It’s time to speak up

Calling All Ag Professionals – Share Your Front-Row Seat to Farming!

Sharing Your Front Row Seat to Farming (published in Dairy Herd Management E-Newsletter)

Today, misinformation about farming is everywhere, making it more important than ever to speak up for agriculture. Farmers are being asked to be more transparent because the average consumer is several generations removed from production agriculture. According to the latest census, farmers in this country are now outnumbered 99 to 1.

Since 1950, we have increased milk production by 60% using less than half the cows – 16.4 million less to be exact. At that time, it took approximately 5 acres to feed one person and today it takes about 1/3 of an acre. Farmers now grow twice as much corn per acre as their parents, and nearly 5 times as much as their grandparents. Every facet of agriculture has a similar story of incredible improvements in productivity over time. Agriculture is built on true sustainability, producing more food with fewer resources than ever.

None of this is surprising to those of you providing consulting services on farms because you see the management decisions made every day to improve nutrition, genetics and animal care. As consultants who work with farms of all sizes and management styles, you have a front row seat to farming and a unique perspective to share. It’s time that we, as agriculture professionals, all step into the arena of “agvocating” and play a much bigger role.

After nearly 15 years in the feed industry, I understand the many hats you must wear. You are more than just consultants. You are friends, confidants, counselors, and relief employees. You too love agriculture and treat everyone’s farms as if they were your own. You pray for perfect weather and safe harvests, and spend countless sleepless nights analyzing ways to help your farmers, both professionally and personally. Your laughter and tears, worry and fears mingle with theirs. When I started in the feed business 15 years ago, I never imagined how small our world of agriculture would be and how entwined our lives would all become.

I understand your frustration when asked to wear one more hat. We only have 24 hours in a day, not a minute more, yet it never seems like enough. But advocating for agriculture needs to be moved up on our priority lists.

As ag professionals, you have three major advantages:

#1. You have a unique view from your front row seat to farming. You have a great story and you share common ground with consumers. As a nutritionist, you understand better than anyone the importance of nutrition. No average consumer realizes that our nation’s livestock eat better than people. You balance customized meal plans for each individual farm, for over 60 different nutrients, right down to specific amino acids. I have this simple discussion everywhere I go, from the airport to the grocery store. Opportunities to share your passion can be found every day. The latest consumer research shows that 37% of the 81 million millennials (our largest consumer group) think dairy farmers abuse their animals and 50% believe there is an animal care issue on all farms today. What an opportunity for nutritionists, veterinarians and other ag professionals to speak up and share everyday experiences. From the responsible use of antibiotics to feeding for healthy animals, you share the same goals as all consumers and your values are more aligned than they think.

#2. You are skilled at communication. Whether you like the title or not, you are all sales people. Your voice can be a powerful tool for sharing the real story of agriculture. There are opportunities every day to have simple, meaningful conversations with consumers, if you just speak up. Share your expertise in your local or state paper. Start a blog or be a guest blogger. Participate with your farmers in things like #farm365 or #TeamAg. Get involved more in social media. Expand your reach.

#3. You have access to resources to make a difference. After volunteering for Common Ground (www.findourcommonground.com) for the past 3 years and having the opportunity to talk to thousands of consumers, I am convinced there are not enough of us speaking up. Consumers want to hear from farmers and ag professionals who are authentic. Modern agriculture has an amazing story to tell. Work with producers to better utilize social media to share their stories, help with farm tours, dairy breakfasts, farm-to-table events, local school programs, radio interviews, television segments to feature positive stories, show the documentary Farmland in your local school…the list could go on and on.

At the end of the day, you have the knowledge and resources to make a difference and encourage your customers along the way. The chance to work hard at work worth doing is something worth fighting for. Commit to advocating for agriculture every week and doing one more thing than you are doing today. When we don’t tell our own stories, others tell them for us. If not you, then who?

Are Improvements in Dairy Really Harming Our Cows?

Can Dairies Have Exceptional Welfare AND Exceptional Production?

This idea of “having our cake and eating it too” in production agriculture has been weighing on my mind since attending the recent Wisconsin Dairy and Beef Well-Being Conference. Over 400 veterinarians, welfare officers, ag professionals, students and farmers gathered for the program hosted by UW-Extention with a key note from Dr. Temple Grandin.

Dr. Grandin addressed this issue with an overwhelming answer…no.

Her theory of “biological systems overload” is based on the premise that we have pushed our animals past their biological limits, causing major animal welfare problems. Particularly “lameness, thin body condition, swollen hocks, fat hoof lesions and lower immune function in dairy cattle.”

Watching Dr. Grandin deliver a keynote is nothing short of remarkable. I respect her extensive work on the design of handling facilities and meat packing plants as well as her published research and books on animal handling.

So it was with great frustration that I listened to her presentation with a slide deck highlighting pictures credited to HSUS. (Yes, credit to an activist organization that only a few weeks ago agreed to pay $15.75 million for a racketeering lawsuit filed against them under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.) There are great improvements going on in our dairy industry that Dr. Grandin failed to recognize. A dear friend taught me there is no need to spend time identifying a problem if you don’t spend more time on it’s solution.

The UW School of Veterinary Medicine has been researching and working alongside Wisconsin dairy producers for over a decade to help build and renovate barns that promote exceptional health, welfare and productivity. The Dairyland Initiative is an amazing resource that has brought farmers, their advisors, builders and lenders together to advance the latest research based housing guidelines for dairy cattle. There are over 3,000 users today and the program supports workshops worldwide, a consultant network, direct facility consults/facility design assessments, presentations and webinars in 7 countries, and has been highlighted in several publications. Their work on lameness prevention programs is key to continual improvements.

Worldwide dairy cattle lameness prevalence shows a huge range (according to the peer-reviewed published research from 1993 to 2014) and is variable among region, validating some of Dr. Grandin’s comments. But to throw everyone under the bus based on the worst herds is unfair – especially in a state that is leading the way. Wisconsin’s best herds rival the lowest levels of lameness found in grazing herds around the globe…all while giving twice as much milk!

After working as a nutrition consultant in the dairy industry for nearly 15 years, observing tens of thousands of cows, I have seen firsthand how the highest standards of animal welfare and minimal lameness are required to achieve high production. Farmers do not sacrifice one to get the other, because you cannot achieve high production without animal welfare as your top priority. All decisions made on farms today are about achieving optimum production through the very best care while minimizing stress on our livestock. It seems absurd to propose we go backwards in time and breed for smaller, less productive animals, which is what Dr. Grandin suggests. (Even though there are days I would trade my iPhone 6 Plus in for my old bag phone!) I truly believe the solutions are to be found ahead of us, not behind us.

Dairies continue to improve barn designs and remodel older facilities to achieve improved cow comfort. There is a very precise science, supported by a vast amount of research that specifies exact stall dimensions including width, height, length and lunge space requirements and bedding types that are best for cows. Farmers continually implement new and improved hoof health programs with routine preventative care and more skilled hoof trimmers than ever before. Heat abatement and ventilation in barns today are also top priorities, using improved methods in temperature control, air movement and evaporative cooling.

Our very own University of Wisconsin is home to the most advanced and latest research on cow comfort and hoof health with the worldwide experts in this field. The work of Dr. Nigel Cook and Dr. Ken Nordlund has been invaluable to the dairy producers in our state and we have the results to prove it.