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1108 PD: Is the industry shifting toward holistic dairying?

Dick Holliday Published on 24 July 2008

As a holistic veterinarian, I am gratified that many of the trends affecting the dairy industry today appear to be moving the industry toward a more holistic approach to animal husbandry and away from some of the “factory farm” concepts that have gained popularity in the past few decades; high feed and energy costs are pushing the industry toward holistic. And, at the same time, consumer preferences with regard to animal welfare and food safety are pulling it in the same direction. I am under no illusion that these trends will force everyone to become organic certified.

However, I do believe that even small steps toward a more holistic approach will reward any dairyman with increased profitability as well as improving public perception of the dairy industry in relation to food safety and animal welfare. I would like to comment on three major issues affecting the dairy industry today.

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1. High feed and energy costs. There is little doubt the rise of the ethanol industry has had an effect on grain prices. How much effect it has had is debatable. Regardless of the outcome of that controversy, to me it seems a shame to burn food when much of the world remains on the brink of malnutrition or even starvation.

2. Animal welfare. The animal welfare movement is alive and well and growing stronger. Consider the recently revealed video showing mishandling of animals in several slaughterhouses and you can see why this provides a rallying point for those who would impose unrealistic regulations on all areas of animal husbandry.

3. Food safety. The desire of the public to have food that is drug- and hormone-free, whether based on fact or fiction, is a potent force affecting the dairy industry. The unparalleled success of the organic movement is a testimony of the public’s positive opinion of, and willingness to pay for, “natural foods.” While drugs and hormones used to stimulate the production of meat and milk may have short-term advantages, it may be a high price to pay if consumers abandon the use of dairy products because of their concerns about food safety. There is no question that the pharmaceutical industry benefits, but there is little if any ultimate benefit to the consumer.

One of the perceived dangers of synthetic drugs and hormones is that any side effects may not be seen in the animal or human actually receiving the product, but in their offspring ... a generational effect.

Back in the 1940s and into the 1970s, diethylstilbestrol (DES) was a popular and often-used synthetic form of estrogen. Doctors prescribed DES to prevent certain complications of human pregnancy. Subsequently, many daughters of these DES-exposed mothers had an increased chance of developing abnormal cells in their reproductive organs. DES was also used extensively in livestock to manage reproductive problems in animals and to abort feedlot heifers. The effect it had on the animals themselves, or on the consumers who ultimately ate the meat, is largely unknown.

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Thalidomide, a synthetic immuno-modulator, was first synthesized in 1954. When introduced it was approved by the FDA and thought to be safe. Soon it was apparent that as little as a single dose taken in early pregnancy could cause severe birth defects. It was withdrawn from the market in 1961 after thousands of babies were born with abnormal arms and legs and other developmental defects.

In 1973, a fire retardant PBB (polybriminated biphenols) was accidentally included in dairy cattle feed in Michigan. Cattle began showing symptoms including low production, abnormal hoof growth and death. Thousands of cattle died or were slaughtered and buried to remove the toxin from the food chain. Unfortunately, the chemical was already showing up in human mothers’ milk. Many of their daughters exhibited signs of puberty at 11 or 12 years of age.

Similar to the above, in 2007 melamine-contaminated wheat gluten from China found its way into pet food in this country. Many pets died. This incident illustrates how easy it still is for toxic chemicals to enter a food chain and how devastating the effects can be before the source of the problem is detected.

As a more up-to-date example, consider the number of pharmaceutical drugs that are touted as ‘safe’ and approved by the FDA when they enter the market but then a few years later are yanked from the shelves as reports surface of deaths and severe side effects. Obviously, many of these drugs are beneficial in the treatment of some conditions, but the side effects are often more severe than the original condition.

The list goes on and on. Is it any wonder that the public is somewhat skeptical or suspicious of pharmaceutical drugs being insinuated into our food supply? I think it is a mistake for anyone to blame these fears solely on consumer ignorance.

The most important change a dairyman can make to accommodate these trends is to re-think his basic feeding concept. The more we deviate from a bovine’s “natural” environment the more problems we will have with production, reproduction, longevity, herd health and ultimately various adverse consumer reactions. High- concentrate rations are the main contributor to animal health problems in dairy cattle. Cattle are ruminants and are designed to eat grass. Feeding high levels of grain to push for high production is not economical. Formulating rations to more closely resemble the “natural” diet of cows is cheaper in the long run.

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If at all possible, begin transitioning towards rotational grazing. Consider the differences in public perception between a typical grazing dairy and a conventional total confinement dairy feeding high levels of grain. Confinement not only adversely affects animal health but also provides ammunition for animal welfare activists.

If grazing is not possible, at the very least reduce the amount of corn and concentrates fed. Many dairies that have restricted corn in the ration have experienced a small reduction in production for a time, but in a couple of weeks, as the rumen bacteria adjust to the new ration balance, production often rises to nearly the previous level. The decreased feed costs and greater herd health and longevity more than make up for the small production decline. In addition, healthy animals require less use of ‘rescue chemicals’ such as antibiotics.

Water is the largest component of any ration and is often overlooked as a factor in ration balancing. Test your water and include the results in the total ration balance.

Addition of specific digestive microbes and enzymes to the ration promotes fiber digestion and increases the release of minerals and vitamins contained in the feeds. This minimizes the need to purchase expensive off-the-farm feedstuffs.

Balance the ration with an eye to the varying needs of each individual. If you are feeding a total mixed ration (TMR), it is beneficial to also provide a cafeteria of individual minerals and trace minerals to allow each animal to balance their individual mineral requirements.

Finally, consider that there are five different rations:

1. What the computer recommends.

2. What actually goes into the mixer.

3. What actually goes into the feed bunk.

4. What the cow actually consumes.

5. What the cow is able to digest and assimilate.

The last one is the only one that counts. PD

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