Tag Archives: Dairy Care

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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Losing the Calves

I love posting pictures on social media sites of all the fun stuff around here: the fresh cut hay, cows grazing on rolling green pastures and cute baby calves. Farming is not all fun stuff though; it’s tough, sometimes so tough that you find yourself asking why you continue to do it. Sometimes those baby calves don’t make it for whatever reason, but reason beyond your control.

This spring, we have had a string of bad luck with our calving. We lost three heifer calves – all to freak things. I wrote the following post on my phone while the second one we lost was struggling to make it. When I wrote, we had done what we could for her and we were in wait & see mode:

towanda

Towanda and me on a random Tuesday night.

There’s a heifer calf in the barn struggling to live. While her future is bleak, there still is hope. I found myself in the same position a few years ago with a cow who is now seven years old. In a similar way it was a very cold day in March and she came unexpectedly. We brought both into heated parts of the barn. We dried each calf, rubbing them down with at least a half dozen towels. We “tubed” each calf, inserting a small tube down to their stomachs to get them colostrum with vital nutrients and immunities they need to fight off whatever they may have to fight off in these first few hours of life. We put blankets on them, said a little prayer and tried to make them as warm and comfortable as possible while we left to go do the next thing.

And now we wait. Last time, I went back to check on the baby calf at noon and found a spritely little thing be-bopping around the room. She was very cute- already a very small calf having come early and out of a first-calver and we only had a large Holstein calf blanket available.  I think it made her even cuter – she was swimming in that thing! Because of her spunk, I named her “Towanda” from the movie Fried Green Tomatoes. I hope for a similar outcome today, but am not optimistic. Maybe I’ve become a little jaded as I’ve gotten older. Maybe I’m more realistic – this isn’t exactly the same situation, and it seems the calf this time is struggling a bit more as we think she may have aspirated during calving. Maybe I’m just feeling depressed because it just keeps snowing. Or maybe I’ll be wrong and she’ll make it.

Later that night:

Turns out I was right. Unfortunately the calf didn’t make it. When I went back down to check on her, she had gone further downhill, not even able to pick up her head. It is an indescribable feeling, holding a dying calf in your lap. You feel sad, hopeless, and maybe a little angry that there wasn’t anything else you could do to save her. It certainly makes you want to work harder and smarter for the sake of all the rest of the animals who did make it and are in your care. It reminds me of a line from that Paul Harvey speech made famous by a 2013 Super Bowl commercial:

God said, “I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt. And watch it die. Then dry his eyes and say, ‘Maybe next year.'”

And while this doesn’t happen often, it happens on farms regardless of the label put on the package its product sells in. Again it leaves you wondering if it is all worth it. Then you look around at all the faces watching you as you walk back through the barn to get ready to feed or clean or milk or for one last check before you leave for the night and you realize it is.

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What Makes Farming Worth the Heartache?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Farmers’ Market Conversations, Part I: You Have to Believe in Your Product

Farmers’ Market Conversations

People who know me know that I’m a talker. In fact, I think my favorite thing at the farmers’ market so far has been all the discussions and conversations that I have had with visitors and vendors alike. This gave me the idea to expand into detail some of the topics that have come up that we’ve discussed. Over the next several weeks and perhaps in the future when I have more, I’ll share my favorites here.

Part I: You Have to Believe in Your Product

Today another vendor at the farmer’s market shared a very important truth when it comes to direct selling. She said, “You really have to believe in your product and show people why you do to be successful.”

For some reason, that struck a chord with me. While explaining what Jersey Beef is and why we raise it instead of some other breed I often suggest with a grin that I could be the poster girl for the Jersey breed of cattle. Seriously, I think I could.

I love my cows. There, I said it. My family started with Jersey calves with my older sister and brother’s 4-H projects back in 1982. We’ve never looked back though we had never lived on a farm. I lived on one briefly where I raised my own heifers (young female cattle) and now of course, I find myself on one in a beautiful spot in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

That’s me with the Mickey Mouse shirt on, anxiously waiting to show one of my sibling’s heifers in the kiddie class at a local fair

Through those early years, we took care of our animals whether they were next door or 45 minutes away. We showed our heifers at the local fairs and visited friends that had dairy farms throughout New England and New York. I think when you put so much work and effort and hanging-on into something so long you’re bound to be bound to it one way or another. And we didn’t live in one spot – my Dad is a United Methodist minister, retired now, and so we moved a few times, but always found a place for the cows wherever we moved. I think that was fate.

If there is one part of having Jersey cattle that always bothered me was that there was not much you could do with the bull calves. We would send them to the auction house and generally because they are smaller, you don’t get much for them and often end up paying the auction house to cover the commission, trucking and other costs.

You can imagine my surprise when I learned about the excellent qualities of Jersey beef which was not long ago. I had no idea, really. Jersey beef ranks up with Angus and Waygu cattle in terms of taste and tenderness. It has one of the highest rates of monounsaturated fats and beta carotene among the various breeds of beef. And because they are generally smaller and leaner, the cuts are smaller and leaner which helps with portion control and goes along with a more health-conscious diet.

The challenge in raising Jersey steers (castrated male cattle) is that they take longer to grow and finish, they have different diet requirements than a larger breed and they’re not the easiest to herd – they too have the Jersey “attitude.”

What a coincidence. Here are all these wonderful aspects of a breed of cattle that I already love. And as far as the challenges go – we raise them right alongside the heifers (young female cattle) and we are in no rush. I grew up with the Jersey attitude and have an appreciation for their sass.

Two years ago I convinced my DF to give raising a few Jersey beef a shot. Remember – he brought the Holsteins to our farm equation and sometimes has to be reminded about how great Jerseys are. So far, the success that we have had at the farmers markets has him more and more interested. It seems perhaps he too is a believer in our jersey beef; the first of many more to come I hope.

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And So It Goes

A shot of our girls in the pasture from last summer.

Just caught wind of another video released by the Mercy for Animals group. This time they only let the abuse go on for two weeks. I’m being facetious. The abuse should have been reported immediately.

I’m not sure I can watch it, to be honest. I’ve heard enough about it, I get the picture. Besides, I’m carrying a little one myself and don’t think my hormones can handle it right now.

My story with cows, the short version: I fell in love with them as a kid in 4-H and the rest is, as they say, history. My history.

I have to fall back on the intelligence of the general population. I have to know that most are not as easily led as it appears some are. I have to believe that they know that one bruised apple does not ruin the bushel. Yet, it would not be fair to sit back and let the majority only hear one side.

I’m proud of the dairy farmers who step up and share their stories. I’m proud that they have come forward to take a stand against not only those who would seek to bruise our industry, but those who are the real bad apples. There is no room for their misguidance here.

Interested in more? Check out the Ray-Lin Dairy blog. Ray has collected a list of sites by dairy producers.

http://raylindairy.wordpress.com/2011/04/19/farmers-who-care-about-animals/

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