Category Archives: Dairy Industry

#FarmLove is All About the Love for the Farm

You may have seen several posts recently on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media outlets using the hashtag #farmlove. I thought I’d take a few minutes to share what it’s all about and why we chose to pursue it.

First, #farmlove is all about farmers and those who love farming to share why they love farming. Let’s face it, farming is a tough business and not for the faint of heart. There have been a few days where even I have asked why it is that we are in it. Not only do farmers have the daily operations of keeping everything fed, healthy, running and humming but we also have a constant worry about making enough money to pay the bills and put food on our own table, let alone future stuff like who will take over the farm when we are gone.

And now we have more concerns arising from a shadow that has been cast by mainstream media. Every time an undercover video of animal abuse is released, animal ag takes a hit, even though that type of behavior is not tolerated on the vast majority farms. Certain terms like factory farm, industrial farm, GMOs and hormones are thrown around without any regard to context that they have taken on new meaning and their own negative light. Today’s farms are being scrutinized in everything they do from the types pens they raise their calves in to the type of corn seed they purchase or even if they grow corn by an uninformed, or worse, a partially informed, non-farming public.

So in a way, #farmlove is about connecting all farms together too. There are no labels when we’re using the #farmlove hashtag. Big farms, small farms, conventional farms, grass-based farms, hobby farms, organic farms can all use it. Because we are all in this together. We are all farmers. We all care for our animals and our land and just may have different ways of doing it.

Anyway, #farmlove is about just that. Sharing the love that we have for our farms, for our farm life. If you have any pictures or videos to share, feel free to start. February is a month for love, let’s make it for #farmlove.

FarmLove

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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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We’re Saying No and Yes to Raw Milk

This is a follow up to the post, To Raw Milk or Not to Raw Milk.

It was a pretty clear decision for us about whether or not we would sell raw milk: No. However, we say yes to if you want to consume raw milk in general. That may seem like we are talking out of both sides of our mouths, but after my first post, I’ve learned that it’s a topic that many others feel conflicted about as well.

Thanks to the folks who joined in the conversation on my Facebook page. Lots of great information was shared while others raised questions about raw milk and wondered what it was all about. I thought I would explain the issue to the best of my knowledge here, share why we have chosen to stay out of the raw milk market and also share some great comments friends made about my previous post.

Milking Liesel at the fair.

Milking Liesel at the fair.

Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized or treated with UHT (Ultra High Temperatures) to eradicate potential harmful bacteria while preserving most of the goodness of milk. Raw milk advocates will tell you that this process also kills off beneficial bacteria, enzymes and other pathogens that help boost immune systems, ward off allergies and even cure asthma. The trouble is the harmful bacteria pasteurization kills off can be REALLY harmful and even in the cleanest of set-ups all it takes is one outbreak to cause serious damage.

Lots of people who grew up living on farms drank raw milk and still do today. I myself got to drink some from time to time even though we didn’t live on a farm… and no, I didn’t get sick. Most swear by it – they grew up on it and were healthier for it. These folks however, tend to understand the risks associated with Raw Milk itself but also with selling the stuff. A dairy farmer friend summed it up well on my last post, “All it takes is one person to say the milk made them sick and you lose everything you’ve worked so hard for.”

Put another way, a friend from business school commented, “The EV (expected value) of selling raw milk is highly negative due to the potential liability…even if they signed a waiver.”

Another friend who is a dairy farmer-turned vet student shared, “I grew up on raw milk but it came from my farm. My body was able to produce antibodies to the bacteria that was found in it because it was introduced to it from a very early age and they were endogenous to my farm and my environment. I may have gotten very sick had I gone to another farm and drank their raw milk. But I may have been fine. Food borne illnesses are very hit or miss. My biggest fear is that the consumers do not have enough education on how to properly handle raw milk and will make themselves sick by improper handling and it will come back to hurt the farmer and the dairy industry as a whole. It is a personal choice and one that if we can build in safeguards to the farmer that would require proof that they were negligent before lawsuits could be filed than I have no problem. But I have to tell you as a veterinary student and studying many bacterial and viral diseases that can pass thru to humans thru raw milk–I would not drink even my own anymore.”

And he’s right – those harmful bacteria and viral diseases are nasty stuff. To share an example, recently in the news – The Family Cow in Pennsylvania, a raw milk seller, recently had its third outbreak since January 2012. This time it was Campylobacter. Campylobacter is a found in cow manure and infection symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, fever and abdominal pains that can last anywhere from two to ten days after consumption. Listeria, e-coli and salmonella are a few of the other more “popular” foodborne bacteria related to raw milk among others.

Not only would we risk a potential lawsuit, something we don’t have enough resources to suffer particularly as we are really still starting out, but there isn’t enough insurance out there to indemnify the guilt I would feel were someone to get sick from raw milk we sold them.

Please don’t get me wrong, millions of people drink and sell raw milk every day and nothing bad happens. And quite frankly, as another commenter implied, I’m happy they are drinking milk in some way! I certainly do not want to play into any Fear Industry marketing (I feel there’s enough of it out there). So, to be sure, there are not many outbreaks reported. In 2013 through May, according to the Centers for Disease Control, there have been four outbreaks of campylobacter and salmonella related to raw milk and cheese consumption including 69 illnesses and 15 hospitalizations in the U.S., (this does not include the recent Family Cow outbreak).

On the other hand, there have been zero outbreaks in pasteurized milk. If you’re interested in learning more specifics about the risks of drinking raw milk, I found a great resource for raw milk risk facts on this website: realrawmilkfacts.com. To be fair, here’s a pro-raw milk website: realmilk.com, however, I don’t agree with its characterization as an “extremely” low-risk food. It classifies this statement using the term “when handled properly” which I think is an understatement. A recent recall for potential botulism-causing bacteria contamination in milk powder sold to Chinese companies by Fonterra, the world’s largest milk processor based in New Zealand, shows that mistakes or just plain bad luck can happen to anyone. (By the way, this recall occurred before any illnesses have been reported as of this time.)

On a personal note, I’ll continue to feed my kids pasteurized milk. It truly is a nutrition powerhouse with lots of good calories, essential nutrients, protein and other nutritional benefits that are still being realized. And as far as exposure to pathogens and other bacteria goes, I think they’ll eat enough farm dirt in their childhood to build up an arsenal of immunity if they haven’t already.

Any other thoughts or questions about this subject?

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To Raw Milk or Not to Raw Milk?

Over the weekend we were approached for the second time in one week about selling raw milk. Not a light subject. Or is it?

Both people who asked were just visiting – the size of our town actually doubles in the summer time with snow birds and other vacationers. The first person was easy to turn down. It was at a town festival where we were selling our jersey beef and sampling cheese and I simply said, “Thanks for asking, I’m sorry but no, we don’t sell raw milk.”

The second was a little tougher. A neighbor had a visiting family member who had a few goats at home from which they get their milk. She and her young daughter were having a great visit and were hoping to take home some jersey beef to try as well as to drink some raw milk while they were here. Our neighbor called to see if they could come by and get the beef. She also asked on the phone about the raw milk to which I said that I was really sorry but no, we don’t do that.

A few minutes later, they arrived at the farm to pick up their beef. They all got out of the car, the dogs greeted them, I ran and got the beef, mixed up their order a bit (I blame the mommy brain) and then enjoyed a little small talk while the little girl played with the dogs. I then noticed the woman visiting had a jug in her hand, which confused me (I had said my line on the phone, right?), and she tried to persuade me in person to take some milk from the tank.

It was hard to still say no to her – so many thoughts were going through my head:  It would probably be just fine. What would the DF do? She’s only here for two more days. Are we even allowed to sell it so casually in Vermont? What do we risk? What about insurance? To top it off – our neighbor in a mom-like way said something about finding/sharing milk with our “neighbors,” (I didn’t fully hear what she said with all the thoughts swirling around in my brain but I can sniff a guilt trip a mile away.) Oh boy.

I voiced some of my thoughts:

Me: Did you try guy up the hill who also has goats?

Her: Oh, we did, they are all dry.

Me: I’m not sure we’re allowed to sell milk.

Her: Oh, in XX state you can sell up to 20 quarts or something and it doesn’t matter.

Me: We’re not really set up for it.

Her: Cocked eye-brow with an “I’m not buying it” look.

Me: I don’t… I don’t really feel comfortable without talking to my husband, the Dairy Farmer.

The whole time we were talking, I kept watching the little girl and thinking of a news article I read a few days earlier about victims of illnesses derived from consuming raw milk and where they were now. One was about a young girl who was still dealing with issues a year later. Her life was never going to be the same.

I talked to the DF that night and we stood firm on our no-decision. He said to put it on him if I needed to. So sweet… I sort of already did that 😉

The truth is I’m torn about this issue. I can see the side where hey, if the folks know and understand the risks associated with consuming raw milk, why not. It’s a few extra dollars right to our bottom line and they leave happy campers. Chances are nothing would happen – many gallons or pounds of raw milk are sold throughout the country without issue. I can actually hear a dairy farmer friend of mine in my head saying big deal – just give it to her.

On the other hand I wonder if they really understand the risks associated. Insurance and ability to continue to operate aside, how would we feel if something ever did happen? Now that would be some real guilt. We have had some excellent quality tests on our milk lately, but you just never know. I remember a few years ago a family dairy with a processing plant and an impeccable history of hard work, dedication and top quality had some outbreak in the milk they sold directly to consumers – and that was pasteurized milk. The message there underscored the importance of food safety: if it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone.

So, what would you have done? Did I overreact? Am I overthinking the situation? It’s a hot debate no doubt.

Regardless, I will add “research the raw milk regulations in the state of Vermont” to my never-ending list of things to do.

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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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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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My First Picture of What a Dairy Farm Is

Believe it or not, my DF, TK and I all got away for a weekend trip, aka a mini-vacation this past weekend. We did have a purpose for this trip – I had a bridal shower and bachelorette party for a close friend from college to attend. DF came to take care of TK and as a chance to get away from the farm for a few days. The festivities were out in the Finger Lakes region of New York – Syracuse, Skaneateles and Ithaca, home of my alma mater. We had a great time driving around, with me pointing out as many landmarks as I could find and telling as many stories as I could remember.

This is not my friends’ dairy, but a very clean and good-looking dairy similar to what they have. It would have been nice if I remembered to snap a picture!

We also made time to stop at some family friends that have a dairy farm in Central New York. I grew up visiting them as often as we could with my family and in the process, grew to love farm land, country landscapes, calves, three wheelers, that “farm” smell and of course, the family themselves. They have a pristine farm. Everything has a place. Everything is always mowed and there are pretty flowers here and there. Everything is always super clean and I don’t remember any trouble with any cows. In fact, they were the first picture in my head of what a dairy farm is.

Though I’ve worked in the industry for many years and have raised heifers before, living and working on a dairy now I understand more and more how much work goes behind it all. Of course the first priority is the cows – that they are happy, healthy and productive. Then come the crops – a constant worry in your mind that you will make enough and they will be of good quality. Maintenance belongs in here somewhere – hopefully before a breakdown is always helpful. And then comes the cosmetic stuff – again, hopefully before things get out of control. How they keep up with it all and then have time to host guests on a whim is truly impressive!

I wish everyone had friends like these especially when growing up. Folks to show and teach you what farming and cows are all about. People to explain why certain things happen a certain way; luckily for me, with patience, as I was a kid who asked a gazillion questions. People to share their passion for farming and inspiring you to find your own passion. Knowing a farmer goes a long way in understanding where food comes from and gives you a solid foundation for deciphering what comes at you via the media and social media these days.

The father at the friends’ farm passed away a few years ago. My Dad, who is a now retired minister, did the memorial service for him. I remember something he said then – that the father said he loved to be working in the fields; that he felt like he was truly in the presence of God when he was out there.

I think I’ve come pretty close to that feeling a few times since we moved here and started down this road and I feel pretty lucky about it. It is my hope that we can serve as that farmer-resource where you can ask questions, come visit or maybe just learn through my pictures and my blog.

So if there’s anything you are wondering about or would like to see, please don’t be shy!

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