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.

Share Your Story

“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.