Dairy Dilemma

Uncertainty. Instability. A constantly changing environment. In this pandemic this is true for many sectors of the economy and of course for most of our readers in their personal lives too. The dairy industry and your local dairy farmers are no exception to this. Although farming has rightfully been deemed an essential service, this does not insulate nor protect us from a rapidly evolving market and changes in consumer habits.

When social and physical distancing measures came into place a few weeks ago, demand for dairy products surged as our consumers tried to anticipate and plan for the unknown. Was a total lockdown imminent? This led to millions of consumers stocking up on essentials, including milk. Grocery stores struggled to keep milk on the shelves and soon limited the amount of dairy products each consumer could purchase. Farmers were asked to produce more milk to meet this increased demand.

But at the same time, different aspects of the marketplace were also in flux. Restaurants and coffee shops either closed or began operating at reduced capacity. This has led to a reduction in demand for dairy products packaged in ways that are not usually available in your grocery stores: think of butter in tiny containers, bulk shredded cheese for pizza companies, 250mL milk cartons for schools, etc, etc. It’s no easy task for processing companies to switch to retail ready packaging and involves so many logistical layers, such as a bigger supply of bottles, containers, and labels, different packing lines, and so on. Our provincial dairy boards and dairy processors have been scrambling to keep up with this rapidly evolving situation. Obviously this is something that our boards and processors have never before experienced nor is it something they could have planned for.

Dairy farmers and their boards and committees have donated excess milk to food banks. We’ve donated funds to charities and non-profits to help them purchase dairy products for the needy in our communities. Our boards have done their utmost to try to avoid wasting milk but some farms have now been asked to dispose of the milk in their bulk tanks to eliminate the excess supply.

It’s devastating watching perfectly good, nutritious milk not end up where it was meant to be: in your fridge and on your table.

While we are very aware that we are so fortunate to still have a job to go to every single day, seeing the product of our hard work go down the drain just hurts. I won’t sugar coat that. The farmers who will be asked to dispose of their milk will be compensated; it’s a loss that will be shared across provincial milk pools. All dairy farmers will share this burden of lost income equally. We all are hopeful this will be a very temporary measure and that stability will soon return to the market, allowing our boards to more easily anticipate and plan for a balance in supply and demand. That’s the whole goal of our Canadian supply managed dairy system: we balance the needs of our consumers with the supply of milk from our family farms. But cows don’t have a tap that we can turn on and off. If a cow produces 30L of milk today, she will do that tomorrow too, and the next day, and the next, and the next. It is thus very difficult to react quickly to sudden market fluctuations.

How can you help? Buy milk. Purchase some cheese or ice cream to enjoy with your family. Enjoy real cream (dare I mention whipping cream?) in your home brewed coffee. The milk is here, it’s available, it’s ready to be processed, shipped to the retailers, then purchased by you to feed your families. Please be patient with us. We ask for your understanding as our industry tries to adjust to this new, strange environment. We pray that extreme measures like disposing of milk will be short lived and that solutions will be quickly found to find a way for this milk to end up on your table.

Rest assured that your farmers are still working hard to provide you and your families with top quality, ethically produced, nutritious dairy. This is a tough time for our industry (as it is for so many sectors) but our commitment to our animals and to you our consumers has not wavered. We’re here for you. Be safe. Be well. Much love to you all.

Is Starbucks Really “Ditching Dairy”? Top Company Execs Say No!

About a month ago, the global community of dairy farmers was rocked by news headlines that proclaimed that Starbucks was “ditching dairy” and instead planned to promote plant based beverages “for the environment”.

We were doubly shocked. You see, two weeks earlier, we had been asked if we’d be interested in hosting a farm tour for Starbucks top executives looking to expand their knowledge on dairy farming. The tour facilitator explained that intention of the tour was to learn more about the environmental sustainability of dairy and dairy farming. We were happy to oblige because we truly do love hosting tours; but I must admit that the thought of hosting top execs from a multinational, well-recognized chain was a bit intimidating.

And then we heard the news that Starbucks was planning to phase out dairy. It was confusing to say the least, as we know first hand just how environmentally conscious we are as farmers. But it also made us very aware of the importance of our upcoming opportunity to showcase just how much dairy farmers do to steward and improve our land and environment while producing nutritive and delicious dairy. 

On Tuesday, February 11, Starbucks executives toured three farms in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, and four more just across the border in Whatcom County, Washington State. We spent an hour and a half with this group: we showed them our farm, shared our family’s generational story of dairy farming, described our passion for stellar animal welfare, highlighted how we follow the latest research on animal care, reported on how we have partnered with the University of British Columbia on several research projects, and detailed all of the ways we steward our land to hand it over to the next generation of farmers in better shape than we received it. They asked some really great questions and were genuinely interested in how we farm. We were transparent and open about all aspects of our farm, and I think this helped to plant the seed for the feelings of connection and understanding and camaraderie that developed over the course of the tour.

Introducing ourselves and our farm.

The group also encouraged us to share our impressions on the sustainability of dairy, so we explained how dairy is a hyper-local product. Milk produced by our cows could be consumed at a Starbucks 20km away from the farm. We mentioned the regulations we are held to regarding manure management and how these protect our environment and aquifers. We talked about how manure is a valuable fertilizer, and how we use our farm’s manure to provide nutrition for the crops we grow to feed our cows. It’s one giant circle of sustainability.

At the end of the tour, we were given an opportunity to ask our own questions. And we didn’t hold back. We thanked them for showing interest in dairy farming but explained that we were very confused about the recent news that Starbucks was phasing out dairy. Since Michael Kobori, chief sustainabilty officer had just started his new position at Starbucks a month earlier, he deferred to Hans Melotte, Vice President of Starbucks global supply chain, on this question.

Mr. Melotte began by saying that Starbucks absolutely has not committed to “phasing out” dairy. He referenced Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson’s letter, where he stated that one of the 5 environmental strategies to be implemented by Starbucks was to “expand plant-based options, migrating toward a more environmentally friendly menu”. (Find the full text here: https://stories.starbucks.com/stories/2020/message-from-starbucks-ceo-kevin-johnson-starbucks-new-sustainability-commitment/)

 

Mr. Melotte reiterated several times that Starbucks will continue to serve dairy products. Starbucks is simply adding more options to their menu AND looking at ways to be more environmentally sustainable.

This visit to dairy farms was part of that initiative to learn about sustainability on dairy farms and how Starbucks can encourage and support sustainability initiatives in the global dairy industry. He stated that dairy is a huge part of Starbucks’ business, and this will continue into the future.

By the time the group left, they felt like old friends. At the debrief session with the tour facilitators the next day, Starbucks tour attendees shared how excited they were to connect and engage with farmers and learn more about dairy farming. They were in awe of all the different hats farmers wear: nutrition specialist, soil expert, animal caretaker, business person, etc, etc. They were impressed to learn how valuable dairy farming is to local economies and how closely connected our farms are to Starbucks coffee shops in our communities. It seems the realization that milk from our farms in all likelihood ends up at one of our local Starbucks shops was pretty impressive to them! The group will continue their learning to better understand dairy, its impacts and opportunities, and how Starbucks might play a role to support the industry and farmers. Every individual was extremely grateful to have been able to meet dairy farmers in person to learn from us and, most importantly, experience the human side of agriculture.

Meeting our cows

We too are so grateful to have had this opportunity to open our farm to Starbucks. We look forward very much to continuing this conversation and building on the relationship we forged on the farm. And in the meantime, we’ll continue to savour our homemade lattes made with freshly ground Starbucks coffee beans and milk from our very own cows. Coffee and real dairy: the best combination. ❤️🥛 ☕️

Cries of Anguish?

“We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow and steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakeable. Then we take her milk that’s intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.” ~Joaquin Phoenix

Sounds awful. Especially coming from someone we admire and look up to.

But while Joaquin might be an amazing actor, he has little hands-on knowledge about the care and attention and LOVE that is involved in dairy farming.

Let’s analyze his statement for a moment:

• Artificially inseminating a cow. Cows on dairy farms typically give birth once yearly, just like wild bovines and their cousins (moose, deer, elk, bison, yak, buffalo, etc). While a bull breeds the cows on our farm, many other farms use artificial insemination to breed their cows. AI, as it is commonly called, is the process of introducing semen to the cow’s reproductive tract. It’s much gentler for the cow to be bred by AI rather than being mounted by a 2000 pound bull! But regardless of breeding method, cows are only bred when they are in heat – that is, during their fertile period, which happens every 21 days. Cows in heat want to be bred – you should see our cows try to get to our bull when they are in heat! The desire to reproduce is so strong.

• Cow & calf separation. As farmers, it’s our job to ensure that both our cows and their calves are well cared for. There are several variables that impact our decision to separate cow and calf. Does the cow clean and care for her calf? Sometimes the mother doesn’t do a good enough job or shows no interest in her calf at all. Is the calf safe? We’ve had cows try to hurt their calves. Is the cow feeding her calf? Some cows will allow their calves to nurse, others are totally adverse to the idea and kick or move away from their calf when he or she tries to nurse. In short, each situation is different but typically if the cow and calf are getting along well they spend around 24 hours together. Once the calves are gently and calmly moved to our calf nursery they receive lots of affection, attention, and care from our family. We house our calves in pairs or sometimes triples at first so they always have a companion. They have lots of soft comfortable bedding and are well fed with plenty of milk from our herd and hay and grain as they grow older. They are weaned at three months of age and then moved to group pens with calves of their own age. Our calves are healthy, lively, and vigorous and we know that they receive the best care possible. It only makes sense for us to pay such close attention to these young animals; after all, they are the future of our farm! As for the cow, she too is content. Her herd is very important to her and she eagerly rejoins her friends when she has recovered well from calving. You’ll find her spending her days eating (lots of eating!), relaxing in a comfy stall or out on pasture, socializing with her herd mates, or enjoying a good scratch from the automated cow brush. Neither cow nor calf display any signs of distress, but are calm, relaxed, and content. In fact, visitors at our farm always comment on how quiet our barns are – just cows and calves contentedly going about their day with their every need met. Sorry Joaquin, there are no “cries of anguish”.

• “Stealing” milk meant for calves. Did you know that a dairy cow can produce upwards of 40L of milk per day? Her calf only drinks a fraction of that – usually 10-12 L per day. Our calves ARE fed their mother’s milk, but it is this EXCESS milk that is shipped to the processor and finds its way to our consumers’ tables.

Milk is a nutritional powerhouse. It’s full of essential nutrients so beneficial for our health. And yes, it is produced responsibly and ethically by family farms just like ours. Farms where cows are cared for with respect and compassion are the norm, not the exception.

As farmers, we chose this life because we love spending our days with our animals. We ensure they are happy and healthy, well fed, comfortably housed, and always, ALWAYS, treated with affection and respect. We love our cows.

It’s this love that draws us out of our warm beds to assist an overnight calving. It’s love that keeps us going when the days are long and full of hard work ensuring our animals’ every need is met. And it’s this love that is the over arching commonality between dairy farms all across the world. ❤️

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!

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. 

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.