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1108 PD: Making milk is making music

Ben Yale Published on 24 July 2008

Yet another challenge to a common dairy practice recently crossed my desk. This time it is a proposal by the USDA under the Animal Welfare Act to regulate how newborn calves are treated from birth to about eight weeks old. Though only a proposed rule, it does suggest issuing a rule for limitations on the transporting, even the removal from the mother during some or all of that period. This would not be good for dairy farmers. It is not the first such challenge to dairy farming. It joins those that claim dairy farmers mistreat their cows, employ the wrong people, feed the wrong feed, give the wrong drugs, mishandle the waste, waste water and, to some, produce an unneeded product. More will come. How dairy farmers respond to those complaints will determine whether or not and the degree by which dairying survives in America.

This challenge cannot be dismissed or ignored. Imagine one of your employees has failed to remove the calf from the mother at birth and left it with the mother for a week. What would be the result? What if it was a number of calves or a common practice? What would your response be? Now, here is the defining question: Why is this so important that you would do something about the employee’s performance? The answer is that how one handles calves is a critical step in the economical production of milk. It is not the only step, it is not the first or the last, but it is a necessary one. The response is based upon the fact that this single act – calf-raising – has consequences in the production and harvesting of milk. Calf-handling is just one of many steps in the process that produces milk on a modern dairy farm in America.

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It makes no difference why the calves were handled incorrectly after birth. Regardless of whether this was because of an employee’s failure to perform or maybe someday because the government prohibited it, the fact is that it did not get done. In this way, regulatory interference with the farming operation is no less harmful to the dairy than a bad job by an employee because both harm the overall farm enterprise. In the same way, just as you would admonish your employee, or worse, you must insist that the government not interfere.

Because it is a necessary part of the dairying process, we cannot respond to the challenge as an isolated issue. The steps to produce quality milk are not done individually, but as part of a process. Interrupt one step, and you interrupt them all. The challenge over what dairy farmers do with their calves is not just a battle over handling calves shortly after birth, but it is a war over whether milk can, or should be, a free-enterprise in the U.S. Nothing less is at stake. It is about the long-term viability of your dairy.

Dairy farming is like making music. Music is a sequence of one or more notes, in a certain order and at a certain rate. Change a note, the order or the tempo, and it is different music.

For a long time we have been singing a great song, and it starts with the milk produced. Milk is the safest food product produced. There is not a single food harvested in the world that comes close to milk. From the moment the milk leaves the cow until it reaches the consumer, milk is subject to intense procedures, audits and enforcement that ensures it is safe. The conditions in the milking parlor; the materials that the milk touches; the steps taken before, during and after milking; the cooling; the storage; the transportation; and the testing – all of these ensure that the milk is of the highest quality. That quality does not come by skipping steps.

To sustain that quality, dairy farms have to be economically viable. Giving milk to calves that can be marketed undermines that viability. There is too little profit now to be burdened with uneconomic regulations. And cattle are not put at risk because quality milk comes from healthy cows. Healthy cows start with healthy calves. Dairy farmers take care of their calves to promote the health and well-being of their calves.

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American dairy farming has not reached the level of performance and quality that it has overnight. Generations of farm families, animal research from our universities and the great American character of always looking for a better way has brought our industry to its current level of excellence.

This excellence not only produces a great food and ingredient for other great foods, but it provides jobs – American jobs. Dairy farmers employ about 90,000 direct employees and the USDA estimates another 135,000 are employed in the processing and marketing. Unknown numbers work to produce the feed and supplies and equipment that make dairy farming work. They are all American jobs.

The American dairymen help in fueling this great economy. The tens of billions of dollars invested in farms, equipment and cattle produce 190 billion pounds of a valuable commodity now worth in excess of $30 billion dollars. That money multiplies through the economy several times, which produces other jobs.

The milk American dairymen produce is now being exported to help balance our trade deficit. Last year, almost 10 percent of our milk solids were exported, and that quantity continues to grow. As the number grows, our industry grows and with that the jobs, the investment and the economy. Now, that is not only a song, but a symphony!

It is hard for us to understand why something so commonplace to us, and even common sense, is under attack. It is not because of the product or the quality or the jobs, but other things, in this case, removing calves from their mothers at birth.

It is not unique to just that. The larger society which we feed is, by and large, removed from agriculture, particularly animal agriculture. Its knowledge about cows and milk come too often from old, simplified, even cutesy stories of a cow that is milked by hand in a barn, which she shares with pigs and chickens and horses. The only acknowledgement of technology might be a small tractor. Modern, sanitary practices in a double herringbone or parallel milking parlor by milking machines are infrequently published, especially in a positive light. When they see this, they are not pleased.

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Calves are confused with human babies, and the expectations we have in treating our children is transferred to the treatment of calves. The thought that calves are part of an economic process to produce food – wholesome food – enrages them.

Dairymen need to add a new verse to their song. It needs to tell the story of how producing milk and the practices associated with it are safe for the cow and healthy for us. We need to, as an industry, publicly define the acceptable practices of a dairy farm and have research that supports that. We need to sing this song not just to consumers, but to bureaucrats, legislators and judges. We cannot assume they understand what we do and believe it is done correctly. Rather, we must accept that they have no understanding at all.

There is no reason we cannot sing this verse as loud and proud as we do the rest. How producers do what they do is as good as the product they make. Goodness only comes from goodness – we just need to sing the whole song. PD

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