Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Progressive Dairy(man)

This month Progressive Dairyman also featured women in agricultural roles, and they asked me to write an article for them.  It's called 'Changing times call for new roles in the dairy industry'.


Last year, I was selected as a Face of Farming and Ranching by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. As I spent the year communicating with consumers by print, radio and in person, I thought a lot about my ancestors.

Six generations ago when my family started this farm, farming was close to everyone. For each generation since, farming became more and more rare, until there are only about 50,000 dairy farms in the country.

As the times have changed, our roles have changed. My great-grandma used to not only feed everyone on the farm, do the laundry by hand and raise her kids; she also cleaned out the cobwebs from the barn.

My grandma and mom were always fixtures on the farm, and they also both had outside jobs to help support the family. When you’re the owners, you’re going to make all the decisions with the other owner – your partner. It’s a team effort to run a business.

In modern times, we’re still a team, but the support role is different. Since there are fewer farms, our efforts are frequently focused on education. Since my husband, Kris, is mostly busy doing the work, I’m excited to have that position.

When the children were small, it was really enjoyable starting to host tours and write my blog, “Truth or Dairy.” As they got older, my level of activities came to include going into schools, hosting field trips and representing farmers through Michigan Milk Producers Association and the National Milk Producers Federation.

This year, I’ve had the opportunity to directly speak with people in many places. At the American Food and Technology Innovation Summit, I got to talk with people about organic food and GMOs. At the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo, I had great conversations about modern dairy farming practices.

At the University of Arkansas, I spoke with academics involved in agricultural production. I got to address the USDA, pork and poultry producers, and farmers and consumers of all types.

In schools, I was able to speak with students about all sorts of farming practices completely new to them. Kris and I were even named the fourth-grade class farmers at the AG-STEM school Gateway North Elementary in St. Johns, Michigan. (Their questions are the best – “Do you ever dress the cows up, like with sunglasses?”)

With all the writing, radio and online interviews, and speaking engagements, I love communicating with people in a positive, educational manner. I love being able to answer questions and represent our fantastic industry.

Of course, it’s not always easy sitting in an audience and listening to someone talk about how farmers are doing everything wrong. It’s not great to listen to people who are driven only by feelings about food and not facts. It’s not exciting seeing memes online that state blatant untruths about the food we produce and consume.

What is great is: Farmers all realize that in order to please our consumers, we need to make sure that they understand why we do what we do. When every person in the country can recite the eight GMO crops, when every child can tell you how milk is produced, and when every person can tell you why manure is great fertilizer, then we can rest easy.

But until then, farmers are doing what they’ve always done: farming responsibly, taking care of their animals, providing for their country and their families, and talking about the why and how.

Every time you’re able to reach a greater understanding with another person, it’s a win. Consumers have certain things they want, and we want to give it to them – as well as help them understand us and our practices. After all, all farmers are consumers, too. I look forward to continuing this process for the next year and all the years after.

It’s nice having a position to do this, but we’re all doing it every day. It doesn’t have to be a big event. Every time we have a conversation, invite someone over, post a picture, host a tour and communicate what modern farming is like, we bring everyone a little bit closer.

I’m always looking forward to my next opportunity to share with people about farming. I’ll never pass up a chance to write, speak or teach about farming. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll be even more like my ancestors and get those cobwebs out of the barn. Just kidding - I think they add character.


You can see the article online here.  Thank you to Jenna Hurty and Progressive Dairyman!

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Dairy farming feature

This month Mary of Mackinson Dairy Farm is featuring women in dairy.

Here are her questions and my answers.  To read the whole article - and about all the other featured farmers - you can go here!

What are 3 things you want consumers to know about the dairy products you produce?

I’ll talk about the questions I get most …

There are no antibiotics in your milk. Our cows are generally very healthy. If a dairy cow does get sick, we help her get better by giving her an antibiotic to fight off a bacterial infection, much like people do. There’s a very specific way to treat her. First, we follow the medicine labels, which inform us how long the antibiotic will be in her system. For that period of time, we milk her into a separate container and dump the milk. Her milk does not go into the bulk tank with the other cows’ milk.
Here’s the verification process and how we guard against human error:

Step 1: At the farm, the driver takes a sample to hang on to from each farm’s bulk tank, then adds the milk to the combined truckload. The driver drives to the milk processing plant.

Step 2: Each and every combined truckload of milk is sampled immediately upon arrival at the milk processing plant before unloading.

Step 3: If the combined truckload tests positive for antibiotics, the plant goes to the individual bulk tank samples from each farm to determine which farm had antibiotics in the milk. (Each individual sample from the bulk tank is tested every day anyway, so that the farm knows the exact components of their milk.)

Step 4: If the milk plant finds a trace of antibiotics in the milk, it dumps the entire load (yours and whatever other farms’ milk they have in the truck). The tainted milk never even gets to the milk plant’s tank.

Step 5: That farm that had antibiotics in its milk is then fined and it doesn’t get paid for its milk.

Step 6: If it happens more than once in a year, that farm is suspended.

Aside from all of that (and despite what you may have heard), there’s no advantage to us of overusing antibiotics. It doesn’t make our healthy cows healthier, more comfortable, or give more milk.

We’re not keeping antibiotics out of milk because we only want to avoid fines. We don’t want it either! Farmers want to, strive to, and work hard to provide you with a quality product. Keeping antibiotics out of the milk is what everyone wants – farmers and consumers. We want to give you the nutritious and wholesome product you expect.

Plus, I buy my milk at the store just like everybody else. I’m completely confident in it – and you can be, too.

There are natural hormones in all milk – organic and conventional.  There are natural hormones in milk because cows (like all mammals) have hormones.  People didn’t put them there.  Farmers like us that belong to MMPA (Michigan Milk Producers Association) do not give their cows any hormones.  In the past, some farms gave their cow’s supplemental recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), which is the growth hormone that normally occurs in cows, to help them produce more milk.  But since farmers were giving them more of a hormone that occurs naturally, there was no way to tell from the milk if they had it – because it’s a hormone they already have.  You may have heard of women who take hormones to increase their milk production.  It’s the same practice.  But again, we don’t give the cows any hormones and never did.

A comfortable, healthy cow gives more milk. Farmers treat their cattle extremely well because we want them to produce high quality, high volume of milk.  It’s awful that any person let alone farmer would mistreat an animal, and when someone does that, it’s heartbreaking.  It not only is awful for the animal, but it’s depressing for all the people who are trying to do everything right.

So the bad apples aren’t representative of all the farmers who are depending on their cattle for their livelihood and do anything and everything for them.  We make sure they have the best nutrition, bedding, housing, temperature, medical care – everything so they can continue to easily and comfortably produce milk.

What is the most rewarding part of production agriculture? Challenging?

We always wanted to own our own business, but we weren’t sure what we wanted it to be.  The most rewarding part of owning a farm is that it’s your farm.  When you work, it’s for you.  When you make decisions, you’re the one that faces the consequences.  I also love that we can share our business and lifestyle with our boys.  This business gives us the flexibility to have our kids with us, really see what the farm is about, and spend time together.  There’s not much of a separation between home and farm.  They get to see hard work up close and as they get older, participate in it.

The most challenging part of farming is the uncertainty of it.  The weather, the market, a strange cattle virus – so much of it is out of your control.  You really just have to try your best and have faith that it’s all going to work out in the end.  So cheers!  Have a glass of milk and toast to the farmers across the nation, all doing the same thing!

What do you envision the future of the dairy industry looking like?

It’s an interesting question – when we first approached my parents about buying the farm, they had a lot of concerns.  One concern was that the nature of the dairy industry is cyclical, and you have to be prepared for the ups and downs of the milk prices.  The first year we started was a high, and the next was a low.  We felt we got a taste of it right away!  I know the dairy margin protection program is designed to help ease that transition, but it doesn’t make as much of an impact as one would hope.

There are still lots of small farms (like ours) but with the low milk prices you wonder how many of them can withstand the tough years.  I think that with the price of robot milkers coming down, that’s a way that the smaller farms can continue to milk.  With the recent attention and news about how great full-fat dairy products are for health, that’s another positive for our industry.

Our future has a lot of questions – Will the cyclical nature of dairy farming ever change?  What happens when we’re all producing something there’s no demand for?  Will there be bigger, fewer farms or smaller, robot-milker farms?  Maybe we’ll all just have to pick a different direction to go when people choose almond ‘water’.  If that happens, I’ll have to keep a cow just for me – I love milk and drink it every day.

Wardin 3

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Fourth grade cheese tasting

The United Dairy Industry of Michigan (Brianna Banka) in conjunction with Fuel Up to Play 60 awarded a grant for the December Healthy Snack at St Johns Public Schools.

Today at Gateway North, which is the Ag-STEM school in St Johns, Michigan State University nursing students Danielle Flach and Stephanie Cosentino put together a dairy lesson and cheese tasting for the fourth grade classes!  Karla Palmer (district school nurse) and I also helped out.

First, Danielle and Stephanie showed an educational and good 4-minute video about dairy farming. Then they presented on the healthy aspects of dairy and why it's important especially for growing children.  I talked about how milk is turned into cheese and why it's important to Fuel Up to Play 60.

Then they had ... a cheese tasting!  They gave each fourth grader their own samples of gouda, pepperjack, and cheddar cheese.  (They also gave every kid in the school string cheese sticks.)

The kids were SO excited!  "Cheese!  Cheese!  Cheese!" they yelled.  They all tasted it and most gobbled it down immediately, even if some had to get drinks after the pepperjack.

These kids are so fun - several also asked me for my autograph (I have no idea why) and hugged me.  I'm so glad to have this student/farmer relationship!

Thank you to everyone for a nice day and a great healthy snack ... it sure was gouda.


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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

MSU extension and vet visit

Kris is on the MSU Extension Advisory Board and after their meeting yesterday everyone came for a farm tour.  Farmers love seeing other farms.  It's just the way it is!  It was nice seeing everyone and talking - and nice doing a tour with Kris.  Questions from farmers are so different than questions from preschoolers ... for example, "What is your philosophy on cow size?"

We had another visit from Lindsey Sanchez, our vet.  (You may remember the surgery post.)  Josh noticed something was wrong with a cow.  We use a stethoscope on cows to listen to their insides - like their rumen.  Kris let me listen to it - it was my first time - and it sounded like far off thunder.  

We thought she might have a displaced abomasum, but Lindsey listened and palpated and diagnosed her with a mummified calf.  The cow gave birth 80 days ago to a live calf, and that calf apparently had a twin that didn't make it.  Her body was trying to absorb it, but she hasn't been able to do it yet.

Lindsey wasn't sure why this put her 'off feed' (that's the term for her not eating enough and not feeling well), but she suggested feeding her a special mix that we have for cows and giving her some medicine.

Again, Lindsey had to do all this with three boys, team members, and me watching.  I should have asked her her philosophy on people watching you at work, taking your picture, and asking a hundred questions the entire time!

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Friday, November 6, 2015

Wow, do I love teaching this age

Rebecca Daman at St Joseph Catholic School in St Johns (lots of saints in that sentence, don't be confused) asked me to come in again this year to do a dairy lesson with her begindergarten class. This is a class for 4-5 year olds.

I have a five year old, and let me once again reiterate - this is such a wonderful age.  The kids were adorable.  First of all, they pretend they're going to ask a question, but instead just tell me an unrelated story that they were thinking about.  It's never not funny.

Second of all, they're so interested in everything!  They love hearing about dairy farms, cows, and how all sorts of food gets to them.

Third of all, they laugh at my jokes, no matter how silly.  In fact, the sillier the better.

We read a few dairy books, then a few general farming books, and discussed them.  I also took a milker, a calf bottle, and cow models to show them.  They answered all the quiz questions at the end of the lesson, I answered their question/statements, and they were super excited about the coloring books and chocolate milk!

As I left, Maddox said, "Thank you.  I love milk.  I miss you."

Is there a better ending to a lesson?

Thank you to Rebecca Daman and her lovely class!  

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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Pregnant cows!

Today was ultrasound day!  We bring in a vet - today it was our friend Russ Seifferlein - to give an internal ultrasound to the heifers and cows.

 He has an ultrasound wand similar to the one used for humans, but with one huge difference - he is wearing goggles that show him the ultrasound picture!

He let me look through them where I could barely see a teeny tiny spot on the screen.  But imagine how good you must get at this doing this many ultrasounds as part of your job...

Again, we have such good people on our farm, and in a situation like this, it just makes everything go so smoothly.

Russ walks to one side of the parlor and yells the number on the tag to Kris.  He performs the ultrasound and gives us the news - open, which means not pregnant, is delivered in a hushed tone, like a doctor giving bad news.  Pregnant is delivered in a celebratory manner, partly because everyone really likes good news.  (I am prone to cheering.)  He then goes back to the end of the parlor, then back through to the other side ... switching sides and giving ultrasounds for a couple of hours.

Josh and Adam were in charge of moving the cattle, moving the doors in and out to let Russ in and out, but let just one cow in at a time, plus yelling out the tags for Kris.  The cows can only go in one at a time because Russ has to have enough room to do the ultrasound.  Lots of cattle to move!

Carolyn was in the pit also, giving treatment to any cows who Russ diagnosed as having a problem.

Kris was writing down for our records each ear tag number and diagnosis.

I was slowing everything down by asking Russ million questions like always, and Max was very interested in the whole process.  Someday, a million years from now, I hope he doesn't compare his wife's first ultrasound to the times he was in the barn ... directly to her face.

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