Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Battle of the "-free's"

There has been much discussion lately about various pulls from consumers for "antibiotic-free", "rBST-free", "GMO-free", and whatever kind of "-free" you can come up with.  Whether grounded in science or not, these demands from consumers are becoming increasingly louder and more prevalent.  If you ask me, it is the result of social media and companies capitalizing on fear marketing, but my opinion doesn't matter, at least not yet.  I have had several conversations with various farmers over the past few weeks that are facing some serious demands by the processors that they sell their milk to.  While most processing companies are dairy farmer owned and a board of dairy farmers serve and lead those companies, consumers and marketing are now in the driver's seat for the products and quality that farmers must produce.  Rather than premiums being paid for higher quality products dairy farmers are being asked to make changes on their farms or be forced to take a penalty for their milk.  Let me provide a couple "real life" examples of the costs that a dairy farmer faces with these challenges.

One cooperative is forcing its farmers to produce milk with lower bacteria counts and not use any chemicals or cleaners on farm that contain a certain chemical in order to meet the demands of their foreign export markets.  In order to avoid this chemical, dairy farmers now have to buy more expensive cleaners from a smaller pool of possible choices.  In order to lower their bacteria counts, milking equipment has been upgraded, which is also expensive.  Those dairy farmers do not see a pay increase for their milk, it is just another hoop that they jump through in order to have a market to sell milk to.  Is that the price they pay to have a market to sell to? It appears that way.  Were these changes good for the farmer?  Most were, but they were expensive at a time when milk prices are low.  Did the farmer get paid more for their milk because of the benchmarks met? No.  Most people resist change, dairy farmers are no different, but the milk produced from these farms is no safer than the milk they produced last year, before these changes.  They just jumped through another hoop, spent some more money and didn't get paid any more for their efforts, however they did appease the standards to ship dairy products abroad.

Another couple of cooperatives are discussing only buying milk from dairy farms that do not use rBST (recombinant bovine somatotropin).  In several states already (Michigan for example) this is already commonplace.  rBST is a growth hormone used to increase metabolism activity and feed efficiency in dairy cows.  rBST has decades of research proving that there is no difference between milk that comes from a treated cow and milk from a non-treated cow, however there is an implied understanding from consumers that any added hormones are bad.  I will note that as a dairywoman I did not use rBST and found I was better off without it BUT I do see a place for it on our farms.  I see where it can help a farmer keep a cow healthy and productive.  I also see where it helps a farmer be more efficient converting feed into milk (which is really good for our environment!).  rBST is another tool that is available to dairy farmers to help them do what's best for their cows, their families and their resources.  Eliminating rBST from the toolbox is fine but again there is no premium paid to the dairy farmers for having one less tool to use.  Instead these farmers will have to spend money increasing their management and care of their cows to hopefully recoup the lost milk production and efficiency.  These farmers will also potentially have to sell cows for slaughter that they would have been able to keep with the aid of rBST.  I know with the advancement of management skills and facilities rBST is becoming increasingly outdated, but to completely remove it from the toolbox does have me concerned.  Yet another hoop to be jumped through with no premium paid to the dairy farmer to make those changes.  Farmers are forced to keep swallowing the costs instead. 

My proposal: let's meet in the middle.  Consumers have concerns and dairy farmers have costs to make those changes.  Admittedly some dairy farmers won't change, there's always someone like that.  I know as a dairy farmer I would have no problem meeting those demands as long as we can reach agreements that make sense for everyone involved.  I want a future market for milk because I want another generation of dairy farmers. I want to be able to send our dairy products to foreign countries and reach consumers who have never had dairy products before.  But I also want changes in standards and benchmarks to make sense for the dairy farm families involved.  Right now, with record low milk prices yet again, these challenges are a hard sell to farmers.  Consumers want transparency and believe it or not dairy farmers want to give that transparency.  We're proud of what we do every day and we love the milk that we produce and the cows that we care for.  Just ask us!!  Instead of battling each other over the "-free's"  let's have a conversation, respect each other, and meet in the middle for what makes sense for everyone involved!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Keeping Cows Cool: It's more than sprinklers and fans!

Last week supplied some down right unbearable heat in the upper Midwest! I know several dairy farmers were posting pictures of their cows enjoying sprinklers and fans on their dairy farms. Other than spraying dairy cows down with cool water (cold water actually causes shock in cows!) and blowing them with fans, what other options do farmers have to keep cows cool?  Additionally, how does hot weather change the day to day operation of the dairy farm? 

Cows laying down is an excellent sign of cow comfort and cooling!
You’ve been hot all day, chances are you are not very excited to eat anything.  Cows and calves are the same way.  Dairy farmers will work hard to keep extra cooler water available for the baby calves to drink as well as even supplementing water with electrolytes (much like Gatorade).  Calves can be bedded with sand instead of straw which in the shade of their calf huts actually provides a dry and cool place for the calves to rest in the heat of the day.  Calves can be further cooler by opening hatch doors on their huts and even lifting the huts up to accommodate more air flow.

For cows and heifers, they might be fed at night rather than the heat of the day to help them feel cooler and more eager to eat.  Additionally, cows and heifers might be fed more frequently in the heat so they have the opportunity to have fresh feed more often.  Feed spoils more quickly in the heat so fresh feed is critical.  There are even electrolytes for cows that can be added to their water to improve their hydration.  Dairymen and women might postpone doing some extra tasks during the week of heat stress, focusing on only doing the necessary tasks that provide excellent care.  Vaccinating calves and cows during this weather is not advised, so not to put the animal’s immune system under even more stress.  Moving cows to different pens is also not advised, however, when cows decide to have babies, that cannot be predicted.  Cows calving are kept in cool, shaded locations and when they have delivered their calves, they receive plenty of cool water to drink.  Cows are provided with lots of fresh bedding to keep dry after their sprinkler baths.  Most dairy farmers will avoid breeding cows during the heat because the increased internal temperature of the cow reduces her chance of becoming pregnant. 

In operations, dairy farmers are working to do everything they can to keep cows cool and keep them from getting stressed.  Farmers will change feeding time from morning to night.  They might not vaccinate or dry off cows during an extreme heat week like last week.  The might also only do the necessary jobs on the dairy, allowing them to take care of themselves.  So often farmers in general, will work tirelessly to take care of their cows and forget about themselves.  It should be noted that they are some of the best people because of this but they put themselves at risk.  I know dairies with employees will stock fridges with cool beverages and lots of frozen treats.  They will encourage their employees to also take breaks when doing extremely physical tasks, like cleaning stalls.  When a heat wave like this comes through, it effects everything from the cows to the people on the farm!  Stay cool everyone!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

We farm so you don't have to

"Everyone of us that is not a farmer is not a farmer because we have farmers" Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

Check out this video link below, this is an excellent speech from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack!

This speech from Sec. Vilsack came across my newsfeed this week and it had me thinking about the small portion of people who are trained, experienced and qualified to raise food for the people of this country.  It's truly impressive the small number of people who rise food for so many and in places where food shouldn't grow we are using technology and conservation practices to make it grow.  It's astounding!  Going to the grocery store is something generations of people have taken for granted.  Consumers have the convenience of driving a few minutes to the nearest store to pick up anything they might want for supper as compared to having to raise, plan, store, and preserve food for their suppers.  By having their food that simple and cost effective, consumers are free to have more time to do their other jobs and taking care of their families. 

I attended an on-farm meeting this week where a banker in attendance had a young woman with him.  This young woman was the banker's intern for the summer and he was taking an opportunity to show her the inner workings of a dairy farm.  When we were leaving the meeting I approached the young woman and thanked her for her time as well as asked her what she had learned from attending this meeting.  Her words have stuck with me ever since we talked.  "I will never take for granted my next glasses of milk! Wow! These people are truly tirelessly selfless! They do things I could never do and get up at crazy times of the day just to do work that they obviously love!  I am truly floored!"  That right there is exactly why we need to tell/share our farming stories, because it is so important that the consumers of today have the ability to see how and where their food comes from.  If we just open our doors and minds, and listen to the concerns our consumers have we can make a priceless impression, just like this young woman. 

This reason is also why I decided to spread my wings a little and agree to do an interview with a local fitness blogger.  She wanted to interview a farmer who is using fitness in her life and as a result we had a good conversation about what I hope consumers learn from my work and the work of many other great farmers and ranchers.  We want you to know we CARE!  Feel free to check out the link below for Tough Muddette's blog, it's a good one!  And expect me to keep telling me dairy's story!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Heirloom Flowers, Family Traditions

I come from a long line of green thumbs.  Both of my grandmothers were gardeners, each specializing in their own specific flowers and my mother is also an avid gardener, both with flowers and vegetables.  I developed my love of flowers as a young 4-Her.  I had quickly learned that I had an eye for floral design both in arrangements and in the garden and I loved to grow my flowers.  I rose to the challenge of flower gardening through the 4-H project and that project evolved into my own personal garden which mom let me design and plant.  Every where I have lived and farmed since those early years, I took my flowers with me.

My Grandma S had the most beautiful peonies and roses on my home farm.  Those roses could withstand the harshest of Minnesota winters and the peonies would make Grandma S smile every time that she visited the farm in the late spring.  I took some transplants of those roses with me when I got married and moved to our farm, I wanted that piece of Grandma S with me and now that she is gone I smiled with a tear in my eye, every summer when they bloom.  I know that is Grandma S smiling down on me. 

Grandma D had these glorious irises that she planted all over her home site.  Those beautiful flowers came in pretty colors of purple, rust, yellow, pink, peach and white.  I also took a transplant of these flowers with me when I moved, first from Grandma D's garden and then from Mom's garden.  Grandma D also had a long fence line down her driveway.  There she planted these beautiful dahlias and gladioli!  These flowers quickly became my favorite flowers to grow for 4-H county fair shows.

Mom had lilies in her gardens.  Gorgeous, dramatic lilies in reds, oranges, yellows and whites.  She taught me to transplant bulbs.  In the spring she had these beautiful tulips of red and yellow in the front of her house.  I believe her love of tulips inspired me to plant tulips at every place that I have ever lived.  I have tried so many colors but my favorites will always be Mom's.

Mom trusted me enough to let me have my own garden. I started my garden with Grandma S's roses and Grandma D's irises.  My inspiration from both grandmothers and mom led me to plant hollyhocks along my dad's pasture fence.  For several years we had beautiful hollyhocks along the whole length of fence by the highway and several sales reps made comments on how pretty it looked.  It took a little weeding to keep the fence line clean and later when I wasn't at the farm anymore, my brother mowed them down.  Mom saved a few seeds and replanted them by the garage.  Some day I hope to plant another fence line of holly hocks on my own dairy.  In the meantime I am in awe of their beauty at my parents' farm and I am thankful for my genetic green thumb and heirloom flowers!
Hollyhocks at my parents' dairy, a legacy from my 4-H years at the farm.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Proud Daughter/Sister Moment!

Dairy Star reported the state list, including my family, Autumn Breeze Dairy.
I can’t even begin to express how excited and proud I am of my dad and brother!  This week they received their notice that they were among the top dairymen and women in the state of Minnesota for milk quality, producing milk with a SCC below 100,000 for the year. 

Here’s a little science education on milk quality:  every time the milk truck comes to a dairy, the milk truck driver collects a sample of milk to be tested for a variety of quality measurements, including SCC (somatic cell count).  Somatic cell count is a measure of the white blood cells in milk.  Yes there are white blood cells in milk.  All of the nutrients that a cow needs to make milk in the milk making cells of her udder need to get carried to her udder via blood.   Contrary to popular belief by the anti-milk crowd, milk does not contain actual blood because there is a blood/milk barrier in the udder (milk making cells filter out the nutrients that they need to make milk proteins and fats and send the blood back to the heart) but the occasional white blood cell will slip through because it is a protein based cell.  These somatic cells are an indicator of overall cow health and levels of mastitis (infection) in the cows’ udders.  When the measurement is low, the cow herd is healthy and when the level of SCC is high, this is an indication that there is a problem with the cows, environment, equipment and management.  Healthy cows in a good environment will produce milk with a SCC of 200,000 or less.  Milk produced at a high level of SCC is considered illegal and processors will not accept this milk.  Stress like a cold or flu can cause SCC to rise in addition to poor animal handling or bad ventilation.  SCC quickly becomes the measure of overall quality care of the cows.  It doesn’t matter which type of housing, whether grass fed, organic or conventional all of these different management styles are capable of producing safe, wholesome, high quality milk.  So now you know the science….here’s why I am so incredibly proud of my family……

It wasn’t always this way.  It wasn’t always easy to produce high quality milk and give cows the best that they deserve.  These things cost money, take time and planning, and they take patience.  Things like new barns, concrete to keep cows out of the mud, better education and management, testing individual cows, and yes culling out cows that just couldn’t produce high quality milk (some of SCC is definitely genetic).  Decades ago, I remember when my dad was producing the occasional tank of illegal milk, we had to dump milk, and we were at risk of not having a place to sell milk to.  It wasn’t dad’s fault the cows went swimming in the mud after a rain but it was dad’s responsibility to make sure that milk that he sold was safe for consumers.  It was then that my dad made a commitment to improve his milk quality and keep working on that.  I would say my dad became down right anal.  If it wasn’t perfect, we pitched it. 
The first steps were improving cow comfort in our tie stall barn, adding more bedding and making stalls larger.  Dad poured concrete in the yard to reduce mud and he made sure that cows didn’t go out to pasture unless it was dry out.  My brother went off to college and came home to farm in partnership with my dad.  My brother took it one step further by implementing DHIA (Dairy Herd Improvement Association) testing, where each month each individual cows were sampled and checked for SCC. 
DHIA testing monthly helps my family make sure each cow gets individualized care.
Cows with high SCC were sold, while others were treated with antibiotics and allowed to heal.  My brother added milking detachers to make sure cows were never overmilked, which can cause damage to cows’ teats and increase SCC.  Within a couple years the cows were housed in a much more spacious state of the art sand bedded free stall barn.  Those cows went from a cozy Super 8 to the Hilton.
Cows rest comfortably in the new sand bedded free stalls.
Finally this winter my brother completed the last step in improving milk quality and cow health: the milking parlor.  With new equipment with a better design, cows are able to milk out quickly, comfortably and completely.
The new double 8 parlor helps milk cows gently, completely and quickly.
Keeping SCC low is easier, cows are more comfortable, and making perfect milk is almost effortless, but it didn’t come easy.  This was years of dedication to achieve this goal.  This was never losing sight of the fact that cows’ health is important and making sure the consumer deserves the very best dad could offer.  This was the result of tough decisions and trying times.  This achievement didn’t come easy.

I hope dad can look back and see how far he’s come.  I hope he knows how proud I am of how hard he worked to achieve this.  I hope my brother knows how much I respect him as a dedicated dairyman and peer.  But most of all this Father’s Day Weekend, I hope they both know how amazing they are as dairymen, husbands and fathers!  #prouddaughter #proudsister


4 generations of my family: my dad, my nephew, my brother, my grandfather, celebrating 100 years of farming on the same farm as well!