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Cow birthing center readies to build on first-year success

Holly Drankhan Published on 18 July 2014

newborn calf

After seven hours of eager anticipation, the moment had at last come. Smartphone cameras snapped and gasps erupted from onlookers as small hooves and a wet nose emerged from a laboring cow.

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With a series of forceful shoves and some helpful human hands, the entire 90-pound calf was expelled, encased in a slimy membrane.

The crowd’s excitement culminated in this miraculous, natural phenomenon. New York Animal Agriculture Coalition (NYAAC) Executive Director Jessica Ziehm’s words rang true over the PA system –“This is real, and this is live.”

Approximately 160,000 people of all ages visited the Dairy Cow Birthing Center at the New York State Fair during its debut from Aug. 22 to Sept. 2, 2013. Under an expansive tent, guests witnessed the parturition process and freely asked questions of farmers, industry representatives, veterinarians and college students, all wearing shirts that read, “There’s no udder place for the answer.”

Interactive exhibits on feedstuffs and tools of the trade also explained the details of a dairy farm’s operation. Many flocked to the calf hutches outside in which moist, rough tongues eagerly gulped milk from bottles. Even from home, intrigued consumers could witness the births through a live webcam.

NYAAC, a compilation of farmer-led agricultural organizations, saw the event as an opportunity to connect the state’s mostly urban consumers with modern yet rural dairy farmers and their practices.

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New York farmers do have these two unique facts that attest to a wide gap between them and consumers in their state: While one-quarter of the state’s land is used for farming, 87.5 percent of Empire State citizens don’t live in a rural area. It’s no wonder New York can be the No. 3 dairy state in the country and yet have many still wonder how a bottle of milk gets to their downtown grocery store.

“Promotion of our industry is no longer kind of a luxury or something for fun,” explained Ziehm. “Promotion and education about dairy farming is really about preserving our farms. People don’t understand; they are getting inundated with misinformation, confusing facts and all these different food labels – they have no idea where to turn for the real information.

Our mission with NYAAC is to improve the awareness and understanding of dairy farms, and the best way to do that is to get people talking with farmers.”

With four months and $50,000 in funds from New York Corn & Soybean Growers checkoff funds and several other agribusinesses, NYAAC proposed their ideas to local commercial dairy producers and asked for feedback. It was decided that each of six Cayuga Marketing farms would provide six cows at the exhibit for two out of the 12 days, aiming for three induced births per day.

Cooperation with the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine also helped ensure the animals received the best care and comfort possible, which was a major concern for farmers. Even with these measures in place, many unpredictable aspects of the event’s premiere promoted caution.

“I think when I first heard about it, I was a little nervous because you have all of the ‘what if’ that goes through your head,” said volunteer Betsey Howland, an extension support specialist for Cornell’s Pro-Dairy program.

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“What if something doesn’t go right during a birth? What if anyone shows up who is on the attack against what you are doing? But in the end, this was an opportunity for us to tell our story and for it to be so much more than just observing the birth of a calf.”

While the ability to see four wobbly legs attempt a precarious first walk was a major attractant for fair-goers, it was between births that the conversation ensued. Various members of the dairy industry could converse between two microphones about a variety of topics as well as share anecdotes about their livelihood, inviting the audience to chime in during their average one-hour to two-hour stay.

One such individual was NYAAC Board Member Steve Palladino of Walnut Ridge Dairy, who volunteered for three days and contributed pregnant livestock.

“We worked in tandem to inform the audience about dairy farming today, what we do on a daily basis, the care we give our animals, our family involvement, career opportunities in agriculture, how we manage the farm, how important our land and the environment is to us. You name it, we talked about it,” explained Palladino.

The upstate New York dairy farmer experienced the event’s success even after the fair ended. Palladino explained that an individual had approached him at the birthing center, stating that the impression he received of the dairy industry during his visit was starkly contrasted to some negative views he observed from the media.

The individual followed up with Palladino in November, arranging a visit to Walnut Ridge Dairy to witness the operation for himself. Ziehm explained that this movement to welcome the public onto farms and inform neighbors about their practices is a major focus of NYAAC.

In 2014, Ziehm and her colleagues remain busy planning for the return of the Dairy Cow Birthing Center, an exhibit which a 2013 state fair poll deemed more than 80 percent of visitors found positive, interesting and educational.

Although all of the participating farms wished to return, they vacated their seats so others may experience the event’s rewards.

Among the slated adaptations for this year’s fair are more bleachers to accommodate a higher volume of visitors, videos displaying life at the farms from which the cows originate, a mechanical back scratcher donated by FutureCow to improve cow comfort and the reappearance of some yearlings born at the 2013 fair so return visitors can view their progress.

“I think having these events, while they may take time and planning and collaboration, the benefits from them are really great,” said Howland. “If we can all work together in putting these events on, I think we can go a long way in boosting consumer confidence in what we do.”

Despite the exhibit’s success, including a second place award from the International Association of Fairs and Expositions in the category of Fair and Sponsor/Partner Joint Exhibit Program, Ziehm retained humble goals for those who visited the tent.

“Our main message for consumers for them to leave the birthing center event was that dairy farmers are good people who care about their cows. Everything else they took away was gravy for us.” PD

Holly Drankhan is a senior at Michigan State University with plans to attend vet school. She is a 2014 Progressive Dairyman editorial intern.

PHOTO
With a series of forceful shoves and some helpful human hands, the entire 90-pound calf was expelled, encased in a slimy membrane. The crowd’s excitement culminated in this miraculous, natural phenomenon. Photo courtesy of New York Animal Agriculture Coalition.

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