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HERd management: Am I crazy? No, we all are

Emily Zweber Published on 29 August 2012

When asked to write this piece for Progressive Dairyman, I was asked to write about the misconceptions about organic dairy farming. The main thing I want you to know is: We are not crazy.

Well, maybe we are, slightly. But show me one dairy farmer who isn’t. You almost have to be slightly crazy to do what we do day in and day out. We dairy farm because we love what we do, because we care for the animals and each day we all produce a wholesome product that nourishes billions of people. That doesn’t change whether you are conventional or organic.

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Just today, a colleague of mine asked the million-dollar question all dairy farmers want to ask an organic dairy farmer: “Do you use antibiotics?” I like getting this question because it is a great way to open the conversation about the differences in organic dairy farming and conventional dairy farming. There is so much confusion out there about what an organic dairy farmer can and cannot do and, unless you are living it day-to-day, it is hard to keep up.

So what is my answer to the question? Yes. Yes, we use antibiotics. You are probably scratching your head at this point – wait, there is more to my answer. Yes, we can use antibiotics (and are required to if it is the best way to help a sick animal) but once we do, that animal is no longer considered organic.

On our farm, if we choose to treat an animal with antibiotics, we will immediately separate her from the herd. Once she is recovered she is sold, often to neighboring conventional farms where she continues to be a good milk cow.

A lot has changed in organic dairy farming in the past decade or two. Increased private and public research has advanced organic animal health methods. Veterinary programs have taken an interest in organic animal health and alternative medicine is becoming popular among conventional dairy farmers as well.

There is still a long way to go, but the door has been opened and more options are available today for all dairy farmers when they care for their animals.

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In January of 2011, I was pleasantly surprised when I opened my mailbox to see that Progressive Dairyman had an entire issue dedicated to grazing. That was the first time I saw grazing herds seen as progressive in a non-organic focus publication.

Granted, not all grazing herds are organic – but all organic herds are grazers. I dislike when people try to pin organic farmers as not progressive; that somehow we are converting back to an old way of farming. That is far from the truth. While our cows are back out on pasture, our pasture management, animal health regimen, breeding and more are very progressive. This is 21st Century farming.

I want to leave you with this. I personally do not see conventional dairy farmers as competition. Conventional dairy farmers should not see organic dairy farmers as competition either. We are all doing what we know is best for our animals, land and family. Let’s be open to learn from each other. There is a lot to learn and all crazy people need a little company. PD

Zweber and her husband, Tim, milk 100-plus cows with Tim’s parents Jon and Lisa. Zweber is also the executive director of the AgChat Foundation , which educates and equips farmers and ranchers on skills needed to engage in conversation on social media services.

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Emily Zweber
Dairy producer
Elko, Minnesota

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