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.

Hey Organic Farmer Friends- I’m Calling You Out

I just viewed a recent marketing video that is circulating the internet, put out by Only Organic, whose members include Stonyfield, Organic Valley, Earthbound Farm and Annie’s Homegrown just to name a few.

The curtain rises to show a stage full of elementary students dancing and singing to the tune of Old MacDonald as they act out a very dramatic, inaccurate portrayal of modern farming. I can scarcely describe the sick feeling in my stomach as I watch this hateful propaganda and fear-based agenda that exploits children. It ends as the farm turns into an organic New MacDonald.

American farmers today are outnumbered 99 to 1. Is it necessary to attack any? Do we have any to spare? We talk about great advancements in science and the many tools and technologies available today that farmers can choose to use. It appears to me that conventional farmers are much more accepting of other’s practices and methods, whereas the organic industry continually uses fear-marketing and shameful tactics like this video to sell their products. As a mom and a consumer, I have simply had enough.

This campaign is truly hate speech for profit.

But WHAT IF the role is reversed? What if I gather a group of children to sing a similar song…

Old MacDonald had a farm, ee-i-ee-i-o

And in his farm, he invested less, ee-i-ee-i-o

So his a-ni-mals, didn’t do as well,

Thought his farm he’d have to sell,

Old MacDonald had a farm, ee-i-ee-i-o

 And over time, he let things slide, ee-i-ee-i-o

So his soil wasn’t great and his crops didn’t grow,

He had to figure out a way to bring in more dough,

Old MacDonald had a farm, ee-i-ee-i-o

 But organic marketing saved his day, ee-i-ee-i-o

Now crappy farmers had a new way, ee-i-ee-i-o

To get paid more for producing less,

By using fear and lies to make a big mess…

 (slow down – dramatic ending!!!…)

 Now organic MacDonald makes a lot of money on his farm…



It’s great, huh?? Something I should be proud of? Truth? No, no and no. But it’s a similar tone and as truthful as the Only Organic campaign. This brings back memories of my grandpa, who always told us “never play in the mud with pigs because you’ll just get dirty and the only one who likes it is the pig.”

I hope all farmers that supply products to the group of companies in the Only Organic brand take a long hard look in the mirror, because they are supporting hate speech and unacceptable propaganda. I am ashamed of Only Organic and am completely embarrassed that they represent any part of agriculture today. You should be too.

To all organic farmers, I challenge you to call out this campaign for what it is. You provide a safe, high quality product, so why would you allow a company like this to represent you?

Connect with consumers based on facts and share your “why” Market the reasons why you farm and why you choose the practices you do. There are many similarities between organic and conventional farming. You share many of the same practices, just using different products when it comes to things like pesticides and fertilizers. You too take pride in your everyday work and provide safe food. All farmers, no matter what production method they use, care for the land and animals in a way that provides safe, nutritious food for families everywhere. All farmers share this passion and all farmers have a livelihood to be proud of. You too have a business to sustain and need to make a profit and have a marketplace to do so in.

As a mom and a consumer, I would love to see you launch your own positive and respectful campaign that truly represents who you are and what you stand for, without misinformation and hateful propaganda.

I know you are not Only Organic – you are much more than that. You deserve better.