Category Archives: Dairy Care

What Makes Farming Worth the Heartache?

Recently I can’t help but notice so many blog posts, articles and pictures of heartache related to farming and ranching. My heart goes out to those producers in South Dakota that lost so much to the recent unexpected October blizzard. So many cattle, horses, hours, years of building genetics, so much.

Another blogger recently wrote about wanting consumers to feel the struggle that we go through as farmers. I know we’ve had ours but I’m sure there are those that have it much worse.

And I’ve seen not just a few posts about city gals marrying farmers and what farm life means. Most of it seems like they’re bending and getting used to life on a farm, maybe even falling in love with it too, though capturing what can be isolating and heartbreaking as well.

So, what keeps farmers going? Why do we put up with the heartache  and uncertainty? I’ll admit I’ve looked at my own DF and asked, why can’t we just have a house in a town somewhere with 9-5 jobs and a paved driveway?

I think farmers are built a little differently. I think the wives or the husbands that fall in love with them accept that and move with them to where they need to be. You have to understand that you can’t change a person, no matter how many J Crew pants you buy them. (I’m still learning to love the tapered leg jeans my DF prefers.)

I’m not city. But I’m not totally country either. I’ve had the farming bug most of my life. I bought my first Jersey calf when I was nine years old. I had a little insight into the heartache and the responsibility that goes along with owning, caring for and loving animals. My very first calf, Annabelle, got sick when she was very young and we had to let her go. This experience, along with many others, led me to making this choice to farm with my husband with my eyes wide open.

And there has been heartache. There has been dearly loved old cows laid down to rest. Young heifers lost by a spell of bad luck. Days where two steps forward gets you three back. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does, it feels like a ton of bricks gently laid down on your chest.

But this writing isn’t about the heartache. My question is, what keeps people farming, if not financial return?

For me, it’s mostly about the animals. It’s the cow who somehow finds herself on the other side of the fence separated from the herd and shows up at the back of the house, bellowing as if she knows you’re in there and you can fix things. (This happened the morning I started writing this and I just shook my head with a little laugh.)

It’s the promise that a newborn baby calf brings, especially when she looks at you with those big brown eyes. The latest girl born here, Amaryllus, had a tough time walking on her back legs as she was a big calf and her dam (mama) had a difficult time birthing her. It’s the moment you realize she’s going to be just fine walking on her own.

It’s Towanda, age 6 now, who was born too early, in a cold, frozen free stall barn whose mama abandoned her that I nursed back to health with many towels, a hair dryer, some help from my brother and another friend and a lot of loving. She’s making the most milk of any of the jerseys now, though she’s still a peanut of a cow.

Towanda, on the left with the white patch, had a little help getting along with pen-mate Lucky Girl when she was really little. Towanda was such a pipsqueak back then - Lucky Girl was an average size calf; Towanda was about half her size.

Towanda, on the left with the white patch, had some help getting along with pen-mate Lucky Girl when she was really little. Towanda was such a pipsqueak – Lucky Girl was an average size calf; Towanda was about half her size.

 

It’s the rush you feel when all the cows surround you in the pasture as you walk out to greet them.

It’s the beauty of the place around you and the sun on your face on a crisp October afternoon while your son is on your lap and you take a spin around a few fields on the gator.

It’s the fact that your son’s first word was “tractor” and the greatest thing on Earth is to ride in his daddy’s lap while he gets the day’s feed for the cows.

Maybe we need the heartache. Maybe it makes these things all that much more endearing; entwining our beings with the farm life so that you have no choice but to give it your best. All your best.

Some people are born into farming, some have the seed planted early in life, like me, and still some are bitten by the bug much later in life. Whatever the case, it sure is hard to shake!

Care to share what keeps you farming despite the heartache it can bring?

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September, What September?

September has been a blur. It seems like life is moving at warp speed lately. I’m working on a few ideas for blog posts, but to actually get something posted, and I’m stealing this idea from another blogger, I thought I’d share five things (she did 10) that I learned in September.

1. I actually can get calves fed while toting the baby and dragging the toddler along, though it takes me about 3.5 times longer than if I did them free-handed.

2. I was right not to plant a garden this year. I haven’t even been able to keep up with the few container plants that I have near the house.

That's a lot of parsley! Is it even still good?

That’s a lot of parsley! Is it even still good?

3. I’m learning PC Dart, the software we use to keep track of herd management details (like when cows have calved [had babies], were bred and how much milk they’ve made) and my DF appreciates it. At a herd check-up earlier this month where our veterinarian comes out to check the cows to see if their pregnant and also to vaccinate the calves that are of age against certain diseases, it was so easy to just print out the list from the program versus the other convoluted way of getting the information that involved determining the position of the sun that my DF used to use.

4. My dog is afraid of thunderstorms and he needs my help to suffer through them. We tried a few different strategies throughout the summer to help try to keep him calm, hoping to keep everyone else sleeping while he was up pacing about. I found myself explaining the situation when I had family coming to visit and realized that I have just accepted that he still needs me too. So if there’s a thunderstorm in the forecast, I make sure there’s a clean sheet on the couch, a spare blanket if needed and an acepromazine pill in the cabinet (for the dog! not me).

Buzzman and me on the night I brought him home.

Buzzman and me on the night I brought him home.

5. Bedtime is more fun and seems to go smoother when both Mommy and Daddy can attend. In fact, TK hasbeen wanting his dad to carry him to bed lately…and I’m totally okay with that. After lots of nights pulling solo duty as a “crop widow” I welcome the help for sure. Besides, hearing my husband read “Goodnight Moon” makes my heart happy.

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Guest Post: Dairy Farmer, Raw Milk Expert and Friend

I’m excited to share this next post with you. I’ve invited my friend Terri Lawton, dairy farmer from southeast Massachusetts, to write a guest post about her farming operation and her background. Terri sells raw milk and is a technical

Terri, getting ready to give a talk about milking standards at a conference.

Terri, getting ready to give a talk about milking standards at a conference.

expert on the subject, raw milk food safety and regulation and has addressed national audiences about the topic. The last two posts I’ve shared have been about why raw milk is a somewhat complicated issue. I’ve said that even though we have decided to not sell it, we are not against other people selling or consuming it. Terri and I spoke about my recent experiences and my posts and I was thrilled when she agreed to write about what she does with a few suggestions regarding raw milk, if you are interested. She can be found on Facebook and has her own blog at terrilawton.wordpress.com and okarealmilk.wordpress.com.

From Terri:

I’m an 11th generation farmer. I grew up on my parents’ dairy farm in Foxboro, Mass. I always loved cows, and spent most of my time on the farm as a child, pretending to be a cow, feeding the cows, milking the cows with my parents or gettingmy 4-H calf ready to show.

When I finished high school, I went to college and studied agriculture. I got my associates degree in Production Agriculture, with an emphasis on feedlot management from Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado. Because I felt like I still had a lot to learn about farming, I transferred to Purdue University where I was a double major in Animal Agribusiness and Agricultural Communications. I was also in the crew club, dairy club, and Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. I also did livestock judging for three years of school and dairy judging with Purdue.

Because I had a strong background in dairy and several food science/food safety classes at Purdue, I thought that being a dairy inspector for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would be a good way for me to get involved in the agricultural industry in Massachusetts. Several farms I inspected were selling raw milk directly to families. I had been drinking raw milk my whole life. I was amazed when I realized that some people drove more than an hour to get raw milk.

After I finished up as a dairy inspector, I wanted to get closer to farming. I enjoyed being around cows, and owned several which my parents milked for me. I had planned to start making cheese, but needed an income while we were building the cheese room, and developing our cheese recipes, which is why I looked at selling raw milk retail.

I knew that my experience as a dairy inspector could help me harvest and bottle a superior raw milk. After developing a milking and bottling protocol that minimized potential risk, having the farm and retail area inspected by the dairy inspector, and having my milk meet exceptionally high standards, I received my license to sell raw milk in March of 2006. I started selling raw milk from grass fed cows on a pre-order basis so that I could ensure people got the freshest possible milk. Usually it was only a couple hours old when customers picked it up and brought it to their homes.

I decided to put food safety and integrity first from the beginning.

I know that selling and drinking raw milk can be risky. Based my experience as a dairy inspector, education at Purdue, and personal research about food safety and microbiology, I believe it is a risk that can be managed successfully. I also have seen farmers that were not up to the rigorous integrity and obsession with food safety that I think is necessary to do a good job producing raw milk for retail sale. However, for some farmers it is not much of a stretch to produce an exceptionally high quality raw milk.

I am grateful to be able to sell raw milk directly to families. I like having the folks come to the farm to pick up the milk. I enjoy meeting folks that care so much about food and supporting their local farmer. If I could encourage raw milk drinkers in one thing-please get your milk from a licensed raw milk retailer. It is a lot of work to keep raw milk clean. Inspected farms are held accountable, and must adhere to standard good practices. Integrity is very important in selling raw milk. Our customers need assurance that we are working hard to keep the milk safe. Inspections, milk quality testing and licensing are good tools to provide that assurance.

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So God’s Still Making Farmers

I’m not late to the party. We are just still talking about the “So God Made a Farmer” commercial from the Super Bowl. My DF really enjoys watching it. And he found the Farmer’s Tribute put out by Farms.com, which is basically the same thing but a minute longer and with different pictures but the same striking voice of Paul Harvey narrating a beautifully written oration.

I walked into the barn about two nights ago during chore time with TK and found my DF’s two uncles in the milk room with my DF. They had stepped in to help with a heifer who was sick and needed treatment (she didn’t agree and made her feelings known!). When they finished, my DF took them to my old laptop we have in the barn to show them the “So God Made a Farmer” videos. By the grins and lighthearted talk that was going on I could tell they appreciated the clips and were glad that my DF showed them.

A few minutes later and on to the next task, my DF was sending feed into the barn. The TMR (total mixed ration that includes both forages and grain) is run in on a conveyor belt from the big mixer wagon to a motorized feed cart waiting on the other end in the barn. TK and I watched the first two runs, then he got to go outside with his dad and watch from the tractor. When they came back in, my DF held TK while he maneuvered the feed cart around the cramped aisles to he feed out a load. The look on TK’s face was priceless. He was in awe.

Then they head out again to the tractor/mixer wagon to send in another load. As I watched from inside the barn, I saw as my husband placed TK on the tractor seat to watch the conveyor belt and huddled around him to keep him from falling, our son lean around to try to put his face in his dad’s and give him a kiss, well a “TK” kiss. Now it was my turn to be in awe. I was witnessing one of those scenes in life that you never want to forget.

I thought it was so fitting, TK showing his love for his dad the dairy farmer, after the dairy farmer had shown appreciation in his way to his uncles (the dairy farmers) by sharing the tribute. A typical Tuesday night turned out to be a pretty special night.

And oh, by the way, TK said his first word the week before and this is no joke, I have witnesses – it was “tractor” or actually more like “trac-tah.” Spoken like a true farmer.

From Farms.com:

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The Importance of Feeding Grain

If you had asked me a few years ago why we feed grain to our cattle, I probably would have been stunned by the question. What? What do you mean? What dairy farmer doesn’t feed grain? That’s so weird. How does the cow get enough energy? Enough nutrients? What would you feed? An

d yes, even I tried it myself a very long, long time ago.

I’ll state up front my DF and I think feeding grain is an important part of a balanced diet for our cows.Liddy saying hi! However, our girls (and boys) get out on the pasture just as soon as we can get them there in the spring and they stay out as long as they can in the fall. We have beautiful pastures, abundant with fresh grass – a wonderful resource for our use. It’s good exercise for the cows and I think they enjoy the fresh air perhaps as much as I do on a warm, sunny afternoon.

When they come in the barn to be milked, we feed them a total mixed ration (TMR) that includes grain, grass silage and other minerals. The grain is a mix of ingredients, including corn and soy and others to balance the nutrient needs of the cattle given the other feed they get – like the pasture and grass silage. The grass silage is basically cut grass saved in a big pile in a “bunker silo,” where it is covered and left to cure. They also may get dried hay from time to time. Pasture, grass silage and hay are called forages while the grain and minerals are concentrates. We have a dairy feed nutritionist who helps us determine the right and precise mix of the ingredients to feed. He’s sort of like the cows’ personal dietician.

It so happens that I’ve procrastinated so long on this post from when I started it in September, that it’s now the first of February and we happen to be coming out of a severe cold snap that lasted almost a week. Temperatures here dipped to double digits below zero last week, never mind the wind chill. While we do our best to keep the cows warm, it does still get cold in the barns. One way to get be certain they have the energy they need to stay warm in our lovely winter temps in northern Vermont is to feed grain, specifically corn which is an excellent source of energy. We don’t really think of keeping warm as a body maintenance requirement in the summertime, but it sure is important now!

I asked a few friends from around New England their opinions on feeding grain and here is what they had to say:

From Beth, a dairy farmer in Hinsdale, N.H.: “Dairy cows are the athletes of the farm animal world. A cow uses the amount of energy it would take a human to run two consecutive marathons in one day. Cows need the carbohydrate load just to meet those incredible needs. It’s challenging to make sure cows get a balanced diet to meet those needs. Corn is an excellent source of energy when used as part of a balanced diet.”

From Carrie, a livestock farmer in Shelburne, Mass.: “We feed grain year-round to our sheep, unlike most farmers, because the ‘on & off’ feeding of grain causes weak points in their growing wool-much like when a human diets, you can see the portion of thinner part in the hair follicle. It costs more money, but it a better bet for us so that we know for sure that the wool yarn we sell is of the absolute best quality we can produce.

Our pigs live happy carefree lives in pastures, but are also supplemented with up to five pounds of a non-GMO complete and balanced grain ration, and a few pounds of local corn grown twelve miles away, for extra energy. It supports the local economy, and keeps hundreds of acres of local fields under cultivation.”

From Tiffany, a dairy and beef cattle farmer in western N.H.: “Cows need a complete and balanced diet just like my husband and children do, so adding corn to the grass, oats, and barley they receive makes this happen. The diet changes throughout a steer’s life depending on his age, and cows too have different nutritional requirements depending on their age. We have a nutritionist who helps us balance the diet. A little known fact is that corn is actually a grass, too.”

I’m choosing to not get into the biology behind the plants that we use to feed the animals – biology is not my forte. I will, however, share posts from other farmers who have written about the subject from across the country. These are folks that have different perspectives, farm in different environments, etc., but to whom I look to for advice or insight as well. Specifically, these posts dive into the biology of the feed ingredients and the cow’s digestive system much deeper than I can.

Agriculture Proud, Ryan Goodman, Tennessee – Ask a Farmer: Does feeding corn harm cattle?

Common Sense Agriculture’s Blog, Jeff Fowle, California – It’s More than Corn (series)

Cow Art and More, Kathy Swift, DVM, Florida – What Do Cows Eat and Why? (guest post on Janice Person’s blog)

The bottom line is, there are different options for feeding animals. At a farmers’ market last summer, a person would not purchase beef from me because we do not feed a strictly grass-fed diet. We have very valid reasons why we feed other ingredients as I’ve laid out; the bottom line for us is determining what makes sense for the cows. Unfortunately the customer was a paper order through another vendor at the market so I was not able to explain directly to her why we feed grain. I suppose my chance is here now.

If you reading this post have any other questions about what our cows eat, please leave me a comment below. I will do my best to answer them.

Making hay under watchful Wheeler Mountain

Making hay under watchful Wheeler Mountain

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November Thanks in December

That’s right, I’m late. I didn’t make it on time. I wanted to finish just one last post about what I’m thankful for in November but rats. Foiled again. Didn’t get to it. I really enjoy remembering what I’m thankful for – it’s the same as counting your blessings. And there is so much to be thankful for, it leaves me feeling all warm inside, with a little curl of a smile on my face. So, because I’ve been doing a lot of business writing here, I’m going to number them in order to be more succinct in recounting them.

In addition to those things previously  mentioned, I am thankful for:

1. My siblings and their families. I can’t imagine my life without them. And as we’ve grown older, it seems as thought we’ve grown closer even though now we are running are separate lives in different places. They are typically among the first to hear big news, share successes and appreciate what is going on at the moment in each other’s lives. I love when we are all together. Not much beats that.

2. My extended family. Again, must be something about getting older and realizing how importing holding these relationships as tightly as you can is important.

3. Facebook. I know it seems silly, but I thought of it while typing the last point and it really has allowed for me to keep up with family that don’t live nearby and we don’t see often. It really helps to keep in touch.

4. My dogs. By the way, this is not a ranking exercise, I’m just writing things as they come to me. Buzzman is so tied to me and Tilly loves jumping on my lap in the morning when I’m waking up/waiting for TK. I call them my “doggie babies.” I also appreciate that they get to live on a farm, mostly. Until they get into something they should not have eaten…

5. My cows. This is the first time that all of my cows have been together with me on a farm. I love that I can walk down and greet any of them at any time. While I’m not able to work directly with them right now – I do miss milking! – I try to take TK down everyday to see them and check the heat chart so I don’t miss anything.

6. My job. You know that song with the lyric “I’ve looked at life from both sides now?” I’m thankful that my job allows me to keep a big-picture view of agriculture and the dairy industry while we live it everyday.

7. I’m also thankful for the awesome people that I work with.

8. My DF and I often look at each other, wondering, just like our tagline, “Life, how did we get here?” Not once did I ever imagine that I’d end up in Vermont. And certainly not that it’s a bad thing. It’s beautiful here! When I come home from the grocery store, there’s a spot where I come around the corner and see the Willoughby Gap  and I still say to myself, “I live here.” It’s breathtaking. Nevermind the baby and baby on the way!

9. My experiences. Without them, I wouldn’t be who or where I am today.

10. My faith. Again, without it I wouldn’t be who or where I am today.

Willoughby Gap

Willoughby Gap

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Farmers’ Market Conversations Part II: Our Chosen Farming Practices

This post started out as “Why We Choose Not to be Organic.” However, the forever positive person that I am, I was having a hard time with that negative title. It’s a question that has come up at the Farmers’ Markets a few times. Actually it goes something more like this:

Person: “Oh, you’re not organic?”

Me: “No, we aren’t.”

Person: Gives an empathetic look as if to say oh, that’s too bad.

Me: “Let me tell you the reasons why we do things the way we do…”

This is a tough post to write. Like a previous post, “It’s Okay to Buy Plain Old Milk,” it has taken me a lot longer than I expected. To be clear, my DF and I support all responsible agriculture which we believe comes in all sizes and shapes, including organic farmers. By no means is this a jab at them, but rather a little more detail into why we’ve made the choice to remain “conventional” as some would call it. I simply prefer “farming.”

The main and most important reason for us is the fact that by remaining conventional, we can use whatever medical treatment necessary to treat a sick animal, which includes antibiotics. Now some organic farms have found a way around this – some will not withhold any treatment, giving a cow what she needs to get better were she to get really sick. However, the cow then can’t stay in the herd. They may sell her to a conventional neighbor, or some organic farms are large enough to also have a separate conventional farm and they can send the cow there. For us, at 30-cows the idea that the cow must exit the herd is not sustainable. Besides, with the amount of financial, historical and emotional capital we have invested in each one of our girls it just does not make sense to us to not treat her with what she needs to get better and send her away.

And, to be sure, our cows do not get sick very often. A brave person at the market asked, “But aren’t the cows healthier with organic practices? Isn’t that the idea?” It was a simple question, which of course she is allowed to ask, though I felt my face start to flush and a wave of anger rise up. It was hard not to feel like she was implying that our cows were somewhat less healthy because we are not organic. Rest assured, I kept my cool, “Oh no, we take excellent care of our animals.”

Fact is like anything, there are good and not-so-good caretakers that are organic, conventional, grass-based, corn-based, small, large, etc. Just because a farm gets a particular label does not necessarily indicate the level of care or health of the animals is better or worse. Another person at the FM shared with me this past week that the sickest, skinniest cows she had ever seen were at an organic farm, (I hope she called the local American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals- ASPCA). The sickest, thinnest cows I ever saw were from a conventional farm, (and yes, the ASPCA was called). I guess there is some truth to what an old boss told me when I was a loan officer, “You have to get out and see what you’re investing in for yourself.”

The kicker to the antibiotic use issue in organic animal agriculture is that while U.S. organic standards strictly prohibits the use, European standards do not. (I’m trying to track down Canadian standards, though I think they are allowed). Typically when antibiotics are allowed in organic animal agriculture, it is for medicinal use only and  there are longer waiting periods before the milk or meat from a treated animal before it is allowed to be sold again. Rest assured that medications already require holding periods where meat or milk is not marketed. And because of rigorous testing, you can be certain that no milk on the shelf has antibiotics in it. We risk the ability to sell our milk if one of our loads ever failed a test – something no dairy farmer messes with.

Liddy saying hi!

We have other reasons why we have remained conventional, but this is really the crux of it. Maybe it’s not very business-like of me to be so tied to my animals, but when you feed and care for them each day, when you see their personalities come out, when you are never far from them when they need medical attention or treatment, or when your life is scheduled around their attention needs, you’re bound to get attached. And in my opinion, that’s a good thing.

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