cow attitudes and behaviors. Times of close contact with the cows, such as at milking time, are excellent opportunities to observe and record any disparity or change in cow health and wellness. Times like these are also excellent opportunities for showing our affection to our girls – our most affectionate cows often meander over for head rubs and scratches if they see us in the barn. Cows needing extra attention of any sort can then be separated from the herd and have their specific needs compassionately and thoroughly attended to.

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Calf kisses!

The animal welfare section of Dairy Farmers of Canada’s ProAction initiative, the Code for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle, which is now mandatory here in British Columbia, as well as in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, delves deeply into animal welfare issues. The Code deals with all aspects of animal care highlighted above, as well as cow transportation and euthanasia. If a cow must be transported to auction or slaughter, special protocols are in place to ensure that cows that are unable to withstand the journey or are unable to walk onto the transport truck are not transported at all. If a cow is too weak or ill to be transported, she must remain on farm until she is stronger or must be humanely euthanized if her overall prognosis of recovery is not promising. Farms in these provinces (and soon all across Canada) are required to abide by the Code and are subject to inspections to ensure that each farm places firm emphasis on animal care and welfare.

As dairy farmers, we take great pride in the care given to our cows. We take extreme care to ensure that our girls are comfortable and free of disease and pain and fear. We know that happy, comfortable, well cared for cows produce the best quality milk. And that, after all, is the dairy industry’s mission: providing Canadians with top quality milk that is produced by healthy and happy cows.