When a Cow has a Baby: Part 1

You haven’t heard from me in awhile and are probably like, “MDFC, what’s the deal?”.  Here is the deal.  I have been working with someone to update the look and accessibility of my blog.  I was hoping to debut this post with my new look, but we hit a snag.  So, while we wait enjoy this post.

It is fairly well known that dairy farmers wear many hats.  They have a lot of tasks to tackle on a daily basis.  They have to be nutritionists, milkers, quaility control specialists, mechanics…the list goes on and on.  I do various things here at our family dairy farm, but my primary duty is to care for the cows that have just given birth and their newborn babies.

I know, it’s pretty cool.

So if we want to put a fancy title on this- because I like fancy names that make me sound really important-I guess you could say I am a dairy neonatal nurse.

I spend most of my time in what we call the “hospital barn”.  This barn includes two large pens that house the cows that are about to give birth and just gave birth.  It is important to the cows’ health that we keep a close eye on them for 2 weeks prior to calving and 2 weeks after calving.

This barn also includes several, smaller pens that are bedded with shavings and provide privacy for the cows in labor.  I keep a close eye on the momma-to-be and will assist her with the birth if needed.

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Once the calf has made its entrance into the world, I immediately step in.   I want to make sure the calf’s airway is clear of mucus and that he/she is breathing normally.  I then step back and wait to see if the mother will lick and dry the calf.

Most cows will begin to lick the calf due to the increased levels of hormones in their body and maternal instinct, but there are some cows who just don’t give a hoot about the baby.

They would rather just eat.

When this happens, I go back into the pen with the baby and mother and dry the calf off with a towel. It can be a wet, ooey-gooey job, but someone has got to do it.  I hear mucus is good for your skin…okay so that is just what I tell myself.

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Ya, you just go over and chow down, Bessie.  I got this.

My next task is to make sure the calf receives colostrum.  Colostrum is the mother’s first milking and provides the antibodies the calf needs to survive.  To ensure quality and consistency, we use a colostrum replacement.  It is important that the calf receives the colostrum within the first two hours of its life.

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Calves have a natural instinct to suckle and normally take to the bottle quickly.  It always amazes me how they just know to do that.

The momma is usually standing nearby as I feed the calf.  She may decide to eat or continue to lick the calf.  Occasionally, I find myself being licked.  Thanks, Bessie.

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After the calf is fed, I vaccinate her and dip her navel with iodine.  The iodine will protect the navel and dry out the umbilical cord so that it falls off naturally.  At this time, the calf also receives an eartag with an identification number.  This number will be entered into our computer system and help us track every event that this calf has throughout her life!

Now, we are not quite done with momma and baby.  There is still more work to do!  I hope you will stay tuned for When A Cow has a Baby: Part 2!

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. 

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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Down on the Farm

I have gained many new followers, so I thought now would be a good time to introduce you to the family and show you around the farm.  Perhaps you caught my farm tour on Instagram via My Day in Ag, well here is a more thorough tour!  Be sure to click on the links as you read, the will connect you to more information on the topic.  And don’t be afraid to ask questions!  The best thing about this tour is that you won’t get any mud on your boots and you won’t stink up the joint after it is over!  Lets get started.

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My in-laws established the dairy in 1986, starting small and slowly progressing to our current size of 500 milking cows.  The four of us recently formed a LLC which allows all of us to be partners in the business.  We are family owned and operated, but also employ 7 full-time and 3 part time-employees.

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Our cows are housed in a free-stall barn which consists of sand bedded stalls for each cow, plenty of feed, easy access to water and proper ventilation.  The barn has large doors and tarp like curtains that can be rolled up or down, depending on the weather.  The barn also includes a sprinkler system and fans to keep the cows cool in the summer.  The cows are free to move about the pen as they please.

I would say our farm color is red.  We have lots of red trucks and red buildings.  Seriously, our farm slogan could be “We are the guys in the big, red trucks!”.  Here is an outside view of the free-stall barn:

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Our cows are milked three times per day in a double 8 parallel parlor.  This means we can milk 16 cows at one time.

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Front view of one side of the parlor

It takes about 7 hours to milk the entire herd and clean up.  By the time we are done, it is time to start milking again!  Check out this video of our cows entering the milking parlor:

 

While the cows are being milked and are away from their pen, we scrape away the manure, rake the beds of sand, clean the water tanks and provide plenty of feed.  This happens three times per day; I bet you don’t clean your room that often! Here are some cows resting in their freshly raked beds.  As you can see, there are already a few cow pies in the alley; it doesn’t take them long to dirty up their “room”!

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On average, there are two calves born everyday on our farm.  We sell all our bull calves as they can grow to be mean and dangerous.

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All the female babies are vaccinated, fed colostrum, given a set of “earrings” with an identification number and moved into their own hutch.  The hutch is bedded with shavings and also includes an outside area.  The hutch provides shelter and proper ventilation for the calf and allows us to keep a close eye on her in these first, critical weeks of life.  This will be the baby’s home for the next 7-8 weeks.

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Around 7 weeks of age, the calves are weaned off of milk and moved into a group pen.  Now, their diet consists of grain and water.  The girls will hang out here until they are 3 months old.  At 3 months, they are sent to our heifer raiser in a nearby town.  There, they will be introduced to hay and other forages and simply hang out.  They will be bred via artificial insemination around 14 months old and brought back to our dairy a couple of months before they are due to calve.   Here you can see the girls sunbathing outside.  What a rough life, huh?

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We work with a custom harvester to grow and harvest corn and alfalfa on our land.  The corn and alfalfa are chopped and made into silage to feed the cows.  Hiring a custom harvester allows us to produce quality feed while not losing focus on the cows.  It would be easy to miss a sick calf or cow if we were stuck in the field during planting or harvest time.  By working with a custom harvester, we can stay in the barn and keep a close eye on all the girls!

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The cows are fed TMR twice per day.  TMR stands for Total Mixed Ration and is a cow version of a casserole. Every farmer’s “recipe” or ration is different, but are usually somewhat similar.  The ration we serve up to our girls is formulated by our farm nutritionist and  includes haylage, corn silage, dry hay, corn gluten, high moisture corn and a protein mixture.

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We throw all the ingredients into our mixer and deliver the feed to the bunk.

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Farm life is the best! I find my husband to be a pretty cool guy, so I feel blessed to be able to work with him all day, every day.

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I get to hang out with my trusty side-kick too!

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The tour wouldn’t be complete unless Judy made an appearance!  She is my favorite cow on the farm and is always getting into shenanigans.  She loves to people watch, stand in inconvenient places and pester my pup, Cash.  She has a real personality!

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This tour  never really ends; as long as I continue to blog you will receive farm updates!  Be sure to “like” Modern-day Farm Chick on Facebook, follow modfarmchick on Instagram and Twitter and sign up for email updates on my blog.

Thanks for following my modern-day farm life!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.