Ashes to ashes…….

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There is an empty calf bottle sitting in my milk house. It is not because I forgot to fill it. It is because I lost a calf this morning. You’d think that I’d be used to it by now because every livestock farmer has had it happen from time to time. Like my dad always told me, “when you raise livestock, you also will have deadstock”.  The truth is that you never really get used to it. Bringing new life into the world is a privilege that isn’t taken lightly by farmers. This morning’s early calving was no exception.  

I knew that it was Dorito’s first calf and my instincts knew that she needed assistance. The calf was very much alive while I gently checked to see if it was in the proper position. However, my hope for a healthy calf faded as I carefully help deliver Dorito’s calf into the world. All the signs of life that I had just seen moments ago were gone. I used all the tricks that any farmer would do to try and revive it.  I even gave it CPR by blowing in its nose and pushing on its chest. To my surprise it did take a few short breaths before passing on, but it was too late to save it. The milk truck was arriving in an hour so I had to carry on with the morning milking even though I was still shaking with adrenalin from the calving and the loss of the calf. As I milked, I looked back to the calving pen and watched the mother instinctivly lick her dead calf. I was half hoping to see the calf miraculously spring back to life from those loving licks, but it was not to be.

The calf was not sired by a fancy bull and her mother was just an average cow, but she would have been cared for just the same as any other animal on our farm. PETA would like you to think that farmers don’t care about their animals and all that we care about it profit. I assure you that on most farms this is not the case. Yes my cows provide me with a livelihood, but they are more than just milking cows. I can trace every cow back to my grandfather’s original herd of cows that he got from his parents. There are mothers, daughters, sisters and grandmothers from the same family milking in our herd.  I know each cow’s unique personality and I promise you that they are all respected and loved. 

Perhaps I am too sensitive to be a farmer and I shouldn’t have taken this tragedy so hard. I feel like I want to quit my job and do something different. However, the more that I think about it, compassion and sensitivity are probably good traits for a farmer to have. It’s probably time to quit farming when you stop feeling sad at the loss of an animal. My calf’s death does not compare to the death of a person or even a pet, but as a farmer I took a quiet oath to nurture life on my farm at all times. I feel like I let this little calf down even though there was nothing that I could have done differently to change the outcome. After milking, I will bury my calf in the corn field and say a little prayer.  I am sorry that I couldn’t save you little calf. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…… 

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    Bovine Beauty Queens 

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    My cows were beauty contestants today! Every few months a classifier from Holstein Canada compares each of my cows to the “perfect” cow. 

     

    The perfect Holstein cow.


     
    They use a hand held computer that has all my cow information on it such as her age, her calving date, how many lactations (time between calves) she’s had and previous scores. Every inch of the cows is graded. They look at everything from the length of her teats and the texture of her udder to the strength of her back and legs.  

    Dorothy’s score card

       We use this information to breed our cows to a bull that will hopefully improve any traits that are weak. A computer analysis will help us choose the best mate for our cows, or we can pick one from a bull proof chart (also in my photo section). Bulls are also chosen to improve health traits as well as milk, fat and protein production. You can even choose sexed semen to help guarantee a heifer (female) calf. It’s all pretty complex, but it is an important part of our farm. 

     

    Bull proof sheet.

     

    The winner on this round was Dorothy at 92 points out of 100! Her points may go up as she gets older.  Dorothy is a pretty nice looking cow, but we treat every cow like a beauty queen on our farm. Each one is as important as the next!

    Edward the Classifier

     

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    What is an AGGIE?

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    Even though I have been out of school for just over 20 years, I still get the back to school jitters just as we are finishing up the grain and hay harvest in late August.  If you don’t frequent farming circles then you may not be familiar with the term Aggie.  Simply put, an Aggie is a nickname for a student of agriculture.  I remember attending an open house at the University of Guelph when I was about 7 years old.  I saw a number of students wearing shiny leather jackets with the name Aggie in big bold letters across the back.  I remember my dad telling me that I might be an Aggie someday if I work hard in school.  Low and behold it happened.  I graduated in 1994 with an honours degree in Animal Science at the OAC (Ontario Agricultural College) at University of Guelph. 

     

    Yes, it still fits !

     
    Aggies are a diverse crowd.  Many have farming backgrounds.  In my class I remember students that came from every kind of farm imaginable. There were crop farms, cattle farms, horse farms, pig farms, sheep farms, fish farms and even a winery.  However, being a farm kid isn’t a prerequisite to becoming an Aggie.  In fact, a number of my classmates came from non-farm backgrounds, but we still shared a love for all things agriculture.  Some students even used the agriculture program as a stepping stone to get into veterinary school since many of our courses overlapped. 

    You may be wondering what an Aggie might learn at school.  Well, you may be surprised by the vast array of topics that an Aggie can take.  For me in the animal science program, my courses were very science based.  We took many of the same courses a regular science student would have taken in our first couple of years like microbiology,  biochemistry, organic chemistry, physics, calculus, statistics, botany etc.  In our final couple of years our courses became more specific and were related more to animals and agriculture.  For example, we took quantitative genetics, animal nutrition, animal physiology, animal behaviour and animal ethics courses.

    What can you do with an Aggie degree or diploma? Almost anything! Did you know that 1 in 8 of all jobs are in agriculture and 2.1 million Canadians are employed in agricuture?   In 2013 there were 56,000 career opportunities for people with an education in agriculture, but sadly from 2011-2020 it is estimated that 38% of jobs in Canadian agriculture won’t be filled.  (source http://www.agmorethanever.ca).  I have friends that went back to their family farms or into research, government, sales, marketing, teaching and a vast array of other jobs. 

     

    This is our class crest. The stallion was our mascot.

     
    There are many stereotypes when it comes to Aggies.  It’s true that many of us know how to two-step, or square dance. Heck, some of us even drive pick up trucks and listen to country music. However, the next time that you see an agriculture student wearing one of those distinctive Aggie jackets, I challenge you to say hello. You will find that Aggies are generally some of the most polite and well rounded people that you will ever meet. They are the future of agriculture and you can rest assure that your food is in good hands. 

    Me and the canon at the UofG open house in 2013. I’ve painted that canon more than a few times, but that’s a story for another day.

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    The Dark Side of Social Media and Agriculture

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    Perhaps you know me personally, or perhaps reading this article is the only introduction that we’ve ever had.  To bring you up to speed, I am a third generation dairy farmer. I am not a lobbyist nor a politician. I buy my groceries at the store like everyone else because yes, I am a consumer too. My family has a small dairy farm in Southern Ontario. I am proud of our farm and it is a privilege to be able to work with dairy cattle. 

    I started a public Facebook blog early in 2015 to help educate the public, counteract misinformation, and to share my own personal story about dairy farming. I recently branched out by using Twitter to help reach even more people. Overall my efforts have been extremely rewarding; I’ve had great feedback from farmers and non-farmers all over the world.  However, I’ve also had some feedback that I never expected. 

    I am very proud of the high standards of animal welfare that we practice on our farm and it is often the core of my posts and tweets. You’d wonder how something so positive could be twisted into something so negative. Yet some extreme animal rights activists have taken it upon themselves to reshare my posts, altering the context to serve their own agendas, all the while hiding conveniently behind false identities. Initially I kept screenshots of these hijackings with the intention of using them in my blog.  However I was given the advice not to repost their tweets as it only gives these cowards the attention they crave.  So, as a compromise and to give context to this blog, rather than publish the screenshots, I will simply provide quotes. 

    Here is my original posting of a nice letter that was left in our mailbox by an anonymous person.  I am so proud of that little note. I keep it displayed to remind me that what I do is noticed and appreciated by others. 
     
    When I sent out this tweet I was happy with all the positive vibes that resonated through the Twitter community. However, I must say that I was shocked to see how an extremist twisted my tweet into something to snuff out my enthusiasm and further their own cause: “It’s not about animal welfare, that person who wrote the note should watch when they r mutilated & killed.”

    Next, there is this photo that I shared to show how we walk our calves between our two farms to allow them to enjoy an extended length of time on pasture. They truly have an amazing life here and I was trying to share with the general public our dedication to providing our animals as nice a lifestyle as possible.  
     
    I couldn’t imagine how an extremist could turn such a wonderful moment into something so evil: “Poor innocent non-human slaves, born into exploitation and when no longer profitable, sent to slaughter.” 

    There are many other examples that I could share with you, but it only saddens me to go further. I almost feel like I am stooping to their low standards by writing this blog in the first place. 

    This experience was a real eye opener for me. I feel violated.  I have friends and family that are vegan or vegetarian. I respect them and love them even though we have differing opinions. To be honest, you can learn a lot by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and by trying to understand their viewpoints. I am all for open discussion and dialogue, but only if it’s polite and backed with educated facts. Feel free to express your personal views, but please educate yourself first and don’t attack me to try to gain a following.

    There is no reasoning with extremists of any type so it’s not worth my time to engage with them.  If nothing else, my experience has actually encouraged me to be more aggressive posting positive things about agriculture.  I encourage farmers across the world to stand together and do the same.  My grandmother always told me to do unto other people as you would have them to do unto you. The world would be a better place if more people followed that advice. 

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    Cows Take Tests Too! 

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    It’s been a while since I graduated from the Animal Science program at the University of Guelph. I miss my time there for many reasons, but I definitely don’t miss writing exams! You would think that I would have escaped the stress and preparation of testing when I finished University and became a full-time dairy farmer.  On the contrary, the cows and I have a test about 10 times a year!           

    Almost monthly, a milk tester from CanWestDHI (Dairy Herd Improvement) comes to my farm and tests us. She tests my ability to manage my cows and she tests the quality and quantity of my cow’s milk.    We attach a special graduated cylinder to our milking machines.  As the cow is 

     

    The flask being filled with milk


    milked,  a measured amount of milk drips into the flask to determine how much the cow produced . This number is recorded in a laptop computer. The milk tester then takes a sample of milk from the flask and puts it in a small plastic container for further analysis. 

    Milk sample containers and laptop

    At the lab, the milk can be measured for a number of things such as its protein, fat and lactose content. It is also tested for its white blood cell count. A high white blood cell count (Somatic Cell Count- SCC) may indicate a possible infection in the cow’s udder. The lab can also analyse what kind of bacteria caused the infection and then our veterinary can make suggestions on how to treat the potential problem. We can also confirm the pregnancies of our cows by testing their milk. The pregnancy test checks for levels of glycoproteins that are produced during pregnancy. There are also a variety of cattle diseases that milk tests can check for. If you want further information, you can check out the CanWest website:

    http://www.canwestdhi.com/index.htm

    Shortly after the milk test we receive a very long and detailed report. These 

     

    A small sample of the report


    reports are invaluable to a dairy farmer. They give you individual cow production information and trends. They help you set goals to improve your operation and they help keep your cattle healthy through better management.  For example, if the milk test indicates that my cows are not producing as much fat in their milk as I would like to see, I could make changes to the herd’s feed ration, or breed low producing individuals to bulls that will hopefully improve production. A bonus to milk testing is that we can have an official production record on each cow. 

    It may be a chore to prepare for routine milk tests, but it is one of the most important management tools that a dairy farmer has. The best part for me is that the cows usually pass their test with top marks and they didn’t even have to study!  The girls are thankful that it’s not a psycowlogy, or a cowculus test and they don’t need to use cowculators. Now wouldn’t we all want to write a test where the only prep work was eating as much as you can! 

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    Giant Marshmallows

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    Giant marshmallow?

    Farmers truly are the original stewards of the land. It makes sense that we take out what we put into our land. We all know that livestock farmers have been recycling for eons. We grow crops, the crops feed our animals, our animals eat the crops and the manure that the animals produce goes on to fertilize new crops. It’s a perfect cycle. Did you know that farmers recycle other things too?

    On our farm we produce giant marshmallows!  No, they aren’t the kind that you roast over giant campfires. They are the kind that our dairy cows eat. Harvesting high quality hay for dairy cattle is a complicated process. It requires timing, skill, hard work and a lot of luck. Dairy cows need high protein hay to produce milk. That means that hay needs to be cut young (at early bud stage for alfalfa) and harvested without any rain and at the perfect moisture level. Waiting for it to dry naturally in the sun isn’t always an option. Besides, dry hay can often lose precious protein when its leaves are shattered off during the process.

    On our farm we cut our hay into rows and bale it up into large round bales the following day at around 50% moisture. If this hay was stored in our barn it would spoil quickly and probably burn our barn down due to spontaneous combustion. This is why we create our marshmallows! Each bale is wrapped in plastic. They can be wrapped individually or in rows. The plastic seals the bale and prevents any air from getting in. This seal prevents spoilage and begins a fermentation process to preserve the bale for future use.  An added benefit is being able to keep the bales outside to save on expensive indoor storage. To be honest, the cows love it. It’s like cow candy! Obviously, the plastic is cut off the bale before the cow eats the hay.

    Our hay being wrapped in plastic

    So what happens to all of this used plastic? Thankfully it can be recycled. On our farm a company picks up the plastic for a small fee.  In turn, they take the plastic and convert it into plastic posts for fences or boards for things like picnic tables.

    Some of our used plastic reaady for pick-up

    So next time you’re sitting around a plastic picnic table think of the plastic from the bale that the cow ate……and of course think of the farmer that grew the hay that the cow ate….then there’s the manure that grew the hay that the cow ate….and back to the cow that made the manure to grow the hay! Phew! Are you confused yet? I told you that it was a perfect circle of recycling.

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    That’s one important little bottle!

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    Have you ever worried about the quality of the milk you just purchased from the store? Are you filling your families bodies with harmful bacteria, chemicals, or antibiotics? I am here to put your minds at ease. 

    Every second day, a milk truck picks up the milk from our farm. It is visually inspected and smelt by the driver who is a trained milk grader before it even leaves the tank.  Our farm is required to have a Grade A status, a liscence and meet strict guidelines before we can even think about shipping our milk. More recently, all dairy farmers must complete and maintain records through a new CQM (Canadian Quality Milk) program. We also get routine and surprise inspections to keep us on our toes. Its a lot of work, but it is for the benefit of everyone. Dairy farmers follow careful milking procedures and sanitization protocols every day and the milk is cooled to approximately 4 C at the end of each milking. Everything from the rate of cooling, to the temperature of the cleaning cycles are closely monitored electronically so that farmers can prevent problems from occurring. 

    We work closely with veterinarians. If our cattle get sick, we must adhere to strict protocols and withdrawal times for antibiotic use. Also, in Canada it is against the law to give cows hormones to increase their milk production.

    Most importantly, a milk sample is taken from every tank of milk that is picked up from a dairy farm. The milk is sealed in a bottle (just like in my photo) with the farm’s identification number on it. This milk is tested for a number of things. Firstly, it is tested for the amount of fat, protein and other solids that are present. These results are used to help determine what we get paid for our milk. Secondly, the milk is tested for bacteria, somatic cells (white blood cells), antibiotics and the freezing point.

    There is bacteria on everything around us and that is why milk is pasteurized. Even the cleanest, and best managed farms have potentially harmful bacteria in their milk so it is never wise to drink raw milk before it is pasteurized. In fact, it is illegal for me to ever sell you raw milk straight from my cows and I would never think of it. Why take the chance? Thankfully, somatic cells are present in our bodies and in our cows to help fight infection. They are a natural part of milk, but if the number of cells gets too high, it may indicate a problem. There is a limit to the number of somatic cells and bacteria that is allowed in the milk we produce. Heavy fines are put in place to penalize farmers that go over the set limits and their milk will not be picked up until the issues are addressed. Antibiotic residues are strictly prohibited. If a test indicates that the milk has antibiotics, the entire truck of milk will be discarded. The freezing point of milk is -0.54C. If the milk varies significantly from this number, farmers are fined because it could indicate the presence of extra water in the milk. Finally, the processors also take a sample of milk from each milk truck that enters their dairy as a double safeguard.

     I hope that I have eased any concerns that you have about the quality of the milk you may consume. Canadian milk is one of the purest and safest foods on the market. As I always say, farmers are consumers too. My family proudly buys and drinks the same milk that you get from the grocery store so lets all take a glass of milk and make a toast to celebrate Canada’s dairy industry!

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    My Favourite Cow

    Not long ago, I had the pleasure of giving a few of my city friends a tour of our farm. It was their first time ever seeing a cow up close so it was a treat for all of us. It brought me so much joy to see the smiles and amazement on their faces as they petted their first cow. I entertained all of the usual questions, but there was one particular question that I wasn’t sure how to answer. “Farmer Tim, which one is your favourite cow?”. I guess I had never thought about one particular cow being my favourite.
    After they left, I pondered that question again while I did the evening milking. There have been many great cows pass through our herd. As a kid, I remember Tulip. She was a huge cow with a pure white head and a very pendulous udder. I loved her because she came when you called her. Then there was Cranberry, out first red and white Holstein heifer. I spent many hours camped out in her pen while she was a calf; determined that I would make a pet out of her someday. Of course I could never forget Star. She was born almost two months pre-mature in the pasture field one hot summer night. As I carried her tiny body across the field into the barn to put her under a heat lamp I remembered spotting the most beautiful shooting star that I had ever seen. Thus, the name Star!⭐️ More recent favourites are cows like Tempest. Tempest does not live up to her name. She must be the most docile creature that ever walked the face of the earth. In fact, my kids have ridden her like a horse and they have fallen asleep beside her when they were younger. There’s the award winners in the crowd too! Majestic Mayhaven Francine was grand champion at a big dairy show in England many years ago. Her photo graces the sign at the entrance to our farm. In my youth there were countless 4-H calves that always did their best to bring home ribbons at the fairs. There are envelops arriving monthly in the mail letting me know that certain cows have been awarded certificates for life time milk production, for mothering exceptional daughters or producing high milk, fat or protein yields. Surely, I must have a favourite amongst those talented girls! Sandi just got a gold seal for producing 100,000 litres of milk in her lifetime! She’s definitely got to be in my top ten!
    As you can see, picking my favourite is no easy task. Of course there are certain times when I could tell you who isn’t my favourite cow. Take Dame for instance. She loves to slap her (not always clean) tail across my face almost every time I milk her. Then there’s Dorothy who never fails to kick the milker off at least once day! However, all it takes is gentle lick, a soft moo, or a sultry flutter of those long eye lashes and all is forgiven.
    Cows are remarkable creatures. Each one comes with her own unique personality. It’s that amazing diversity of personalities that makes my cows so wonderful to work with. It’s also what brings a group of cows together to form a herd. Now if the question was, “Farmer Tim, what herd of cows is your favourite”, I could easily answer……this one!

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    There’s a little farmer in all of us!

    With only 2% of the Canadian population actively farming, its no wonder consumers are so detached from agriculture.  For a farmer like me, this can be very discouraging.  The internet is jam packed with misinformation about how food is produced and how animals are treated.  I can’t blame consumers for being so confused, or farmers from being so darn frustrated.  In fact, just over 100 years ago, approximately 50% of Canadians were farmers.  People had a much better handle on where their food came from.  Back then, a farmer produced enough food for about 10 people.  Today, that same farmer can feed 120 people.  That’s a big responsibility!

    My family started hosting farm tours when I was just a kid in public school.  I can remember many of the school kids putting up their hands when we asked them, “so do any of you live on a farm?”. Of course this was no surprise because we lived in a rural community.  As the years went on, fewer hands were raised.  It came to the point where we started to ask, “do any of you have grandparents that farm?”.  We were lucky to see a few hands go up.  Sadly, in recent tours, you are lucky to get any hands up when you ask the question, “have any of you EVER been to a farm.”! So much for my rural community.  Times have changed.

    Farmers are a lucky bunch.  We get to work a home as our own boss.  We get to work along side our families and nature.  Best of all, we can take pride in helping to feed the world.  At 43 years of age, I am a “young” farmer by today’s standards even though I don’t always feel it.  Believe it or not, the average age of a farmer in Canada is approximately 54 years and only 9% of farmers are under the age of 35!  From the year I was born in 1971 until 2011, I’ve seen a 91% drop in dairy farms. We are a dying breed.

    As I sit here and type, its easy for me to get depressed about all the stats, but that will do no one any good. As I see it, we all have a little farmer in us and don’t forget that farmers are consumers too. We want to feed our families with safe, nourishing food so of course we are going to produce food that’s safe and nutritious for EVERYONE!  We truly are what we eat.

    I know what you must have thought when you read the title of my blog, “What me, a farmer? NO WAY!”.  Well, think again….
    *Do you have a flower garden, or even just a single house plant? Do you water, prune, feed and nurture that plant? Do you have a vegetable garden? Farmers garden too, but on a much larger scale.
    *Do you weed, and collect the fruits of your labour? Do you enjoy cutting, or fertilizing your lawn. Do you like visiting pick your own farms so that you can do the work yourself? We care for our crops and enjoy harvesting them just as much as you do. Some farmers make their entire living on growing crops. As you know from your own gardens, its a lot of work to grow crops and the results can vary from year to year. Weather, insects and disease can take a huge toll on crop yield and quality, but farmers are optimists.  They always hope that next years crop will be better than the last.
    *Do you have a pet that you love and take to the vet for regular care? Perhaps farmers don’t always look at their livestock as pets, but we do care for them and they get regular veterinary visits to keep them happy and healthy. If we look after our animals, our animals will look after us.  I admit that I truly do love my cows.  If you got to know them, you would love them too.  They are remarkable creatures!
    *Do you enjoy drives in the country? Do the smells and the sights send a pioneer spirit into your heart?  I could go on, but if you think about it, we all came from the same seed.  In our not so distant past, we were all hunters and gatherers.  Not everyone feels the same as I do about farm living, but I know many city dwellers find themselves longing for farm life.

    So the next time we cross paths, think of me as a fellow consumer and I’ll think of you as a fellow farmer. Perhaps then, we can find some common ground and open some much needed dialogue.  We have a lot that we can learn from each other.

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