High Yields on Organic Corn. Yes, it’s possible.

As organic crop and dairy farmers, one of the most common questions we are asked about organic farming is this: “How do you grow corn? I’ve heard/read that organic corn is really difficult to grow organically – it gets over run with weeds and because chemical fertilizer isn’t an option, it only yields half of what could be grown conventionally.”

Here’s our answer to that…

As we’ve shared in the past (here and here), organic farming revolves around practices that increase soil health. Whether it be cover cropping, using manure or compost for fertilizing, or rotational cropping, organic farming requirements all have one over-arching goal: growing and maintaining healthy soil. Let’s take two of our corn fields as an example.

Field number 1, here at the home farm, has been farmed organically for 5 years now. It started out as pasture, had cow and chicken manure applied multiple times per year, and last summer was rotated into corn. We planted a triticale cover crop last fall, harvested it in the spring, spread chicken manure, plowed under the residue and seeded it in corn for one last season before it will be rotated back to grass. We also have irrigation here at the farm and irrigated the corn three times this summer. This field yielded 29-30 tons/acre of corn silage, the highest we’ve ever recorded on our farm. (Incidentally, the custom harvesting crew was very favourably impressed, stating that this corn was better than the majority of what they had harvested in our area so far this year. )

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Field number 2 is part of a new long term lease that we acquired in the spring of 2016. It too is in its second year of corn and previously was a hazelnut orchard. No manure had been applied for more than two decades. Soil testing showed nearly no organic matter present. Last year, we applied chicken and dairy manure before seeding the corn. A hot dry summer with no irrigation presented a pretty dismal picture last fall: only 13 tons per acre of corn silage. A very very poor return on investment of time and money (land rent & seed).

 

But we weren’t giving up.

We know that organic farming isn’t about quick fixes, it’s about long term gains.

A conventional farmer would probably have added fertilizer with the corn seed and perhaps side-dressed with a specifically tailored chemical fertilizer later in the growing season. It would likely have resulted in a better crop yield. But it would have fed just the plant and not addressed the underlying problem of poor soil health. Our approach has been to utilize a winter cover crop, applying more manure this spring, and plowing under the cover crop residue before seeding. Just that one year of adding organic inputs has worked wonders! With more organic matter decomposing and breaking down in the soil, the corn crop had more “food” throughout the growing season. The added organic matter also helped the soil to retain moisture even though rain was pretty much non-existent again this summer. The result? With very similar & equally unfavourable weather conditions, a 65% increase in yield! This section will now be rotated into a grass/alfalfa mix for the next six years before our rotation brings corn back to this piece. Can you imagine how much better still that crop will be after years of building up that organic matter? It’s such an exciting prospect.


I guess the point is this: organic farming done well can definitely hold its own in “competition” with conventional farming when comparing yields. We may have different methods of achieving those yields, and organic farming often precludes the use of “quick fixes”, but based on this and other examples, it should be apparent that generalizations that organic farming = decreased crop yields are neither warranted nor accurate. Additionally, I believe that so many of the organic principles have amazing benefits for the land that we’ll leave behind to future generations. I’m certain of this: while organic farming may not be for everyone, it certainly is a good fit for our family and farm!
Any questions? Feel free to ask.

Vote! The future of Canada’s dairy farms may depend on your choice!

Hello friends.

In just over two months, members of the Conservative Party of Canada will choose their new leader. By applying for a Conservative party membership by next Tuesday, March 28, you too can have a say in who becomes the next leader of the Official Opposition. Rona Ambrose has done a great job at the helm as interim leader but now it’s time to vote for the new long term voice and face of the party.

As dairy farmers, we’re watching this leadership competition unfold VERY closely. You see, all of the political parties in Canada have historically been supportive of the dairy and poultry industries’ current method of matching consumer demand with a supply of fresh milk, poultry, and eggs. Our system, called supply management, effectively protects our Canadian dairy sector’s vibrancy, viability, and important contributions to the Canadian economy while providing consumers with top-quality, safe, plentiful, and appropriately priced dairy products.

A few years ago, I shared the following description of our system in my first blog post about supply management: “In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Canadian government and Canadian dairy farmers came to the conclusion that production discipline – balancing supply and demand for milk products – was necessary to avoid extreme market fluctuations. Both the federal and provincial governments worked together with farmers to implement a system that is adjusted to suit the needs of Canadian demand for dairy. The system is administered by the Canadian Dairy Commission, which measures the demand for milk and sets the production limits accordingly. Plain white milk as well as any other dairy product labeled as Canadian is solely produced by Canadian dairy farmers for Canadian consumers. Milk is a local product, supporting local economies across our nation. The share of the market that each farm owns is called quota. Quota grants the farm a right to produce milk. The provincial quota is adjusted according to demand, and is increased or decreased as needed. Overproduction and waste are avoided because production is directly synchronized with consumer demand. Dairy farmers are paid a standard price for the milk they produce. This price is set by the Canadian Dairy Commission and is the result of a yearly national study of the cost of producing milk at the farm. Dairy farmers are paid the cost of producing the milk they ship to the processor.”

But with the prospect of a new leader for the party in official opposition to the governing Liberal Party of Canada, all of this could be in jeopardy. The two front runners in the race to become the new leader of the Conservative Party are no friends of supply management. In fact, one of the candidates, Maxime Bernier, has based nearly his entire platform on the premise that, if elected, he will do his utmost to dismantle this very system of stability, strength, and self-reliance that allows family farms across Canada to prosper. The other front runner, Kevin O’Leary, has oft times allowed his bias against supply management to show. Although he now professes that he supports supply management, he has also said that he will use supply management as a negotiation chip in any future trade deals. You can’t have it both ways, in my opinion!

The most infuriating part of all of this, however, are the half-truths and myths on which these candidates base their opinions. For example, they claim that consumers suffer as a result of supply management, claiming that Canadian consumers pay double the market rate for dairy products. Let’s take a look at that for a moment by comparing the prices in Canadian grocery stores to those south of us in the USA.

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Compiled by Nielson, this graph is a weighted average over one entire year of milk sales in a select number of countries with which Nielson has contracts. It’s a very accurate picture because of the sheer size of the study, taking into account purchasing habits and the length of time studied.

Well, would you look at that!

To compare apples to apples, we must compare the price of “hormone free” milk in the US to Canadian milk, as all milk in Canada is artificial-growth-hormone free. I’m sorry, but do you see what I see? It appears that Canadian consumers pay LESS than our neighbours to the south! Huh! Who would have thought that this would be the case considering the rhetoric spewing from the anti-supply-management camps!

As further evidence to these facts, check out this comment from a friend of mine who recently visited Florida with her children. This is what she had to say:

“US $4 for a gallon of partly skimmed milk (3.79L, not 4L like up here in Canada) while I’m used to buying 4 L for $4.29 Canadian.”

Figure in the current exchange rate, and you’re paying over $6.65 for less milk. Interesting!

Mr. Bernier also claims that the price of milk in the stores would drop if supply management were abolished. Just take a look at the price of milk in New Zealand. They abolished supply management, but the retail price of milk is higher than in Canada AND farmers are paid much less. Just last year many farmers were forced to exit the industry when the farm gate price dropped far below the cost of producing their milk. Do we want to see our family run dairy farms disappear from our nation’s landscape? If Canada were to dismantle supply management, our family farms would be a thing of the past as large conglomerates would swoop in to take over those bucolic farms dotting our countryside from coast to coast.

Critics of supply management often say that our system stifles innovation. I’d beg to differ. Every year we take part in a tour of the newly built farms in our small part of the province. There usually are 10 farms on the tour, and the technology and innovation is staggering. Robotic milking equipment, robotic feeding equipment and the latest equipment in animal welfare advances, to name just a few.  Family farms are able to invest in these sort of technological marvels just BECAUSE of the stability that supply management offers. Take a look at the graphic below. Canadian farm gate price for milk is stable, and sufficiently covers the cost of production, which allows for investment capital for these projects. This stability means that the banks are confident in our farms, and we are able to borrow the money to fund these innovative additions to our farms. Our farms are well maintained, in good repair, and feature the latest equipment and tools to provide the best care for our cows.

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It should now be quite obvious to you that critics of supply management are basing their opinion of our system on faulty information. But these critics refuse to listen to the voices of Canada’s dairy farmers. We’re facing a very real, very immediate problem. If an anti-supply management candidate is elected in this leadership race, we could stand to lose much of our support in Ottawa if the voice of the official opposition does not hold the governing Liberals’ feet to the fire when or if our system comes under attack during trade negotiations and the like. And I shudder to think of what could happen should the Conservatives be re-elected in 2019 and either of these candidates would become Prime Minister. Not an ideal situation in the least!

Now that you understand the threats facing our family farms, would you be interested in helping to keep our system intact and benefiting both consumers and farmers? Here’s what you can do: Become a member of the Conservative Party of Canada by March 28, 2017. Membership is open to all citizens and permanent residents of Canada above 14 years of age, provided they are not a member of another political party. A one year membership is just $15 and allows you to vote in this coming leadership election to be held on May 27. We, along with our fellow Canadian dairy farmers will be watching the race with interest, and will in all likelihood be in communication with one another about which candidate we feel will best benefit all of Canada, dairy farmers included. Due to the way this vote will be structured, it will be important for all dairy farmers to vote as a block in order for our votes to be of any influence in the outcome. We have a few more weeks to decide who this candidate will be. I’m curious to hear from candidates, their staff, and other interested parties about who they think will be the best person to man the helm of the Conservative Party of Canada going forward.

Until next time,

Julaine, a Canadian dairy farmer.

Video

discouraged but not defeated

Summer is drawing to a close. The golden light of late summer is wonderful for farm photography — even those pesky flies are somewhat beautiful when backlit by warm rays of evening sunshine.

But as beautiful as this scene may be, walking back to the house last night after evening chores I was feeling uninspired and truth be told…discouraged. You see, I’ve been following the drama that has been unfolding in Toronto this past week, and it has me contemplating our efforts to provide an insight into animal agriculture. If you aren’t aware of what has been going on, here is a short summary: In June 2015, an animal rights activist group was standing on a traffic island near a Toronto slaughter house to “bear witness” to the animals going to slaughter, as part of a weekly “vigil” of the Toronto Pig Save. When a truck carrying pigs stopped at the traffic light, one of the activists began trying to give water to the pigs inside the truck. The truck driver stepped out of his truck and confronted the activist. A tense exchange of words and threats followed. The activist, strategically being video taped, claimed that the pigs were suffering and dehydrated. The truck driver told her not to give the pigs water because he had no proof that what she was offering the pigs was indeed water, and asked her to desist. Ignoring him, the activist continued to pour water over the pigs’ snouts. The next day, the farmer contacted the police. Following an investigation, the activist has been charged with mischief for pouring an “unknown liquid” into the trailer.

The whole story seems unbelievable. Why should someone be prosecuted for simply giving a helpless, suffering animal some water?  Why should someone face a fine and/or jail time for showing compassion? That’s what the animal rights activists would have you believe. And at face value, it seems like they have a point. However, look at this from other aspects. With regards to food safety, how could the driver know for certain that it was indeed pure water in the bottle? What if it was laced with another substance – antibiotics perhaps?  No, this is not a delusional fear — I’ve had activists threaten to secretly inject my cows with antibiotics so that their milk would be unfit for human consumption, and they told me that they hoped it would cause me to lose my license to ship milk. We need to understand that these groups want to see the end of using animals for food, and in my experience they would have few qualms about using nefarious means to do so, including introducing toxins into the food chain under the guise of compassion. The farmer also raised a good point in court that this practice of giving the animals water presented a safety threat to the activists themselves. What if the truck pulled away from the stop light and an activist’s arm remained in the truck? What if the activist was run over and gravely injured? Who would be at fault then?

Now, allow me to encourage you to dig a little deeper yet. It has become quite obvious to me that the activists actually welcome this lawsuit. Judging by the hoards of protesters in court, they’re using this trial as an opportunity to further their agenda. Their trial strategy adds credence to this line of thought: they plan to ask the judge to view a virtual reality video that depicts the inside of a slaughterhouse from an animal’s point of view. This trial has morphed into something much more than a simple mischief lawsuit. It has become a grandstand for the activists to air their opinion that using animals for food is unethical.

So why am I discouraged? As you can gather, I’m well acquainted with the activists’ opinion of animal agriculture. I know that they will do anything to further their agenda. This is nothing new. But what has me so bothered are the comments that I’ve read about this trial. It’s not just militant vegans and activists spouting these lies and accusations. Members of the non-farming public seem to just lap up these accusations of rampant animal cruelty on farms and then regurgitate these lies as the truth. I’ve read comments like this: “You farmers only see dollar signs when you look at your animals, not individual beings that feel pain.” “Nobody checks on farming regulations, it’s a hidden dark secret in this country and it all needs to be exposed.” “These animals are pumped full of hormones and antibiotics anyway, so how can the farmer pretend to be concerned about possible toxins in the water this angel offered to these poor suffering animals.” “I eat meat, but I feel guilty doing so, because I know that this food is a product of abuse and mistreatment.” These comments hurt. They might be directed at another industry, but we’re all farmers. It doesn’t matter if it’s poultry, pork, dairy, or crops — when one farmer is attacked, we all feel the pain. When the credibility and integrity of one farmer or industry is called into question, all farmers bristle with outrage. We spend our lives doing our utmost to provide the best care possible for our animals, but sometimes it seems like it doesn’t matter, because some would rather believe that we are heartless, cruel, money-hungry sadists.

I guess this is why filming this video last night left me discouraged. Good news about great animal welfare, and happy, healthy cows treated with respect and compassion just doesn’t make the news. The stories and photos I share on social media are met with appreciation by our followers, but they never make waves in the news the way this story does. Good news just doesn’t sell. And because of this, the lies and myths about animal farming continue to spread. Sometimes this makes me wonder if the time I spend opening our barn doors and sharing our farm stories transparently is even worth it. Does it even matter? Will it make a difference?

And then, this morning I watched a short video of a friend demonstrating milking a cow at the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver. I saw the wonder and interest in the spectators’ faces and heard the amazement in their “oohs” and “aahs” as the milk filled the reception pail. 3 million people visit this fair every year, and they all can see real farming first hand with this display. Watching this helped. I know that not everyone has a poor opinion about farming and farmers. I know that our work is valued and appreciated. I know that the comments I read do not accurately represent the general public.  I guess I just need to focus on the good and on the important. I might have become a little more jaded and a tad more cynical, but I know in my heart that the real stories about farming do matter. Our consumers matter. Our animals matter. And farmers matter because farmers truly do care.

This is not meant to be a rant or a “poor me” type of post but rather an opportunity to share with you that opening our barn doors to give you a glimpse at our farm life is not always easy, and sometimes can be down right discouraging. I find that too often I share only the nice and uplifting stories, but I think it’s important for you to understand that not all days on the farm are good days and that farmers have feelings too.

But in spite of all this, I have decided that yes, I will continue to share our farm life with you. This experience has shown me once again just how important our real farm stories are. In the face of mounting misinformation and lies, we must commit to ensuring that the truth is shared and broadcasted for all to hear and see. That truth is this: we farm with a love for our land and for our animals. We farm for you and your family and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

Respect is a Two-Way Street

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

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

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

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

Happily, there was a saving grace in this post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Supply Management Part 3: Addressing Recent Globe and Mail Article

Mondays are busy days on the farm and in the farmhouse. We generally take care of just the necessary chores on Sunday, so Monday really signals the start of a new, busy work week. But I’ll still usually find time to sit down with a cup of coffee, usually after the kids are on the bus to school, to go through my twitter feed. This is mostly a pleasurable, relaxing time of day for me. Not today. I was confronted with this article in the Globe and Mail by Barrie McKenna, who has added to his rather lengthy repertoire of anti-supply management opinion pieces with this: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/the-world-is-rapidly-closing-in-on-canadas-dairy-industry/article23678491/

I contacted a few of my friends in the industry, a dairy farmer and an industry leader. Here is what they had to say:

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Jennifer Hayes’ thoughts on the article. Find her on Twitter @FarmShigawake for more thoughtful commentary on supply management.

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Wally Smith, President of Dairy Farmers of Canada, reacts to the article.

 

Initially, I was tempted to just move on with my day, but the more I thought about this article, the more I realized that I have much to say to Mr. McKenna, and that I would like to have my opinion, and the opinion, I believe, of all Canadian dairy farmers, heard as well. I don’t pretend to be an expert on trade, or supply management either, for that matter. But Mr. McKenna’s biased opinion piece leaves me with the impression that either he doesn’t understand the system or that he blatantly takes advantage of his readers’ lack of knowledge on the subject presented here.

Mr.McKenna’s first sentence already shows his bias. He says our dairy “regime” is sealed off from the rest of the world. While I know that we do use tariffs to limit imports of dairy products from other countries, Mr. McKenna conveniently leaves out the fact that we allow more tariff free imports than the US and the EU – 6% of imports are tariff-free in Canada, with only 2.75% tariff free imports allowed into the US. Additionally, as part of the new CETA agreement, Canada will allow 9% of the cheese consumed in Canada to come from the EU tariff free, up from the current generous access of 5%. The (EU) currently imports only a modest number of Canadian dairy products, despite the fact that the EU is a market about 15 times the size of Canada.

Moving further along in the article, Mr. McKenna references a confidential report from the Dairy Farmers of Ontario. But rather than being what he seems to think is a smoking gun detailing Canada’s dairy woes, it rather is a piece that “indeed is confidential, and was prepared in the context of reviewing policy and identifying growth opportunities among farmer delegates … it actually identifies that there is an opportunity for more competitive pricing to compete in the domestic dairy ingredients market which is already directly subject to international price competition from duty-free imports. More competitive pricing will create some export opportunities but these are small compared to the opportunities within the domestic market and below current permitted exports.” https://www.milk.org/Corporate/News/NewsItem.aspx?id=5461

I have difficulty believing the statement that Canada is facing a growing glut of unwanted milk. How on earth would Mr. McKenna like to explain the extra quota allotted to Canadian farmers over the last year and a half? BC farmers have received an extra 10% of quota, and Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI have received 5%, while the remaining Western provinces have received an amount in-between these numbers. This extra quota has been allotted to encourage farmers to produce more milk to fill the increased demand for milk products by Canadian consumers. I’m sorry, Mr. McKenna, but numbers don’t lie.

Further in the article, the author states that creating a new market to compete with foreign imports of milk proteins or export at world milk prices amounts to an “illegal subsidy.” The irony is actually laughable. Mr. McKenna would like to see our borders open to imports – imports that are very highly subsidized by their country of origin. Care to explain your double standards, Mr. McKenna?

Mr. McKenna drops his two most infuriating comments at the end of the article. First of all, he says that consumers pay an inflated price. Now, if you remember, I addressed this in a previous post, here. Farmers are paid the cost of producing the milk. Period. The recent reduction in the price paid to farmers ($0.06/L for us on our farm) because of decreased costs of production illustrates this perfectly. Keeping prices artificially low in the store by supplying farmers with government subsidies (like in the US, which appears to be Mr. McKenna’s ideal system) does not benefit the consumer, but rather inflates their taxes. Secondly, he indirectly calls farmers greedy. Now, I personally take offense to this, and I’m sure other dairy farmers do as well. Is wanting a fair price for the product we produce “greedy”? Maybe he should talk to dairy farmers in the UK and France who are dumping their milk to protest the dropping milk price, a price with which they cannot cover the cost of production. Are they, too, greedy?

Let me paraphrase my opinion like this: supply management is a great system. It ensures a stable economic outlook for farmers and stable prices in the grocery stores for consumers. Stability on the farm means that farmers can dedicate more of their time and investments in sustainability, technology and advancing animal welfare. With supply management, we all win, consumers and farmers alike. And no, Mr. McKenna, dairy farmers don’t think the system is broken. I am a dairy farmer, and I support supply management – because it WORKS.

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.

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

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

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

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Enjoying beautiful fall weather in the pasture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A new heifer calf!

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

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

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

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

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Heading out to pasture after evening milking.