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.

#Milk Truth

Has your newsfeed been filled with #milktruth posts?  Maybe you have seen something in the newspaper or on television. For some reason, milk has been under attack. Critics are saying don’t drink milk – it’s unneeded, unnatural, and bad for you. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Dairy farmers and milk supporters everywhere are setting the record straight and sharing the truth about milk. Dairy farmers work hard, day and night, caring for their animals to make sure that a safe, nutritious product is delivered to your table. Get to know your farmers and ask them any questions you might have. Not everything you read about milk is true. Decades of nutrition research show how valuable milk is – so don’t let skeptics lead you astray. Learn the truth about milk; visit the Milk Truth page and join the movement!

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MILK IS REAL, WHOLESOME AND LOCAL
Milk is one of the original local, farm-to-table foods. It’s a product from farm families that care about their cows.

 

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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What Do Dairy Farmers Do On Holidays?

There are no days off on the farm.  Cows don’t care if it is Christmas and that you have eggnog to drink; they still need to be fed, milked and cared for.  It may be business as usual at the farm, but we still make time to celebrate with family and friends.  The whole crew works together to get chores done and we all find time to eat, drink and be merry.  Each year is different, but here is how Christmas went down at the farm this year.

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Christmas Eve morning started with all hands on deck.  My father-in-law fed the cows as usual, my mother-in-law and her helper fed calves, and my husband and I cared for the hospital cows,  newborn calves and their mothers.  Meanwhile, other employees worked in shifts to get the cows milked and pens cleaned.

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Morning chores were soon complete and things settled down.  Slowly, but surely, everyone was able to take a break and prepare for Christmas celebrations.  My husband and I left around noon and headed to my mother’s house a couple of hours north.  The farm would be in the good hands of my in-laws and a few others while we were away.

Every year my mom throws a big Christmas party for nearby friends, family and neighbors.  My sisters and I do our best to help her plan and prepare.  This year we presented a pasta bar to our guests!  Using recipes from the Pioneer Woman, we offered a variety of noodles and three different sauces: Marinara with Beef, Vodka Sauce with Chicken and Alfredo Sauce with veggies.  Oh, and of course plenty of cheese!  Brushetta, garlic-cheesy bread and other yummy appetizers were also on the menu.

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While the food is always delish, what our guests really come for is the holiday cheer.  And by cheer I mean booze.  We usually whoop it up pretty good at the Christmas party.

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Christmas morning quickly came, presents were opened and my husband and I trucked on back to the farm.  Morning chores were taken care of by the time we arrived home, but there were pens to clean and new calves to care for, as well as evening chores.

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  My mother in-law and I fed the baby calves a Christmas dinner of warm milk!

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By evening, my husband and I were cleaned up and ready for a cup of cheer!  Around these parts, the Christmas beverage of choice is a Tom & Jerry. It seems as though many folks are not familiar with this drink and that the mix cannot be found everywhere, but if you ever see it…BUY IT!  The directions are right on the container and they are easy to make.  Can’t find the mix? Make your own!  Be warned, these suckers will catch up with you quick!  My husband and I spent Christmas evening together organizing our brand spankin’ new house!

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Christmas celebrations and farming continued through the weekend as my husband’s sisters and their families arrived to town.  Friday was lunch with grandma followed by an evening with my husband’s family.  The entire crew worked to get things done quickly on Saturday so that we could open gifts and feast that night.  While there were a few snags along the way, we eventually all made it inside to see what Santa had brought.

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With one last Christmas/Packer celebration on Sunday, the Christmas week was complete!  While I enjoy the holidays and love seeing everyone, I am glad it is over.  Between moving into our new home, farming and celebrating, my husband and I stayed quite busy!  It will be nice to get back to the daily grind.

We are extremely thankful for all of our employees who help us care for the cows everyday and allow us to take time away from the farm.  If it wasn’t for the great team we have at our dairy farm, we wouldn’t be able to do all the things we love and enjoy.

Hope you all had a VERY Merry Christmas and made dairy part of your celebration

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Parading the Product

Today my good friend, Jill, shares with us another side of the dairy industry; the “show” side.  That’s right, cow beauty pageants.  Dairy farmers are extremely passionate about dairy and many enjoy showing off their quality animals.  Farmers travel great lengths with their cows to participate in cow shows and compete with others.  Showing cattle is a great way to bond with cows and other folks in the dairy industry.  Read below to learn more about the show circuit!    

I’d like to thank Modern-Day Farm Chick for giving me the opportunity to share a piece of my story with you! I first met Mod Farm Chick while showing cows at our county fair.  I was known as the girl with the Brown Swiss and I knew her as the girl with a lot of cows.  Throughout the years not much has changed; she still has a lot of cows and I’m still showing my Brown Swiss.  My family milks around 75 cows and over 60 of them are Brown Swiss.

The Holsteins stick out quite a bit next to the Swiss.

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One of the main reasons we chose to raise mostly Brown Swiss is because we enjoy showing them at local, state and national shows. And their calves are adorable.

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The most common question I hear when I tell people “I show cows” is, “What does a judge look for?”.  To put it simply, a judge is looking for a well uddered cow, who walks on a good set of feet and legs, and isn’t carrying excess weight for her stage of lactation.  Here is the official “scorecard” that every judge bases his/her decision on when evaluating animals.

Each summer, our farm prepares for the upcoming show season by leading, washing and clipping the animals. Local 4-H kids help out and show our cattle at the county fair. They come to the farm a couple of times a week and work with the animals they choose. Below is a photo of one of the first times they lead their animals this summer.  As you can see, the animals were not yet properly trained and a bit uncooperative.  We enjoy having kids take our animals to local shows and fairs because it gives them the opportunity to work with farm animals and learn about agriculture.

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After the county fair, we continue to work with a few animals and get them ready for the state and national shows that take place in the late summer and fall. We live in Western Wisconsin and show at the Wisconsin State Show and the Minnesota State Fair. These shows help us determine how great, average or poor our animals rank.  It also helps decide which cows will make the cut to be shown at the biggest show of the year, World Dairy Expo.

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World Dairy Expo, or just known as “Expo”, is the highlight of the year for the dairy industry. Over 2,200 animals from all over the United States and Canada head to Madison, WI to strut their stuff on the colored shavings. It’s not just a cattle show; the trade show has evolved into quite the attraction.  With world-class dairy cattle and a trade show with the latest and greatest technology, it is no wonder that over 70,000 people are expected to attend World Dairy Expo this year.

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My favorite part of Expo is the cattle show. It takes a lot of passion, hard work, and dedication to get animals ready. The days are long, the nights are short and sleep is very limited.  We tie our animals in a “string”. It’s usually a group of farmers and friends from various farms who work together during show week. The cattle get around the clock supervision to make sure there is enough hay in front  of them to eat and no manure in their bedding.  You might find it surprising that we catch their manure in a bucket and wipe their butts, talk about special treatment!

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We share supplies with each other and help out when it comes to chores and show day. Each day the animals are washed and their bedding or “pack” gets fresh straw and saw dust to keep them clean and comfortable. The cows in the string get milked like they would at home, either twice or three times a day.  On show day, the cattle are prepped for the show ring. They are fed beet pulp and hay to get their bellies full.  Their coat of hair is groomed and the hair on the cow’s top line is blown up to resemble a Mohawk. Immediately before the animal heads into the show ring, her tail is brushed out, hooves are painted black, fly spray is applied and a “final mist” is sprayed for an over all shine.

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We prep each animal that way for every show and, depending on the show, our string can range from 5 to 35 animals.  It leads to long days and short nights.  You learn to nap whenever and wherever you can (this includes metal show boxes).

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Later this week, our farm will be making the annual trip to World Dairy Expo to show our animals. This is the 9th year in a row for our show string.  It will be an exciting year because there are two, brand new barns on the Expo grounds!  Previously,there were ten smaller barns and three tents that housed cattle during Expo week.  Although we’re going to miss Barn 1 and all the memories made there, we can’t wait to see what these new barns will be like!  They are pretty fancy.  You can take a look at them by visiting www.worlddairyexpo.com.

Thanks again to Modern-Day Farm Chick for allowing me to share with you all! If you would like to keep up with the latest happenings at Expo, search #wde14 and #worlddairyexpo on social media.  You can also find me on Instagram at jilliancowles.  A lot of folks are super excited and have been counting down the days to Expo for quite sometime!  Heck, I am already looking forward to Expo 2015 as I have some young calves that will be eligible to show that year!

I was telling my cow, Flirty, Expo is this week and she got all excited!

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