The business of dairy farming and what that means for our “stock”

I don’t like to use the word “stock” when it comes to cows. The connotation is that they are simply economic units. Yes, we do rely on their milk for our living but, no, they are not simply the equivalent of black-and-white boxes in a grassy warehouse. We burn the midnight oil, holding down second jobs during tough times so the cows will never know a lean year.

A sick cow is more important than our own dinners.

Nor are male calves “low-value by-products” of dairying. Maybe for some but not for me. Absolutely not. Rather than shooting them (the economically rational path), our family chooses to make a loss rearing the bull calves for the first few days of their lives and then selling them to beef-farming locals.

In the same vein, I am not a “milk producer” but a farmer. Somehow, “producer” conjures up factories and production lines, while nothing could be further from the truth here. We nurture our animals and the land because we understand that nature is bigger than we are. Sounds trite and fluffy? Perhaps, but it’s the reality.

There is no financial reward for such an attitude and in the teeth of the economic crisis most dairy farmers have suffered in recent times, the pressure’s been on to make every conceivable saving but here’s how I look at it: if you’re not able to make a dollar out of farming this year, you should at least be able to feel good about the way you farm.

If farming this way is not viable, I would rather not be a farmer.

Better care for bobby calves

There’s some good news about the welfare of our most vulnerable charges: young calves.

I hate selling any of our animals but we simply can’t keep all the bull calves. Our solution is to sell them to a neighbour over the river who grows them out until they are big, powerful two-year-olds. Not all dairy farmers have this option though and send them to market as young “bobby” calves.

For a long time now, there have been standards to ensure they are strong enough and fully fed before they leave the farm but once we hand over their custodianship, we could only rely on the decency of their buyers. The good news is that while governments have not been able to reach a consensus, the people involved with bobby calves have taken the lead and announced new national standards concerning their care.

The electronic scanning technology is already in place to make sure the standards are kept and I really hope that monitoring reveals the people who take calves from farms are already doing better than we expect.