If you’ve been reading along with my barnstorming adventures, you probably know quite a bit about organic dairy farming by now. Well, it’s time to tell you a little bit about conventional dairy farms. In addition to visiting four organic dairy farms in Vermont, we also visited one conventional farm.
Parent Family Farm is a non-organic, two-generation family farm in Highgate, Vermont. The 600-cow dairy farm supports three families. The farmers were very nice and more than willing to show us around and answer our questions.
Let me start off by saying that this post is not intended to bash conventional farming. It’s a different way of looking at food and my goal is to show you a contrast between organic and non-organic dairy farming. (Although, I’m sure you know where I stand on the issue! ;-))
The cows at the Parent Farm live in a free-stall barn, so they’re not tied up and can freely move around the space. The Parent farmers want to make their cows as comfortable as possible, so they use old tires, covered in sand, as bedding for their cows. The cows seemed to like this and a bunch of them were laying down on it.
Typically, conventional dairy farmers want to minimize the amount of activity that their cows get so they have plenty of energy to produce tons of milk. Basically, they want the cows to eat and make milk. Grazing in a pasture uses lots of energy, so it’s not ideal for conventional farming.
Another major difference between organic and conventional farming is how they treat their sick animals. Conventional cows are treated with antibiotics and returned to the herd. Antibiotics are not permitted in organic farming, so if a cow is treated with antibiotics, it must be removed from the farm permanently. Obviously, losing a cow is a major financial loss for the farmer, which is (one reason) why they take such good care of their animals. Jonathan Gates of Howmars Farm told us that in 13 years of organic farming, he’s only had one sick cow that needed to be removed from the herd.
Conventional dairy cows eat corn silage (chopped fermented corn), which is sometimes mixed with haylage and grain. (The grain is usually made with corn and soy.) The Parent farmers use a nutritionist to figure out the exact amount of each to feed their cows.
At the Parent Farm, the haylage was pushed up against the inner wall of the free-stall, so the cows could just stick their heads out and eat as they pleased. The food is refreshed as needed.
The cows at Parent Family Farm are milked three times per day. (Organic cows are typically milked twice per day.)
The milking at Parent Farm pretty much never stops. The farm has 600 cows, it takes 5 – 6 minutes to milk each one, and the milking room holds 14 cows at a time, so the milking process continues day and night.
The cows at Parent Farm produce up to 110 pounds of milk per day. (Organic cows produce about 50 pounds.)
One thing that really upset me was seeing “docked” tails on a number of cows at the Parent Farm. In conventional dairy farming, the practice of tail docking is used to improve hygiene in the milking room. Cows sometimes poop while being milked, so a long tail basically makes a mess and a shortened tail is less likely to hit farmers in the face. It was very sad to see.
The Parents have three tanks on their farm that hold a total of 6,000 gallons of milk. If you remember my previous post about the milk truck at the Beidler Family Farm, you might remember that it holds the exact same amount, but for 13 different dairy farms and picks up the milk every other day. This single conventional farm fills the 6,000 gallon tank every single day! Big difference, right?!
We asked the Parent family if they would ever consider organic farming, but they had no interest. Their main reason was land. They don’t have enough space for their 600 cows to graze and meet the USDA standards.
Visiting this conventional dairy farm was definitely eye-opening. It made me realize just how beneficial organic dairy farming is for the animals and the product that they produce. All I know is that I will be buying organic from now on!