How to start the “Ag Talk”

     A few days ago, I saw the movie Farmland, a documentary of 6 American farmers (both conventional and organic).  The film could not possibly cover farming in just over an hour, but it brushed on an array of topics and the overlying theme demonstrated farmers’ willingness to talk.  As Ryan, a hog farmer from Minnesota said, “We’re not hiding anything.  What do you want to know?”

    This is exactly the opening agriculture needs.  Minority beliefs are speaking out on how food should be raised, and we need to give consumers access to all varieties of farmers for answers.  Farmers certainly aren’t hiding anything, but there is a disconnect between consumers and food.  Sometimes the disconnect is physical distance, but it also stems from America’s farmers comprising only 2% of the population.  People simply don’t know a farmer.  Couple this with myths in mainstream culture (such as the “gluten free” fad), many consumers’ sources of information are simply wrong.  Finally, most farmers don’t have the time to walk around the grocery store and engage in conversation, or attend conventions.  

    So how can we do this, without spending too much time away from the farm?  My suggestion is simple:  1) kids, 2) tours, 3) EXPLAIN IN A RELATE-ABLE WAY.  Reaching out to the younger generation, especially families, allows people to connect with animals and understand agriculture processes.  I was lucky enough to use a university setting for several years and brought many friends and city kids out to see what a cow looks like.

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(Showing my cousin the cows).

     I understand that not everyone has access to this.  But photos and videos go a long way (especially if you have images of baby animals!)  I also understand the hesitancy to bring someone to your farm.  Inviting them for a meal and walking through safe areas (feed manager areas, outside calf pens) can be the easiest if you want to avoid a naughty cow causing trouble.  Or you can be like the Peterson Brothers and open up for official tours!

      My other concern is trying to give TOO MUCH information.  Stick with simple facts and always emphasize animal care.  Stick with examples they can relate to.  Many misconceptions come from “standard” animal care procedures – dehorning, castration, etc.  Explain that much science backs these procedures, but they are always evolving.  

     My new example when people ask me about dehorning, or any animal process, really:   We believe a small amount of pain now is worth a lifetime of safety and better health.  Think about kids:  we often take out their tonsils, put tubes in their ears, pull teeth, and so many other things, so that they have a healthier life!  Same concept!  Removing horns improves the animals’ safety and ours.  

     A conversation is just beginning.  Write a letter to the editor of a local paper, or see if you can spend an hour of a rainy day talking in a grade school class.  I didn’t come from a farm, but I hope I can help you fight for a voice for yours.

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Which Farmer Cares? Large, Small, Organic, and Who Cares About Bull Calves?

This post is not about debating safety/efficacy/research on GMOs, hormones, or antibiotics, but rather conveying that whatever you pick out in the grocery store CAME FROM A FARMER THAT CARED.  Fear-marketing, (which essentially implies that food produced in other methods is not safe or animals are not cared for), has become increasingly common in our world.  This form of advertising does not belong in the food industry, and needs some de-bunking.  Agriculture of all types is needed to make the world go ’round, and our stomachs full!  So here are some examples from all sorts of farms on how FARMERS CARE.

Large:

Carleigh Wright, of The Wright Place LLC in Maine, filled me in on her family’s operation.  They milk 700 cows, and have 1400 animals on the farm at any given time!  Care is very detailed, and I can only include some of what she told me!  Everyone has a very specific task; calf care, feeding, field work, book keeping, milking, cow care, parlor maintenance, etc.  Cows need consistency, and that stems from who cares for them.  The Wright Place LLC are very open about all the detailed processes on the farm of caring for cows!

The size of the farm doesn’t mean that individual care lacks, however.  There is a hospital pen, a vet comes once a week for routine checks, and a hoof trimmer comes weekly for those great pedicures!  All the calves get names – and they are often looking for help naming them on their Facebook page, like this cutie here!

(Courtesy of The Wright Place LLC)

Small:

Lee Ann Perez and her family operate a farm store, One Ash Farm and Dairy Supply, in South Carolina, and raise a few animals as well.  Lee Ann talks about their interaction and how the animals provide for their calf-rearing business:

“When I think about One Ash Farm and how we care for our livestock, our success comes down to one thing- human interaction. We aren’t a farm that throws our animals out to the field and turns our backs.  Take, for example, the way we use the milk from our dairy cows to bottle-raise calves.  Twice a day, every day, after freely munching on pasture and hay, our 3 girls – Juajita, Dixie and Maggie are individually escorted into the milking parlor.  Here they receive a full massage and check of their udders, a 3-step udder cleaning with warm water and cloths, sanitizing spray, and a dairy wipe rub, all while leisurely munching on high protein grains and minerals. During milking they enjoy the company of the entire family as we stand around them to discuss the days events. Once finished they are again personally escorted back to the field for free range pasture feeding and cattle companionship.

Taking care of these girls like this proves to provide our farm with consistent milk production and good animal health.  Because of this human interaction and caring our farm has been able to take this production and turn it into a successful family run calf raising
business.  Thanks to the partnership we have with Juajita, Dixie and Maggie, we are able to appreciate the many blessings that come from properly caring for our livestock.”

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              Courtesy of Lee Ann Perez, check out their FB page here

Organic:

Zweber Farms based in MN, sells beef, pork, chicken, eggs, and organic dairy.  Farming in Minnesota can be blistering hot or bitterly cold.  In the cold, extra considerations must be taken, and at Zweber Farms, that consideration includes teats.  Zweber Farms makes sure dry sand is available for bedding in a building, which also provides shelter from the elements.  Cows who lie in it should have dry udders (and blue teats from a special cold-protectant teat dip) like this:

(Courtesy of Zweber Farms)

But a cow who doesn’t like rest like she should, and lies down in the cold outside, exposes herself to windburn and frost bite:

(Courtesy of Zweber Farms)

So to help prevent this, Zweber Farms keeps cows who make poor decisions inside at night!  Farming takes a keen eye, and by separating these girls, they can avoid further damage.  Read the full story, including heated teat dip for cows and warmers here, and make sure to visit their Facebook page!

Caring for bull calves:

From Nolan Sampson: “It has full access to grass, and a whole pasture to run around on. We also feed it some grain, vitamins, and minerals to give it the exact nutritional diet it requires and keep it healthy. He was sick as a calf and we had to give him some medicine, just like you would take at home. He’s happy and healthy as can be now.
And that woman beside him, that’s the American farmer …. She works her butt off everyday to produce a safe, affordable product for consumers. She doesn’t make much between high costs and low sale prices….”

Check out Nolan’s page, which features lip balm, honey, and naturally raised, grass fed freezer beef – Sampson’s Liquid Gold.

The difference in the system of raising animals comes down niche markets, and to how individual farms have found what is the best way to feed, care for, and house their animals.  Farmers care.  Unhealthy, sick, unloved, dirty, whatever else you can come up with, animals simply don’t perform the same (grow, milk, produce) as those receiving proper care.  If you have any concerns about this, think about yourself.  Would you achieve as much in a day if you were sick?  Depressed?  Hungry?  Felt threatened by those around you?  No!

I’m here to say I don’t care what you choose in the grocery store.  Grain-fed, grass-fed, natural, organic, lowest cost, one in a package with a smiling cow, or even no meat, milk, cheese, or other animal-sourced foods.  But don’t make those purchases believing animals coming from the other package on the shelf were mistreated or improperly cared for, make them based on exploring farming.  Talk with a farmer.  Farmers care.

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Milk replacer is milk replacer…right?

Chances are, if you are feeding milk replacer, you know there are benefits from not feeding whole milk.  Less bacteria, a more consistently balanced diet for the calf, etc.  But you also know milk replacer can be expensive.  And above that, not all milk replacers are the same!  A conventional milk replacer is either 22/20 or 20/20 (meaning 22% protein and 20% fat, dry matter basis), or an accelerated milk replacer (closer to 28% protein and 20% fat).  Different milk replacer protein and fat levels are reflected in the price, but each has its advantages.

Either way, your goal is going from this:

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(Courtesy of Katie Kubacki Photography)

To this:

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….as soon as possible.  And the best way to do that is  a calf that grows quickly, and efficiently.  After all, milk, either from a bag or from the tank, can add up in terms of cost!  Keep in mind that we want growth from muscle and bone (PROTEIN), and not fat deposition.  We know that too much fat deposition will limit the amount of milk the animal is capable of producing when she calves.

     Let’s start with the types of milk replacer to feed.  Keep in mind that this blog doesn’t touch on ingredients, just protein and fat amount provided.  This post will talk about conventional or accelerated.

Conventional:

    Like I mentioned earlier, conventional means around 20-22% protein and 20% fat on a dry matter basis.  There is a reason that conventional milk replacers cannot be fed at a high rate.  As a calf grows, it requires protein for muscle growth, and the proportions of protein:fat in this sort of milk replacer mean that merely increasing the amount fed will mean that protein is actually limited in the diet and fat deposition will occur.  Instead, conventional programs should be used at more modest feeding levels (but above 10% of the birth weight of the calf when offered in liquid), and promote grain intake.  The extra protein provided by grain will increase body weight gains.  There are many ways to increase starter grain intake, but that’s a topic for another time!

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Accelerated

     The purpose of accelerated milk replacer is simple:  more nutrients from milk.  A beef calf has unlimited access to milk (generally), and this form of milk replacer, while it doesn’t allow free choice milk, packs more nutrients into the same volume of milk.  A calf is extremely efficient at converting nutrients from milk into energy, so  usually the idea of feeding this milk replacer is to capitalize on early life efficiency.  In order to do so, it is recommended to feed calves in a “step-up” sort of program, where they receive a medium amount of milk (~ 1.5 lbs of milk replacer a day) for the first 10-14 days of life, after which the milk is increased to closer to ~2 lbs per day.

     A caution!!  You cannot cheat the system!  This program was designed to provide more nutrients and more overall milk to the calf.  Yes, it is more costly, but the point is the calf is extremely efficient in converting milk replacer nutrients to growth, so the value is there.  But if think you can get away with feeding this milk replacer in lower amounts, think again!  Opposite of the conventional feeding system, feeding an accelerated milk replacer in low amounts will actually provide excess protein to the calf because the energy is limiting, and the calf cannot use the protein and it will leave the body in urine!  After how much you paid for this milk replacer, I’m sure you don’t want to see it being thrown out with the straw!

     A draw back of the increased milk feeding is a slower start on starter grain intake.  A calf with a full stomach of milk will have less desire to explore for new feeds.  This is why it is essential to ensure calves on this program have begun to eat grain before weaning!  It takes about 3 weeks after grain intake begins for the rumen and gastrointestinal system to be developed enough to handle energy from solid feeds alone.

     As you can tell, there is a lot that goes into feeding calves.  This doesn’t even begin to cover milk replacer ingredients, cold or heat stress, breeds of calves (Jerseys especially), when to wean, how many times to feed, etc.  What are your thoughts?

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Why Dairy?

In the dead of the winter in Minnesota, this is something we ask ourselves quite often,  “Why dairy?”   Most people, including myself, wonder why we would ever want to work through  -25F windchills, drifts of snow, through the cold night, and more.  But you know as well as I that the rewards of caring for animals and a job well done pay off.  The satisfaction of saving a newborn calf.  The excitement of tweaking a ration.  The smile when your favorite cow is pronounced pregnant.  Maybe it’s the love of constant learning as the industry evolves.  Personally, I love a newly bucket trained calf trotting after me outside, cows licking the air as you scratch their tails, seeing a fresh cow bounce up right after calving, and seeing the light in someone’s eyes when they interact with a cow and see she has a personality for the first time.

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Although I did not grow up on the farm, I have been involved in the dairy industry for ~6 years.  I like to think I can bring a unique view to farming, since I came from the city.  But I know the hardships dairy farmers experience.  I have a huge amount of respect for them (you).  My grandfather owned dairy cattle.  25 years after the farm was sold, his hands are still rough from the labor, and his body is weakening.  But ask him about the “good old days” and he will still recall the antics of a certain cow, or the time the cows wouldn’t cross a creek, or the time he became one of the first farmers to practice AI.

But dairying comes with other battles.  If you follow Dairy Carrie, or any other number of agvocates, you know that many think this way of life is “inhumane” or “unnatural”, although the actual words used might be much more unkind.  Although everyone has their right to eat as they see fit, using false facts to promote their point of view hurts us.  Offering these sorts of folks the opportunity to see your place, and with patience, can right a lot of myths.  A recent blog here is just one example.

All in all, it’s a tough battle out there.  Weather, politics, relationships, and luck all affect dairying.  But ask yourself “Why dairy?” and I’m sure the countless memories and successes will come to mind.  Dairy on!

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