Category Archives: Dairy Industry

Choices and Farming

Life’s about choices. As we have advanced as a culture, we have created more choices in nearly every aspect of life. When I was planning my wedding, I remember being in awe about all of these choices being thrown at me. Sometimes it felt like I was on the bottom of a big pile just trying to get out from under it one decision at a time. Some people thrive in that situation. For me, I just wanted to marry my husband and not worry about whether we’d have wine on each table or serve it from the bar.

That’s not to say that choices are not important. Certainly there are those that are indeed more important than others – like my decision to say “yes” to my husband when he asked me. Or even perhaps my choice to ask him, had I thought of that.

To me, this ongoing debate about how farmers should farm is much like this type of scenario. There are many choices we have to make – like what color or brand of equipment we choose, which isn’t as important as whether we will be buying a no-till corn planter or something else that makes sense for our farm.

As I’ve been vocal in the debate about labeling or as I see it, stigmatizing, food produced with GMO crops, people have asked why speak up? Reporters seem to always want a simple answer – which happened in this Christian Science Monitor article, which I was happy to be a part of but left me a bit disappointed in its finished form. The journalist reasoned that my main concern about stigmatizing GMOs was because I was afraid it would raise the feed expense for the cows and thus, my boys wouldn’t have the chance to carry on our farming tradition. While this is a small part of my concern, there’s way more to it.

Let’s face it. Right around one percent of Americans are primary farm operators, or about one farmer for every 99 people. One expert and 99 back seat drivers give or take. That’s a pretty big bus that farmer’s driving. To some extent, the farmer can listen to passengers and go slower or faster, turn the A/C or heat on or off, provide more cushion on the seats or not; but at some point, the bus has to safely arrive at it’s destination – avoiding pot holes, ice, ditches, oncoming traffic, etc. More importantly, the driver (the farmer) has to make the best decision possible for protecting those passengers, getting them safely from here to there while keeping the bus in good condition for future trips. Sure, there may be other buses passengers can choose – but there won’t be as many without preserving options – either through legislation or the market.

Back to choices as a farmer and figuring out the best way to make the best use of our resources while preserving the farm for the next farmer to come along: Choices ensure sustainability.

Choices ensure sustainability.

We face a constantly changing landscape as farmers, with new challenges and opportunities appearing nearly every day. No doubt my sons, or the next farmers here, will face the same. In order to keep up, adjust or take advantage, the ability to make choices that the market will accept and that regulation will not deny will be key to ensuring sustainability.

So yes, preserving the next generation’s chance to farm is about concern for the cost of feed for the cows – both economically and environmentally, but it’s also about so much more than that.

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Dairy farming: More than just milk

A few months back I was lucky enough to attend a conference put on by The Economist Events called the Innovation Forum. Yes, the magazine The Economist. I was there with the incredible honor of representing the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. You may wonder why something so traditional such as the dairy industry was present at this conference, well I’ll get to that in a minute, but first: sustainability.

To me, sustainability is a three-legged stool, a milking stool, if you will. One leg is environmental, one is social, and the third is economic. To be sustainable and ensure a going concern for future generations, you need all three legs in tact. I’ve recently touched upon economic sustainability; here we’ll talk environment and economic to some degree.

I saw this tweet the other day, which rewarded me for my procrastination with this post. The story of how the dairy industry has improved its environmental impact over the past several decades is inspiring. Unfortunately, many are unaware of the steps taken by dairy farmers to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

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Jeff Simmons is President of Elanco.

Some dairy farmers go above and beyond the rest of us. Yankee ingenuity was born on a farm, and it’s still alive and well today on a place located in the northwest corner of Connecticut, the Freund’s dairy farm and Cow Pots. A CowPot is a biodegradable nutrient-rich planter that is made from cow manure, after it has been run through a methane digester. Recently, the Freunds were awarded with a Sustainability Award from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy to recognize their innovative efforts in this area.

Amanda Freund graciously took a few minutes out of her busy day to do a quick Q&A with

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Amanda Freund

me:

How did the idea of CowPots come about?

This far-fetched idea of making a pot from poop has evolved into a successful business due to 3 very important factors:

1.     Our farming family collaborated with neighbor farmers to develop the Canaan Valley Agricultural Cooperative. The farmer members meet annually with the specific purpose of working and brainstorming together to manage the manure collectively produced on our farms. Amongst the farmers that attend, there are over 4000 cows represented, which equates to a lot of manure! These cooperative gatherings also include agents and professionals from CT Department of Agriculture, CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, UConn Extension, USDA Farm Service Agency and Natural Resource Conservation Service. Using this network of people and services has been critical from the very beginning of introducing the idea to developing and branding the end product.

2.     Thinking of manure as a resource and not as a waste product. Changing our mindset about how we think of poo (or other byproducts) is a big deal. The reality is that there is a lot of fertilizer value in manure and it holds a great value for producing food. It stopped being a discussion about waste management and became a conversation about resource stewardship.

3.     Perseverance. Ten years of trial and error, research and development, failures and successes took place before a viable product was developed and ready for market. During that time there were a lot of dead ends and bumps in the road, but my family carried on and didn’t stop until they proved there was a way to turn manure from poo to pot.

How does it fit into your overall goals for the farm?

The technical way that CowPots fits our overall goals is that it allows us to export 10% of the manure produced on our farm to places where those nutrients can benefit someone else’s garden. We ship boxes and pallets of this value added product to greenhouses and retail stores all over the country (and Canada). This is an important farm activity to comply with our Nutrient Management Plan, which is a contract between our farm and the USDA on how we manage the manure produced by our cows. 

From an outreach standpoint, marketing CowPots has provided us an awesome opportunity to talk to all sorts of groups around the country (and world) about our farm. We hosted Mike Rowe in 2006 to film an episode of Dirty Jobs, which has aired in over 120 countries. We’ve spoken at conferences in Seattle, St Louis, Washington DC, Worcester and many other cities describing the environmental and horticultural benefits of our products. Inevitably, these conversations also allow us to talk about the 2 most important components of our business; our cows and our family. Without these things, there would be no CowPots.

What was it like winning the dairy innovation award- were there any particular moments or otherwise that stood out for you?

It was a team effort to draft our application for the Dairy Sustainability Award; I think we had 4 or 5 family members that contributed to the effort. It was very special to be able to share the honor with the whole family.

As the dairy farmer’s daughter, I was proud to see my dad and uncle be recognized for their unwavering commitment to being good stewards of the land. It was an honor to share the stage with my dad to receive the award and it sets the bar quite high as I think ahead to the positive impact my generation can make on this land and this community.

What else is on the horizon for the farm?

In March of this year we introduced our cows to a brand new barn with rotating brushes for back scratches, waterbeds for improved comfort, alley scrapers to keep the alley ways clean, a robotic feed pusher to ensure they have access to fresh feed 24 hours/day and most significantly, 5 robotic milking machines. We’re excited to be the first farm in the state of Connecticut to install this technology. This allows our cows to voluntarily choose when and how often they want to be milked. We’re still in the transition phase, but they’ve adapted to the new routine very well! And while there was a learning curve to accessing the robot milker, they didn’t need any training to figure out the back scratchers!

As for CowPots, we’re experimenting with some new recipes and styles as we consider developing products that can be used outside of horticulture. We’re looking into the opportunities for manufacturing packaging corners and other products using our cows’ manure. There are an infinite number of products that we could form using our manufacturing process; plantable pots are just the tip of the iceberg.

Well done, Amanda. My best to you and your family.

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Economic Profitability Key to Sustainable Dairy Farming

My personal vision of dairy farming has changed over the years. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a farmer, a vet, an ice cream maker; among other things. I will never forget in discussing my plans with my Great Uncle Frank – everyone has an Uncle Frank right? – who was a dairy farmer himself back in the ‘40’s and 50’s in Westborough, Massachusetts. When I told him I was going to be a dairy farmer, he replied, “Oh, you’re going to marry a dairy farmer!” Being the determined person that I am, I said, “No , Uncle Frank, I’m going to be the dairy farmer.” To which he then said, “Oh, you’re going to marry a man, he’s going to do the work, but you’re going to be the farmer!” And I just shook my head and walked on, but little did Uncle Frank know that my love for dairy would lead me to life not only in the industry but also on the farm.

My vision for dairy farming continues to evolve as I meet more and more people in this great industry. My vision includes a great diversity of business models and smallowners/managers – commodity and value added, large and small, conventional and organic, purchased feed and homegrown, cattle and sheep or goats. There are certain characteristics that are common to all models – hard work and a love for the animals and land in our care.

For my own family, we are proud to be continuing a family tradition, and raising our children in a farming life. Our two young farm boys already have such a grasp of how things like tractors, mowers and choppers work as well as the importance of caring for another life. While it’s hard to predict the future, it’s exciting to think about the time when either one or both of them take over the reins of the farm.

Whatever the business model, the old adage will remain true – “If your outgo is more than your inflow, you’re upkeep with be your downfall.”

Having a good handle on your finances and making sound decisions based on what they tell you will be central to economic sustainability – an absolutely key component to farm sustainability. What’s more, planning ahead using economic information will allow you to get ahead. Tools like benchmarking, forecasting and budgeting will serve to improve the performance of our dairy businesses. The importance of financial skills cannot be understated as we move forward into the future – so that we can carry on with our passion, our farms, our livelihood.

 

The above was from a short speech given at The Vermont Dairy Summit, November 2015.

 

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Three Times a Day, You Need a Farmer

I was lucky enough to catch some attention with a post that I wrote that tried to simply answer, “What makes farming worth the heartache?”

While I expanded on idyllic images, (which happen to be my reality), I wrote it in response to many other’s lamentation about the hard times and sadness that often comes along with farming (which is also my reality). Farming must be closely related to Mother Nature – who not once, among the many things she has been called, was ever referred to as “fair.”

There’s not much that is more rewarding than nursing a sick cow or calf back to health; and then to have her live a long, healthy and productive life. But just as easily if not more so, that same animal could be gone in a literal heartbeat.

It certainly makes one appreciate life, and the things in it, that much more.

At the end of the day, this way of life, this collection of extreme ups and extreme downs and whatever comes in between is all done in the name of producing of food. Food that is served at the dinner table or grabbed in a rush. Food that is baked or cooked in your kitchen for those closest to you with love. Food that nourishes our bodies so that we may carry out our string of daily tasks that make up our lives.

“My grandfather used to say that once in your life you need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman and a preacher but every day, three times a day, you need a farmer.” –Brenda schoepp

We as dairy farmers take particular pride in producing what’s been described as “nature’s most perfect food.” Milk provides protein, calcium and nine essential vitamins and nutrients in a single serving; ounce for ounce it’s nutrition cannot be matched. So there’s a bit of pride and even more reward had in providing such nourishment for our neighbors, communities and family.

Of course other goodness in dairy products include cheese, yogurt, ice cream, cream, butter, and more.

But our beloved milk has come under attack. Fewer and fewer people are drinking it; fluid milk sales have been trending downward for the past several years. Milk has more competition now from plant-based beverages that have the same look and feel (but not the same nutrition). Various label claims create confusion about everything from hormones, antibiotics, animal care to the environment. All in the name of selling.

The worst part is talking about these issues with dairy farmers who aren’t active on social media and/or who don’t see these claims every day.

The best part is knowing that despite the spin, despite the claims, despite the advertising, there are millions of people – children and adults alike, who depend upon us everyday – even three times a day – for our milk. And we won’t let them down.

At the end of the day, milk is milk, still the nutrient powerhouse and wholesome glass of refreshment produced by farmers who care about taking care or their cows and keeping their farms sustainable for future generations.

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[Farm] Size: Does it Matter?

Farm size gets a lot of press these days. Big farms, small farms, micro farms – each operating differently, in ways that make sense to their particular operation. The common denominator among the vast majority despite the size of the farm is a proud, caring farmer or farmers, doing their best to take care of the land and/or animals they rely upon often with future generations in mind. Usually they are carrying on a family tradition or striking out on their own after being inspired to do so.

To illustrate, I reached out to a few fellow dairy farmers to ask their philosophies about animal care. You will find their statements in their own voices first, and then a list of the farm sizes. I won’t tell you who said what, but rather let you guess.

Farmer quotes:

“Animal care is THE most important part of dairy farming. We treat our cows with respect and compassion. We treat our animals well, not because a well-cared for animal is healthy and strong and will produce quality milk in good supply, but because it is the right. thing. to. do. Period.”

“Caring for dairy cattle is in my blood, it is my passion. The most important lesson I have learned is that if you do not treat your animals well, you will not succeed. Dairy cattle are domestic animals and they depend on us for food, shelter and care. I know that as long as I keep working hard to provide my cows with the best care and comfort, they will produce well and our family business will prosper. Happy cows make milk; there is no truer statement.”

“Our philosophy is to provide as comfortable a life as possible to our animals. The more comfortable and healthy we keep our animals the better they are able to produce for us. As farmers we see animals born and we also sometimes have to make the unfortunate choice when they pass on. We don’t want to see animals suffer. Life is fragile and it is our job to make sure that theirs is as comfortable as possible.”

“For us health is the #1 priority. It’s all watched very carefully. We have nutritionists and we test our feed weekly to make adjustments. Our herdsman was a vet and he is always on top of issues. When we treat with antibiotics we have our own hold back chart which is more conservative than the medicine company. We have a hospital pen where the sick and recovering from surgeries are held to protect them. Also, keeping beds clean and dry lend to healthier animals. We work to prevent foot diseases and mastitis. We are pro-active when it comes to health care.”

“On our farm the cows come first. Every decision we make whether it is how to treat a sick cow or a renovation to make, we first think if it will make the cows lives better and more comfortable.”

“I married into farming. I never understood why someone would want to work so hard for so little. Then it happened, I fell in love with cows. Every day you go out and tend to their needs, often before your own. The work is hard, the hours are long but seeing a new life enter the world or having one of your girls give you loves, it makes it all worth it. Animal care is our top priority. In order for us to keep doing what we love which is tending to their needs, they have to be well taken care of. Our job as dairy farmers is to take care of them. Doing the best possible job we can keeps a roof over our heads as well as theirs.”

“Our dairy cows deserve the utmost care and respect, however they are animals not humans. They should get the care that they need to lead a healthy and ‘happy’ life. They are our livelihood, and deserve to be treated that way. But how do you rate the ‘happiness’ of an animal? I know that animals deserve proper nutrition and care, but when it comes down to spending an exorbitant amount of money or putting animals ‘happiness’ in front of human life, I don’t feel that it should be a hard answer. Maybe it is my faith, but God did put humans on this earth to care for it and the animals, but also to ‘rule’ over them.”

“For dairy size and animal care: I think it’s all in the management. We are strictly family run. Most of the animals have names and they are all seen by one of us every day. I think it’s important if you can to manage your animals properly and take the time to see them every day. We have plenty of room in the milking barn and of other barns and pasture for all the animals.”

“Our girls are our livelihood. Without them we have nothing. So it stands to reason that we take all measures to make them happy and healthy, just as most farmers do. On our farm we don’t push our cows to their fullest. I like to compare cows to athletes. Like any athlete when they are pushed they are bound to have maintenance and more likelihood of things that need intervention.”

“On our family farm it’s all about the cows. Our greatest efforts and resources are always devoted to ensuring that our family of cows receives the best care and are provided the greatest comforts. We truly believe that any cow, provided with the right care, can reach her potential which is why we invest the bulk of our time, money and resources into not just maintaining but improving all aspects of their lives- from feed, health & nutrition to housing, comfort & quality of life. Farming is our way of life, it just also happens to be how we make our living.”

Farm sizes and a few other details:admin-ajax

  • 500-cow dairy
  • 115-cow dairy
  • 1200-goat dairy
  • 70-cow dairy transitioning to organic
  • 725-cow dairy
  • 130-cow dairy
  • 1700-cow dairy
  • 200-cow organic dairy
  • 50-cow dairy
  • 270-cow dairy

These statements are all straight from the farmer. Despite the varying sizes and the different ways accomplished, one theme winds through them all: animal care is of utmost importance. There may be folks who still want to debate differences between the sizes of dairy or other farms and what they can or can’t offer, but those discussions should all be held with the knowledge that at the end of the day, animal care is a primary influence on decision making.

Farmers know that if they take care of the animals, the animals will take care of them. And I’m proud to say that I couldn’t agree more.

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GMO Label Only Perpetuates Wedge Between Farmers

Over the weekend, I wrote my first letter to the editor since high school. While I had been content to post my opinion pieces here, I felt compelled to speak up more locally after reading a response to an article in our local paper that discussed the mandatory GMO labeling law recently signed in Vermont. It should be included in tomorrow’s edition. I’ll keep you posted if there’s any more to report. 

In response to Mr. Lazor’s opinion letter, published in the May 29 Chronicle, I agree that a wedge between organic and conventional farming is present, and the dispute over the use of genetically modified organisms is just one area driving it. The now infamous labeling law recently signed by Gov. Shumlin does nothing more than add to it.

My husband and I are conventional dairy farmers; proud of the animals we raise, the way we farm and the products we produce. It is difficult to discuss this “wedge” if you will, particularly when you clearly fall on one side of the fence or the other. There are specific reasons why a farmer chooses to do things the way he/she does. Inevitably, you may look at farmers on the other side of the fence and question some of their practices. It’s hard to stay neutral, especially if you feel attacked.

I don’t believe Mr. Birch in Bethany Dunbar’s May 22 article necessarily characterized organic farming as low yielding and a recipe for world starvation. Certainly advances have been made to improve organic yields over time just like conventional. As Mr. Lazor quotes the UN, to paraphrase, some organic farming may have the potential to alleviate world hunger; in my opinion, many other methods of farming may as well. The fact is we have an ever decreasing land base and increasing global population and it will take all of agriculture to meet the nutritional needs of people everywhere.

With respect to labeling, I personally am not in favor of this new law. This does not mean, however, that I am not proud of the advances in genetic engineering that have resulted in using “GMO” crops. In my opinion, this level of genetic engineering has sped up traditional plant breeding, making it more efficient and resource-effective. The potential for GMO-crops goes beyond improved yields, less chemicals sprayed and reduced carbon footprints, but also includes drought tolerance (DroughtGard corn launched in 2013), improved nutrition (Vitamin A and Golden Rice) and disease resistance (Rainbow Papayas and the Ringspot Virus in Hawaii), to name a few.

I think government mandated labeling of GMOs perpetuates an unnecessary fear. People have a right to know their food, but that does not equate to a mandated label, particularly as food from GMO crops do not pose any additional food safety or human health threat. The Food and Drug Adminitration requires labeling of anything about a product that affects health and safety or nutrition. Since the introduction of GMO crops to the general public in 1994 (Flavr Savr Tomato), there has not been one documented case of associated illness. A review of 1,783 studies completed between 2002 to 2012 by a team of Italian scientists published in the September 2013 Critical Reviews in Biotechnology could not find a single example of GMO crops posing a threat to humans, animals or the environment. And yes, I have done my own research.

As a taxpayer, it concerns me that the costs associated with mandated labeling and of course the lawsuits it may bring about have not fully been sorted out. It seems the question of who will pay and how much doesn’t matter in many issues these days. While we waste more time and energy debating, defending, making rules and implementing this law, more pressing issues continue to be tabled such as the pervasive drug abuse and associated crime that is increasingly affecting our cities and quaint towns; continued unemployment and the loss of or rather lack of new jobs; the crumbling infrastructure of our roads and bridges; and by the way, how the heck we are going to pay for our new health care system?

And while we deal with our self-induced non-issue mandated-GMO-labeling law, the marketplace will have sorted this out. It will take at least two years just to put our law into place, let along fight the expected legal battles, and already labels (and more farming opportunities I might add) exist in response to consumer request – specifically a “non-GMO” and certified organic label. Additionally, there is proposed Federal legislation that may take our “law” out of play anyway.

The reality is that this a big world, with room for all sorts of farmers – conventional, certified organic, non-certified organic, GMO, non-GMO, no antibiotics, certified humane, animal welfare approved, biodynamic, non-mechanized farmers, John Deere farmers, farmers that are diehard red tractor fans, women farmers, blonde haired farmers, farmers named Bob, etc. In order to reduce or eliminate the “wedge” or maybe “wedges” between farming groups, we need to start letting go of the labels – physically and mentally – and do a better job of explaining why we do things the way we do them while respecting the choices of other farmers.

I don’t need to put a label on the gallon of milk, block of cheese or package of hamburger from our farm to say that I am proud to be a first-generation dairy farmer with my husband, keeping land that has been used for farming for generations in production and taking care of animals that started out as a 4-H project when I was nine years old while raising our kids in this farming lifestyle. Knowing we provide a safe, wholesome, nutritious product for other families and individuals on a daily basis is enough for us.

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Immobile in the Yogurt Section

The other day I went grocery shopping at a store that is not one of my two usuals. Everything was going fine, uneventful, maybe even a little dull, you know – grocery shopping – until, I was struck immobile in the yogurt section.

I was literally wandering up and down the seven feet of yogurt products while working through an internal struggle. You see, my usual choice for my kids is Chobani Champions in the tube; a Greek yogurt because of the additional protein and a tube because it’s fun. Of course, this particular store did not carry the Champions yogurt, though it did have several choices: regular and lowfat traditional yogurt, greek yogurt, kids-themed yogurt, serious “indulgent” adult yogurts, and of course, Stonyfield organic yogurt and all its offerings including its “YoBaby” and “YoKids” – the only other choice in a tube.

Up until this point, I was very much anti-Stonyfield yogurt. In fact, truth be told, I am anti- most organic products unless it is grown by someone that I know. You see, while I appreciate choice in our food industry, I don’t appreciate misleading marketing efforts that feed into an often irrational fear of our safest food supply in history; particularly when it’s just to make a buck. But on this specific day, I decided to test myself to see if I was willing to make a concession for the sake of the “tube” and the delight of my children, albeit a two minute delight. After a solid five minutes of deliberation, I found that I was not and I am glad that I did not give in.

The very next day, my decision felt further justified as one of the Twitter accounts that I follow shared the top to a Stonyfield yogurt – one I somstonyfieldehow missed during my yogurt examination – with a comment “Marketing at its finest. Come on. #cantweallgetalong.” Amen sister.  (picture at right)

The problem with this label is that organic farms are allowed to and do use “toxic” pesticides. The difference is, they are not allowed to use “synthetic” pesticides. I know this already because of my involvement in farming, but was also happy to read a recent article on slate.com that addresses pesticide residue in fruits and vegetables written by a mommy-blogger. The author, a non-farmer, took task to find the actual numbers behind pesticide residue in produce farmed organically versus conventionally, because like many others, she had been led to believe that harmful residues in conventional produce was not good for her son. What she found was far from her initial belief, no doubt created in part by crafty product marketing. Her conclusion was, though you may have other reasons to purchase organic produce, when it comes to pesticide residue, “Conventional fruits and vegetables are perfectly healthy for kids.”

The thing is, this trust-eroding-though-we-think-we’re-building-trust-in-our-BRAND advertising strategy (ala many other big-food companies like Panera and Chipotle as well) is not coming from the organic farmers. It’s coming from a marketing department removed from what’s actually happening on the farm and obviously what the national organic standards are in the U.S. What strikes me ironically is that Stonyfield recently had an initiative to recruit more conventional dairy farms to become organic-certified and sell milk to them directly, all the while their marketing department continues to piss their so-called recruits right off.

I know a lot of organic farmers. Some are even great friends. And while I respect their decision to farm organically, I don’t agree with all of their practices, just as I am sure the pendulum swings both ways. But I do know that we all care for our animals and the land to the best that we can and that alone builds a level of commonality. Trouble comes when the people using labels and other advertising to sell farm products for their food company pit us against each other. And while we do have the safest food supply in history, that in no way means that there isn’t room for improvement, innovation and still more choices.

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