Guest Opinion: In Defense of Dairy CAFOs

The unsigned April 30, 2007 editorial “Say No to CAFOs. Say Yes to Pasture-Fed Animals” is rife with errors and innuendo. As a veteran agricultural reporter and member of a fifth generation dairy family that farms near Mecklenburg, I’d like to offer readers a more balanced and accurate view of modern livestock farming.

Though I cannot respond with regard to the beef industry, I can assure readers that American dairy farms are one of the most regulated and inspected industries in agriculture and New York State dairies comply with more stringent environmental rules than are required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Part of this compliance requires that dairy farmers make significant investments in systems and equipment to protect the environment. This sheds quite a different light on the true definition of a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO. In fact, most dairy producers – regardless of farm size – live and work to protect the land, water, and air for their families, their communities, and future generations.

It is ridiculous to suggest that housing dairy animals under cover is a practice that compromises their health and well-being. On the contrary, animal “freestall” barns are built and managed with animal comfort and care as the first priority. To illustrate, we scrape manure from barn walkways several times daily, provide the cattle with mattresses to lounge on, bed the stalls with fresh sawdust, and ventilate the facility so that there are constant air exchanges, creating an environment that is frequently more comfortable than out-of-doors. The calves and cows are not restrained and always have access to ample feed and fresh water. Further, moving cattle inside to safe and comfortable housing has allowed modern dairies to reduce their carbon footprint by 67 percent.

We go to great expense, both in dollars and man-hours, to tend to our herd’s health. Our focus is on preventative care, which means our family members and employees are well trained to observe animals daily for the earliest sign of any ailment and to respond quickly with appropriate measures. We hire a veterinarian to perform a weekly “herd health check,” a hoof trimmer regularly to keep the cattle’s hooves in good condition, and a nutritionist to help us deliver the best combination of our home-grown forages and other feed ingredients that will enhance milk production and support animal health.

Manure is collected and stored in a concrete structure until conditions are suitable for spreading and incorporating into the soil where the nutrients nourish crops and improve the soil. Drawing on experience, common sense, and a unique management plan designed by professionals for each CAFO farm, the producer recycles these all-natural nutrients at the right time in the right place. The value of “homegrown” fertilizer (manure) is at an all-time high in light of enormous increases in the cost of commercial fertilizers.

Pesticides are strictly regulated, applied with great precision according to label by certified applicators, and used only sparingly because they are so expensive. The residential lawn care industry uses pesticides and fertilizers much more intensively than does agriculture

Finally, readers need to understand why dairy farmers work daily to improve our efficiency of production. With annual input costs and overhead expenses such as property taxes in an ever-accelerating upward spiral, we sometimes expand our operations to dilute out the higher costs with more milk sales. As our farm businesses grow, so do our staff and payroll. And if we are successful, this allows all the individuals and families associated with our dairy to improve their standard of living and take time off for leisure and community involvement.
Meg Gaige

17 responses to “Guest Opinion: In Defense of Dairy CAFOs

  1. Laurie Winkelman

    Very well written Meg. Thanks and keep up the great work.

  2. Yes, very well written, Meg. But I’m a little skeptical. CAFO’s are owned and operated by corporations, who’s focus is on profit. Mr. Green Jeans, didn’t have the resources to start an operation like Willet Dairy. Once you own 7000 cows, you don’t get to know their individual personalities. This debate reminds me of the one we had a few decades ago, about wether or not smoking was hazardous to your health. Tobacco companies found eloquent spokesman, with impressive credentials, to argue on their behalf.

    Maybe Meg and Laurie would like to way in on the wisdom of RGBH –
    and on the use of antibiotics that are more necessary in the crowded CAFOs

  3. Bill Chaisson

    Willet Dairy is the largest CAFO in the state and is hardly representative.

    It was my understanding from Rebecca Lerner’s article in the Ithaca Times that Willet Dairy is owned by Scott and Dennis Eldred.

  4. Laurie Winkelman

    As I have pointed out in previous posts in this realm of discussion, most CAFOs are NOT owned by large corporations. In actuality, many large dairies are still family-owned, family-operated (with hired help, of course), and run on family values.

    The term CAFO is used as a lable to describe animal operations having a minimum amount of animals. Once a farm has that many animals, they are subject to greater rules and regulations than non-CAFO farms, specifically regarding environmental issues.

  5. Laurie Winkelman

    I apologize for the misspelling of “label” in my previous post. Sorry.

  6. Bill Chaisson

    In New York there are two size classes of CAFO designated: medium (200-699 dairy cows; the range is different for different farm animals) and large (>700).

    Two hundred isn’t really that many cows. It is certainly not necessarily a corporate entity.

    On the other hand I have been told about swine CAFOs where the farmer owns the farm and deals with the manure, but the corporation owns the pigs and supplies the feed. So the farm is still technically family-owned, but they are more or less share-cropping with Smithfield Farms.

  7. Laurie Winkelman

    The swine industry is much more vertically integrated than any other agricultural livestock industry. Swine farmers usually have contracts with companies like Smithfield Farms to produce a certain number of hogs at a certain weight within a certain time period. The swine industry is a completely different animal than the dairy industry (no pun intended).

    Regardless, I am pleased you understand that while a 200-cow dairy is a CAFO from a regulation standpoint, the farm is not inherently evil for having that label attached to it.

    What, then, is your cutoff for an acceptable size farm? Is 201 too many? How about 400? How about 750? At the end of the day, regardless of size, dairy farmers care for their cows and the environment. We live in the same world as non-farmers, so we do our best to protect the land, water and air. We also do our best to provide consumers with healthy, wholesome food – whether we have 40 or 400 cows.

  8. Bill Chaisson

    The problem here is not with the farms. The problem is with the business interests that use agricultural products.

    These businesses are not willing to pay enough for dairy products (for instance) to allow farmers to have small non-factory farms and still be able to make a decent living.

    It is my perception that farmers may not farm as they wish to farm, but that much farming practice (including size of herd) is dictated by the need to cut costs and keep prices low, so that they can sell their products and stay in business.

    It is further my perception that these pressures can compromise the ability of farmers to take care of both their herds and the land.

    In other words, “the best” a farmer can do is not actually entirely up to the farmer.

    Many of the innovations that I have read about have a basic strategy of allowing fewer people to take care of more animals. Once you have larger farms with less supervision, then their is a greater likelihood that any mistake that is made or mishap that occurs will have relatively greater consequences.

  9. Laurie Winkelman

    I am trying to inform you about how agriculture and food production works from my real-life experience. Your ‘perceptions’ about how food production works are just that, perceptions. If you open your eyes and ears to the people producing your food, you will not find a big black cloud of corporate control.

    Larger farms are not, as you stated earlier, under less supervision. The reverse is actually true. When farms become larger, they are subject to more guidelines, rules, and regulations than their smaller peers. Do mistakes happen? Sure, we are all humans, and sometimes we mess-up. But the fact that there is more oversight on larger operations should give you assurance that things are being handled in the best possible way.

    Producing food is not just a way of life, it is a business too. Becoming efficient and using our resources to the fullest without being wasteful makes sense for a number of reasons. Feeding America’s mouths at an affordable price is not easy. Do you want to pay $10 for a gallon of milk or $5 for a loaf of bread? Me neither.

  10. Bill Chaisson

    With all due respect (I know it’s an over used phrase, but I do mean it), no I don’t believe insiders’ information about the industry that they are in.

    I don’t believe you regarding agribusiness anymore than I would believe an oilman about oil, a car manufacturer about cars or, frankly, an academic about the academy.

    I am trying to sort out fact from perception in this topic and am finding it exceedingly difficult to find what I consider to be a reasonably unbiased point of view, so I will continue to sift.

    Do I want to pay $10 for a gallon of milk or $5 for a loaf of bread? Yes, if that is what it costs to produce them.

    If milk is expensive, then I would drink less of it. Honestly, I use very little now.

    The bread I buy costs $4 a loaf.

    Am I rich? Hardly. I’m a journalist, for Pete’s sake. But I eat very little processed food and that saves a lot of money.

  11. Bill Chaisson

    As part of the mysterious ways of WordPress, they linked this thread to an article in the New York Times that rather goes to what I am talking about here.

  12. Laurie Winkelman

    I have enjoyed this discussion. It is worthwhile for me to continue to try and educate people about food production.

    The problem with agriculture and food production is that the people actually doing the work, growing and making the food (i.e. the farmers), don’t have a ‘voice’ that is heard in the world. Animal activist or anti-agriculture groups such as PETA or the Sierra Club have MILLIONS of dollars at their disposal to push their messages onto people. Hence, most of what people hear is not the truth, but a distorted version of it.

    I believe you have a hard time finding unbiased information for that very reason. For years and years, people in agriculture have remained silent, failing to educate their consumers about how food production works. Groups like PETA and Sierra Club distort the picture and use scientific references out of context. These groups threaten our livelihood and way of life. I am choosing to speak up for agriculture – if I don’t, then who will?

  13. Laurie,

    PETA and the Sierra Club are not anti agriculture and if they spend millions “to push their messages onto people” how much is spent by the PR departments and lobbyists working for Monsanto, and Archer Daniels Midland?

    And how come you didn’t answer my challenge above to defend the use of RGBH and mass quantities of antibiotics in CAFO’s?

  14. Laurie Winkelman

    I did not respond to your so-called challenge because you do not seem to have any desire to see things from a different point of view. Meg and I have attempted to give you real information about how farms work, but you don’t appear to want to listen.

    PETA and the Sierra Club are extreme activist groups. Monsanto and ADM are businesses. They are very different and have very different goals. Monsanto and ADM speak on behalf of themselves and do not directly represent the farmers. I am speaking as someone who knows dairy farming. This is as honest as you are going to get. No conspiracies, just a farm girl speaking up.

    Antibiotics are used on dairy farms to treat sick animals. There is no widespread use of antibiotics ‘just for fun’ on dairy farms. Every load of milk that leaves the farm is tested for antibiotics. If the test is positive, the milk is discarded and not incorporated into the human food supply. There are NEVER antibiotics in milk you buy from the store.

    rbST is safe and approved by the FDA. There is no conspiracy behind the FDA’s approval of the technology. There is no difference in the milk, period. Using rbST does NOT make cows sick or susceptible to disease. Countless studies have been done using rbST, and not one of them had ‘sick’ cows.

    Let me give you some basic endocrinology. Bovine growth hormone does not interact with the human growth hormone receptor. Human and bovine growth hormone are structurally different, and they do not cross-react in different species. That is why body builders don’t raid dairy farms to dose up on rbST – it won’t do a thing!

  15. Bill Chaisson

    I agree that PETA, in particular, and to a lesser extent, the Sierra Club are extremist groups and have little or nothing constructive to say about agriculture or even stewardship of the land.

    The Sierra Club is about preserving land to look at and because the ecosystems have intrinsic value. That’s fine, but they are forced into hyperbole by the extreme practices of Western agriculture, which includes – among other absurd things – irrigating the desert.

    We should stay focused on Finger Lakes agriculture here and not take on the entire agricultural enterprise in the abstract.

    I have read a bit about rbST and see that it is another one of those things that is fine as long as it is used properly. But I can also see that it could be easily misused.

    For example, (and these are actual questions for Laurie, not rhetoric) what causes some cows to naturally secrete less somatotropin than others? Is it purely genetic or is health a factor?

    Either way, you run into a problem. If it is simply genetic and you make up for it by supplementing their own ST, then it could mask other problems with that particular line. No? Would there be a tendency to not worry about it and just give the cows the supplement?

    If it is health issue in some cows, then the problem is even more obvious. If low ST secretion is a side-effect of other problems, then what are they or could they be? If they exist, do they affect milk quality? Is this even an area of research, or has it all been researched and put behind the industry?

  16. Laurie Winkelman

    You ask excellent questions, and I hope I can sufficiently answer them. The amount of ST a cow naturally secretes changes during the course of her lactation. Cows bred for improved milk yield have more ST floating around in their system than lower-genetic merit counterparts.

    Cows don’t generally suffer from hereditary ST deficiency. (I have never heard about it if it does exist).Concentrations of ST in their circulation are mainly dependent on nutritional status and stage of lactation. Interestingly, in some experiments, it has been shown that cows that are nutritionally deprived have increased ST secretion, but that does not result in increased milk yield (i.e. nutrition must be sufficient for ST to act on milk production).

    rbST is a cost-saving, revenue increasing technology that some farmers choose to use. It is estimated that about 30% of U.S. dairy farmers choose to use rbST, accounting for about 20-25% of the cows. Some cows don’t respond to rbST by increasing milk yield, but the overriding majority of well-nourished healthy cows do. Supplemented every 14 days, cows can have an average of an extra 10 lbs of milk per day on only slightly increased feed intake.

    Only well-cared for cow are going to respond to rbST supplementation. Cows have a great ability to know how their feed should be used. If cows are properly nourished, their bodies know that extra feed intake can be used for milk production. Undernourished cows ‘know’ that feed intake is first used to meet basic maintenance requirements and for replenishing body reserves, and then for milk production. Supplementation with rbST doesn’t change any of that.

    Since your question was under the premise of a health issue for supplementing rbST (and there isn’t one), I hope I have answered your questions.

  17. Re: PETA and The Sierra Club vs Monsanto and ADM (from above)

    If you accept the premise that nature exists for the use of mankind, then groups like PETA and The Sierra Club seem like extremists groups. They threaten foundational assumptions upon which our culture depends. When you begin to question whether or not mankind ought to have dominion over nature, then the actions of corporations like Monsanto and ADM seem extreme.

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