Three Myths About Food & Farming

More than ever, consumers have a growing interest in where their food comes from and how it is produced…which is great!  Folks should care about where their food originates from and it makes my job as a farmer so much more important. But, I don’t ever want consumers to feel “food shamed” or have fear when it comes to grocery shopping.  I always encourage people to seize the opportunity to visit a local farm and to get to know the farmers and their practices, but since that isn’t always possible, I blog. 🙂

I wanted to better understand my consumers and open up a conversation about food and farming.  With so many food buzzwords, Ag misconceptions and bad information on the internet, I think it is pretty common for consumers to have some concerns. So,  I sent out a questionnaire to a few of my non-Ag friends and did some creeping on social media to understand how consumers make their food purchasing decisions.  What I found led me to produce this list:

Three Common Myths About Food and Farming

Myth #1: Organic products are safer and more nutritious

The Truth: Organic products are just as safe and nutritious as conventionally grown products.

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When it comes to safety and nutrition, food is food. Organic is just another farming method, not a safety or quality term.  So what is the difference (besides price)? In my opinion, not much.  In fact, you might be surprised to learn that even organic farmers can use certified chemicals on their crops.   The chemical must be derived from a natural source rather than synthetic, but a chemical is a chemical.  There are different rules and regulations farmers must follow in order to be certified organic, but all farmers have the same goal.   Whether we choose to farm organically or conventionally, farmers are dedicated to producing safe, quality products and caring for the land. Here is an article written by an organic farmer that does a great job of defining organic practices.  Read this!

I support ALL farmers and understand that it takes all kinds of kinds to feed the world. I also understand that organic methods cannot yield the quantity needed to feed the growing population.  We cannot feed the world with just organic methods, nor can a majority of the population afford it!  It is all about consumer choice; no matter what your choice is or what you can afford, know it is safe.

Myth #2: Food with labels = greater quality.

The Truth: A label doesn’t mean diddly squat and for the most part, is nothing more than a marketing scheme.

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“Grass-fed”, “Natural”, “free-range”, “Country”, “Home-grown”, the list goes on and on.  You have seen these labels, perhaps you even base your purchasing choices around them.  Truth be told, with or without a label all food is equal and comes from farmers who care.  These labels are marketing tools that influence you to pay more for a product with a label compared to one without.  (Cough, Cough, Chipotle)  These feel-good buzzwords lead consumers to believe that the product comes from loving farmers who produce a greater product and implies that the label-less products are of poorer quality or come from “mean, factory farms”.   In reality, a packaging label tells consumers little to nothing about where the product originated from or how the animals were raised.

For example, the cows on my family farm are not grass-fed, but I know for a fact that they are provided with plenty of space, feed, shelter and care.  I also know that ALL milk and meat is antibiotic free, but labels lead you to believe otherwise.  Buy what makes you happy, but don’t pay more for a silly label.  If you truly want to know how your food was grown or raised, ask a farmer.

Myth #3: Smaller farms are family owned and provide better care compared to larger farms.

The Truth: 93% of farms are family owned and operated.

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I think there is a misconception that large farms are run by men in suits that pack their animals into a barn and treat them like a commodity.  They have so many animals, how could they possibly provide proper care for each, individual animal?!

As a farm girl who grew up on a 1,500 cow dairy farm and who currently works with her husband and in-laws to milk 500 cows,  I know that farmers love what they do and pay close attention to their animals.   Farmers may choose to grow their herd and their business, but they take the necessary steps to ensure that every animal and piece of land is provided with proper care and attention.  For many, this means incorporating more family members or hiring employees, using technology to help monitor animals and setting up strict protocols. When your livelihood depends on the health and happiness of an animal, you take it seriously and do everything possible to run a prosperous farm.

There are bad farms that are small, good farms that are big and vice versa.  Size has nothing to do with it.  Most farms, no matter their size, are run by farm families who care for their land, animals, and community.

Knowing that consumers have a growing interest in animal welfare, many farmers have been participating in the F.A.R.M. (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) program.  It is a nationwide program that helps ensure consumers that farmers are using sustainable practices and treating animals with respect.

As a farmer, I want to thank you, the consumer, for caring.  Thank you for caring about the food you eat and the farmers who grow it.  Thank you for wanting to learn and grow with your farmer.  It is because of great consumers, like you, that keep me and my family in the business of doing what we love. 

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Why I Farm

So often do we hear farmers say “Howdy, I am Farmer Brown from Wisconsin and we milk 125 cows and run 300 acres of land”.  Blah, Blah, Blah.  Farmers are really good at telling consumers what they do, but what we don’t commonly hear is why they do it.

Sure, it is always cool to learn how many cows your neighbor feeds and milks everyday or how many acres of corn he/she plans to harvest this fall, but wouldn’t you be more interested to know why they farm?  Wouldn’t you agree that it is easier to connect with someone when you understand their core values versus their business stats?  Farming is more than just numbers and trying to make a profit, it is a lifestyle.  Each farmer has their own set of reasons and values that drives them to work as hard as they do 365 day a year, and today I want to share my “why” with you. I will try not to get too sappy and sentimental on you

1. It is in my blood.

I was born into a dairy farming family and at a young age my sisters and I were on the farm feeding and caring for our family’s animals.

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I was lucky enough to work with and learn from, not only my parents and grandparents, but also my great-grandparents.  I was taught to be tough enough to take a kick in the leg from a rowdy heifer, but also to be gentle enough to care for newborn calf.  Strong enough to get through the bad days and how to find humor in them when you can.  I learned that a good night’s sleep comes after a hard day’s work and that to get respect, you have to give it.  It is the lessons that they taught me and the passion they showed me that made me want to carry on the family legacy of caring for the land and animals.  I farm because I want to make my family proud.

2. It is important.

People need to eat.  What I do everyday helps feed the world.

“My grandfather use 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

I know that my job means something and that I can help families all over the country and world.  I think it is really cool that what I do, what I work so hard for everyday, ends up on a dinner table somewhere and brings families together.  By caring for dairy cattle and producing milk I am able to provide nutrition for thousands of families.  I farm because I want to help people.

3. It is what I love.

I love that my job allows me to be outdoors and work with family.  I love that I get to care for animals.  I love that I don’t have to sit in a cubicle all day and that I don’t have to wait until dinner time to see my husband.  I love seeing my calves grow into strong milk cows.  I love that my cows can’t talk back to me. I love watching our fields turn from dirt to green waves of corn.  I love that my job requires brains and physical labor.  I love that I don’t have to do my hair every morning (Even though, sometimes, I still do).  I love seeing the fruits of my labor.  I love that I will be able to pass our farm onto our future children.  I love that every day is different.  I farm because I love it.

Long story short, I farm because I believe in hard work, agriculture and providing families with safe, affordable dairy products. I believe in family, love and passion and my job encompasses all of these values.  Why do you do what you do?

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Milk Fever

Milk Fever.  No, it is not the intense craving you get for a glass of ice-cold milk or the belly ache you feel after competing in a milk drinking contest at the county fair.  Milk fever is a metabolic disorder caused by a low blood calcium level and is common among cows who are close to calving or recently gave birth.  We do our best to prevent the occurrence of milk fever, but occasionally it happens. In fact, it just happened yesterday.

Most  cases occur within one day of calving because milk and colostrum production drain calcium (and other substances) from the blood, and some cows are unable to replace the calcium quickly enough.  Other factors that put cows at risk for milk fever are:

  • Age. Heifers are rarely affected.  Older cows are at higher risk because they produce more milk and are less able to replace blood calcium.
  • Size. Fat cows have higher feed and calcium intakes putting them at risk.  That is why I always tell my pregnant cows to stay active while on maternity leave.  I have been thinking about offering cow yoga to the girls, but I doubt it will go over well.
  • Production. Cows that produce high yields of milk are likely to develop milk fever.
  • Dry Cow Management. The feeding management of dry cows in the 2 weeks before calving is very important, because it affects both the amount of calcium available to replace blood calcium and the efficiency with which the available calcium can be used.  We work closely with our nutritionist to formulate a specific ration to avoid milk fever.

We noticed 4054 was in labor and moved her into a calving pen.  Old 4054 was a textbook case of a cow with milk fever; she is an older cow in her 5th lactation, a bit overweight, and was a high yielding milk producer last lactation.  Like a said, a classic case.  On her way to the calving pen she fell down and wasn’t able to get back up, a common sign of milk fever.  Other signs include:

  • cold ears
  • low body temp
  • muscle tremors
  •  drowsiness.

Luckily this disorder is easily treatable and we were prepared.  My husband quickly began warming up a bottle of Calcium gluconate  and prepared to IV the down cow.  By administering calcium intravenously we were able to replace her blood calcium level and within minutes she was back on her feet.  Cows normally respond to the treatment very quickly.

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A couple of hours later 4054 gave birth to a healthy heifer calf and both are doing well today.  I am happy my husband and I were able to help this momma and  get her back to health.  Cows truly are domestic creatures and it makes me happy knowing we have a great herd of cattle that trust us to care for them and help them when they need it.

An Ode to Judy

Ugh.  Not a good start to my week.  Let’s start this story from the beginning…  This past weekend I went back to my hometown to visit family and help a good friend of mine pick out her wedding gown.  I was ecstatic early Saturday morning when I received a picture message from my husband informing me that my favorite cow, Judy, had gone into labor.  If you follow me on Facebook, you are likely very familiar with Judy.  She is truly a one of a kind cow and has real personality.  Judy was even Employee of the Month a time or two!

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Soon after the first picture message, I received another; Judy had given birth to a healthy baby girl!  Everything was going well and when my husband joined me at my grandma’s house for a belated Christmas celebration, he told me that Judy and baby seemed to be doing great.  I didn’t think much about it the rest of the weekend and was looking forward to Monday when I would get to meet the new calf and give ole’ Judy a pat on the butt.

Sadly, I never got to give Judy that pat on the butt.  It seems that after my husband left, Judy started to go downhill.  Post baby (or “post fresh” in the dairy world) is a critical time for dairy cows.  It is important that the new mothers are provided with the best comfort, care and nutrition.  We do our best, but sometimes cows fall ill and/or don’t make it.  It doesn’t happen a lot, but there are occasions when new mamas require critical care or have to be put down.  We aren’t exactly sure what was wrong with Judy, but she didn’t make it.  I found out when I arrived to the farm this morning and am heartbroken.  I know that it is part of the farm life, but it really sucks when it is one of your favorite animals.  My dad always said, “Where there is livestock, there is deadstock”.  Life happens; cows get sick, they get hurt, they get old, etc.  We do our best to make sure that our cattle live a long, happy and healthy life, but there isn’t a happy ending every time.

I’m really bummed that this happened to Judy and am sad I wasn’t around to help her or give her a scratch goodbye.

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There is a silver lining, Judy’s baby, whom I think I will name Janet, is doing great!  She has made a cozy home in a little hutch and is an awesome bottle drinker.  In a day or two we will begin to teach her how to drink from a pail and introduce her to grain.  I will be keeping a close eye on baby Janet and am hopeful that she has Judy’s quirky personality. Based upon this photo, I think she will be one sassy gal! Judy and Janet definitely look alike 🙂

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NO MORE “FACTORY FARMS”!

You know what label I am tired of hearing, “factory farm”.  What does that even mean?  “That farm has large barns and a lot of cows, so it must be a factory.”?  The term has such a negative association.  Have any of you used this term before and made an assumption that the cows aren’t happy and the farm isn’t family owned?  Have you ever stopped to talk to the farmers to find out why they chose to have a particular number of cows, why the cows are housed in large free-stall barns, or if the farm is family owned?

On our farm, we milk 500 cows and on the farm I grew up on, they milk 1,500 cows.  Due to their size and modern facilities, both would fit into the “factory farm” stereotype.  However, neither farm is anything like a factory.  Both dairy farms are family owned and operated.  Did you know 97% of farms are still family owned?  As our families grew, so did our farm.  We needed more cows to support our growing family and to allow all family members to be involved in the business.  By increasing the number of cows, we are able to do what we love and make a good living.  Another perk of having a larger dairy farm, is that we are able to take time off and enjoy other activities.  With more cows, comes more people.  Large dairy farms are able to involve multiple family members and employees while still remaining profitable.  We can count on each other to take care of the farm and cows while one is away.  It is nice to be able to get away from the farm and enjoy life, something that might not be possible if you had fifty cows and only a husband as a hired hand.

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So, you know why we grew in size, but what is the deal with these big free-stall barns?  Why aren’t the cows on pasture?  The modern dairy barn is termed a free-stall barn and consists of a barn with a stall for each cow, plenty of feed, easy access to water and proper ventilation. The cows are able to move about the pen; eating, drinking, and laying down whenever they please.  Our free-stall barn is able to comfortably house 360 cows; the remainder of the herd is housed in two, smaller green-house shaped barns.

The stalls provided are commonly bedded with sand, but mattresses, water beds, and dry solids can also be used.  We prefer sand on our dairy farm; it is easy to keep clean and provides adequate cushion when the cows get up and down.  Summers get hot and winters get cold.  Free stall barns have large, tarp-like curtains and doors that can be rolled down in the winter to keep cows warm and rolled up in the summer to keep cows cool.  Just like you and I, cows hate extreme temperatures; perfect cow weather is a breezy, fifty-five degree day.  Many free-stall barns also utilize giant fans and sprinkler systems to keep cows cool.   We do our best to keep cows comfortable and free-stall barns allow us to do this.

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The cows are milked three times per day, but they are never away from their pen for more than three hours a day.  We bring the cows to the parlor in groups; we start with pen 1 and work our way through the barn.  Our parlor is able to milk 16 cows in a matter of minutes and the entire pen in an hour.  While the cows are being milked and the pen is empty, we scrape away the manure and rake the beds of sand.  We also make sure they have clean water and plenty of feed.  It only takes 10-15 minutes to milk the first group of cows in a pen, but it takes us a half hour to clean the pen, so the cows must patiently wait in the cow yard until we are done.  The cow yard is provided with water, shade, and salt blocks to keep the cows happy while they wait.  It doesn’t take long and the cows are back up to their pen where they can eat, lay down and do cow stuff.

Patiently waiting

Patiently waiting

I still haven’t answered the question, “Why aren’t they out on pasture?”.  Mother Nature is hard to control and so are pastures.  If you are even able to find enough land for your cows to graze, a lot of upkeep comes with pastures.  Pastures need to provide proper vegetation and need to be rotated.  If a group of cows is on a particular pasture for too long, they will eat it down to dirt.  You also want to make sure your pasture isn’t to rocky or have obstacles that could increase Bessie’s chance of somehow injuring herself.  What about when it rains, gets really hot, or gets really cold?  Is Bessie close to a shelter area?  What if Bessie gets sick on the edge of the pasture that is miles from the barn?  How quickly will you be able to track her down?   Cows are domestic creatures and need to be cared for; they won’t thrive on their own.  You cannot just kick Bessie out the door and say “Have fun!”.  Whether your cows are in a barn or out on pasture, there is a lot of work to do to keep them happy.  For us, and many others, free-stall barns allow us to keep our cows happy and well cared for.  In fact, I sometimes think our cows prefer their barn over the outdoors!  There have been multiple times when the cows have managed to open their gate and run around (little rascals), but I never get too worried.  After the excitement of finding new territory dwindles down, the cows quickly find themselves back in or near the barn.  The barn is the perfect temperature, has food, water and comfy beds of sand…I wouldn’t want to leave either!

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Just because our barns are big and we milk a large number of cows, doesn’t mean our animals aren’t properly cared for or make us a factory.  We are simply a family that is passionate about dairy farming and wants to continue to grow and evolve.  The saying goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, well, don’t judge a farm by its size.  Big, small, organic, conventional; all types are vital to the dairy industry and are doing their best to keep cows happy and produce quality milk.  So, lets quit using the term “factory farm” and just call them what they are…large family farms.

What to Expect When Your Cow is Expecting

I finally caught it on camera, a LIVE birth!  On average, we have two calves born everyday on our farm.  Sometimes more, sometimes less; it is dependent on the season.  A cow giving birth is pretty exciting and we will get to the video, but let’s start this story from the beginning. What can you expect when your cow is expecting??

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We breed all our cows via artificial insemination with purchased semen.  This eliminates having dangerous bulls on the farm and the risk of inbreeding.  Twenty-eight days after a cow has been bred, our vet will ultra sound the cow and(hopefully) confirm a pregnancy.  Want to learn more about pregnancy checks and herd health day, read Your Egg-o is Preg-o. The gestation period of cows is the same as humans, nine months.

The pregnant cows remain in the milking herd until they reach their dry period. The dry period occurs 45-50 days prior to the cow’s due date and is similar to maternity leave in humans.  As the cow gets closer to her dry period, milk production decreases.  During the dry period, the cow is moved to a different pen and is not milked. Basically, all she has to do is eat, poop and relax.  Every pregnant gal’s dream, right? This period of relaxation prepares the cow’s body for motherhood and produces colostrum in the udder.  Colostrum is the first few milkings from a cow after giving birth and provides the necessary antibodies the newborn calf requires.

Two weeks prior to the cow’s due date, she will be moved to our close-up pen or “maternity ward” in the hospital barn and near the calving pens.  The close-up pen is frequently checked, at least once per hour, and provides comfort and attention for the expectant mothers.  When the cow begins showing signs of labor, she will be moved to a calving pen.  Common signs of labor include restlessness, mucus discharge, enlarged and floppy vulva and milk secretions from the udder.  Cows can be in labor for up to 3 hours, sometimes more and sometimes less.  We allow our cows to give birth unassisted for up to two hours.  If there seems to be no progress or a possible abnormality, we will step in to help, but it is easier on the cow if she is able to go at her own pace.

The cow in my video is giving birth to her second calf and began going into labor around seven that morning.  We moved her into a calving pen and kept a close eye on her.  I happened to be near just as the cow was really givin’ er and the calf was well on its way.   Check out the video, but be warned: This is a live birth.  There is goo, blood, mucus and stretching of the lady parts.  I’m sure you can handle it though, it is minimally gross and majorly cool.

(I am not a professional, sorry the video appears somewhat dark)

 

Immediately after the calf is out, we enter the pen to check the calf.  We will stick our fingers or a piece of straw in the calf’s nostrils to make him/her sneeze and cough out any mucus.  Then, we will check the sex of the calf, this one was a boy!  We allow the mother to lick off the calf a bit before moving it out of the calving pen and into its own hutch.  It is important to the calf’s health that we separate it from its mother.  Want to read more about why dairy farmers separate cows and their calves? Check out this blog post from Heim Dairy.

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We do not keep any bulls on the farm, so this little fella will be sold around one week old.  Are you wondering what would have happened if the calf was a girl?  Read my post, All About Those Babies.

The momma cow will enter the hospital pen to be monitored and examined daily.  She will also begin milking again at this time.  If the cow is in good health after 10-14 days, she will leave the hospital pen and join the rest of the herd in the big barn.  Back to the daily grind! So far, both momma and baby are doing well and enjoying the spring weather.

 

A Hectic Week on the Farm

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I haven’t stopped blogging! Sorry I haven’t been keeping you updated on my modern-day farm life, but things have been pretty busy around here. The week started out chilly with stubborn machinery and cold fingers. Yesterday we had six cows that had babies and the day before that we had four. In addition to my regular chores, I have been running around like a chicken with my head cut off taking care of these new mothers and their babies. The cows must have been waiting for some warmer weather before giving birth; the temperature finally reached 25 degrees on Tuesday.

What made farm life even crazier, was this morning when Ricardo, one of our employees, had to leave early for a family emergency. Being busy with one less set of hands was a test for everyone on the farm, but we pulled together as a team and made it through the morning! We are hoping to hear good news from Ricardo soon. In the mean time, we will keep going here at the farm. Today is hoof trimming day and we are staying busy caring for cow hooves. Hoof trimming….possibly a new post coming soon!