Many dairy farm families have had to work through a difficult calving together and my family is no exception. Back in June, our four year old cow, Rose, was in labor with a calf that was facing forward, but was upside down. Compounding the problem was the calf's head-which kept flopping over to the side. Our vet drove across the county to assist us and we all focused on manipulating the calf in order to extract it without harming Rose. We rolled Rose over to untwist her uterus so that the calf could be right side up; then we pushed and pulled the calf's flopping head into a better position; looped chains around the calf's feet; and then used a calf jack.
It was arduous, but after what seemed like hours, a dead bull was extracted (Thank goodness our vet didn't have to cut it out!). Then a little later on that day, I checked Facebook and noticed an advanced book review a friend had shared with me.
In 2010, I completed a Beginning Women Farmer Holistic Whole Farm Planning program, hosted by the Holistic Management International organization (HMI) and have been receiving holistic news via email and social media ever since. The program I attended emphasized the use of sustainable farming practices, which are what most holistic farmers utilize (i.e. grass based livestock diets, minimal usage of fossil fuels.) However, this program did not condone its participants from practicing traditional farming methods.
On the contrary, HMI defines holistic farmers as managers "who make informed decisions, which balance the social and environmental as well as financial considerations, while leading farmers in the direction they want their lives to take." I believe that this holistic definition can be condensed to mean a way of farming that treats animals and land in a humane way, while benefiting a community without sacrificing farm income. And I'd say that conventional dairy farming shares a similar definition. In my opinion, both conventional and holistic farmers focus on utilizing the most humane, and innovative methods.
Many holistic and or sustainable farmers are great at sharing their farming methods with the public through books, and occasional lectures. However, it is disappointing that when they are given the opportunity to promote agriculture to the non-farm public, many choose to defend their way of farming by pointing out flaws in conventional farming practices (and it is equally disappointing when conventional farmers do the same).
Even though, I have chosen to remain on my family's conventional dairy farm, I still enjoy receiving news from my holistic friends. The book review that was shared with me was: www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/defending_beef:paperback. According to the review, the author advocates for sustainable meat production in her book. I noticed that the author had posted videos that she had recorded during her presentations to various non-farm organizations, which I watched.
The videos all were intended to advocate livestock agriculture, but the presentations were difficult to follow as the author insinuated that most farmers make a multitude of inhumane decisions in order to advocate farming practices. At one point the author implied that farmers often overmedicate her cows with drugs and then later on admitted to treating her own cows with "minimal drugs." How could the non-farm audience keep up the author's logic and understand that farmers who treat their cows with drugs are inhumane but farmers who treat their cows with minimal drugs are humane?
What was most offensive was when the author claimed that conventional dairy farmers are "divorcing the land." She rationalized that because many dairy farmers house cows in freestalls, they are therefore keeping their animals away from the land. Like many dairy farmers, my family houses our herd in a freestall and yet we still depend on the land to provide our cows with feed every year.
Jessica Ziehm, a dairy producer and Executive Director of the NY Animal Agriculture Coalition believes, "We are shooting ourselves in the foot. It's doing our industry a disservice by picking out flaws. Those are low blows. It's like name calling." According to Ziehm, farmers' decisions to point out flaws in other famers' operations is a part of marketing. "All marketing is, is pitting one process against another. And farmers are using marketing gimmicks to sell their products," Ziehm adds, "Some are saying 'We're BST-free.' And they are implying that their milk is better [for the public to drink] when that's not true. We're confusing our consumers."
Ann Adams, the Interim CEO of Holistic Management International suggests that, "I think any producer should be clear why they are following the practices that they are and have a rationale for those practices," Adams adds, "If they are doing any kind of direct marketing or customer interface, they should be prepared for [responding to consumer concerns]."
Indeed, all of us need to be prepared to defend the entire ag industry and we need to articulate our farm practices to the public in a way that promotes all farming methods. Ziehm encourages farmers to think of the differences between conventional and sustainable farming methods as being similar to the different parenting methods. "There's a million ways to raise a child. The same as in dairy farming," states Ziehm.
For example, some parents believe that not vaccination their children is a good parenting practice to follow and others maintain that vaccinations are an essential part of parenting. Each parent has a unique set of values that they instill into their children and most people often choose to respect those values. Likewise, producers should also respect other producers who choose to share their own novel farming methods with the public, even if those methods seem more philosophical than practical.
Whether we believe in sustainable farming or not, we all must work together to recognize and respect each other like a family in order to promote ag. The more we support each other, the better we can represent agriculture in a positive light.
If one of your farm visitors, Facebook friends, or Twitter followers explains that they have heard of sustainable practices and asks why you appear not to be using their methods, please avoid the temptation to criticize. Instead, explain that both conventional and sustainable producers are focused on being humane to their animals, our methods differ, but our goals are alike: just like a family focusing together on delivering a stubborn calf.