We know we are not perfect, we realise we must do better and we are proud of how far we have come.
Our cows live better lives than they did when I was a girl. Careful breeding has reduced the incidence of mastitis and lameness, while a new understanding of bovine nutrition has reduced the risk of calving trouble and helped us insulate the cows from the impact of both drought and flood. Our first generation of naturally polled (hornless) calves has just been born.
Even so, dairy farmers will one day earn a prime-time feature for all the wrong reasons. It could be someone doing the right thing that looks like the wrong thing:
- euthanasing a frail calf,
- lifting a disabled 550kg cow mechanically,
- inducing an unborn calf to spare the life of its mother,
- diligently treating an eye cancer or lancing an abscess.
Any of this I could, and would, defend.
It could equally be a “bad apple” doing the wrong thing that no farmer could support or one of the dilemmas that the dairy community must resolve.
An average Australian dairy farmer like me is custodian to more than 400 creatures and each of their big milestones – all the way from from birth through to end of life – are often accompanied by ethical dilemmas. Even tending the land itself requires a well-calibrated moral compass.
We’re not allowed to use GM feeds at the moment but, should we, if it means more efficient use of the land and fewer chemicals? We’re not allowed to use bovine somatotropin, a natural protein produced in all cattle that helps adult cows produce milk but, should we, if it means fewer low-producing cows are culled?
Is it time to have the discussion out in the open? I think so. And not just amongst ourselves or behind closed doors with the lobbyists, for these are things that define us as Australians rather than simply as farmers.