Cow-Calf Separation: Cruelty or Necessity?

Tuesday, May 21:

Mama Annie had her new calf – a heifer! 😍 – sometime over night between Sunday and Monday. When we came to the barn Monday morning, the calf was standing, all fluffy and dry after being thoroughly licked clean by her mama. However, it did not appear that she had nursed; her tummy was flat and she was bawling periodically. We milked Annie in the parlour, then bottle fed her colostrum to her very hungry calf. The two have been together since then and we have not yet observed the calf to be nursing, so like always, we feed her her mama’s milk with a bottle. We will move her to the calf nursery later today – about 36 hours after birth.

This is Annie’s second calf. As you can see in the video, Annie is not afraid of her farmer. Her calf, curious and precocious, runs up to the camera, perhaps thinking it is feeding time again. Annie watches, but she’s not nervous or overly protective. She knows from experience that her farmers will care for her and her calf with compassion, affection, and respect. When the time comes to move her calf to our comfortable calf nursery, we will do so calmly and gently. If Annie’s behaviour thus far is any indication – she’s been more interested in munching on feed at the feed bunk than in her calf – it will be the typical relaxed and stress free event it always is.

Wednesday, May 22:

Separating cows and calves is an emotionally loaded subject. Why? Because the reasons for and realities of the practice are not widely understood.

Too often, we attach our own emotions to animals, and while of course it is obvious that cows experience pain, fear, joy, and other emotions, they do not have exactly the same needs and preferences that humans do.

They don’t crave stimulating conversation, “Netflix and chill”, quality time with their spouse, a bed with blankets and sheets, nor many other human desires.

Coming from a non-dairy background myself, I at first was taken aback at the practise of separating cows and calves within a day or two after birth. Growing up, our beef cows spent several months with their calves until weaning time, and weaning was no fun: bawling calves & cows meant little sleep for the first few nights. However, once I saw for myself how neither the dairy cows nor their calves were unduly disturbed by the separation, my feelings changed.

It’s like this: in a beef herd, good mothering instincts are a desirable trait. A beef cow that isn’t a good mother won’t last long on a beef ranch; she must take excellent care of her calf out on the range when contact with the rancher is sporadic – or her calf will die. In dairy, however, the farmer is much more present and involved in all aspects of the cow’s day to day life and so it is easy to step in if the cow is not caring for her calf. This means that over the generations, good mothering instincts have not really been a factor when choosing desirable traits. Rather, calving ease, milk production, udder traits, feet and legs traits, longevity, and other “good milk cow” characteristics have been at the forefront of most breeding decisions. That mothering instinct has mostly been lost.

I’ve seen cows neglect their calves, more often than you can imagine. Others, like Annie here, will clean their calf after birth but not allow it to suckle. I’ve even seen cows attack their calves. Dairy cows are, by and large, just not the greatest mothers. Yes, we’ve had some cows that are better at caring for their calves. But even these cows react in the same way as you’ll see in this video. We’ve even occasionally experimented with keeping some of those cow calf pairs together in the herd. Do you know what happened? The cows pretty much ignored their calves and the calves began to treat the entire herd as their own personal milk smorgasbord, nursing from numerous cows in the herd. Yeah, not an ideal situation in the least!

Let me conclude with this: cows trust their farmers and are honestly more interested in access to food and water and spending time with the herd than in the wellbeing of their calf. The calf is well cared for as well, and showered with attention and affection. Both thrive. Both are happy. And that’s our goal as farmers: happy, healthy animals.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (I know we stress this often), remember that the best source of info about animal agriculture will ALWAYS be where it all happens: the farm. Have any questions about cow-calf separation or any other farming practice? Please ask!

A Canadian Dairy Farmer’s First Impressions of #USMCA

Disappointment and worry. That’s what dairy farmers across Canada are feeling this morning.

In case you missed it, a new NAFTA agreement was signed last night. Now called USMCA – The US Mexico Canada Agreement – this new trade deal has given away more access to our dairy market to our foreign trading partners: 3.59% of our market and forcing changes to the way we price certain classes of milk. This access and changes are more significant than what was given away in the last trade agreement – the CPTPP – and therein lies much of the sting.

Our prime minister and negotiators had promised our dairy farmers that they would defend supply management. But this doesn’t look or feel like a defence of our industry, this is another erosion of the stability of our industry and it’s a kick in the teeth to our nation’s dairy farmers. This feels like a death by a thousand cuts. Recent years have seen significant erosion of our market, with domestic milk giving place to foreign imports on our local store shelves. Both CETA and the CPTPP carved out significant chunks of our market. Under the original TPP, the US also had been given additional access to our markets (3.25%) but when Trump pulled the USA out, that access was lost. But rather than standing firm and perhaps offering a smaller percentage based on that fact, our government caved and offered up more to one country than it had given to a collection of foreign interests in both the CETA and CPTPP agreements.

It’s very frustrating. This access will not significantly help American dairy producers who have been overproducing such huge amounts of milk – 3 states alone produce enough excess milk every day to supply all Ontario consumers – that this access to our market will literally be just a drop in the bucket to them and won’t significantly ease their dairy woes. On the other hand, it’s a heavy blow to our Canadian farmers and our industry. Each foreign dairy product on store shelves displaces dairy produced here in Canada, by Canadian farmers for Canadian consumers. This affects Canadian jobs and the livelihood of our farmers and their families. Our farmers have paid for the ability to produce that milk and now another portion of that has just been given away, and for what? To appease Trump and help his re-election chances now that he can claim a win for dairy producing states?

I know that our industry and our farmers will be spending the coming days and weeks determining the impact to our sector. The impact at the farm level remains to be seen but we will be forced to tighten our belts still further, that much is sure.

In the meantime (and I know that this question will be asked frequently in the coming time) our loyal Canadian consumers can continue to support their Canadian farmers by purchasing dairy products labeled with the little blue cow. Your support is always most appreciated, and now will be more important than ever.

Back off, Trump!

Trade war. Sounds scary. And it is. As a Canadian dairy farmer, my farm and family is directly in the crosshairs in this fight. That cold sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs has returned yet again as we wait to hear what the future holds for us. Will we survive this latest attack on our livelihood? Will scenes like this soon only be a memory in rural Canada?

President Trump’s latest tirade against our country’s dairy supply management system and his demands to dismantle said system are frankly quite frightening. But what is most frustrating is the lack of background or real facts in his claims of unfair trade practices in dairy between the US in Canada.

Supply management means that our Canadian dairy farms produce enough milk for Canadian consumers. In order to keep this balance between demand and supply, our government has trade barriers in place in the form of tariffs on dairy imports. Foreign countries are able to import milk to Canada, but they will be charged a high tariff (up to 300%). This cost is often prohibitive to imports and so Canadian processors usually rely on domestic dairy supply. But… Canada does allow some tariff free imports – about 10%. This percentage has been increasing in recent years; CETA and the new TPP have whittled away a sizeable chunk of our dairy market. But get this: this 10% is more than double the amount that the USA allows. Say what??? Yes, you read that correctly. The US caps tariff free imports at about 2.75%. So, the US ALSO protects their dairy industry. Ironic, huh? Yet, President Trump has attacked our system. You see, American dairy farmers are in dire straits. They produce much much more milk than is needed in the States and export a rather significant percentage to other countries, Canada included. The global dairy market is saturated, there’s simply too much milk. This has driven the price paid to American farmers below the cost of production, pushing many farms out of business. It’s understandable then that Trump would look for ways to alleviate these problems. But expecting entirely free dairy trade with Canada to fix this problem is ludicrous. With a population 1/10th the size of the States’, our market is too small to make a very significant dent in their current surplus. Wisconsin alone produces more milk than all Canadian farms combined. The US needs to manage their own issues with over supply rather than expecting us to fix their problems. Our own farmers do a fine job of supplying our citizens with dairy products, thank you very much.

And if the border were opened, what would be the cost? Our current system ensures a fair price paid to farmers that covers the cost of production. American dairy farms are already producing milk at a loss, and Canadian farms would soon follow suit. Small farms unable to compete with the economies of scale present on mega dairies with tens of thousands of cows would be the first to go. Farms like ours. Family farms. Our rural fabric would be forever changed. Is that what Canadians want?

If you want the dairy products you enjoy to be produced on Canadian farms, under the strictest animal welfare, milk quality and food safety standards in the world, it’s time to speak up. Let your elected officials know that your Canadian dairy products and dairy farmers are important to you. Reach out to your MP. Send an email to the Prime Minister’s office. Do anything you can to encourage our government to stand firm, to not give in to Trump’s bullying tactics. If they don’t, this photo may one day be one of the only reminders of the farms that used to dot our countryside. Let’s work together to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Supply Management IV: will new NAFTA be our nemesis? 

Some of you have been asking for our thoughts on the latest news coming out of the NAFTA negotiations. And honestly? I’ve been too disheartened to even write about it. We’re scared. Scared about our futures, scared about our children’s futures. As relatively new additions to the dairy industry – we’ve been dairying for less than 15 years, only 6.5 years on our own – we carry a massive debt load. That’s all fine and dandy under the stability of our supply management system, and it should be paid off before our children would potentially take over the reins of the family farm. However, should that stability vanish, as the latest US demands for the abolishment of our entire system would entail, our farm would very possibly cease to exist. 

And why? Our system ensures a stable, fair price for farmers. It also has meant that consumers – and we’re consumers too! – have paid a competitive, fair price for dairy products in the grocery stores. It has allowed Canadian farmers to develop a top notch program that ensures that our dairy farms are held to the highest milk quality, food safety, and animal welfare standards in the world. Our system has helped hundreds of young and not-so-young dairymen and women get a leg up into the industry through various provincial new entrant programs. There are so many benefits to our system! Is it perfect? No! But it’s always changing and adapting to new situations. And quite frankly, it’s the best system out there. Around the world, dairy farmers are struggling to make ends meet. In New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Europe, and the USA dairy farmers are exiting the industry in droves, no longer able to keep their farms afloat after sustained low global milk prices. 

So why attack our industry? It doesn’t make sense to me. The world is awash in a glut of milk. Farmers around the world have been producing more and more milk, all just trying to make ends meet. But now there’s a huge over-supply. Canada’s market look mighty attractive; a good place to dump that excess. But that won’t solve the problem! With only 30 million consumers, 10x LESS than the US, our market would quickly be saturated with this foreign milk, and the problem would still be there. Except now, our small Canadian family farms would be forced out of business, unable to compete with the glut of milk pouring over the border at abnormally low prices. Our complete rural fabric would be torn apart. It’s not just the farmers who would suffer; it would be the feed companies, the veterinarians, the dairy supply companies. In short, it would mean large scale devastation of many rural communities. Instead, these governments eyeing up and demanding the end of our system should fix their problems at home. Manage your supply. There’s no need to over-produce; it’s just plain wasteful and it’s detrimental to the global dairy industry. When supply and demand are balanced, we all win: farmers, consumers, governments, and national economies. 

We’ll be watching the next NAFTA negotiation rounds with bated breath. We are most definitely thankful that so far our government has been vocal about their determination to protect supply management, and we hope and pray that these words will be reflected in their actions at the negotiating table. To our supporters: thank you. Thank you for your moral support. And thank you for continuing to support your local dairy farms with your purchasing habits. We wouldn’t be farming and living this dairy life, caring for our cows with dedication without you behind us! 

For now, we continue on. Our kids still follow us around the barns, helping out when they so wish, learning to do by doing. Will this knowledge and these skills ever be put to use one day? Will they ever follow their dreams to be just like mom and dad? I don’t know. Time will tell. 

British Columbia is burning. Please pray!

A state of emergency has been declared for our beautiful home province of British Columbia. A prolonged period of dry and very hot weather has brought tinder-dry conditions to much of the province, prompting officials to raise the wildfire risk to extreme in many areas and to ban all outdoor burning, including campfires and even tiki torches. But hundreds of dry lightning strikes over the past two days led to the sparking of 138 (!!) new wildfires yesterday. Several of these fires are “interface fires”, ie a threat to homes, communities, infrastructure, etc. Thousands have been forced to flee their homes and farms and ranches in the fires’ paths. Highways are closed due to the fires and smoke. Homes have burned. These fires are vigorous, unpredictable, and voracious, destroying everything in their paths. 

Yesterday, we heard that our childhood friend had been forced from her ranch that was directly in one of the fire’s paths. They chased their cows into a swampy area and left their home with their children and dogs, with nothing to do but pray that their home and animals would escape the raging inferno. They posted photos and video clips of the fire approaching their ranch as they left. Imagine their profound joy and thankfulness as they were able to return home this morning to their house intact, their cattle alive. Such a blessing!

Contrast that joy with the devastation felt by our fellow dairy farmers who lost their entire farm in another wildfire yesterday afternoon. They were able to rescue nearly all of the cows, but their home, barns, crops, even their irrigation equipment, is all gone, destroyed by the greedy blaze. Devastating. Unimaginable. There really are no words to adequately describe what they’re going through.

There is another fire burning in our vicinity, up on the east side of Harrison Lake. That fire too is not contained, but as of yet is not threatening any communities or homes. It’s far enough away with enough mountains between us as a barrier that it is not a worry, but it definitely is unsettling to think that our home and farm too could be lost in an instant to a blaze like that one.

Please, friends, keep our province, our communities, our farmers and ranchers in your prayers. Pray too for the safety of the brave men and women battling these blazes. Thank you.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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.