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.

 

Christmas on the Farm

(This post was written for Dairy Farmers of Canada’s Farmers Voice blog. Find it here.)

Christmastime really is the most wonderful time of the year. For our farm family, the Christmas season marks the culmination of a long year spent milking and feeding cows, caring for our animals, growing and harvesting crops, and general farm maintenance. It’s also a time to reflect on things that went well in the past year and on opportunities to improve in the New Year. This year more than ever we will think back to an incredibly busy summer and fall, during which we built a new barn to house all of our young stock under one roof. This project allowed us to demolish several dilapidated buildings that were formerly used to house our calves and heifers and, equipped with automatic scrapers, this barn will eliminate hours of manure removal each week. In 2015, we also finally completed our three year transition to organic dairy farming. We certainly appreciated the value of hard work and determination when we watched that first truckload of organic milk head off to the processor at the beginning of November! And this Christmas is made even more special by the addition of our newest farm kid: baby Connor is 4 months old and will be celebrating his first Christmas with us this year. Thinking back on 2015 certainly fills us with thankfulness for farm and family blessings.

Like most farm families that we know, Christmas is also a time to connect with friends and (extended) family. For us, this means that we attend and host various Christmas dinners and events. It’s always wonderful to feel the bonds of family and friendship strengthened by these gatherings. And, for me, it’s an opportunity to challenge myself to see how many dairy ingredients I can include in each dish served or brought to potluck dinners. Whether it’s generous dollops of sour cream in mashed potatoes, scads of butter slathered over a turkey, or thick layers of cheese oozing delectably from vegetable casseroles, I make it my personal mission to bolster the Canadian dairy industry with my Christmas cooking! I challenge you, my readers, to find interesting and unexpected ways to include dairy in your Christmas cooking. I promise you, everything is better with cheese…or butter…or cream…

But as any farmer will tell you, farm work doesn’t magically disappear at Christmastime! There are still cows to be milked, watered, fed. Calves need their bottles and heifers still love to munch on hay. Farm midwifery doesn’t slow down at all either – there’s still a good chance of being called out of bed for a midnight calving during the holiday season. But I wager that for farmers, myself included, this does not cause discontentment. For us, farming is a labour of love. And at Christmas, just like during the rest of the year, we enjoy being with those we love and doing what we love best. We love our cows and we love farming, so how could any of this cause displeasure? Rather, I find that at Christmas these tasks are all the more enjoyable, especially with more time to enjoy the simple pleasures of farm life: taking the extra time to pet that affectionate cow, marveling at the miracle of a new bovine arrival, or watching that delicious warm milk streaming from rounded udders is even more poignant and gratifying at this time of year. I truly believe that farm life is the best life, no matter the season.

Looking ahead to the New Year we know that, like any other year, 2016 will not be without challenges. This is especially true for our industry, as we expect to learn just how much the new trade agreement will impact us all individually. But I am fully confident that our Canadian dairy farmers and our dairy industry will commit to rising above these challenges. Farmers are resilient, as has been proven through the millennia; tough times are nothing new to farmers. Farm life is a challenging life, dependent on weather and crop success and good herd health and milk production. These new obstacles created by trade agreements will not cause the downfall of our industry. Just like we always have, we will continue fight to keep our industry competitive and our consumers satisfied with and supportive of our farms and our top-quality dairy products.

Farmers and farm friends, we wish you a dairy merry Christmas and a happy “moo” year!

The Subway Saga: My Thoughts on Marketing and Farmer Rivalry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Organic Farming Anti-Science?

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

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

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

Some recent examples

Some recent examples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Check Out These Happy Cows!

“…It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”

Grazing 2015 officially began today! Organic dairy farms are required to pasture their cows during the growing season, weather and pasture condition permitting. We’ve had enough grass to pasture for about a week, but the ground was just too soggy to allow the girls pasture access. Today we decided that it was dry and firm enough for the girls to spend their first day outdoors.

After spending the last 5 months in the barn (with access to a walkout area), the girls were extremely eager to head out to the lush buffet of grass. As we opened the pasture gates, they eagerly crowded to the back of the barn, and rushed down the laneway as soon as the gates were opened. Heels flew high and udders swayed from side to side as they galloped around the pasture, expressing their glee with snorts and high flying tails.

Some of the older, more staid ladies settled down to graze fairly quickly. In my opinion, there’s nothing more blissful and relaxing than listening to the rhythmic tear, chew and swallow of a cow enjoying a good meal of tender young grass. What do you think?

Looking out of my kitchen window now, 3 hours later, 1/3 of the herd is stretched out on the grass, enjoying the spring sun; 1/3 is grazing contentedly; the final 1/3 is standing and also chewing their cud – the picture of pastoral contentment. Here’s hoping we’ll enjoy a long and successful grazing season this year!

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!

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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!”

 

 

 

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.