How falling milk prices affect my dairy cows

When milk prices fall, the first ones to suffer are the members of dairy farming families – Alex, Zoe, Wayne and me. The second ones are the people who make an income from supplying dairy farmers: feed merchants, vets, milking machine mechanics, fertiliser suppliers, the local newsagent and so on – our friends and neighbours. The next ones to suffer are cows.

With the price we are paid for our milk falling below the cost of production this year, I have some tough decisions to make and they come down to this: sell milkers, sell young cows, try to produce even more to meet our fixed costs (like the mortgage) or feed the cows less. Feeding the cows equates to about 40% of our income, so that’s a pretty obvious target and so is selling young stock.

It costs a lot (say $1500) to feed a young cow for two years until she’s ready to calve but, at about 12 months, I can sell her for about $1000. That’s very handy money when milk alone won’t pay the bills. Yes, it equates to selling the silverware but at least we live to fight another day.

Here’s the catch: if I sell her locally, she’ll probably be slaughtered at a value of, say, $500. If I sell her to a Chinese dairy farmer, I get the $1000. I’m assured that, as precious breeding stock, she’ll have a wonderful trip on the air-conditioned boat and she’ll join a herd of up to 30,000 other cows, with feed that arrives on a conveyor belt at their noses and whose manure is carried away by another conveyor belt at their tails. A very different life to the free range pasture based one she’d have here in Australia.

What should I do?


What would you say to the trendy vegetarian?

We just had a young man staying with us who announced he’s become a vegetarian. When I asked why, he said it was because he liked what PETA says about not taking the life of another creature.

I try to be very open-minded but as soon as someone says “PETA says…”, I must admit that the fire doors of my mind slam shut. I was instantly infuriated. Just wanted him to leave but couldn’t say so. Instead, I told him he’d have to go a lot further than giving up chicken, pork and beef burgers.

As the weekend worn on, he ate copious amounts of eggs, dairy and…seafood. Quizzed a little more closely, he said his “vegetarianism” was really for health reasons. I urged him to see a dietician to make sure he has enough iron and vitamin B but he’s okay – he eats corn at least twice a week.

The experience has opened my eyes to the value of nutritional education when it comes to making food and lifestyle choices. Becoming a vegetarian or vegan is trendy. Thinking about supplements and vitamin B12 patches is not. Yet, according to experts cited in Wikipedia, “Poorly planned vegan diets may be low in vitamin B12, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, iron, zinc, riboflavin (vitamin B2), and iodine.”

What would you say? In the meantime, grab a Coke and enjoy this hilarious clip on trendy diets from Mamamia.

Jonas on what ethical farming means to consumers

Tammi Jonas, who is writing her PhD on the role of food in a cosmopolitan, sustainable society, always has some wonderful insights into the expectations of farmers and consumers, so I was thrilled when she agreed to write this guest post for Milk Maid Marian.

In a number of recent discussions amongst farmers and with non-farmers, there has seemed to be an impasse. It goes something like this:

Non-farmer: ‘how can you treat animals that way?’

Farmer: ‘we love our animals, you’re just being misled by activists showing you worst practice’

Non-farmer: ‘I just want you to be kind to the animals while you raise them, and to kill them with as little stress as possible’ [many vegans snort at this point, though not all]

Farmer: ‘we treat our cows/sheep/etc better than our children! They’re pampered! We love them!’

Non-farmer: ‘but you handle them roughly and slaughter bobby calves young after starving them!’

Farmer: ‘what do you want us to do with all the bobby calves? We can’t afford to raise them all? But we send them to a nearby abattoir to minimise stress and time off feed…’

Non-farmer: ‘but the poor calves!’

Non-farmer then in most cases goes and purchases milk from Coles or Woolworths at $1 per litre for private label, or slightly more for ‘branded’ milk. They also consume meat and dairy daily, yet don’t want their meat to come from intensively-raised animals.

Who’s right here? And what’s at stake?

To get to the heart of the matter, I asked a very simple question on the twitterz yesterday:

Non-farmy (meat-eating) types – what do you want from farmers in the raising of the animals you want to eat? Be specific!

Here were the replies:

@trib: animals get more open space than legislated, only necessary drugs, healthy, natural food, capacity to behave naturally, eg herding

@FreeHugsTommy: I want the animals to be living a life as close as possible to the one they would live if they weren’t being farmed.

@hadrian33: Happy animals (allowed to roam and eat what they like best) As stress-less a death as possible

@andrewfaith: Organic, free range, humanely treated. Treat them the way we would like to be treated – with care and respect.

@katgallow: For animals 2 have chance of self-expression. Eg pigs root around, wallow etc as expressn of ‘pighood’

@drnaomi: I would like food animals to have good living conditions, good natural food and to not be traumatized by transport and slaughter.

@th3littleredhen: the best possible quality of life (& death) before it becomes food.

@graceonline: Truly pasture-raised, pasture-fed; no feed or plants with GMO or animal parts or slurry; respectful butchering; clean;

@abbystorey: to know where & how animals are raised. Sounds obvious but pics of happy farmyards & slippery terms like freerange are misleading.

@stillmansays: want cows raised in deep pasture w cow/calf herds & slaughter in pasture to allow cows opp to grieve & re-form herd dynamics

@EmpiricalBaker: reasonable prices, animals raised outdoors in nature, open communication with farmers

Now, my communities of interest on the twitterz are overrepresented with food-focused folks, and many of them are much more conscious of ethical consumption than average. But by and large, what they said they want is roughly what I believe most people would actually say they want in the treatment of farm animals. As @kirsty_l pointed out, it would make one appear and feel ‘not good’ to suggest one doesn’t care about the treatment of animals.

And yet in the supermarket, where the average consumers’ interactions with food take place, people are confronted with the constant appeal of ‘lower prices’. ‘Consumers win!’ ColeWorths and their mates at the Institute of Public Affairs tell us. But do we? Actually, the only winners here are the shareholders and highly paid execs of the duopoly.

The rest of us consumers lose – we lose choice as they label everything with their own brands, further obscuring an already impenetrable barricade of marketing spin – where are the farmers behind these products? The traceability of our food in supermarkets is now so clouded is it any wonder consumers have forgotten that there are real people out on the land working hard so they can purchase their daily bread in bright, shiny packages?

So back to the farmers – the majority of Australian farmers I believe do care for their animals, but they are very aware that they are raising these animals for slaughter. There is an inescapable level of pragmatism when handling animals destined for dinner plates, but that doesn’t mean most farmers are treating their animals in ways consumers wouldn’t like.

For example, the average dairy cow in Australia grazes happily in the paddock, coming in for milking twice a day (some dairies have gone to three, I understand, due to intense financial pressures in this deregulated market). Yes, on most dairies the calves will be taken off the mother between 12 hours and three days after birth, and some 700,000 calves will go to slaughter between 5 and 30 days old. There are concerns about how long these animals are left without feed in their final day of transport and while waiting at the abattoir, just as there are concerns about their handling throughout. We farmers would do well to listen to those concerns and always aim for best, humane practice, as I believe the majority do. And if we know or hear of farmers, drivers or abattoirs who are treating the animals poorly, rather than responding like the Catholic church and remaining silent or being defensive, we should be the loudest voices denouncing their behaviour.

Australia is lucky – this isn’t America – our beef and dairy cattle and sheep are still living out their lives in the full glory of cowness and sheepness (except in the case of ‘grain fed’ cattle, who are kept in feedlots for long periods even in Australia) – I only wish I could say the same for pigs and poultry, the vast majority of whom are raised intensively.

But I’ll finish by returning to consumers. We vote for humane treatment of animals with our dollar. So long as we over-consume meat and dairy while seeking the cheapest prices, we’ll get what we pay for – intensively farmed animals. If everyone decreased their meat and dairy consumption and paid more for it, farmers could afford to give the animals the space we say we want them to have. Next time you’re not sure you can afford that free-range pork, eat a couple of vegetarian dinners and then splash out and eat the tastiest shoulder you’ve ever had. Everyone will be happier, from your taste buds to the farm critters to your grandchildren. Ethics requires all of us.