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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care January 2012

Hi Folks,

Greetings for a great New Year to you all. As I start the New Year I think about what I have learned during my time off over the last year and a half. Due to my heart surgery for the valve problem I was born with, I couldn’t be in practice any longer as I had been for close to 15 years. But it wasn’t just practice that I had been involved with, as I was invited to give talks about organic animal health treatments by many different groups and companies. Then there was also being on the National Organic Standards Board – that was a time commitment that was itself nearly a full-time job (but un-paid). And there were the two books I wrote about organic dairy cow care. The latest one, The Barn Guide to Treating Dairy Cows Naturally, was published last January and has over 200 color pictures and is very farmer-friendly in terms of reading it (published by Acres USA, see www.acresusa.com or call 1-800-355-5313).

While I have accomplished a fair amount over the last 16 years in the veterinary world, the most important thing for me as a vet will always be direct interaction with the animals. But unfortunately, like many dedicated vets, this at times has taken time away from being a good husband and dad. Also, while I was running around to accomplish the things mentioned above, I got into a very set routine of treatments – but at least the shots and treatments were almost always OK for certified organic livestock. From direct experience I learned what works and what doesn’t work (preventions, home remedies and then my treatments). And like most people doing things repetitively, I became somewhat numb - kind of like being a mindless robot at times. While I felt good about using natural treatments in the barns, I eventually got to feeling somewhat “burned out”, mainly due to the many things I was involved with that demanded my attention. Yet I was also very hesitant to give up practice in the way I had been carrying it out, all the way to the time where I simply had to stop to prepare for my surgery.

But I am grateful for the perspective my sabbatical (time off) from “the trenches” has given me. It’s allowed me to more fully appreciate the farmers that strive to produce food for society while not using herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides on crops and produce.
Also, seeing animals out on pasture seems more and more to me now as something uniquely aligned with eco-friendly and organic livestock production (whether it is cows, pigs, or poultry). It is unfortunate, but pretty much true, that the farming world is becoming more and more split between conventional and organic methods. As I predicted in my first book, remaining small family farms will either be Amish or Mennonite and/or become grazing, organic and eco-friendly; other small family farms will elect to become more intensive with their inputs, keeping cows continually inside under more intense control striving for very high production and then expanding cow numbers at some point. But just because you make a lot of milk doesn’t mean you make a lot of money!

As we know, organic cows make significantly less milk on average than their conventional cousins – many studies have shown this. The trick then is to know how to feed your cows to be profitable, if not increase profits (and keeping them in good body condition). Part of that is to try to be as self-sufficient as possible. If you can’t be self-sufficient due to land base and/or herd size, you need to consider which inputs are best to buy in, perhaps accept decreased milk per cow, or reduce your herd size to balance it with your land base to match the carrying capacity of your farm. Of course there are mortgage payments to be made and, yes, the quantity of milk and butterfat/protein sold is reflected in your paycheck. But fortunately for organic producers, you can budget ahead of time due to the consistent organic milk price. The consistent milk price in organics is a much safer place to be than on the roller coaster of conventional milk pricing.

Farmers “sitting on the fence” wondering if they should “go organic” have many factors to consider. A long running Vermont economic study shows that organic farmers haven’t gained much compared to conventional farmers - as in money in the bank. But then why aren’t organic farmers fleeing from the organic sector? One major factor is definitely the consistent organic milk price. I hear it might hit $30/cwt this year (plus quality bonuses). Another factor would be not being exposed to potentially carcinogenic sprays used for field work. Yet another would be seeing less intervention to keep animals healthy along with typically also having a lower culling rate with spare animals to sell. While the paper work for organics is a small mountain to climb, hopefully the milk companies will start helping farmers fill out that paperwork (especially the transitioning farmers). But then again, doing the paperwork does help organic farmers get to know their farms better from a management perspective. (Many organic farmers say they are better managers now.) The amount of detail that certifiers require these days could drive some people nuts – a few folks have left organic due to the paperwork issue from what I’ve heard. But I haven’t heard of people leaving because they can’t use antibiotics or hormones in the animals, or that they can’t use pesticides on the soil, crops and land – certainly these issues are more important on a daily basis to almost all farmers. Farming organically certainly can be done, there is absolutely no question about that.

While the paperwork involved is time consuming and there are no guarantees of becoming rich in organic, then why are people drawn to organic anyway? If only interested in organic premiums, people will find it very tough indeed, for it is not “easy money”. But if organic is a farming style they are genuinely drawn to - by seeing animals outside on the land as God intended them to be, and by using safe, non-petroleum sprays for soil/crop health and management, along with using natural treatments for an occasional sick animal – then an organic farmer may find tight economic times less burdensome than when they were farming conventionally. To many organic farmers, the non-economic benefits to the health of their family, animals and soil outweigh only looking at the potential economic benefits. And that is truly holistic: looking at all the various inputs, natural resources, living creatures and human beings in order to create a system that is vibrant and respectful of all the other parts, not only the money involved.

For Bovinity Health, information on functional alternatives to antibiotics see:

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