Thursday, December 4, 2014

Seven reasons animal care matters to dairy farmers

Regardless of the size of farm or type of animal raised, farmers have the same level of commitment to taking care of their animals and providing consumers with a safe product. Farmers also eat and drink these products, so safety and quality is important for lots of different reasons. 

Dairy farming is a 24/7/365 job. The cows don’t take a day off. Even if the herd is seasonal and may all be dry (not milking for the ~60 days prior to having their calf) at the same time, they still must be fed. In short, dairy farming is busy. However, I’ve never met a dairy farmer who doesn’t love their job.

Here are seven of the many, many reasons dairy farmers take good care of their cows:

  1.  Cows are the backbone of these family businesses. Without the cows, there is no dairy farm and no jobs on the dairy farm.
  2.  Most cows are raised from baby calves on the farm. This means dairy farmers spend A LOT of time with them. If they are show cows, dairy farmers spend even more time with them.
  3. Many cows and cow families have been on the farm for generations. Much like the farm families. Dairy farmers are committed to taking care of their cows and the environment. The best reward? When the next generation wants to come back to the farm.
  4.  Cows thrive when they are well fed. To ensure these bovine beauties receive the nutrition they need, many farms work with an animal nutritionist to balance a diet/ration to meet the cows needs for milk production and health. This is especially common in herds that feed a TMR (total mixed ration…similar to a salad or casserole with lots of different feeds and nutrients). Herds that graze on pasture may also supplement cows with corn or another type of grain to help balance the cows’ diets.
  5. Dairy farmers want to keep their cows in tip top shape. While they don’t have a routine exercise program (cow yoga?), they do have a veterinarian on call. Just like people, cows get sick occasionally and need medical attention.  Cows are much larger than cats and dogs, so most times a veterinarian will come to the farm (sometimes farmers take cows to a vet, though). Cows must be healthy to be their most productive.
  6. Dairy farms have changed significantly over the last several decades, but the values behind them haven’t.  When Grandpa was milking a few cows by hand before school in the 1920s on our family dairy farm, he knew that taking care of cows was not only the right thing to do, but what was necessary to ensure the family had fresh milk to drink and some to sell to the local creamery. Today, there are a lot more scientific studies and research to confirm that taking good care of our cows is good for the family, the farm and the community.
  7.  Dairy is one of the most regulated industries. Milk is tested on the farm, at the processing plant and there are many safeguards in place to protect our nation’s milk supply. Okay, this sounds nice, but is it true? Yes. I saw a lot of these safeguards in action when I was a field rep for a milk marketing cooperative. Let’s start at the farm. As I mentioned, sometimes cows get sick and it’s necessary to treat her with an antibiotic to help her feel better. These antibiotics have milk and meat withdrawl times that vary depending on the antibiotic. Even if it says the milk withdrawal is 72 hours, cows metabolize things at different rates, which is why it’s smart to test the cow’s milk before putting her milk back into the bulk tank with the rest of the milk. When cows are treated, her milk is separated from the rest of the milk and dumped down the drain. What if her milk accidentally gets into the bulk tank with the rest of the milk? Well, that’s a bad day. The whole bulk tank must be dumped and the dairy farmer doesn’t get paid for it. If this isn’t caught on the farm, it will be caught when the milk truck gets to the processing plant. The processing plant has lab technicians on hand to test EVERY milk truck that comes into the plant BEFORE they unload. The samples are tested for antibiotics and these very sensitive tests must come back negative before the truck is allowed to unload. I was at a milk plant once when a truck sample tested positive, so we had to find the bag of milk samples for that truck in the sample refrigerator at the plant and test each of the farm samples for that load of milk. All but one came back negative. Although it was only one farm that caused the problem, the whole load of milk (usually about 50,000 pounds and approximately $10,000 depending on milk prices) must be taken back to a farm and dumped in the lagoon. The farm that caused the problem also has to pay for it. Talk about a bad day! No one wants to be that farm that caused an antibiotic load. If a farm is continuously shipping milk with antibiotic residue, they may lose their milk market and much more. This is something dairy farmers take very seriously. Besides for loving dairy cows, I love that our milk supply is so safe and that so many people care so much about keeping it that way. 

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