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!