Category Archives: Dairy Industry

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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Perspectives

From Friday May 25th – TK and I went for a walk today. His babysitter is enjoying a belated Mother’s Day outing, so he’s home today and my DF and I are splitting duties. We walked a bit up the logging road that goes into the woods and leads to Wheeler Mountain. It was a really nice day out. The wind was blowing through the trees and on our faces. The sun kept peeking out from behind the clouds and warming up the air. We hadn’t been up there since the talk of a mountain lion in the area in February. I decided to chance it – I learned that a mountain lion, depending upon the terrain, will roam anywhere from 25 to 500 square miles, so chances are it’s gone. Our walk was a welcome break in routine on this Friday morning.

As we made our way back, we approached the side pasture from the back side of the farm. The girls were loafing around in the trees; some were nibbling at the grass. It was a different perspective than what I’m used to with this pasture. Not anything earth shattering, just kind of neat to look at the view in a different way.

Of course that got me thinking, thus here I am writing. We’re getting pretty busy here gearing up for summer and all the things that come with it like getting fence done, making feed and other various projects. We’re also preparing for a dip in milk prices which means trying to think of ways to preserve cash flow and pay the bills. And of course there’s the overarching question of where we are headed with our farming endeavors, and all that comes with that.

Yesterday my DF shared with me that our neighbor has found someone who is potentially interested in buying his place – a house, barn and 50 acres. This is great news – he’s been trying to sell the place for a while now and there was a time when we let the idea dance in our heads for a few moments, (it’s a beautiful house!). Then though, my DF tells me that the interested party wants to do something organic and was asking something about the chemicals we have in our manure. “Oh, boy,” I thought.

It was early in the morning when my DF told me the news. He knew I wasn’t going be thrilled. It seemed a somewhat prickly question, making one wonder what other questions/hassles would be coming. But the reality is, people don’t know about modern dairy farming practices. They have a right to ask questions. It seems like people don’t trust what they don’t know. They rely an awful lot on quick information and news that often only shows one perspective of the story. This has been more and more apparent to me over the past several weeks.

I recently wrote a post about how it’s okay to buy milk from conventional farms on my friend Alice’s blog, to which a person wrote a quick rebuttal. She wasn’t arguing over the milk but rather over farming practices and it was clear to me that she already had a very biased opinion and was trying to use scientific research to support it. Where the research fell short, she added more citations as if the sum of the parts would equal the whole to support it. If you check this post out, I would direct you to the comments section, particularly the dairy farmers who commented and “Kristy” who so eloquently stated what I think many were seeing. I was thrilled to see that she took the time to point out piece by piece where the author was lacking as it seemed that was what the author wanted. “Kristy” kept up with her and was inspiring with the depth of her knowledge. It left me wanting to meet her some day!

In another example, a classmate of mine shared a book review and tried to generalize all “factory farms” as using unsustainable practices, (I would argue all farms are a sort of ‘factory’). I questioned what practices in particular, which ultimately was overuse of fertilizer leading to soil erosion and runoff. It was as if the assumption was that farmers themselves are not concerned about these issues and their detrimental effect on the environment, nearly calling those who farm on a large-scale immoral. Really? How did we get here? Why don’t these folks know about nutrient management plans, precision farming or any of the latest technology typically adopted by large farms first due to the capital investment required? Why don’t they know that farmers care first?

I think we, as farmers, know that we have to do a better job of getting our perspectives out there. And I think we’re making progress, even if it’s one day at a time, one blog post at a time, one comment at a time. I’m sharing two more links from dairy farmers in Massachusetts who took the time to speak up when they read a rather insulting, one-sided column in their local paper for Mother’s Day. One is from Nicole Fletcher, a twenty-something who is herd manager on her home farm in Southampton. The other is from Teresa Everett, a farmer who has been dairying for 31 years with her husband and family in Williamsburg. Well done, ladies. Thanks for your words and of course, for all the hard work you do.

Any thoughts on how we might consider others’ perspectives and how we might get our own out there?

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It’s Okay to Buy Plain ‘Ole Milk

I recently wrote a guest post for ScienceofMom.com. Here it is below:

My husband dairy farmer (DF) and I have a 30-cow dairy farm. That means we milk 30 cows. We also raise our own “youngstock” (young animals not yet in the milking herd) plus a few steers; so we have a total of about 65 head of cattle that we care for, both Holsteins and Jerseys at our farm. The Jerseys go back to a 4-H dairy project that I started with my family when I was a kid. They are all registered with names and unique personalities. Some of them have been with me for a long time with one family going back to the very first calves we owned. The Holsteins are my DF’s and they too have their own personalities but numbers instead of names as they are not registered. We do have pet names for some of them though, typically related to appearance or something that happened – like Pip, Slurpy and Whitey. Regardless, they are all now “our” girls.

 

My guess is that as you approach our place and see our girls grazing our rolling green hills in Northeast Vermont, you would maybe assume we are an organic herd. We are not and I will get into the why not at the end of this post.

 

The Prices of Milk in the Store

The average price of a gallon of “conventional” whole milk was $3.63 in March 2012. Organic milk was $4.02 per half-gallon or $8.04[1] for a full one. I wanted to get those figures out there so we know exactly what we’re talking about – a cost more than double. If you’re a family of five and buying ten gallons a week, those dollars add up fast. It’s been a pretty hot topic lately – given the shape the economy is and has been in, is the added expense worth it? 

 

If you ask me, I’d say no. Of course I would you might say – we produce milk that is not organic. But I know there are some people who choose the certified organic label for other items and extend that preference to milk, which is certainly okay too. But in my opinion, I think it’s irresponsible to make people feel guilty if they don’t want to or can’t shell out the extra cash for the label without an adequate explanation especially when budgets are tight.

 

When companies sell products obviously they’re looking for an edge. This comes in the form of price or quality for example, but ultimately their edge is based on consumer perception. Labels and other retail packaging are often used to convey a claim to alter the perception of the product in order to sell more or to sell at a higher price. This often leaves products without special labels looking inferior somehow with no adequate explanation. It underscores the importance for food and nutrition professionals to communicate science-based facts about food to the general public.

 

So then, what does the certified organic label on milk mean and why is it so much more expensive?

 

Milk is Milk

Firstly, compositionally, there is no significant difference between milk that comes from cows that are raised with organic practices or those that are from conventional farms[2]. The same nutrients and hormones exist in both, both are safe to consume and BOTH are free from antibiotics. Interesting to note, there is no way to test milk to determine whether it was from an organic farm or a conventional farm – either one that uses rBST or one that does not. Bottom line, milk is milk.

 

Because of the combination of nine essential nutrients, milk – organic or otherwise – packs a powerful punch for a healthy diet. The USDA and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences define essential nutrients as a dietary substance required for healthy body functioning. The nine found in milk are: Calcium, Potassium, Phosphorus, Protein, Vitamin D, Vitamin A, Vitamin B12, Riboflavin and Niacin. Sometimes, there can be a very slight difference in fat and protein levels between organic and conventional milk but this is thought to have more to do with diet than any other factor[3]. You might see this same difference in milk amongst different brands or from a local, seasonally grazed herd that may or may not be organic as well.

 

When it comes to safety, all milk sold in stores is processed to kill harmful bacteria – either through pasteurization or ultra-high temperature processing. However, milk, along with many other food products, is not a sterile product and thus some tolerance is allowed for bacteria counts. In a study examining the composition of milk from organic farms, milk from cows not treated with rBST and milk from conventional farms, the bacteria levels were found to be less in conventionally labeled milk than that of organic and rbST-free[4]. The difference was minimal however and all three were far below the federal limit.

 

Along those same lines, hormones are present in all milk – organic, rBST-free, conventional, chocolate, strawberry, coffee, skim, 2%, etc. The same study found different levels of hormones existing in the different samples of milk, though minor. Alice previously had a post that addressed some of these studies.

 

Finally to be absolutely clear, all milk on the shelf in the grocery store is free of antibiotics. Taking it a step further, organic farmers pledge not to use antibiotics on their cattle, or if they do the cow must exit the herd. On a conventional farm, if a cow is sick the farmer is allowed to use antibiotics to treat her. However, the milk she produces is withheld from comingling with the rest of the herd’s until it is tested and shown to be clear of the antibiotic. Many tests are done on the milk in its journey from farm to store shelf to ensure that there are no antibiotics present. The farmer risks losing his/her license to sell milk if antibiotics are found. This is not an area where farmers like to mess around!

 

Paying for the Farm Practices Promised

It’s really the steps before the milk is on the shelf that you pay for when you buy the organic label. That’s where the difference in price comes from. The USDA has attempted to reign in label claims by creating an official certification program for organic foods. It is more expensive to operate within these standards and organic farms must stay in compliance or they risk losing the ability to use the organic label and the premium that comes with it that helps to cover their higher costs.

 

The list of regulations organic producers must follow is found on the USDA’s National Organic Program’s web site. Generally, organic cows must eat organic feed grown with the use of pesticides approved for organic use[5], use organic medicine, graze organic pastures, etc. In fact, a recently updated regulation is a new pasture requirement that has made many large organic dairy farms reviewing their operations. Organic dairy and beef cattle as well as other ruminant livestock (like goats and sheep) must spend at least 120 days each year in pastures. While there’s no acre-per-cow requirement, the animals must receive at least 30 percent of their dry matter intake from the pasture during the grazing season. In hot, arid climates it has meant more costly irrigation to provide more pasture for their herd. This may affect the availability of organic milk in certain areas, let alone organic feed, meaning more truck miles spent shipping these items in and potentially increasing the carbon footprint.

 

While farm practices and philosophies may differ, the concern and care for the animals remain a top priority for dairy farmers. Keeping the cows healthy and comfortable goes a long way in their ability to produce milk. As a wise farmer once said, “Take care of the cows and they will take care of you.”

 

Show Me the Money!

While it’s true that you pay a premium for organic milk at the store and a farmer receives a higher milk price for organic milk, the economics of farming still come into play. Organic farmers pay more for organic grain and other organic inputs which doesn’t necessarily leave them in a better profit position than conventional farmers. This past year in particular inputs are up for all dairy farmers – feed, fuel, crop needs, repairs, supplies, etc. At the same time, the organic milk price on the farm has not gone up as quickly which has put a strain on at the farm making the idea of milking more organic cows not exactly attractive.

 

Another similarity organic and conventional milk share involves pay prices – just because you pay a higher price at the store and it increases from time to time does not mean that the farmer gets that premium. Organic milk has enjoyed huge gains in consumer consumption over the past few years. Recently, there has been a shortage of organic milk which has contributed to a rise in prices at the store. Despite half gallons of organic milk up 14 cents from December 2011 to December 2010, farmers only saw 6 cents of the increase[6]. Farmers are paid by the hundredweight (100 pounds, cwt.) for their milk, so the equivalent is $1.25 of a $3.26 per cwt.

 

Meanwhile, conventional dairy farmers had an increase of nearly $3.00 per cwt. during the same time period[7]. This is an important area where the two styles differ. Organic farms typically contract for a certain level of milk production with a processor thereby getting a fairly predictable price for a certain time period. Conventional dairies are left more to the whim of market forces, which means they would get higher high prices and lower lows. Today, as we get into for planting feed for the 2012 crop, conventional producers are gearing up for lower pay prices with higher costs of production while organic producers can take a little more comfort in their price, although they too will continue to have elevated expenses.

 

We Choose Not to be Certified Organic and Here’s Why

I’ve enjoyed writing this post as it’s offered me an opportunity to review why we do things the way we do them. Our reason is simple – we want to have all management tools available for our use. A good example is the use of antibiotics for medicine. If we have a cow that gets sick, which is not often, we want every option available to us to make her well again. It would not be sustainable on our 30-cow dairy to send every cow we treat with antibiotics away as some organic farms do, never mind that there are generations of cows behind her owned by us or our family members. I really can’t imagine saying goodbye to one of my girls because we were nursing her back to health; it seems counter-intuitive to me.

 

This is not to say that we do not support organic dairy farmers. We respect their choices and are happy to see the land put to productive use. At our farm, we also promote sustainable farming methods in an effort to maximally preserve our operation. We are excited about raising our family here and love the idea that maybe just maybe our son might be interested in taking over. Now I’m getting carried away – he is eight months old  this week.

 

I believe that all dairy farmers strive to produce an equally nutritious and high quality product. In the end, whether it’s organic or not, chocolate or skim, lactose free, the important thing to me is that you drink milk and feel good about it. As the saying goes, “It does a body good.”


[1] Milk Marketing Order Statistics: Retail Milk Prices. USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. March 2012.

[2] Vicini et al. Survey of Retail Milk Composition as Affected by Label Claims Regarding Farm-Management Practices. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2008: 1198-1203.

[3] Walker et al. Effects of Nutrition and Management on the Production of Milk Fat and Protein: a Review. Australian Journal of Agricultural Research. 2004.

[4] Vicini et al. Survey of Retail Milk Composition as Affected by Label Claims Regarding Farm-Management Practices. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2008: 1198-1203.

 

[5] A list of substances allowed and prohibited for use in organic crop and animal production can be found on the National Organic Program website. http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop

[6] Maltby. Organic Pay And Retail Price Update for April 2012. April 5, 2012. http://www.nodpa.com/payprice_update_04_05_2012.shtml

[7] Federal Milk Marketing Order One. Market Administrator’s Bulletin. December 2010 and December 2011. http://fmmone.com/

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Women in Agriculture: What Do You Prefer?

As a woman who works in and with agriculture, I’ve thought about this question before from a few different angles and am curious to hear what you think. Please choose your answer and feel free to comment if you wish, particularly if you like to be called something other than what I have provided for choices.

If you’re a woman in agriculture but do not work with cattle, I’m still curious to know what you would prefer to be called if you did.

I will share the final results and commentary once the poll finished. Thanks!

 

 

 

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Got Jersey Beef?

I know it’s been awhile since my last post. I’ve been working on a few posts actually, just need to finish them up and get them published. I felt compelled, though, to share this little story from Friday.

We are trying to diversify our farming operation here. In addition to the dairy operations and making our own feed, we’d like to start selling our jersey beef at local farmers’ markets. Being that it’s almost time for the markets to start and we’ve got a steer that’s prit close to being ready to go, we decided we should figure out what we need to do to make it happen.

We had an idea that it may not be a smooth process, given the lack of USDA-inspected facilities that exist, but one that happens to also be the state facility is located not 35 minutes from us. We heard they are pretty backed up with work. Well, we’ll see what we find out!

The first phone call was to the State. It went great – the guy on the phone was extremely helpful, even cheery to help us get our stuff in order. He explained the licenses we needed to apply for and that we would need to get set up with a processing plant that could put a label on our beef for us. That would be my second phone call.

Trying to push down the apprehension the seemed to be growing in my gut, I called the processing plant. To my surprise, everything went smoothly – the gal at the other end of the phone said they were only a few weeks backed up and would May 21st work? “Why, yes, yes that would be great! Oh ya, and by the way, we want to sell this meat at farmers’ markets, can you-”

She cut me off. “Oh,” she said, “I’m sorry we’re not taking on any more commercial vendors.”

As soon as she said that the apprehension I felt earlier came flooding out in the form of, “Oh damn!” with the appropriate facial expression (internal monologue of course). What do you mean commercial vendors? We’re just a couple of farmer’s trying to do the right thing and make a few extra bucks. I suppose we could sell shares in the meat while the steer is still here but that wasn’t exactly what we had in mind.

Oh well. Back to the drawing board to try to figure this thing out. We heard of another facility that wouldn’t be too far that was going to be opening, possibly in May. Would it be too flatlander-ish of me to call the guy before he opens to try to get on his commercial vendor list?

We’re still going to have our steer done up. It will be our first one. I’m hoping to be able to convince my DF that raising our jersey beef to sell locally is a good idea. Stay tuned.

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Our Agricultural Industry

I’ve been watching the fallout of the Chipotle cartoon commercial with interest. Part of me didn’t want to write about it – let’s remember this is a commercial to sell a retail product or products. Whether it seems good or bad, they are definitely getting a boatload of exposure because of it. Of course, the other part of me says “You have a blog now. Use it.”

This was the first time I saw the Chipotle commercial. As I was getting into Willie’s crooning, my heart sank. I LOVE that Coldplay song – one of my favorites, though I identified with it a bit differently when it first came out. And even though my dairy farmer and I are more like the small-farm guy pasturing the cows outside, I felt very angry that Chipotle would blatantly perpetuate a mistaken notion of “factory farms” or really large scale agriculture. While the term “factory farm” is debatable – in my estimation all farms are some sort of “factory” – I have friends and acquaintances that operate very large farms and do excellent jobs of taking care of their animals. In fact in some cases they are probably able to do a better job at certain things than we can.

We have a 30-cow grass-based dairy in rural Vermont. That means we graze our cows when we can and feed them a “TMR” (total mixed ration – a mixture of different feed ingredients) that is based on grass silage that we make in the summer and fall. The TMR includes corn and soy products and other important food and vitamins and minerals. Currently the cows are cooped up in the barn because despite other areas in the Northeast, winter still came to our area and there is ice and snow on the ground with cold temperatures. Perhaps I’m being too literal with the commercial but did it mean that we shouldn’t farm in cold areas but only where the cows and pigs can go outside all the time? Somewhere like California? Is this really a conspiracy to end agriculture in areas where it gets cold and the weather gets bad? And what about the recent increase in incidents involving wild boars? Are these really escapees from grazing pig farms somewhere yearning to be feral pigs again? Okay, now I am getting carried away.

The girls grazing on an early fall day.

Again, my heart sank when I watched the pigs being moved along an assembly line from a warehouse, going into a building along with what could only be a representation of antibiotics and green liquid. What was the green liquid? And then moved along and boxed up and put onto trucks. Gosh, so heartless. Then the farmer all of the sudden grows a conscience about the pills and green sludge coming out through a tap? Like the farmer didn’t have a conscience all along? Not true. Not fair. Not cool.

What surprises me most and I don’t mean to offend anyone, are the small farmers I see – some larger than us but still considered small – who loved the commercial. Really? I think that’s what is really sad. Maybe I don’t get it. To me, this is no better than political rivals and dirty campaign tricks using negative advertising. It’s no better than putting down a product just to make yours look better. It’s no better than making a false claim simply to boost profits, especially when a company cannot follow through on promises made – there’s no disclaimer on the commercial that reads “we source these products as such when available.” And we wonder why we have such an epidemic with bullying in our schools.

The thing is, in agriculture, there’s room for all of us. We all need each other because we’re in it together. We can have small farms that focus on local food production and large farms that focus on feeding the rest of the world and we don’t have to fight or perpetuate myths that we know to be untrue. We don’t need to bash each other because some company is looking for a “general higher-level message” in order to better connect with its customers. We need to keep telling our stories in a positive way, focusing on the care we give to our animals, the concern we have for the sustainability of our natural resources and the seriousness with which we take our role in our communities.

With our diversity comes greater innovation, advancement, success in the form of sustainability including economic sustainability and certainly more voices sharing the story of what it’s like to live on or work on our respective farms. The picture of agriculture is colored with many different hues and we can show the non-farmers out there that it’s not just black and white. Putting another group down or creating unfounded fear or misguided perceptions has far too often become the norm. I suppose to take advantage of misguided perceptions in consumers’ mind is just another form of capitalism, but at what moral expense?

My farm family and I will continue to support our one agricultural industry, our diversity within it and the ability we have to not only feed the world but to also offer choices when it comes to food production.

A few tidbits to share:

There are many good posts about this, but here’s one that I found a particularly good read: CrystalCattle

My favorite quote from this statement put out by the American Society of Animal Science:

“Chipotle, like any company, is advertising a fantasy. Coca-cola has smiling polar bears, Old Spice has manly men and Chipotle has a cartoon farm. Chipotle did not try to represent science or agriculture truthfully; instead, it made a commercial.”

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Misleading Information for the Dairy Aisle, Once Again

I’m on maternity leave. I’m a new mom and have been busy getting the hang of being a new mom and taking care of my baby. I’m also a dairy farmer, together with my husband. I know a thing or two about taking care of cows and the milk business.

I was getting into a routine that included catching the Today Show while nursing my baby. I found most of the stuff on there interesting, helpful and would sometimes share with my husband the info I gleaned from the show.

One morning I shared with him some info that was just plain wrong, and quite frankly insulting to me, to us and our farm.

They were doing a segment on what it was okay to splurge on in the grocery store, particularly during these tough economic times. The first item mentioned? Organic milk. Oh boy, here we go I thought. Each and every point the so-called expert made was exagerrated and/or misleading.

To correct her mistakes:
1. All milk on the shelf in the supermarket is free of antibiotics.
2. All milk on the shelf in the supermarket is free of pesticides.
3. Hormones occur in all living things. Any food you eat was grown because of hormones.

I feel like she may have been nervous, but regardless, the misinformation continues. And in these economic times, it was very irresponsible of the Today Show to make these statements.

As a non-organic dairy farmer, I was insulted. As an informed consumer, I was disappointed.

I’ve stopped watching the Today Show. I’ve got the Early Show on now. I just hope its not just a matter of time before they proliferate non-facts.

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