Lessons in Advocacy from the AgChat Cultivate and Connect Conference

Last month I had the opportunity to attend the AgChat Foundation’s 2014 Cultivate and Connect Conference in Austin, TX. I attended the organization’s Agvocacy 2.0 Conference two years ago in Kansas City and learned a lot, but I was feeling like a needed a refresher, something to get my creative juices flowing and inspire me to write (if you haven’t noticed its been a while since I last blogged).

This conference was just what I needed. After a whirlwind trip to Austin, I came home energized, my mind practically spinning with all of the ideas I gleaned from the conference. Unfortunately, I also came home to a project deadline at work and a very busy season at the farm, and all those ideas and energy had to be put on the back-burner. Life is returning to normal, though, and I’ve finally found some time to write. Forgive my delay, but the lessons learned from this conference still warrant sharing.

Lesson 1: Listen

Too often, we as farmers and advocates tell people what we think they want to know, or worse, what we think they need to know, regardless of the information they’re actually looking for. We dismiss their concerns and correct misinformation with facts, but our talking points aren’t cutting it. Instead, we might take a few minutes to listen to what people are actually asking. Then, we can address their concerns by conveying the information they’re actually interested in, and in the process we might also build a little trust.

For example, lets say a consumer asks me about milk quality. I, as a dairy farmer, might explain the concerns to my operation like reducing somatic cell counts or on-farm antibiotic testing, but what quality means to the consumer might be totally different. They may be concerned about milk’s nutritional value for their kids or the care that our cows receive. Quality doesn’t mean the same thing to every person.

Lesson 2: Be Respectful

I think respect is a problem for both sides of the conversation. In fact, I think respect is a problem for our society in general, but that is likely a topic for another time and place. Regarding the conversation about food and farming, we can only affect the consumer’s attitude by changing our own. After we listen to their questions or concerns, we need to respond in a way that does not insult their values or beliefs. Though they may be misinformed, our customers aren’t uneducated or ignorant. Being dismissive of information a person believes comes from a reliable source can strain the conversation. Providing accurate information also may not immediately change a person’s perspective, but being respectful of the fact that not everyone will see things the way that you do can help move the needle toward a more informed understanding of your perspective. If you expect consumers to respect you, you have to respect them first.

So let’s say the consumer from the example above is concerned about cow care/comfort. Instead of explaining that healthy cows produce more milk, so I’m going to take good care of them even if I’m a greedy jerk, I should probably keep in mind that last week Mercy for Animals released a video that they claimed was representative of the dairy industry as a whole. Instead of being defensive, I could explain to the person that the owners of that farm were shocked and appalled by the video as well and sent their cows to other farms immediately to protect the animals’ safety. The owners felt certain, as do I, that the farms that took those cows in (and the vast majority of dairies in this country) treat their cattle well. I might add that our two part time employees were trained to handle cattle safely and effectively as soon as they started working for us.

Lesson 3: Build Connections

Connecting is where it all comes together. When advocating, we need to remember to be human, which we obviously are (right?). Talking points and scientific facts may make sense to you, but to some they sound like the industry agenda. When you get the chance, listen to what consumers say and be respectful, as already stated, but then find common ground. Ask questions to determine the real issue and try to connect your answer to something that you both believe in or value. Connecting in this way is powerful. These days we too often get lost in the anonymity of the internet, but if you work at it real human connections can be made, even via social media.

If I ask our example consumer more about their concerns, I might find out that they think the 100 cows we milk is a lot, and they are concerned that we can’t provide individualized care that they feel the animals deserve. To that I might respond that on our farm, we usually wean calves in small groups between 2 and 6 animals (they are individually housed up to that point).  As they get older (and their specialized needs are reduced), their groups get larger.  But even in our largest group (our milking herd), our cows are cared for based on their individual needs. Each of our employees, David and myself know most of the cows by both number and name (if they have one).

By building trust in this way, at some point in my relationship or conversation with this person I might also be able to let them know that Mercy For Animals is a group with an alternative agenda of promoting a vegan lifestyle.  In order to discourage dairy consumption in general, they search out bad actors in our industry to paint a picture for the public that I believe differs from reality. If I’ve listened, been respectful and made an honest connection, I might even change the person’s mind.

Group photo at the conclusion of the conference.

Group photo at the conclusion of the conference.

My favorite thing about this conference was that it wasn’t really about educating attendees. It was about developing relationships, sharing ideas and learning from each other. If we can do the same when advocating, we might just change the tone of the food and farming conversation.

 

An Empty Porch

On February 13, 2002 Waylon Jennings passed away. That same day a border collie delivered a litter of puppies. Two of the females landed at this farm – their names were Willie and Waylon.

I first met Waylon in 2009, already an old dog; Willie had been gone a long time. Waylon must’ve taken after her fathers breed, whatever that was because while she looked like a border collie, she never acted like one. She was a loyal friend to anyone who would pet her and a fearless guardian of the back porch (mostly against cats). The only active job she held was to chase the milk truck out of the drive every other day. She survived many canine friends – Willie (her sister), Shamus (her son), A lab, Elvis, a stray yellow dog, another Willie, and Chief.

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She didn’t always win the battle against the cats, but if she couldn’t see them, she could pretend they weren’t there.

I can’t imagine a better companion than Waylon. Every day she greeted me with a wagging tail and a head to pet whenever I came or went. She was always content unless there was thunder or gunfire or fireworks nearby – then you would see her heading for a hiding spot long before you heard the sound for yourself.

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Waylon even helped with calves at night when we had to feed electrolytes…she was waiting patiently for the calf to finish so that I could pet her.

Every weekend she helped me feed the hut calves, meaning she watched for my hands to be idle long enough to pet her and when the calves finished drinking, she liked them to suck on her fur, which they usually did. Baby calves were far and away Waylon’s favorite part of the dairy. She could always be counted on to accompany a calf as it was carried to it’s new home, often inspecting the hut or pen before you set the calf in.

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Waylon’s last evening. She had obviously not been feeling well for a few days, but for just a few minutes while the sun was warming her coat, she looked really happy.

On July 3rd, 2014 we said goodbye to our friend. She had lived at this farm longer than any other animal or person currently living here. This truly was Waylon’s dairy. Her presence was constant and her absence is too. Right now our hearts ache and the farm feels empty.

The day after Waylon died, a calf was born. Her mom’s name is Jess, so her official name is Jennings, but we think we’ll call her Waylon – we’re not sure the farm can survive without one.

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They don’t look much alike, but we know that Waylon the dog would’ve loved Waylon the calf.

 

 

 

 

At least its not 2012

Holy cow! Can you believe that it’s already June?! Yeah, me neither. But I’m sure you know that June is dairy month! (I had to throw that in…check out these cow facts if you’re interested!)

This spring was crazy busy, and seemed to basically pass us by as we rolled straight from winter into summer. In April and May we were pretty successful at completing our fieldwork. We fertilized our hay, harvested our triticale, planted our corn and most of our soybeans, and got the weeds sprayed in our corn fields. And in the last few weeks the things we have planted have really started growing – that’s largely because it’s only June 12th and we’ve had almost 8 inches of rain this month!

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Our calf pens have developed new water features – like this stream…

The corn is loving it, but it’s starting to become an obstacle for the remaining portion of our “spring” fieldwork. What’s left? We have 30 acres of alfalfa pretty far past its prime that needs to be mowed and baled. We also have 10 acres of soybeans, 20 acres of sorghum and 20 acres of milo left to plant. The soybeans we have planted still need to be sprayed, particularly where we planted them behind triticale – the triticale stubble is re-growing well with all this moisture, too!

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This corn could possibly use a break to get some sunshine, too!

We’re not complaining, though. At least not yet. The 2012 drought is fresh in our minds (read: Let it Rain and Drought 2012), and in all honesty, our farm probably can’t survive another extreme drought in 2014.  We don’t like to think about that, so we’re doing our best to smile and not complain about moisture. In fact, a week ago local meteorologists were saying that we were still behind 3.5” of moisture this year. Those type of statements make us cringe. We’ve now exceeded our county’s average June rainfall of 5 inches, and we needed to. We truly feel that this is a blessing, but at this very moment we could use a different kind of blessing – a short break! As soon as we get a few more things in the ground and off the ground, though, we’ll be glad to have those sprinklers turned back on.

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These calves wish there was feed instead of water in their trough.

I guess it’s true what they say – when it comes to the weather, farmers are never happy. Regardless of our level of satisfaction, though – we have to take the weather as it comes. One of the greatest challenges in farming is that God doesn’t really take requests; there is no “on/off switch” for rainfall (no thermostat, either!). All we can do is make our best guesses and pray that this year we will be able to grow enough to feed our cows until next year. And if we succeed, we’ll do it all over again. It’s a challenging, demanding, frustrating, rewarding, amazing, and beautiful cycle.

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But everybody is glad to see the ponds full!

So far – 2014 is wet, but at least it’s not 2012.

 

 

 

 

In Synch

Last week we bred eight cows and six heifers. This is a pretty high number for our herd, but we’re breeding all heats in an effort to get ahead before the heat of summer takes its usual toll on our conception rate. We’re also providing some extra encouragement to cows getting later into their lactation for that same reason. Six of the eight cows came into heat as a result of our “synch program”. I use quotes because this isn’t something that we do very often, but it is still an important part of our reproduction management, which is a huge part of dairy farm management.

A synch program is basically a sequence of hormone injections that can be given to a cow to influence her reproductive (estrous) cycle and help her come into heat (estrus) and conceive. ABS Global, a genetics company we do business with, lists a variety of different protocols on their website that can be used depending on a farm’s needs. It’s important to note that these hormones have no impact on milk production, nor are they transferred to the milk. Instead, they are simply a tool used, in various ways, to encourage and assist cows’ estrous cycles.

In the past our farm tried a Presynch – Ovsynch protocol that required 5 shots and took over a month start to finish. We didn’t like that it took so much time, required so many shots, and resulted in timed-AI (where the animal is bred regardless of whether she has showed signs of heat). We didn’t have great success getting cows bred with this protocol, and therefore, it didn’t last long on our farm. We’ve noted a much higher conception rate breeding on natural heats, so we generally try to give our cows the opportunity to cycle on their own before we intervene.

The Presynch - Ovsynch protocol found on the ABS Global website.

The Presynch – Ovsynch protocol found on the ABS Global website.

Before I go into deeper discussion, I’d like to touch on a few things that will hopefully enhance the significance of this to those not involved in dairy reproductive management. A cow must have a calf to continue to produce milk, so getting a cow “bred back” is a crucial step toward keeping her in the herd. We keep track of our cows’ lactations using “days in milk” (DIM), which is simply the number of days since the cow delivered her calf. This unit is used for most aspects of management, including reproduction.

A lot of our cows start cycling early in their lactations, and will show their first heat at 30-40 DIM. We don’t breed on these early heats. We think that’s too soon to expect her body to actually be ready to start carrying another calf, so we employ a voluntary waiting period (VWP) of 60 DIM (a common choice). On a few high-producing cows, we will extend the VWP to 90 DIM due to the challenge of drying off a cow that is still producing at a high level, but that’s a different issue. For any cow, once the VWP has passed, we breed her any time she shows a natural heat.

Cattle Standing Heat

This is called a standing heat, and it’s what we like to see before breeding. There are other indicators of estrus, but this is the most obvious, and typically indicates a very strong heat (high conception).

Since giving up on Ovsynch, at the end of the VWP we don’t take any specific action to bring the cow into heat. We wait for her body to start cycling (if she hasn’t already) and for her to show a natural heat so that we can see she’s ready. A cow’s estrous cycle is 21 days, so if she came in heat at 40 DIM, we expect to see her again at 61 DIM. While this “wait and see” method works for the large majority of our herd, it unfortunately doesn’t work on everything. At some point, we have to do something to help a cow along if she hasn’t shown a heat and we want to keep her around.

So what if we wait, but we don’t see? At about 100 DIM (or more in some of last week’s cases), if a cow has not shown a natural heat, we will employ a very simple synch protocol by giving her a prostaglandin (PG) injection. The PG basically resets her estrous cycle, and most of the time she’ll come in heat within a few days. If she does, we breed her. After 7 days if she hasn’t shown a heat, we give a second PG shot. We’ve had nearly 100% success with the second shot. If this protocol doesn’t work, there is probably something else wrong with the cow causing her not to properly cycle.

The prostoglandin (PG) protocol found on ABS Global's website.

The prostoglandin (PG) protocol found on ABS Global’s website.

Last week we gave PG shots to eight cows during Sunday evening milking.  By Friday, six of those eight cows had come into heat and been bred. Yesterday during evening milking (Sunday, 7 days after the first shots) we gave a second shot to the two unbred cows. Now we will wait to see if those two come into heat this week. If they do, they were just at a point in their cycle when the reset button (PG) doesn’t work. If they don’t, we will check them out more closely to see if we can determine what else might be going on. With several natural heats also occurring last week, if our conception rate was very high, we will have an extremely busy week of calving next January!

 

National Ag Day: 365 Sunrises and 100 Mouths to Feed

Today is National Ag Day, and this year’s theme is 365 sunrises and 7 billion mouths to feed. At our dairy we have about 100 Holstein cows to feed twice a day, 365 days a year. We also feed about 130 heifers, but that’s a story for another post. To get it all done, we typically get up in time to see the sunrise. This year’s theme is definitely something we’re familiar with.

I often hear people talk about cows as grass-fed or grain-fed, and it seems there is some confusion about what most cattle actually eat. Our cows, like many dairy cattle, eat something called TMR, which stands for Total Mixed Ration. Rather than eating all of the things they need separately, we mix everything together. This keeps the cows from sorting their feed, and picking out what they like best. Feeding TMR ensures that each cow gets everything she needs – it’s kind of like making them eat their vegetables. This video gives you the quick version of “mixing feed”, a task that someone at the farm (usually David) does every day.

The video was taken in September, and our ration has changed some since then. Within a few months, we harvested milo and corn and chopped forage sorghum. Our cows’ ration is developed by a nutritionist who utilizes the feed ingredients that we have grown and designs a commercial feed or protein mix that includes the nutrients and components that our on-hand ingredients lack.

Our nutritionist tests each of our feed sources to ensure that it contains the nutrients it should. For example, our last load of alfalfa did not test as high as we’d hoped, so our protein mix had to be adjusted to balance out the ration. We also will add different forages (rye, triticale, sorghum, etc.) or grains (corn, milo) depending on our harvest. At the time of the video, ground corn was included in the protein mix because we did not have any dry corn in storage. As our feed sources change (in type or in nutrient content), our protein mix and ration are adjusted to accommodate that change.

Below is our ration from late December (per cow, per day):
  • 8 lbs alfalfa hay                                                                
  • 8.3 lbs ground corn
  • 11.8 lbs protein mix        
  • 25 lbs sorghum silage
  • 45 lbs corn silage
Total = about 98 lbs.

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In the chart, the hay and silage (greens) are forages and the other ingredients (golds) are grains. As you can see, grain makes up less than ¼ of the ration by weight, and by volume that percentage is even less (grains are more dense than forages). Our cows aren’t grass-fed, but as you can see, they also aren’t grain-fed.  Instead, they’re fed exactly what they need to produce high quality milk.

So what does all of this feed mean for us? For the 7 billion hungry mouths? Each of our cows converts her 98 lbs of TMR into over 7 gallons of milk each day. Our hauler picks up that milk every other day and delivers it to a processing plant about 50 miles from our farm. From there, it’s pasteurized, packaged and put on the shelves of our local grocery stores. Complete with 9 essential nutrients, milk is also one of the most economical protein sources available, and it no doubt will play a major role in feeding a growing popultion. 

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We feed our cows what their bodies need so that they can produce what our bodies need, 365 days a year.

Tough Decisions

Two weeks ago, I pulled up to the barn before I headed out the driveway to work. I spotted number 1106 and couldn’t help but shed quite a few tears as I quietly said goodbye. She didn’t notice me; she never was a “people cow”.  Her name was Crazy, and she was the first second generation AI heifer calf born on our farm.  Her dam (mom) is an above average cow, and ever since she hit the ground, we had extremely high hopes for Crazy. 

She got her name honestly. Before she was weaned, every day she would try to jump out of her hut while we tried to pour milk into her bucket. If you were quick enough, she would start drinking, but if you weren’t, you got to chase her around the yard before she ate.  As she grew, Crazy continued to be one of the most active and aggressive calves in any group. She bred fairly quickly and had her first calf at just over 2 years old (a Froggy heifer – our first 3rd generation AI calf, now breeding age).  She didn’t really have any complications, but her production during her first lactation wasn’t very high.  We still had high hopes.

Crazy had her second calf, which was stillborn, last September.  Having a stillborn calf is hard on a cow, and we did what we could for her, but something just wasn’t right.  Crazy wasn’t milking like we needed her to, and she wasn’t bred back. David and I talked it over and made one of the hardest decisions we’ve had to make – we had to cull Crazy.  There are a lot of reasons we cull cows – chronic illness, reproductive problems, and low production are among them.  There are also often reasons, like emotional attachment, that we keep cows longer than we should. 

We invest a lot more than money into our cattle, and we get attached.  We literally put it all out there – blood, sweat, and tears – for our girls.  We know that our cattle are not pets, no one can afford that.  If you think you spend a lot on dog food (I know we do), you should see the feed bill for our cows.  In order for us to properly care for them, dairy cows have to produce enough milk to cover the feed, facilities, and labor costs associated with that care.  Both farmers and consumers like to romanticize farming and the rural lifestyle, but the fact is that farming is still a business.  Sometimes in business, you have to put aside your emotions and make tough decisions.  Hope doesn’t pay the bills.

I don’t know if something happened during her development, or if Motif x Norski is a terrible mating, or if Crazy just lost the genetic lottery. Regardless, unfortunately, she was not a profitable milk cow, and we could only keep hoping her situation would improve for so long. Financially, we lost money, but that happens in business, too.  David and I will always appreciate her 3.5 years of service and the memories we made chasing her through the yard.  We miss you, Crazy cow.

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Crazy at about 1 month old – she also liked to try to eat her neighbor when she finished with her milk.

The Key Word Is Minimum: How minimum wage really works.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the minimum wage, and I heard this morning that the President intends to increase minimum wage for some workers, by way of executive order, by almost 40% (later announced during the State of the Union Address). Although this particular action does not affect us or our employees, I’ll admit I’ve been stewing about this for most of the day. This isn’t a left or right issue; this is straight economics. I don’t know enough about law to discuss that aspect of this decision, but I do have experience with work and minimum wage, from both the worker’s and the employer’s side of the coin.

As an employee

My first job other than babysitting was with the local park district at a miniature golf course. At the time minimum wage was $5.25/hr, and that’s what I earned. My manager typically staffed 2 workers during the day and 3 workers for busier nights and weekends. In my second year at the same job, I was anticipating a raise to $5.50/hr. Instead, minimum wage in the state was raised to $6.50/hr, so that’s what I earned.

Now you’re probably thinking that I was thrilled about this – an 18% raise is huge! Here’s the thing, though – that’s not really how it works. The park district labor budget didn’t change just because wages increased. My manager had to make a tough choice – cut costs or raise prices. He chose not to raise prices. As a result, my manager could only afford to staff the course with 2 people the majority of the time, and often only 1 person during slow times. I was making more each hour, but I was also working fewer hours, so my income didn’t really increase much. Additionally, customer service no doubt suffered at times as a result of understaffing.

My manager could also no longer afford to offer raises. Now, instead of earning more than minimum as a reward for my experience and hard work, I was still being paid the minimum. I was making the same amount as a person who was just starting her first job, like I had the year before, when I started my first job. As an employee, I wanted to be rewarded for my success and earn my raise.

As an employer

Ten years later, I now own a business, and I have to consider the same factors that my manager with the park district had to consider when hiring and scheduling employees. Our farm currently has two part time employees, both high school students. We pay slightly more than minimum wage, and would like to be able to offer them raises for improving their skills or efficiency or for taking on more responsibility.

I’ve run the numbers, and I know that to add a third employee with our current herd size, wages and milk prices, we need every cow to produce an additional 1.5 lbs of milk every day to pay for it. Without running the numbers, I can tell you that if the wages we pay are increased by 40% without being offset by an increase in production or the pay price for our milk, we would have to cut hours for our current employees. We don’t have our employees standing around doing nothing, and that work still has to be done, so it puts us in a tough spot. But the fact is, we can’t spend money we don’t have.

Do I need to say that again? We can’t spend money we don’t have.

Based on my experience, raising the minimum wage does not help workers. It turns good jobs into minimum wage jobs, and it prevents job growth. The higher the cost of labor, the less likely we will be able to afford to create a job. The higher the starting wage we pay, the harder it is to offer raises or incentives to our more experienced employees.

As an employer, if our employees become more valuable, so does our business. I want to have a reason to pay our workers more than minimum wage, but I do not want that reason to be a law.

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