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. 

Unsettling but Inaccurate Headlines

Most mornings I enjoy my first cup of coffee while scrolling through my social media feeds, catching up on the latest news stories. This morning’s routine wasn’t the usual enjoyable practice it normally is. A fellow BC dairy farmer messaged me, asking if I had read this article: http://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/foi-documents-show-over-25-per-cent-of-b-c-dairy-farms-failed-inspection. I hadn’t, and the headline alone was enough to shock me.
If you’re new to this page, you might not know about the horrific animal abuse case that rocked our local dairy industry two years ago. That incident, now before the courts, prompted our provincial dairy authorities to fast track the BC dairy industry’s compliance to the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle; we wanted to show our consumers that proper animal care is of supreme importance to dairy farmers. Already slated to be rolled out across Canada in 2017, this new segment of our national ProAction initiative deals with the proper care and handling of all animals on dairy farms, including housing, feed, medical treatment, and transport of cows, calves, and bulls. As of October 2014, compliance to the Code was mandatory and preliminary inspections began in January 2015. Over the following 18 months, 73 of BC’s nearly 500 dairy farms were inspected as the program began to get underway. Once the program is fully implemented, 250 dairy farms will be inspected every year. 
So what does this inspection involve? Well, our farm was inspected this past Spring under the new animal welfare guidelines in conjunction with our annual milk safety/quality re-certification. An inspector came out to our farm, walked through our barns, and looked over our Standard Operating Procedures. The inspection of the SOPs – documents that detail exactly what steps must be taken during farming practices such as transport, health care, downed cows, and euthanasia – was the most comprehensive. As the program really starts to get under way and is rolled out across the rest of the country, herds will be more closely inspected by trained verification officers to document animal cleanliness, lameness, and other health issues. I’m proud to say that our farm passed our first inspection with flying colours. 
The headline of this article boldly proclaiming that one quarter of the farms inspected in the last year failed to pass this inspection startled me. Did this mean that 25% of our local dairy farms are not treating their animals humanely? Was I wrong or naive to believe that our neighbouring farmers are committed to the same standards of excellence in animal care as we are? Thankfully this is not the case. After reading the article several times, I contacted one of the farmers the reporter had quoted, asking if the article was accurate. This was his response: “The article was accurate. But he did not say that 90 percent were Standard Operating Procedure issues and the rest various stuff but not any real animal care issues.” I was relieved and my faith in our industry strengthened once more. Paperwork is paperwork: important, but not directly related to or indicative of the care cows receive on BC dairy farms. Obviously several of the farms had stocking density issues and one had a problem with lameness, as documented by the reporter, but the vast majority of the non-compliances were the result of incomplete paperwork, not animal welfare issues. That’s not to say that the problems the reporter outlined are not serious and should not be dealt with — they are and they must — but by and large, BC dairy farmers are doing a great job taking care of their cows. 
As with any new program, it will take time for all parties to come into compliance. Many farms are in the process of building larger facilities to elimate overcrowding and mitigate lameness issues – we did this too in part in anticipation of this new program. As for the farm manuals and SOPs, the issue at hand is the lack of time (due to the fast-tracked implementation) to explain to farmers how to implement written farm-specific standard operating procedures. It’s a learning curve for all farmers, and a real time commitment to get all of these procedures written down correctly. A similar situation occurred with earlier ProAction segments, with several farmers dragging their heels before coming into compliance with the milk quality and safety SOPs and requirements. I’m confident that with time and industry incentives, all BC dairy farmers will soon be on board.


It might just be my take on the article, but I found that the author imparted a cold and detached air when he wrote about common farming practices, not acknowledging in the slightest the affection farmers have for their cows. His information is factual for the most part, but lacked the warmth and affection that farmers feel for their cows. Judging by the comments, the readers appear to have noticed this and that’s very unfortunate. You all know from what we share about our cows just how important they are to us, not just as our source of income, but for the intelligent, affectionate, unique animals they are. Take Victoria, for instance. Due to deliver her 7th calf any day, this nine-year-old beauty presides over her calving pen with an air of authority befitting her queenly name. There’s no coldness or lack of affection towards her or any of her bovine herd mates, just as there is likely to be no apathy towards these animals on any good dairy farm. As Mr Hoogendoorn states so clearly in the video attached to the article: “If we didn’t care for these animals, believe me, we wouldn’t be farming”. Please follow his urging, and mine: “If anyone is concerned how their food is produced, please, come out to the farm.” If you have concerns about farming, go to those directly involved. Ask a farmer. We’re more than willing to answer your questions!

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Monica soaking up the rays in her comfortable stall.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.