I hardly feel worthy to introduce this panel of cattle farmers from across the nation. Seven farmers agreed to answer my in-depth questions all about how they farm, what they feed their animals, what happens when they get sick, environmental stewardship, and their hopes and concerns for the future of American farming.
I copied all answers in full exactly the way each panelist wished to be heard (although I may have edited a few misspellings; my English major’s fingers couldn’t be stopped).
The two ladies featured in today’s panel are both folks I “met” via the power of social media, namely, Twitter. I was gabbing one day about cows, grass vs. grain, what to feed calves, etc. and both ladies hopped in with thoughts. They were gracious enough to work with me on this panel; please enjoy this little window into their farming lives and give them a visit on Twitter and Facebook (and a follow/like in appreciation!).
I don’t even want to say anything else as you’ll be hanging out with us a while over the next three days in order to read everyone’s responses. The good stuff, by the way, starts happening around question 6, if you’re not the type of person to want to know people’s backgrounds. Personally, I’d read every word.
The answers are set up in two columns much like last year’s popular Real Food Face-Off, but in no way am I pitting one answer against another. The goal of this panel is simply to share the life of a farmer with everyone: how hard they work, how conscious they are of every decision, and the many layers that go into their jobs. Thank God for farmers! No farms, no food, you know? (Are you taking up this week’s Monday Mission and getting to know your food?)
|Lorraine: a conventional grassfed dairy farmer who raises endangered heritage cattle sustainably in New York…and happens to be a lawyer by day (Find her @NYFarmer)||Leia: a sustainable beef farmer from Ohio whose goal is to “show and tell” real farming (Find her @showandtellfarm or on Facebook)|
When someone asks you how you farm, what’s your one sentence answer?
|I’m an old fashioned Upstate New York dairy farmer making a living off of the vast New York grasslands milking 70 registered Holsteins.||I raise feeder calves and beef cows.|
How did you get started farming? Why do you do it?
|I’m the fourth generation to operate our dairy farm. I started when I was four years old with my own calves to feed. That was 53 years ago. Our herd of cattle has been in our family since the 1930’s when my late father bought them as purebred registered Holsteins. We can’t imagine life without our cows and our beautiful grasslands.||I came from a farming family, though my father quit when I was young. Since then, we’ve always dabbled in it. My husband’s family owns farms, though most of us make most of our income off of the farm.|
When my husband and I were first married, we lived in a brand new house on about two acres. We were always helping out on the farms and there was an opportunity to buy this farm from a retired farmer. The house is over 160 years old, but the farm itself is beautiful and we wanted our children to grow up here. I’m not sure why we enjoy farming, except that everything about seems to have purpose and is sustainable.
What’s your educational background, including life experience with agriculture, that led you to where you are today?
|While my siblings went to agricultural colleges, I headed out to SUNY Oneonta and then on to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. While there I took courses at Harvard Business School in Agribusiness. Later in life I became an attorney and represent many dairy farmers. Throughout it all I never gave up working in agriculture. My experience is lifelong learning.|
Dairy farmers have access to courses and learning from Cooperative Extension, online webinars, journals, peers and family members. The best education in dairy is hands-on. My father taught us to observe our cows telling us from childhood “Be the eye of the master cattle person”. My mother taught us as toddlers that “Agriculture is the basis of all other arts.”
|I was in 4-H in middle school and raised Angora goats and turkeys. In high school I was very active in FFA. Besides my learning in the classroom, I participated in numerous contests from Agronomy to Dairy Foods judging and Agriculture Sales to Public Speaking. I was even an Ohio State FFA officer for a year. In college, I studied Agriculture Communications. For the past six years, I have been very active in the Farm Bureau.|
How many head of cattle do you care for? What breeds?
|70 or so milking cows. Another 80 young stock. A few pet Belted Galloways. Hopeing to get some endangered Canadiennes (they are more rare than pandas with less than 500 left).||We currently have 29 feeders calves and three beef cows. They are a Black Angus mix.|
What products do you sell, and to whom? (i.e., large companies, individuals, co-ops, etc.)
|The milk from our farm goes to a local independent cooperative of about fifty members. The cooperative hires a milk broker who finds short and long term markets for the milk. The milk usually either goes into New York City or Massachusetts.|
We are part of the New York milkshed. Dean Foods controls a huge percent of NY’s milk so a percentage of our milk ends up in NYC as fluid milk (along with about 45% of the milk produced in NY) for the millions to drink.
|We sell cattle to local farmers to ‘feed out’ for beef.|
What is the best food for a dairy cow? For a beef cow?
|I’m happy with cattle grazing. We bale thousands of bales of hay for the winter and fill a silo and ag bags with grass silage. We also do balage (the big round plastic bags packed with damp hay that ferments to a sauerkraut of hay). Sometimes we buy corn in the field from neighbors and make some corn silage.|
“Best” might depend on the regional resources that the farmer has…grass, hay, corn silage, alfalfa. For us, it is native grasses: timothy, clover, reed canary grass and grasses that grow permanently for us without any re-seeding. (Permaculture)
|It is an assortment of things. We feed our beef cows hay (from a field that is specially planted with different grasses) in the winter and send them out to pasture in the summer. We also provide minerals in the form of a block that they lick on. (Because of the price of corn, etc. and the fact that we don’t have too much farmland for growing our own crops, this is the cheapest way for us to feed them.)|
For our feeder calves, in addition to hay, they get a little bit of grain every day (~2#) to help them grow. In my opinion, the best food is a combination of hay/grass and grain.
What do you feed your cattle, and why do you choose that feed?
|We are fortunate to have a big land base of grasslands. The cattle are out grazing to get as much of their diet as possible from the grasslands. We also feed a commercial grain supplement that we buy from a cattle feed dealer here. I don’t know if there is one best choice, it depends on the resources that the farmers locality has. Some younger farmers might not have a big land base available and might end up buying a lot of the food for the cows|
How do you ensure your cattle stay healthy?
|Eternal vigilance. Better to observe the cows and look for even minor problems and try to head bigger issues off at the pass. Ration balancing is done by a feed company cow nutritionist who samples the forages (whether hay or silage) and determines how much grain and minerals might be a good supplement. Also, we do not push the cows to top production.||We check on them a couple of times a day and watch their behavior. (sick behavior is not moving very quickly, coughing, not eating, droopy ears, etc.) We make sure that they have something dry to lay on. We also will pull one out from the rest of it is taking too much abuse from others. They are dewormed and given immunizations just like one of our own children.|
What do you do when a cow falls ill?
|There are many ways to treat a cow. We try to avoid medications if possible. I make my own linaments from peppermint and other essential oils. I also like vitamins as a boost for sick cows. However, if needed we will not hesitate to treat with top of the line antibiotic. Our veterinarian stays extremely current on new types of antibiotics and effectiveness for treatment. I want to see fast pain relief for a suffering cow.|
All antibiotics come with a label that tells what the withholding time is for the milk. Milk from a treated cow is thrown out until a lab test indicates that it is antibiotic free. Almost all dairy farms have on-farm testing capability with “Delvo Test kits” so we can sample the milk and test it in a few hours time to determine if it is cleared for shipment. Every single load of milk that leaves a farm is tested every single time with a sample taken before the milk is loaded onto the big truck.
|When a cow falls ill we may give him/her a shot of an antibiotic and/or call the veterinarian for further assistance. If several of them are coughing, we will add some antibiotics to their feed for a few days. (Sickness spreads very fast in a barn. They don’t have good enough hygiene!)|
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?
|Producing quality milk from cows who are not pushed is our goal. Dairy farmers try to strike a balance that is appropriate for the cows that they have. We also like to see our cows last for many lactations following the old-fashioned saying that “Gramma cows are the ones who will make you the money.” This means that rather than milking cows, and burning them out in a few lacatations, you keep them for many years. All the years they are with you, they keep on giving milk and calves.|
To me, traditional is more profitable than the modern notion of pushing cows to maximize production, burning them out, selling them for beef and replacing them with a new 2 year old heifer. I’m old fashioned.
|For beef cattle, we want them to look “beefy”….but not fat. Fat gives the meat flavor and tenderness. But too much can ruin it. (Think of how much fat you want in your steak…farmers/ranchers try to raise their animals to consumer expectations.)|
What steps do you take to reach the milk production/quality goal above?
|To get good production, we need good grass. We try to fertilize the fields of grass with manure to keep soil fertility high. Also, we try to maintain fencing on many acres so that the cows will have constant access to new fields of grass. (this means a lot of land and a lot of land taxes in Upstate New York). The cows are always on the move to new pastures in the spring, summer and fall. (Upstate New York transhumance). We try to balance the rations carefully with the help of sampling and a bovine nutritionist.||EVERY farmer is different. When buying calves, (400lbs.) we look for large skeletal frames. We keep their bellies full with the best quality food and just try to keep them healthy|
Do you think your operation is “sustainable”? Why or why not?
|I used to think our farm is sustainable since it has been in business for almost 100 years. The barns are made from beams and wood hewn from the local woodlots. The cows are living quite well off of the grasslands. The grasslands sustain wildlife and great biodiversity, including some threatened bird species (Upland sandpipers and Harriers). We do not plant much, if anything, in the way of extra crops since the cows live off of the grasslands.|
However, in modern times, the future might belong to the CAFO. A farm in reality has to make money in order to be sustainable. CAFO’s get big volume premiums and work with cheap immigrant labor. CAFO farmers rarely advocate for the average size grasslands farm in our state.
Also, consumers and local food people have shown little interest in traditional dairy farms. Throughout the dairy price crash of 2009, only one environmental group said anything on behalf of the farmers. Local food people never appeared at any dairy hearings (this is in contrast to the numerous people who wrote in on the Tester Amendment and had online campaigns for Tester).
So, we along with almost all of our grass based neighbors will probably be the last people to farm our grasslands unless things change. But yes, from a resource point of view, NY grasslands are extremely sustainable.
|I believe that our operation is “sustainable” because we fertilize our fields not just with manure, but others as well. We try to put back into the land what we take out. We also rotate crops and use other practices to prevent soil erosion.|
Can a cow give milk on grass alone?
|I have only heard of one farmer around here who feeds only grass. We keep hearing complaints that his cows are too thin. It takes exceptional management to go only on grass and extensive grassland resources. Better have it all plus extreme cattle skills before you attempt to go with cows on grass only.||Yes, but not as much. (There’s that balanced diet thing.)|
Do you think what cows eat affects the quality of the milk/meat? Nutritionally? In what way?
|Pasture milk (as they call it in Europe) has a different nutritional makeup. I think it is better for people since it is produced off of the land. I think of pasture milk as “the essence of grass.” However, it is difficult to get pasture milk as a consumer since the milk from many farms (grasslands and big cornfed CAFO’s) is all blended together, there is no differentiation or segregation. It would be nice if there were a label that traditional farmers who raise cows on grass could sell under.|
We have put animals (beef bulls and chickens) who are grass-raised in the freezer and the meat is delicious. This is how I like to do things. However, I do not want to knock meat and milk from other farmers who may not have access to big grasslands. Some young farmers in this area do not have much land so they are buying corn silage to feed their cows to get started.
|What cows eat definitely affects the quality of meat. Meat cows raised a different way tastes and cooks different. I believe that there have even been tests on the nutrition aspect that proves a difference. The amount of fat (and taste) is obvious, but I’m not certain enough to say about nutrition difference.|
Do you raise your own calves? If so, what do they eat?
|Yes we raise our own calves. We start them on pasteurized milk for the first month. I add Vitamix vitamins to the milk. I might also give them yogurt and kefir treats at night.|
I gradually switch the calves over to 100% milk milk replacer (in contrast to the soybean based crap). I prefer to get them on the milk replacer as a convenience in just mixing that with water to save time. It seems like every minute of the day counts. They also get hay. If they are lucky they get Calf Manna, a calf grain that has their favorite flavors, anise and fennugreek added.
What do you do on your farm to foster environmental stewardship?
|Our farm is one of the last spaces of open pasturelands/wet meadow complex in our area. Thus, it is a nesting ground for grassland species that are becoming endangered as cow pastures are turned into subdivisions or scrublands. Birds like the upland sandpipers and Northern harrier hawks need this big open terrain with access to wet meadows and wetlands to survive. So, paying taxes on this big chunk of open space serves to help biodiversity in our area.|
I try to stay current on studies concerning relationship between biodiversity and grazing.
We have not timbered our forests to any extent, preferring to leave them natural. I am hoping to get a forester to tell us what else we might be doing.
We believe in hiring professionals to help us with environmental stewardship. We have had ornithologists and Audubon Society check our lands to do bird species inventories and to advise on what we can do to keep the birds of special concern going. We are trying to set up a bluebird trail this spring as well.
Also, we recently had a NYSERDA total energy audit by a professional auditor to determine what else we can do to cut our energy usage in the barn and milkhouse.
We try not to spread manure anywhere near streams in order to maintain watershed quality. I belong to a Riverkeepers in our area and we fight for the big river that runs through our valley.
We encourage beekeeping on our farm and have the best beekeeper around with forty hives in a very isolated part of the farm.
We do not really plant much in the way of corn or other crops so we are not doing a lot of tillage. Some neighbors have been experimenting with no till.
We have an onfarm recycling program. We recycle all cardboard, paper, glass and plastics. We are looking into BigFoot, a machine that will compact the plastic that is used to wrap bales of haylage. Our local Soil and Water conservation service recently purchased this machine for farmers to share.
Lately, we have been purchasing local lumber, that is lumber made from local trees, rather than buying lumber that came in long distances. An Amish neighbor has a sawmill and has been custom making beams and other lumber for us for repairs of our 1860’s barn.
Just managing to pay the real estate taxes on the land is a positive step towards fostering environmental stewardship.
Anything you want us to know about GMOs?
|I don’t know much about GMO’s other than the fact that the grain that we purchase is probably GMO.|
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 do not get any certifications from the government.|
We have received MILC payments. This is a payment that occurs when the price of milk drops below a certain threshold. It has on occasion amounted to several thousand dollars per year. We do not participate in any of the payment programs to corn farmers because we are grass farmers. I prefer to have as little to do with the government as possible.
|Right now we don’t need any certifications, but we’ll see if the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board changes that. We don’t receive any subsidies. We can ask the local Soil & Water office and the Extension office for information/advice if we want. We could even receive some financial assistance for projects, but we don’t.|
What do you see as the future of farming/dairy farming in America? What concerns or hopes do you have for the future?
|I am hoping that someday the local food movement will go to bat for the dairy farmers of their milkshed. The trend here in NY is for fewer bigger farms that are mostly run on immigrant labor. Also, the trend seems to be away from grazing.|
My hope is that urban people will become educated on farming, animal science and agriculture. However, most of the family dairy farms in NY will be gone probably by the time they get interested.
|I see farming continue to become more versatile and environmentally economical. However, as we continue to over regulate it will become more expensive and food will possibly become a bigger percentage of a family’s budget.|
Before we make more rules to shut down “bad” farmers, we need to think about how it could possibly affect the “good” ones. Nothing is as simple as it looks. Same thing goes for trade. One thing affects another.
Also, we are running out of land and we need to be more creative about how we use it.
What did I miss? Here’s your soapbox:
|I wish there could be an understanding of the farmer in the middle. These are the people who are doing the best that they can with a variety of practices. The local food people seem to be interested in dairy farms only if they are certified organic. The rest of us are just plain ignored.|
My soapbox is that while the local food people talk a good game saying they want local farms, I have not seen them at dairy hearings or advocating in the media for dairy farmers to any meaningful degree. We dairy farmers are always alone at hearings.
My further soapbox is that environmental groups seem to have zero interest in NY’s vast grasslands. Our grasslands are every bit a valuable resources (and a food producing resources) as the Adirondacks. Unfortunately the focus is primarily on parklands and wilderness as recreational countryside. There is not much interest in the working countryside.
Throughout all the dairy tragedy of 2009 only one local food/environmental group seemed interested in NY: Otsego 2000 based out of Cooperstown. The rest were 100% dead stone cold silent, completely uninvolved, disinterested and mostly not returning phone calls from desperate dairy farmers.
There is a long and beautiful history of dairy farming here in New York State, going back to the early 1800’s days of the bateaux when cheeses were carried to NYC and the later milk trains to NYC. Dairy is indeed the tradition of the countryside in Upstate New York and New England.
It is extremely difficult for the average dairy farmer who is still reeling from 2009 to contemplate buying milk processing equipment and selling direct to consumers or getting shelf space in the retail stores. Yet, we are very much part of the NY food system, kind of the anchor tenant of NY agriculture.
There is a very toxic disconnect between NYC food people and Upstate dairy farmers. We traditional dairy farmers are never or rarely invited to food conferences in NYC. In December of 2009, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer held his Food and Climate Conference in Manhattan. Though we dairy farmers generate 2 billion in milk sales, not one conventional dairy farmer organization was invited.
The conference handed out literature condemning milk and meat, leading participants to believe that anything related to livestock is evil. In 2010, NYC foodshed conferences seemed to get better, and just beginning to invite some dairy farmers to attend. It’s a start.
Most of the blogs that I see online that discuss dairy seem to focus solely on either organic dairy or the “evilness”” of CAFO’s, while ignoring the rest of us. I and other NY dairy farmers tweet frequently to big name food interested people on twitter, but a reply is fairly rare. (Katie note: follow #agchat for some great conversation.) We can only listen while people like Oprah and Ellen blast dairy for we or our organizations are never invited to tell about our lives in the media.
Yeah, I’m bitter. NY lost record numbers of dairy farmers, dairy farmers bled and groveled, and even committed suicide in recent years with nary a peep from anyone.
|I highly recommend that you and your followers read Hal Herzog’s “Some We Love, Some We Hate, and Some We Eat“. Great read with many fascinating perspectives on the human/animal relationship.|
When I first met these gals on Twitter, I had the pleasure of a reply from a few others, neither of whom could be reached for the panel, unfortunately. Their comments on the question of grass vs. grain were after I visited a local farm from whom I had already been buying meat for a year, learned more and wrote this post.
- from @NYCULLA: “We have local cattle from old lines and they do really well on an all grass diet!” “Great post! Complicated issue no? Glad you got to #knowyourfarmer and learned why he had to supplement with grain! :)”
- from @MOOBLOGGER: “Grass is natural food for cows, grain is not. Grain as feed for cows is not sustainable or desirable.” “big ag…would agree with me if your government didn’t subsidize grain.”
What do you think? I’m excited to see animated, respectful, curious conversation happen in the comments today. Please know that no name-calling, cursing, or rudeness of any kind will be tolerated. It’s my blog and I’ll “delete” if I want to! 😉
It’s certainly okay to disagree, but let’s use our grown-up tone of voice and remember that unless you too are a cattle farmer, these ladies clearly have more experience than you in the field…literally. Let’s treat them as such.
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.
Tomorrow’s panelists are both local to Grand Rapids, MI, where I live, and their farming practices are similar to one another but a bit different than today’s two farmers. Be sure to sign up for a free email subscription or grab my reader feed so you don’t miss any of the KS Farmers’ Panel this week. You can also follow me on Twitter, get KS for Kindle, or see my Facebook Fan Page.
TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: $50 Kroger gift card, only through Thursday, 4/28 at midnight.