what’s behind that cottage cheese

Today was a very interesting experience. I attended my first livestock auction. Let me tell you, if you are on the fence as to whether dairy products are ethical- go to a livestock auction. I sat as cull cow after cull cow came through the ring. It was horrible. The handling was not a factor in my statement, the cows were treated just fine, but what I saw in these poor cull cows sure is something that bothered me and reinforced my conviction that the dairy industry disgusts me. Cull cows are the animals in a dairy herd who have problems, aren’t milking well, or are injured in some way.

Animals, beings, treated as a commodity is disturbing, and something rarely thought of by the average consumer picking up a tub of cottage cheese or gallon of milk. These cows are literally initially valued by what they contribute to the bulk milk tank, and finally what their flesh is worth- cull cows are headed to the hamburger plant. Cows who gave birth over and over, gave thousands of pounds of their milk. I don’t have a problem at all with taking and giving when it comes to animals, but the auction brought home that the dairy industry is just gross to me. The meat buyers there at the auction were doing something which is repulsive (to me) but necessary in the commodity system- they are buying all the rejects from dairy farms- limping cows, cows with tumourous dewlaps hanging between their front legs, cows with swollen legs, cows with overly engorged pendulous udders, and there were even cull cows that didn’t seem to have anything outwardly wrong with them. These very used animals are not necessarily healthy, definitely not happy, and they are being purchased to go into the meat system. I know this is what is needed to provide milk and cheese and cheap burger to the masses, but damn is it not the hardest thing to actually see up close and personal. I’m renewing my vow to be diligently dairy free unless I have a hand in my own dairy production. Melted cheese on a pizza, a bakery product with unknown ingredients, they are not worth it in my opinion, if you are supporting a system like this and especially if you saw what I had today. So sad.

But, back to being the change you wish to see in the world. I went to the auction not to be saddened by the dairy industry, I was meeting up with a lady who was in the market for a milk cow. And I was curious how auctions worked. Our friends Heidi and John, who we bought our veal calves from last spring, had decided to exit the dairy business and had posted this auction because they were sending their very nice dairy herd there to be sold off. I’d shared it with my Women Farmers group and then this woman (Amanda) said she was interested in going, since I planned to go and I knew the farm the cows were from.

Entering a new sphere is confusing, and the livestock auction sphere is especially confusing. No one is there at the door to check whether you understand what’s happening ahead of time. Here’s what I ascertained- Bidding on any animal destined for meat is bid on by the hundred weight. Not by the pound, not by the animal, but by the hundred weight as a hanging carcass. Then the “functional” dairy cows are sold by price, but even then- have you ever heard an auctioneer? It’s terribly confusing. We met a young lady employee named Candee who, as my new friend and her 8 (!!!!) kids and I wandered around the corrals before the dairy herd was brought up for the auction, helped us decipher some of the auction talk and lingo. She also offered to bid for my Amanda, she said if she knew what her max price was on certain cows she could talk the secret auction-bidding language for her. So in a bit of a rush, as the dairy cow auction was going to begin shortly, Amanda picked out two bred heifers that she liked, and especially the one that had acted friendly to the kids, coming up to smell their outstretched mittenened hands. She was a cute little Jersey with the ear tag saying her name was Dawn, and she was due to calve in April. Her corral mate was smaller but would also work depending on how the auction went pricewise. Candee noted their numbers, and said likely they would go for less than Amanda’s budget. We all went back inside and the auction on the herd began.

Imagine the internal chaos as the first heifer to emerge was the second choice. We saw Candee bid, and the end price ended up way lower than Amanda’s budget. And we looked at each other- she had herself a cow! But then the first choice heifer came through the door. I looked at Amanda and said- bid on her, I’ll take the first one. She sent her son over to Candee to assure her this is what we wanted, bid on this one too. WHAT! I know! This is the frenzy of the auction atmosphere. You don’t have time to really think things through at an auction, you go with your gut instincts and perhaps you put that out there metaphysically, I don’t know. I had wanted a milk cow someday, so maybe it was destiny. Dawn, the 1st choice, went higher in price, as she was larger and more pure Jersey in her looks, but we saw Candee seal the deal with the final bid.

Do you know how it turned out?

Candee came over to where we sat, apologizing and explaining that the first heifer was going for too high a price per pound, and as that heifer was less apt to be an ideal candidate for a first time milk cow for Amanda, Candee had bowed out on that bid. To us it had seemed she’d won the bid on the first one too, and so with a bit of sadness I realized I did not have myself a bred heifer to become my milk cow. But that was OK! I did NOT go to the auction intending to buy a cow ( I promise,) I just wanted to learn and experience what the auction world was like, for better or worse. And I sure did.

But I can say that Candee planted an idea in my head. She had mentioned earlier, while we stood in outside the corrals on this chilly overcast January afternoon, that if Amanda was looking for a nice family milk cow, she had a Brown Swiss for sale. She didn’t want to sell her but also couldn’t keep milking her without a dairy farm of her own. Her cow, also named Dawn, was due to calve in 3 months, with her 5th calf. Brown Swiss cows are pretty big cows, not a lil’ Jersey, although they share similar looks. I just emailed her. So, I may just be getting a milk cow afterall. We’ll see.

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14 thoughts on “what’s behind that cottage cheese

  1. Yeah. Lots going on here. Sorry you had to see that. It sounds like your issue wasn’t the sale barn, it’s the fact that commercial dairies burn through cows after an average of 2.4 lactations. And nobody seems to be doing anything about it. Shovel in the high-octane TMR, shovel out the manure, haul away the bad tasting milk. Those girls are destined for hamburger…at less than 5 years of age.

    A sale barn is the wrong place to look for a family cow. The suggestion of a private sale is the way to go. We bought ours from a friend. His herd is healthy, his cows live and produce for a decade or longer…on grass.

    I am under the impression that a fair portion of our cheese comes from NZ. I have no idea what the underbelly of their dairy system looks like but I do know they pioneered many if not most of the grazing equipment that is in use today. Mainly because they lost farming subsidies in the ’80’s and the wolf was at the door.

    1. i think I may have been a BIT too heavy handed with my opinions in this piece. I just was very affected by what I experienced…..maybe should have waited a day or two, but then I do want to share my feelings honestly. Oh it’s hard to know what’s right to write!

      We’ll see what happens on the Brown Swiss cow, I wouldn’t want to bring her home before we’re all set up.

  2. Thank you for attending the sale of our herd, Khaiti. I’m glad your friend was able to find value in one of our heifers, and I hope she has great success with Dawn. I’m sorry that the rest of your experience wasn’t as positive. Sales barns definitely put you up close and personal with the dairy market, and it can be a gritty place for the uninitiated. As a now-former dairy farmer, I have a different perspective on culls given my personal experience in the industry. Frankly, you simply cannot make a judgment about a cow’s health or happiness based on what you see before you, and I wish more people would seek input from dairy farmers on these issues to ensure a more fact-based discussion. If one seeks truth, one must be open to the whole truth. Let me share some examples from our herd (and no, I don’t think you were referring to our herd in your post; I am simply trying to lend a dairy farmer’s perspective to the conversation):

    1) A number of our cows were put in the cull category because they are *open*, and few people are willing to purchase an open animal for dairy purposes due to the time and expense of getting her bred. Several of our cows were wonderful cows, great producers, ones we would have kept on our farm and tried to breed but, ultimately, they may still have gone for culls if they didn’t get bred. Selling them in the dairy market would have yielded much less money because, as open cows, they would have been worth less than as culls. Should a farmer be required to take less money in the dairy market to give the appearance of selling a healthy, happy animal, rather than selling as a cull to get more money but also feed the myth that they must be unhappy and unhealthy if they are going as culls?

    2) Another rock star Holstein who did *great* on our farm was a cull because she had Staph Aureus, and *nobody* wants to bring a known Staph cow into their herd. Should a farmer be required to keep an animal with a contagious pathogen? Should that animal be sold as dairy to give the appearance that she is well cared for rather than being a perceived “unhappy” cow going to the cull market?

    3) One of our young cows – a first-calf cow – had a serious limp going in to the sale. We had the vet check her last week. Feet were in beautiful shape. His theory is she might have slipped on the ice or hurt it while she was in heat. There was literally nothing we could do about it except let her heal over time by babying her leg. Injuries like that are a hazard of a more “natural” approach to farming where animals are always outdoors and in a full herd together. They are simply more likely to get hurt by the elements or each other than if they are in a controlled environment. And as cows age, just like people, they are more likely to develop mobility problems regardless of their environment (one of our old cows had a ‘corkscrew’ hoof that, apparently, would require trimming *every 6 weeks* – a seriously expensive proposition when the hoof trimmer in the area wants to do groups of cattle to even come to your farm – twice a year was all we could afford). With a lack of mobility comes a reduction in production. Should a farmer be required to keep older, less mobile, less profitable animals if s/he has younger, more mobile, more profitable animals who can replace them?

    4) Though young cows can have pendulous udders, it is more likely that you are looking at an older cow when you see that (at least 6 lactations or more — or an 8-year-old cow). That was certainly the case with our cows. If a cow has made it that far on a dairy, she has obviously been a good producer and, most likely, treated very well in that time. By the time a cow has reached 8 lactations, there have been 6 years of heifers born on that farm. At some point, you have enough younger animals doing a good job that you need to think about culling older cows who may have higher SCCs (thereby reducing milk quality and premiums), be slower milkers (thereby reducing parlor throughput and increasing your time in the barn), or have pendulous udders that are more difficult to milk out (that was the case with several cows we culled — you literally could not get the milker to hang right, and in some cases had to milk the front quarters first, then the back quarters). We had some cows that took 15 minutes to milk – a serious drag in a parlor where you can normally milk 16 cows in that time. Should a farmer be required to keep cows with problematic udders if they have replacements who can decrease their time in the barn and make them more profitable? Why is it a bad thing for a less mobile, more high-maintenance, less profitable cow to be culled if the beef market needs the meat? And why do we always blame the farm or the farmer for making a cow less mobile or less attractive? Why can’t we believe that this often happens with aging or genetics, as it does with people? And why is it assumed that every unattractive feature of a cow is somehow damaging her health or happiness? Do we assume this about people? One of our cows had a huge cyst on her ankle from a young age. Vet scratched his head and said, “Can’t do anything for it. If it’s not bothering her, don’t worry about it.” Wasn’t bothering her (no limp); we didn’t worry about it. She did fine but eventually was culled for udder health. Did the people at the barn assume we were a bad farm with bad farmers because she had a cyst on her ankle and clearly must have been unhealthy or unhappy and was getting culled? One first lactation cow we had a couple years ago freshened with one of the worst pendulous udders I’ve ever seen. She was treated as well as all the other cows with her environment and nutrition, so clearly it was a genetic issue. She was absolutely *awful* to milk. Now, if I send her to the barn as a cull, I’m the bad guy with a bad farm because somehow I did something to make her udder pendulous? Or maybe I should have “toughed it out” with her on the farm for 8 years even if she made milking unbearable?

    5) Overly engorged udders: If someone is trying to sell a cow for dairy, they are instructed to not milk them the morning of the sale to ensure full udders. Dairy buyers want to see what a dairy cow looks like with a full udder. This helps them know if they are dealing with a pendulous udder or some other problem that wouldn’t show if they had just been milked. It’s not ideal for the cow, but I also understand that the buyer wants some assurance before dropping a grand or more on a cow.

    If you made it this far, I appreciate your taking the time to read. Now that I have a little more time and space to think and breathe, I believe it’s important for me to speak up when I see an opportunity to give voice to the dairy farmer’s perspective. John and I were not unique; all of the dairy farmers we knew and worked with were professional, compassionate people who did well by their cows. Some were graziers like us. Only three were organic. But probably the best herd and most well-cared for is a high-producing Holstein herd in a more conventional, confinement set-up. I have been to the farm. I have seen the cows, the care, and the numbers. I know the people personally. And they do a great job.

    I love your passion for farming. You do a great job in sharing that passion with the world. And if you seek to share a broader perspective on dairy farming, I would be happy to provide that dairy farmer voice where I can.

    1. I agree! Our pigs would be SO happy to help with the skim ad whey. I am not sure I want to go back to a milking schedule though, I did it for 8 years straight and it is ROUGH. We may just stick with beef cattle this year and forgo the milk cow, we’ll see. I don’t absolutely NEED butter.

  3. There’s a guy in Colorado named Adam Klaus that has a Brown Swiss herd and actually just published a book on small dairy herds – in fact, I won a copy of it last week through permies.com (haven’t received it yet but am sure it will be a good resource). He is an amazing fount of information and quite willingly shares it. He has a lot of really helpful posts on permies.com. I am especially enamored with his chicken breeding program. He follows biodynamics and permaculture practices. I also heard him speak at the Permaculture Voices conference I attended last year – really great guy. BTW – I think he advocates for once a day milking, so there still may be a milk cow in your future…

    1. oh my god, I actually JUST ordered his book! Birds of a feather!!! You went to the conference??? How lucky, I heard a few of the presentations on the podcast and Greg Judy is actually who got me all psyched about cows. Did you see him talk? Are you going this year?

      1. I actually won tickets to it last year!! Lucky me! It was AMAZING! Listen to every podcast you can from the conference – a LOT of great info. Also – Diego Footer’s permaculture voices podcasts are a really great resource and they are all free. Yes – I did hear Greg Judy speak – super nice guy and like just about every single speaker there – he was chock full of great info.
        I would love to go this year but just not in the budget. If you have an opportunity to go – SEIZE it! I won the tickets through the permaculture voices website last year – it’s worth it to follow the blog just for the great info they share – but super bonus if you win tickets!

      2. On the PV podcast! I also love it – super cool to know we have that in common! I have a family wedding when the conference happens this year, but maybe next I can try to go. Amazing you won tickets the year before, lucky lady!

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