cow math

I went to look at Highland cows for sale yesterday. Oh boy, can you even imagine how adorable a VERY pregnant Highland Cow is? How about 7 of them all waddling in the sunny snowy day? Black, brindle, red- they were a bit wild, but gorgeous and in beautiful condition. They were a fair price, and delivery is available. But….I don’t want to buy bred cows, we need a few 2 year old Highland steers (that’s a boy w/o balls) to finish over the spring, summer and fall, not mommas who will have babies. I keep doing cow math, but it doesn’t work out for us to be in the cattle breeding business, at least not yet. A Highland calf born this month would be ready for butcher in 2018. (36 months is when this breed matures to full weight.) Yikes, that’s a loooong time to cash flow the purchase of a bred cow (for beef production.) And we just don’t have enough cash to do that.

I would really like to keep a milk cow eventually, but because she would not really be part of our farm business (mostly a butter maker for me!) I need to have “fun money” before I can afford her. Ok, I confess I already ordered Adam Klaus’ new book “Dairy Farming the Beautiful Way,” in preparation. Right now I am in conversation with a woman who has a large herd of Highands on the other side of the state and has several steers for sale, and she said she may just have a bred Highland cow who could be a candidate for handmilking. Highlands are not a heavy milk producer, but that’s fine by me! We’ll see how things shake out, a lot depends on if the ducks start laying in March and we have a cash flow going on again.

Now I transition from talk of buying Highlands and a family milk cow, to the dairy industry once again. I realize I have some seemingly conflicting opinions, but hear me out.

My recent rather opinionated post (sorry about that if I offended anyone, just writing through my thoughts,) about the experience I had at a livestock auction had a range of responses, including an interesting one from a dairy farmer. The response, posted below, actually only served to reinforce my feelings about commodity dairy, even though they were trying to explain the actions of the industry and the farmers. I feel that commodity agriculture, when it comes to animals, is unethical. I still do, no matter the justification. Using animals is different than treating them like they are only units of production.Where’s that line?

In my blathering, I hit a few cheese nerves, and I know it’s hard to hear…most dairies are not sweet idyllic farms where the cows get to live out their days. As soon as the cows are not profitable or have problems of any sort, off they go to burger land. But before burger land, (and this is where I have objections) the cull cows are usually sent to the livestock auction where they are poked and prodded as they are made to walk off the trailer, down the barn lane, into a pen, again into more sorting pens, through the auction ring, back to a holding pen, and then onto the buyers trailer, all no matter if they can walk comfortably or not. After they are loaded onto the buyer’s trailer (I saw guys buying 15-20 cull cows each at the auction) I’m not sure, maybe they take them to a slaughterhouse? I sure hope these poor cows aren’t forced to walk through a whole other sales ring.

Since the dairy cull bothers me so much, I’ve been trying to think about what the alternative could be. Well for one, if the cull cows could be trucked straight from the farm to the slaughterhouse, instead of having to go through the stress of the auction. Ideally, they would be on-farm slaughtered, but that kind of slaughter is not approved for the meat to go into the supply chain. In our state, on-farm slaughter is allowed if the animal is for personal consumption or is pre-sold in halves or quarters. I don’t think the average customer would knowingly buy meat from a cull cow, and how much cull cow beef can a dairy farm family eat? Not as many cows as they cull. So are there no solutions for the millions of dairy cows that are culled, other than the system in place? I guess not.

Here’s the dairy farmer’s comment if you’re interested. A few personal details have been edited out:

“Sales barns definitely put you up close and personal with the dairy market, and it can be a gritty place for the uninitiated. 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 to lend a dairy farmer’s perspective to the conversation.”

“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? ”

“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? ”

“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? ”

“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. (We) were not unique; all of the dairy farmers we knew and worked with were professional, compassionate people who did well by their cows. 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.”

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2 thoughts on “cow math

  1. I totally understand what you’re saying. I’ve taken kids from our farm to the livestock auction, and I hate it. Although, to be fair, not all the buyers at ours are from a slaughterhouse and we’ve placed some great goats into good homes there. I’ve also picked up some excellent goats there who might otherwise have been slaughtered. I recall once unloading goats at the auction. One of the workers there was trying to herd them down a chute, yelling at them and slapping at them with a prod. They just looked at him, puzzled. They had no fear of humans and no reason to fear them. The only humans they’d ever known had been kind to them. The worker said something like, “This is why tamed goats are bad. They’re not afraid of you.” In his mind there was something wrong with an animal that didn’t fear humans. After that when I took them I’d handled unloading myself to prevent the animals from being abused. Now we try to avoid the auction. Whatever we can’t sell off-farm we sell at a consignment sale by our local meat goat association.

    Culling is a hard thing and it’s taken me a long time to understand and accept it. Nature culls herds too. In fact, I’ve come to understand that nature looks at the strength and vigor of the herd, not the individual animals, and behaves accordingly. Only we humans look at individuals first, and that is probably a recent trait. Even after we became self-conscious it seems that primitive societies saw themselves more as tribes and families than as individuals. Ok, that’s probably opening a philosophic/anthropological can of worms…

    Last thought–the dairy farm commenter sounds thoughtful and sincere, and probably is. But just beware that industrial ag is hiring bloggers and creating bogus presences on social media now to promote the wholesomeness of their practices and counter any criticism of them. This person doesn’t seem to be one of them, but they’re out there. I’ve read about the campaign in industrial ag magazines and it’s becoming more common.

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