Once upon a time, as Johnny circled home base and Jane mastered cartwheels, moms sat in the bleachers, sharing the latest family news and swapping recipes based on meals they'd shared. The world has changed since then. We still gossip (let's admit, who doesn't?) and we still talk food. But, while our moms focused on bringing food to the table, we're talking about how our food is grown and raised before it ends up in our shopping carts.
We strive to serve healthful foods to our family, but we wonder whether that glass of milk is safe and wholesome. Are farm animals treated humanely? Are we confident in the environmental stewardship of our farmers?
As a mom of three young children, I often hear those types of questions. And as a dairy farmer, I feel uniquely qualified to answer them, because I'm a mom first and because I don't have a farming background.
For instance, most people don't know this, but multiple checkpoints in our food system ensure that there are no antibiotics in that glass of milk. Milk from our dairy is tested four times. Like many dairy farmers, we voluntarily test it ourselves. Then the milk truck driver tests it before it leaves our farm -- and again before it is delivered. Finally, the milk is tested again as it is processed. Food and Drug Administration data show that a positive test for antibiotics is rare, and those cases require immediate disposal. The farmer responsible is required to pay for the full tanker, so dairy farmers take antibiotic-free milk seriously.
Despite what you might have heard, we treat our animals with antibiotics only when they are sick, and then at the recommendation of a veterinarian. In fact, we feel strongly that to not treat them and let them suffer would be inhumane. We place sick cows in a hospital pen, where we monitor them closely, checking their lungs and heart, as well as monitoring food and water intake daily. And once they recover, we test their milk to be sure that it is antibiotic-free before returning them to the milking pen.
Having healthy, contented animals is always of the utmost concern to dairy farmers like us. We know cows are sensitive to heat stress, so this summer as we grappled with the heat and drought, we took special care to keep our animals cool and comfortable by misting them in our holding pen before they were milked and by cooling them with fans throughout the day. We provide a diet formulated by nutritionists, comfortable living conditions and good medical care with regular checks by our veterinarian, treating our animals with care and compassion. The University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine found that the more relaxed and less stressed we can make our dairy cows, the more milk they will produce. This year, we've repositioned fans to maximize direct flow of cool air on the heads, neck and backs of our cows to reduce stress and keep them relaxed.
We also do many things to reduce the impact on our natural resources. Agriculture is extremely vulnerable to changes, including air, water and soil quality, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute. So it behooves us to tread lightly. We recycle manure, using it as fertilizer. We work closely with the USDA's conservation program to use best management practices to protect our creeks, waterways and neighboring wildlife habitats. And we feed our cows alfalfa, among other crops, because it can be harvested for three years before we need to till the soil. That practice leaves remnants from the previous crop on the ground, reducing weed growth (and the need for herbicides) and increasing infiltration (conserving water).
And as a result of farmers like us who have focused on the environment, better dairy nutrition, herd management and improved animal care, milk production has a smaller carbon footprint than it did 60 years ago, according to a recent Cornell University study. Things are better now than when our grandparents farmed.
Now that's something to talk about.
Suzanne Vold is a Minnesota dairy farmer and mother of three.