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A Tale of Two Dairy Farms

by: Jill Richardson

Sat Aug 22, 2009 at 07:29:36 AM PDT

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Yesterday I visited two conventional dairy farms who are surviving the dairy crisis in very different ways. I'd like to share their stories with you.
Jill Richardson :: A Tale of Two Dairy Farms
The first farm had 700 cows - all holsteins - and high tech everything. The cows lived in barns and ate a combo of corn meal, soy meal, canola meal, potato meal, and a mineral mix. The cows live in different groups based on where in their lactations they are. Each group gets a different diet based on their nutritional needs. The farmer tried to do what he could for their comfort. He recently stopped docking cows' tails, he doesn't use rbGH, and he doesn't want his cows to have to stand on concrete. Instead, he put down foam mattresses under the cows. He also has the manure squeezed so that the liquids separate from the solids, and the solids are returned to use as bedding for the cows.

The cows are milked three times a day in a milking parlor. It seemed to me that with that many cows and three milkings, they basically spend all day milking cows constantly. As one group of cows goes to the milking parlor, the area where they live in the barn gets cleaned and then a truck brings a fresh serving of food for them to eat when they return from milking.

The cows wear "cow pedometers" (that's my term for it, not the official term) that measures their activity levels, identifies them by number, and feeds information into a central computer system while the cow is milked. You can see in the computer how much milk the cow gives each day or overall, what her activity level is (it goes up when she's in estrus), when she was last inseminated, how many lactation's she's had, etc.

While we were there, one cow went into labor, and the farmer moved her into a separate area where she could give birth. You could see two hooves poking out of her, and it was obvious she was trying to push. She also moo'd a lot, and I don't blame her. I'd be mooing too if I had a calf the size of a medium to large dog coming out of me. The farmer keeps the female calves and sends the males to auction. He said the males only fetch him about $5 apiece these days (after transport and auction costs are paid) and he jokingly said to me "You want a cow?" Several calves were born in the last day, although three of them died while the cows gave birth.

There were a few day old calves in a pen near where the cow was in labor, and the farmer let me pet one (very cute!). The farmer separates the calves from the mothers almost immediately after birth. The calves drink colostrum from bottles and then the females go to live in what looked to me like large dog houses. The calves are split up from one another for the first six months of their lives. The farmer told me they are like a bunch of kindergarteners who all share germs and get one another sick when they go to school, so he separates them until they build up enough immunity.

Right now the milk prices are so low that the farmer is in a lot of debt. He wants to keep the farm, so he's trying to weather the crisis. He formed a company with several other dairy farms in the area and they market their milk under a special local brand that sells in all of the nearby retailers (even places like Wal-Mart). Currently they sell whole, skim, 1% and 2% milk, but no chocolate milk. In the future, they want to sell ice cream and retailers have already expressed interest in carrying it.

The milk sells for a higher price than conventional milk, but lower than organic. So far all of the profits made by selling their products at a premium have gone into marketing their local product (I saw a billboard for their milk as we drove), so the farmer hasn't gotten any extra money over and above the normal price for milk. Still, it's wonderful to see farmers taking control of the marketing and retailing of their milk. I hope that one day they'll be able receive a fair price for their milk as a result of their branded local product.

The second dairy had only 70 cows (more than one breed, I believe - she said some are Jersey crosses), and those cows graze on pasture. I believe their diet is also supplemented with grain, but the farmer told me that she used to buy extra grain to boost the milk production, but right now milk is worth so little that the extra cost for the grain would not pay for itself. She tried rbGH once on two of her cows but she was unhappy with it, so she sold the cows and stopped using rbGH.

Instead of having a dedicated milking parlor, she milks the cows two at a time using a machine that she takes from cow to cow as she goes. She milks the cows twice a day. (I believe that twice a day is standard, but three times a day will result in higher milk production.) I didn't ask but I doubt she's got the high tech computer system that the first farm had because she told me she didn't really use computers.

To stay in business as a dairy farm, this farmer established an ice cream shop where she sells homemade ice cream from her own milk. She sends the milk to be pasteurized and homogenized and then gets it back pre-mixed with ice cream ingredients. From there, she makes it into ice cream and then mixes in ingredients to make a number of different flavors. Her ice cream shop also makes its own waffle cones from scratch (when you order a waffle cone, you see them pour the batter into the waffle iron for you). The ice cream is well known and loved locally. The friend who took me there actually served it at his wedding, so the farmer asked how the wedding went when we met up with her. She made him two special flavors to match the colors of the wedding, using mix-ins that he provided. He was so happy with the flavors that he asked her to make him some more, which she agreed to do.

By selling ice cream, she can capture a greater share of the retail dollar for her milk. She said that the ice cream business was keeping them alive right now. They also raise Muscovy ducks, beef cows, and chicken. You can see many of the animals from the ice cream shop when you visit. She raised pigs too, until recently, and now she's starting up with maple syrup. She wants to open up a bakery as well.

I'll let you make what you will about these two farms. It's good to see farmers finding ways to weather this crisis, although farmers are a smart and resourceful bunch so their ingenuity is not surprising. It seemed clear to me that the bigger farm was trying to be as kind to the cows as possible, but felt compelled to adopt certain more industrial practices in order to survive. The smaller farm avoided that need by using the ice cream revenue to make ends meet.

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The first farmer (4.00 / 2)
Did the first farmer's group form their own processing/packaging operation, or is that done by a contractor?

Is his debt increasing, or is he at a kind of steady level - in other words, are his current operations covering his current costs? If his debt is increasing, how long does he think he can hold out?

Does he process the farm's manure, or is that done by an off-site contractor? If the manure is processed on site, did you see any of that operation? I would think the cows would produce more manure than could possibly be used for bedding. Either that, or as new bedding is available, the old is taken up and disposed of. Either way, what happens to excess manure? What happens to liquid separated from the manure?

Why does he handle the manure that way? Is his full cycle of manure handling somehow cheaper than outright disposal of the entire stream? Does he process only part of the stream, enough to supply bedding needs?

I don't know about the manure (4.00 / 2)
but for the processing, it's done by another company for them, and then marketed under their label. The processor handles their milk first thing in the morning, then cleans everything, does all the rest of the milk, cleans everything again, and does chocolate milk last.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

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