6 Shockingly Brutal Realities Of An Organic Dairy Farm
Life on an organic farm: The description brings to mind a kind of bucolic wonderland. Sun shining, pigs wallowing, cattle lowing -- it's a life of hard work, sure, but it's a simple and uncomplicated one. And if you believe all that, you've seen too many movies. We spoke with an actual live-in organic farm hand to learn what life is really like at the place where all of our childhood dogs went and lived happily ever after.
Organic Doesn't Necessarily Mean The Cows Are Happy Or Healthy
Organic seems like the ethical choice and, since the CDC keeps warning everyone that dosing food animals with antibiotics is ushering in apocalyptic, antibiotic-resistant superbugs, organic is clearly the safer option as well. But, the on-the-ground reality of organic farming isn't as idyllic as your milk jug makes it appear:
"We had a calf go down with coccidiosis, a really nasty bacteria infection. Poor thing wasted away for two weeks while we poured garlic extract down its throat. In the end, we had to put it down."
The only way this could have gone worse for the calf is if it was part vampire.
Options are extremely limited in times like this. While modern medicine certainly can be an option, it impacts the farm's production greatly. "If a cow is super sick and you have a way to treat nonorganically, you can do so. But, the cow is never allowed to join the herd again. Some farms just sell for beef; we sold ours at a massive discount to a nonorganic down the road (our calving manager was a softie). From what I understood from what the vet told me, this is a pretty gray legal area."
After a while, those losses become nearly impossible to bounce back from. "If you need to restock your herd, as you might if a disease wipes out some strong milkers or you've had a bad calving year, you can only buy from organic dairies. Since there's really no big organic dairies anywhere, this makes it hard to find a fairly priced cow."
Magic beans don't fetch nearly as much as they used to.
Healthy cows that call organic farms home have their own troubles to deal with. To combat the nightmare-inducing image of an animal trapped in a dirty cage, organic farms must make sure that their cows have the ability to roll around in the grass any damn time they please. Sounds wonderful, right? Well, yeah ... sometimes:
"We had a lean-to barn with a pack and calf nursery. When it was nice outside, I think the cows really liked it. But, when it was really hot or cold, they probably would have preferred the controlled temperature of the conventional farm."
Much like the hippie who lives in that old abandoned bus, temperate spring days are all about freedom and love. Come August, however, organic cows are going to regret not having air conditioning.
Cow Health Is Very Fickle
The less-controlled environment of an organic farm means the things that go wrong are often weird:
"This summer, we had a pretty scary food shortage, as the dry weather had ruined our pasture and crops, and we could only watch as our food stores dwindled to an alarming low. There were a multitude of sick cows that surprised me, in both good and bad ways. Once, a cow had a displaced abomasum, a condition in which one of her stomach compartments flips to the wrong side of the body. This required emergency surgery that ended up being performed in a dirty pen. I thought she was a goner for sure, but, the next day, she was up and eating without a care in the world. Then, there was a cow with a slight cough but, when she calved in, she bled out and the calf came out with a thick, scaly skin."
Holy shit, cows can get Greyscale?!
They react to getting barbecued about the same, too.
But, just because cow health can be mercurial, that doesn't mean they're pansies that die in a stiff breeze. Our source told us about the cow Terminator: "There was this one time in the middle of winter when I came into my morning shift and found a calf had been born in the night. It was covered in frost and frozen blood, and I had to spend two hours under a heat lamp rubbing it with a warm blanket to get it to stand up and drink its bottle. She went on to live and be one of my favorite cows, even if she was missing the edges of her ears."
That's simultaneously adorable and terrifying, should the invincible cow ever find out about McDonald's.
"You have not been eating mor chikin. You were warned."
Wild Animals Pose An Enormous Health Risk
Farm animals are prey animals, and prey animals mean predators:
"Foxes and coyotes would wander by, and we'd do our best to scare them off or kill them. They wouldn't bother our cows that often, but the biosecurity risk they posed, especially since we couldn't administer antibiotics, was massive. The biggest tenet of farm medicine isn't treatment, but prevention, and shooting a coyote is way easier than trying to pull a cow back from the brink of death."
Should have stuck to roadrunners.
Some wild animals are helpful and can actually reduce the threat of disease, making them always welcome on the farm. "We had maybe four or five barn cats creeping around the place. They were feral and helped to keep the rats down. All we ever did for them was get them vaccinated and cut and maybe leave some food out in wintertime. People always wanted to pet them and were shocked to learn that the cats lived wild."
They would try to scare him with cucumbers, and he'd simply claw their eyeballs to shreds.
But, some people aren't aware of the risks and think the farm is just the place to drop off random creatures. "Once we had a lady come by and try to release several wild animals she had "rehabbed" onto our farm. She was adamant that her groundhogs and foxes and -- if I'm remembering correctly -- a badger would be happy on our land. When we pointed out we would most likely hunt them if they came near our herd, she quickly left."
We didn't think it needed saying, but, apparently, it does. So, here goes: The farm is not a cartoon, and not all random animals will just meet up and sing songs together.
People Get Caught Up In Animal Rights Without Knowing What They Are Talking About
"Organic" is a pretty divisive buzzword. "People seemed to either put us on a pedestal for being organic or lump us in with every other farm and blame us for the abuse of animals in factory farm conditions. It was always amusing to see which one would happen."
There are some people who love organic farming enough that they go sightseeing at nearby farms. These people don't always have the most realistic expectations for a working dairy farm: "A man who had the bad luck of being on the farm when a cow died was mortified to learn that we just buried dead cows in a large compost pit. He had an idea of us having a nice little graveyard out back. Besides impractical, that's just a waste of good bio energy."
Her sister gave a mooving eulogy.
And the whole "no antibiotics" thing is its own hornet's nest:
"Recently, this whole Subway not selling meat with antibiotics has gotten us all fired up. We all know what it means -- more sick animals, more late nights, more lost money and time. It's like there's a massive fear campaign surrounding antibiotic use. There was a legitimate reason recently to be this scared -- industry practices were causing bacteria resistant strains, or superbugs as the media loves to call them, to pop up. Considering that the strains are resistant to veterinary antibiotic use, not human, and that there is a mandatory waiting period and testing against any antibiotic taint, the public was at a very low risk of any danger."
Besides, have you see how much meat they actually give you?
That's our source's opinion -- the CDC is concerned that resistant bacteria could be transmitted to human beings via food. We're not smart enough to have an opinion on all that -- we're just amazed that cattle farming is such a political minefield.
People Have No Idea Where Their Food Comes From
Milk. You've probably got some in your fridge right now. If pressed to explain where it comes from, you'd probably say "the store." If pressed even further, you might say "cows." If pressed still further, you'd probably say, "Jesus Christ, what's with the interrogation?!" The point is, we don't know a lot about the whole dairy cow process:
"People seemed surprised by a number of things, like that we sell our bulls as calves. I never got why they thought we would keep and grow bulls on a dairy farm; the only thing you might get out of them is beef after a couple years. (Despite what you might hear, you can't milk anything with nipples, you need a mammary gland.) People are also usually surprised that cows need to get pregnant to produce milk, which just seems like a lack of understanding of basic biology -- mammals don't go around lactating freely; they need to give birth."
For once, Hollywood nailed basic science.
All right, maybe we can chalk that one up to naive innocence. But, some of the people who actively seek out organic farms to see what they're like are shocked by the reality:
"A man was disgusted by the fact the cows had dried poop on them from lying down in it in the field. He asked why we didn't bathe our cows. For reference, cows do not like being sprayed by a hose. Attempting to wash 60 large animals who don't want to be washed is actually impossible -- unless you're willing to lose a kneecap or your face to a high-flying kick."
And now you know where natural beef flavor comes from.
Other people go directly to the farm because they want to cut out the middleman, without understanding that sending things such as milk directly from the farm to the table is a terrible idea: "A woman didn't understand that we didn't process or sell milk at our farm, but we ship it to a large shipping center. She tried several times to get me to give her a sample of raw milk, despite me telling her it might kill her."
"Yeah? Well, I'm not really living unless I suck it straight from the cow's teat."
There's Just So Much Shit, You Guys
Up to this point, the shit endured by our plucky farm hand has been metaphorical. But, rest assured, there's plenty of the literal kind, too:
"Some of the really huge farms in the Midwest -- the 80,000 head-strong herd of beef or dairy cows -- actually use a processed form of manure to bed down the pack. It sounds gross, I know, but it's really nice! Not only is it super environmentally friendly, but it's great for the cows, too, since cows on cement tend to develop pretty bad foot problems."
You ever try to put Nikes on a hoof?
Smaller dairy farms have their fair share of crap, too. "At any given time, there would be 50 to 60 cows in the milking herd, and, as I said, we kept them in a pack barn lean. The setup of that is a thick, saw shavings-bedded area covered by a large sloped roof and two side-sliding doors that opened into a big concrete fenced area. On the opposite side of the bedded area was the feed alley, where the cow's food was placed. Since they pretty much just ate all day, they would stand on that end and poop and pee as they ate, causing a pretty big river of nasty to run down to the eloquently named 'shit-pit.'"
You may know them by their other name: "Detroit public pools."
The cows have a lot of shit, but they don't seem to give much of it: "The cows never seemed to be bothered by this kind of stuff. I have seen them literally spew diarrhea all over their neighbor's face, and neither one would stop eating. We cleaned as often as we could, but visitors were ALWAYS shocked when a cow would just let loose in front of them. The kids always broke into laughs, and adults would either laugh or be grossed out and look away."
And the cows aren't the only ones taking beige showers. "One time, the cows got out. While chasing the last one in, I fell into the thankfully recently emptied shit-pit and went up to my waist in the week's waste. For the record, T-Mobile does count this as water damage, and it will void your warranty."
The bill was a just a poop emoji with a dollar sign.
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