I’ve loved the genuine look into the lives of family farmers who choose to farm conventionally, especially the crossover between old-style farming and new-fangled methods. If I’ve learned one thing today, it’s that sometimes, things aren’t black and white.
Does that mean I will change where I shop for meat and milk? Not likely. But I like to see the silver lining in, for example, Country Dairy milk – our public school system here in Grand Rapids just reaffirmed its commitment to including Michigan products, including Country Dairy, and I know that at least some of that milk is grassfed and organic via Karin’s farm.
There’s a silver lining in the certified Angus beef burger that I won’t pass up at a sports bar, knowing that Debbie’s family may have raised happy calves on grass and finished them with only 100 days of grain.
Liz give me hope when she says that it’s consumer demand that drives what farmers do. Got that, folks? You vote with your dollar every time you go to the grocery store, farm, or Farmer’s Market. What do you want?
The last panelist here at KS this week is a dear old friend, my college roommate who saved me from living with the girl who left milk in her cereal bowl so long it actually made strands of goo from spoon to bowl (among other transgressions that didn’t go well for our roommate relationship).
Big L, my new roommate, aspired to be a dairy farmer and drank only whole milk. I could handle that.
She and her husband have now achieved that dream in Wisconsin, and she’s teaching her two little sons all about cows on a daily basis. I’m honored to share her thoughts with you today!
|Creamery Creek Holsteins, Wisconsin|
|When someone asks you how you farm, what’s your one sentence answer?|
|We rent/operate a 350 cow dairy in western Wisconsin – it’s a sand bedded freestall facility that has a double 8 parallel parlor.|
|How did you get started farming? Why do you do it?|
|My husband, whom I call Farmer online, came from a small dairy in northwest Michigan. That farm isn’t large enough to support 2 families, so after Farmer graduated from college he started to build a herd of cows while working on other dairies and looking for a farm to rent. Myself, I did the whole FFA thing, 4-H youth development programs, and worked on several types of farms growing up. Farmer farms because he couldn’t breathe if he had to do anything else. I farm because its a great environment to raise children and good exercise.|
|What’s your educational background, including life experience with agriculture, that led you to where you are today?|
|Farmer and I both went to at Michigan State University – he studied Animal Science and I studied Agribusiness. We met in the Dairy Club, naturally. Farmer did his undergrad internship in Wisconsin and has managed two other dairies before we found this farm to rent. And the rest is history.|
|How many head of cattle do you care for? What breeds?|
|We have about 350 milking and dry cows. They’re registered Holsteins except for a handful. Our calves stay on-site till they are 4 months old, about 60 head. We also have about 250 heifers that are raised offsite by a custom heifer grower from 4 months old up to 3 months before calving.|
|What products do you sell, and to whom? (i.e., large companies, individuals, co-ops, etc.)|
|We are members of Foremost Farms, a member owned co-op based out of Baraboo, WI. Our milk is picked up twice a day, one tank usually goes to a fluid plant for bottling, while the other tank goes for cheese. We also sell bull calves and cull cows. Calves usually go to buyers to be raised as dairy feeder steers. Our cull cows are marketed through the local sale barn for beef.|
|What is the best food for a dairy cow? For a beef cow?|
|There is no best food for a dairy cow, they need a well balanced ration to allow them to perform to the best of their ability. Geographic location and feed-stuff availability all are factors.|
|What do you feed your cattle, and why do you choose that feed?|
|We feed our cattle many of the same things other producers do: corn silage, haylage, dry hay, corn. Cattle are ruminants so they can handle many feeds that other species cannot, this allows us to use by-products from other industries. Some products we are using include: wet brewers grains (delivered fresh from the local brewery), cottonseed and distillers grains (from ethanol plants). We also feed minerals and vitamins.
We try to provide a cost effective balanced ration for our cows so they can produce a nutritious product for the consumer.
|How do you ensure your cattle stay healthy?|
|Providing our cattle with a stress free, comfortable environment is key to keeping them healthy. Our employees and vet help us achieve this goal. The vet is out routinely every other week. Our success as a farm depends on our cows, so we do everything we can to keep them healthy and productive.|
|What do you do when a cow falls ill?|
|There’s usually someone in the barn all the time, every day. (And we’re considering video monitoring for when someone is not.) Further, we use a pedometer to monitor cows activity. It gets read every time she steps in the parlor. On the computer we can tell if she’s regularly active, over active or under active (for her, based on her individual history). If anything is fishy (meaning not in heat) then we move her to the Hospital Group in our special needs barn. She’ll get checked over and assessed. If she requires rest, she gets it. If she needs antibiotics, she’ll get them. But none of her milk EVER gets into the milk tank until her withdrawal period is over and she’s back in the freestall barn.|
|What’s your goal: more milk or higher quality milk, or some balance of the two? For beef cattle: faster growth, more fat, more lean, or what else?|
|A balance. We strive to maintain superior milk quality as we try to reach new levels of production. Farmer believes high production proves that a cow is living is a low stress comfortable environment. If she was not, she would not be able to produce to her genetic potential.|
|What steps do you take to reach the milk production/quality goal above?|
|1) Employee training and incentives. We’re only as good as our worst employee.
2) Constant monitoring of our animals. They are our livelihood and practically family members. They take care of us because we take care of them.
3) Raise the highest quality feed we possibly can.
|Do you think your operation is “sustainable”? Why or why not?|
|We hope so! Sustainable for us means three things: that the farm is around for if/when our kids want to take over, sustainable environmentally, and that we’re making a quality product the consumer wants.|
|Can a cow give milk on grass alone?|
|Do you think what cows eat affects the quality of the milk/meat? Nutritionally? In what way?|
|Nutritionally, definitely yes. Milk components (i.e. milk fat and milk protein) are made up of fats and proteins in her diet. Likewise, too much starch in the diet and milk fat goes down -etc. We are always working for a quality consistent ration for the cows that lets them produce high component, high quality milk and lots of it.
If you mean somatic cell counts (SCC) and other measures of milk quality it’s less clear. For instance, if a cow is under-fed or lacking some mineral or vitamin then it is possible for her to have a depressed immune system. This could lead to issues that would affect her milk quality negatively.
|Do you raise your own calves? If so, what do they eat?|
|We raise heifer calves onsite for 4 months. They drink pasteurized milk 2x a day, get a calf starter grain, after weaning get grassy hay and always have clean water. We’re considering automatic calf feeders – where the calf can drink at will, much as if she was with her mother – our only hold up there is that we don’t have a facility to set that up in yet, so currently they’re in individual huts. But I see that changing.|
|What do you do on your farm to foster environmental stewardship?|
|We’re avid supporters of land stewardship. We have to protect the land we’re given to grow the best feed for our cows every year. That means crop rotation, manure spreading and biodiversity. We’re also members of our local Trout Unlimted and Ducks Unlimited to keep up on local initiatives and regulations.
We no-till many of our crops and look for ways to keep improving how we go about our cropping side of the business. New ideas are always being tried from different cover crops in the fall to variable rate manure/fertilizer application. This would allow us to apply the nutrients to where they would be utilized the most effectively.
|Anything you want us to know about GMOs?|
|There are a lot of them out there. We look at them as a tool to help feed the world bringing an end to hunger. Each day that goes by we lose more fertile land to development. As the world grows and our crop land shrinks, we as farmers are challenged to produce more food from every acre. But ultimately the consumer decides with their dollar.|
|What is your farm’s relationship with the government? (i.e., do you need and certifications? Do you receive any subsidies? Anything else you have to give them or get from them that the average citizen doesn’t?)|
|We have to have a permit to ship milk and a premise ID to ship animals. We do receive a milk subsidy if the base milk price goes down to a certain level. But the Federal government currently sets the base price, and the subsidy price. It’s certainly flawed and it’s up for debate (again) in the 2012 Farm Bill.|
|What do you see as the future of farming/dairy farming in America? What concerns or hopes do you have for the future?|
|The future of farming is going to be dependent on two things: what the consumer wants, and how much they want to pay for it. Right now, cheap and unhealthy food is definitely “IN” as we all obviously see every time we go in the grocery store. I’m concerned for our overall health if this doesn’t get railroaded soon. Farmers like us will find a way to produce what you want so that we can continue doing what we love.|
|What did I miss? Here’s your soapbox:|
|Our farm is generally open to discerning consumers who want to know more about farming and how we take care of our animals. Contact us if you’re in our area and interested in a tour. We’ll oblige as best as we can. Otherwise, take advantage of Ag Days in your area. We hosted our county’s Dairy Breakfast last year for thousands of people. But doing so opens us up for heavy criticism from animal rights activists. It’s hard and it’s hurtful to defend a way of life for one or two things taken dramatically out of context. We’re people. We have kids in your schools, go to your churches, we pay taxes and we want to do the right things.
Be smart consumers. Vote with your dollars. AND REMEMBER: Farmers like us WILL find a way to produce what you want so that we can continue doing what we love.
I can’t say it any better.
Anyone have any questions for Big L? Keep it clean, keep it kind, kids.
UPDATE: My wrap-up and opinions of the entire series, including grass vs. grain, big vs. small, GMOs, and if I’ll make any changes in my shopping habits after interviewing a diverse array of farmers, is HERE.
Here’s the rest of the series if you’d like to check out some of the interesting conversation in the comments there (and I have to say, I startled to see the word “semen” in my comments dashboard…glad the spam filter didn’t recognize that one!). You’ll learn something, I guarantee it.
- Mid-sized farmers (Ohio and New York)
- local (to me) grassfed, organic farmers (Michigan)
- big farm 1: Liz in Iowa
- big farm 2: Debbie in Kansas
See my full disclosure statement here.