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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care January 2013

Hi Folks,

With this newsletter, I wish you all a happy and healthy New Year. This year marks my 25th year of being involved with organic livestock. Prior to any clue of what organic was, I spent 4 years in college learning soil science (UNH ’80 -‘84). As a student I had a work-study job at USDA Soil Conservation Service for two years, helping to survey land and to design contour strips, subsurface drainage, farm ponds, woodland access roads, and manure storage facilities in southeastern New Hampshire. I was fascinated by the cows in the distance when we were surveying. I didn’t grow up on a farm so right after college I apprenticed myself out to farmers for essentially next-to-nothing pay to learn about dairy cows. For 4 years and for a few bucks per hour I mucked out stalls, fixed fence, fed cows with a skid loader, learned to use milking machines and did other general “hired-hand” type work, all prior to any work on an organic farm. I’m always thankful for those experiences, as it let me come up with my own way of being with cows.

It was January 1988 that I attended my first PA Farm Show. I found myself talking with somebody at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. One thing led to another and I applied and was hired for a new job opening at the Chester County Conservation District to help survey and install soil conservation structures to help “clean up the Bay”. As the job start date kept getting pushed back due to funding not coming through from Washington, I thought to myself “how can I ask farmers to install cost-share conservation measures if it takes so long for money to come in the first place?” I was young and impatient.

Yet again, one thing led to another and I was very fortunate when someone steered me to Seven Stars Farm, a Demeter-certified Biodynamic farm, locally in Chester County. This position was to be very instrumental on my life’s path.  Seven Stars was, and still is, a complete system - growing their crops organically to feed their herd and producing Grade A yogurt on-farm for natural food stores. I will always consider Seven Stars my “home farm” due to many formative experiences there. Almost immediately upon arrival I was introduced to new 2 concepts: management intensive grazing and alternative medicines. While I right away liked moving cows to new pasture every 12 hours, I will admit that I had little confidence in using the alternative medicines. But I quickly found out how well homeopathic remedies, colostrum-whey products and botanical infusions and ointments worked – and how you get to know individual cows extremely well in trying to figure out which homeopathics to use. This made me happy since I have always been very much an “animal person”. I learned how to give shots (intravenous, intra-muscular and under the skin) and learned artificial insemination, being then able to easily treat uterine infections by infusing colostrum-whey and botanicals. I completely immersed myself in learning homeopathy and it added a brand new dimension to my life. I wasn’t interested in how to fix a tractor if it broke, but if a cow broke down I was right there, closely attending to her needs, giving her extra special attention, and listening carefully to what the local vet would say if he was called in.

Then one day it hit me that the natural therapies were working so well that I wanted to go to vet school to learn “the real thing” and also to understand how homeopathy may work. I strongly feel that God gave me the realization, as I still wonder how I ever got accepted into vet school, let alone make it through a grueling 4 years of really hard work. I became a vet in 1995 and have been focused on working with organic dairy cows ever since.

So that’s a brief description of how I got into involved with dairy farming – starting more than 25 years ago. How about you? When did you get interested and involved with farming – conventional or organic? Did you grow up on a farm? Did you shift the way in which you go about farming? Or perhaps, like me, you got interested in agriculture while in school? I must say that my initial entry into agriculture was to simply fulfill one goal: to help feed the world.  As I set out to do that, first in college and then by apprenticing myself onto farms, I did start helping to feed the world – and now organically. For not having grown up on a farm, I’m very thankful that my school learning and work experience allowed me to understand both conventional and organic dairy farming.

Regardless of when any of us got our start in agriculture, many changes have occurred to both conventional and organic dairying over the past 25 years. In conventional agriculture, it’s easy to see that it’s become more intensive with various technologies introduced to help get more and more out of fewer and fewer cows and with less people involved. Production per cow and income over feed cost are key indicators of a farm’s success – the trick is how to keep costs low while getting more milk out of the cows. But cow lifespan has been impacted as there are various hidden costs associated with high production, intensive agriculture. And after 25 years, the Chesapeake Bay still isn’t cleaned up – but that’s due to more than just agricultural run-off!

In organic agriculture, things have become more “standardized” over the past 25 years. When I first heard about the proposed federal rules in 1995, I was happy to hear that there would be a national standard, as individual certifiers with varying attitudes and enforcement made it very difficult for nutritionists, agronomists and veterinarians to know what was allowed and what was not allowed. While there needed to be some sort of national standard to ensure that customers are getting what they think they are, it has unfortunately never gotten away from hair-splitting arguments about material inputs. This is where Biodynamics definitely “wins” in that it focuses more on the entire farming system as a living whole - including spiritual aspects. This is in contrast to examining every little input in excruciating detail as does the certified-organic world – with certifiers still not agreeing on different inputs, even after the official start of the National Organic Program in 2002. But if you can stay away from the endless debates, organic is a great way to farm and it certainly helps to produce food for society in a completely clean way.

Probably the best thing that has occurred in the organic sector within the past 25 years is the federal requirement that ruminants must consume, on average, 30% of their dry matter intake from pasture during the grazing season. This one rule alone will forever separate organic livestock farming from mainstream confinement livestock farming. Grazing simply makes sense for cattle - it’s how they are biologically designed to eat and live.  The certified organic sector officially guarantees this for cattle and other ruminants.

I think the next 25 years will see a renewed interest in grazing. Enhancing omega-3 and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) levels in milk due to grazing are gaining traction. Moreover, grazing seems to enhance cow lifespan as it provides real exercise, enhanced muscle tone and reduces lameness simply by getting animals off concrete. Regardless of farming style, farmers like to have long-lived cows. I hope conventional farmers will at least consider grazing to some degree – if not for cow health then at least for the cheap feed. Of course it’s then an easy step to go organic J.

In view of all the changes in dairying over the past 25 years as well as whatever may lay ahead, covering the basics will always remain critical. Farmers of any stripe can keep livestock healthier by having the animals in direct contact with the land and breathing fresh air, having animals graze well-managed pastures whenever possible while feeding high forage rations during the non-grazing times, and providing dry bedding with appropriate ventilation when animals are housed during the winter. I hope you all take a moment to reflect back and sort out what’s worked (and what hasn’t) but most importantly try to feel how God’s hand has moved in your life and be thankful - even if you sometimes feel removed from feeling His hand - for He is always with you.

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

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