On milk, farming, and life

This was posted first on our farm blog, The Hedonist Life.

Everyone’s crying over spilt milk, or rather the calves who are sacrificed so that we may drink milk. Dairy farmers are crying over the reputational damage to their livelihood – and it’s not exactly a cushy job commanding six-figure salaries. And it seems to me that everyone is a little bit right, and a little bit wrong, but that there is a clear way forward.

To backtrack, this Animals Australia video which depicts the short life of a ‘bobby calf’ in a manner designed to evoke the most emotion possible managed to upset consumers and farmers equally, from what I can tell. According to the dairy farmers who are commenting on thoughtful blogs such as @milkmaidmarian’s, they don’t send their calves straight to the abattoir, and are acutely conscious of the value of each life they nurture and take on their farms. They frequently make the point that it is the city-based consumers who are too often utterly unaware (and uncaring?) of the conditions under which their food is grown.

I think it’s fantastic that animal welfare groups apply pressure to the livestock industry for humane treatment during an animal’s life and at its death. As an omnivore, I’m frankly not that interested (but also not really fussed) in being told I shouldn’t eat meat – I’ve made my choices thoughtfully and I’m happy with that – but I do want my meat ethically produced.

I also think it’s fantastic that farmers like Marian speak up about their practices, which are different from those displayed in the Animals Australia video. I know the dairy farmer near us has a similar practice – he raises the bull calves to 2 years then sells them for beef (and not for a lot of money, remember, as Friesians are not considered great eating for primal cuts) and the heifers are grown to be more milkers on the farm. I applaud farmers like Marian joining in pressuring for ethical treatment of animals – people like her can help by demonstrating alternatives.

But of course the reason the video exists is because there are apparently 700,000 bobby calves going to slaughter at around five days old – they are ‘waste products’ – and their few days of life entail an existence with which most people are deeply uncomfortable, both for its apparent brutality but also its brevity. I know I’m uncomfortable with the system, and grateful to be in a position to choose organic milk from a farm whose practices I know and trust.

I’m very conscious of the sensitivities in these debates – nobody wants to be ‘that guy who abuses animals’, and ‘abuse’ is far more relative than any of us care to admit. People running intensive animal operations (or CAFOs, aka ‘factory farms’) claim that the animals in their care are ‘happy’, ‘fine’, ‘safe’, or ‘healthy’, but by my definition that’s simply impossible, because I believe in respecting the ‘pigness of the pig’, as Joel Salatin says. So for me, farm animals should be able to graze, dig, forage, scratch and wander in a manner as close to how they would if we weren’t constraining them with some fences and the like as possible. But every time a consumer is happy to buy intensively-farmed chicken (or pork, or beef…), s/he is complicit in the system, and I have been too at times.

But when consumers (or the media or government) cry out in horror over the treatment of animals, they should think long and hard about the precarious position most farmers are in. Farms are at the mercy of the elements, which in this age of climate change has seen Australian farmers cope with constant rounds of drought and floods. Add to this an ever-narrowing range of distribution and retail outlets who control farm gate prices, which have plateaued for years in the face of rising costs of production.

As my limited experience as a producer grows and my interactions with other farmers deepens, I am keenly aware of how difficult it is to simply make a living producing food. And if all the farmers like us are forced out by low prices, consumers will be left with only intensive farms, the same ones where bobby calves are waste products, and pigs and chickens are raised in sheds.

So my thoughts are this: we farmers need to be transparent in our practices and let consumers judge for themselves whether they’re happy with how we treat our animals and the land. The internet is our friend – we can show pictures and tell the stories of our animals (well, slowly slowly until there’s a National Broadband Network, but that’s another post), so long as we are happy with what we’re doing. Those who won’t show us their animals certainly seem to be hiding something, though they protest they’re not. As @greenvalefarm said recently, ‘transparency is the best certification’.

And as consumers, we need to ask questions and listen to farmers. We need to value the people producing our food, both socially and economically. We need to better understand that the reason that farm gate prices may not have been immediately impacted by Coles dropping its price to $1 per litre for milk is because farmers have been getting around 50 cents per litre for over a decade anyway – any extra cash goes into the pockets of processors and retailers (that is, Coles and Woolworths, who have 80% market share in Australia).

I’m happy to pay a lot more than $1 per litre for my milk, but I want the extra to go back to farmers, not to those who would ‘value add’ to a product that I think is best straight from the cow! If you want that too, @flavourcrusader has an excellent alt.milk list on her wonderful blog.

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Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community…

9 thoughts on “On milk, farming, and life”

  1. THanks for the post, Tammi. If you would like to support farmers, you could buy Devondale products – they are made by 100% farmer-owned co-operative, Murray Goulburn. And yes, our is a Devondale farm.

  2. Great post Tam. In the converstaions I have had with older farmers they are bemused that all of a sudden they are portrayed as ‘public enenemy No 1’ because they rear animals for meat. Like you, I’m all for transparency but at the same time as you suggest, farming is not an exact science with many variables, chief being nature, providing endless challenges. Combine this with generally an emotive, often ill-informed, mostly disconneceted populace with a short attention span that only hears soundbites and you have a glaring misrepresentation of what it takes to get food to the table.
    On another note-I dont know any people who raise animals for the table who dont really love them and look after their welfare

  3. Thanks, Marian – I think most people do want to support farmers, but as Steve has highlighted, they often don’t have a clue how to do that nor just what happens on farms.

    And Steve, I agree the hysteria that happens when people learn animals died so they could have meat is silly, and I also believe that farmers really care for their animals in most cases. But there’s that line where caring means different things to different people. For me, knowing the animals didn’t suffer fear and pain, or even just boredom and lack of ability to behave in instinctual ways isn’t acceptable, but of course a vegan would take that much further. We all have to work out where we sit on animal welfare – and it’s impossible for consumers to do that if farming practices are intentionally obscured.

  4. I fail to see the problem. Bobby calves have been having their heads cut off at a very young age since…er.. forever.

    It is the destiny of animals that are raised for meat to be …er… killed.

    Farming practices are intentionally obscured indeed. By those who should be revealing them. Urban consumers have indeed become unaware of how food is produced. The most visible information comes from activist groups, ones who seek to misinform.

    This does not help.

    Neither does the fact that it is rather difficult to dress up slaughter of meat as anything else. Killing is killing, and in any form is very confronting to ingenues for whom killing isn’t a necessary part of their life.

  5. Steve – delighted to have you here to comment, thanks! I am in full agreement with you on the destiny of animals raised for meat. I do think there are more and less humane means of slaughter (hence things like stunning beforehand), and I definitely believe, as I said above, that animals should not be treated badly up to slaughter. I am uncomfortable with how young bobby calves are slaughtered, personally, so I get my milk from a dairy that doesn’t slaughter its calves, which makes it pretty clear that that’s an option, though it can be a very difficult one for some farms to make financially. And thank you for your comment that farmers should be revealing their practices – we are in full agreement there. 🙂

  6. Killing is killing? Really? While I completely agree that meat-eating consumers are complete idiots if they don’t realise the flesh they’re chewing on was once a living, breathing being, I don’t agree that killing is killing. There are certainly ways to do it that are less stressful and more humane and if the industry doesn’t get that right, well, it opens it to Four Corners, right? Add to that the concerted advertising effort by the beef (Feed the Man Meat) and dairy industries (Got Milk?) to encourage more and more consumption of animal products — more than is necessary for a healthy life — and ho boy, there is a lot to be answered for.

  7. Yes Susan, killing reall is killing. There is no way to kill an animal without actually….er… killing it.
    I doubt many meat eaters are unaware of the origins of their meat. But many find it most confrontational to see a beast slaughtered.
    My father, who killed cattle/sheep for station rations all his working life, would not eat meat for a week after slaughtering a beats. Thus one can imagine how confronting/shocking/disgusting an urbanite may find it to observe the practice for the first time.
    I don’t know how much meat is “more” than is necessary for a healthy life, but I’ve eatn beef three times a day from when I was old enough to hold a knife & fork, & so has everybody I know. If there is a hallmark of men here, it would be extreme good health.

    Ahh… Four Corners, (the ABC tv show) That is another story. They did a hatchet job on the northern beef industry recently. Unfortunately the penalty was paid by the beef industry (not by the politicians, the activists, or the journalists). Sadly, the only consequence for 4 corners is they have turned the ABC from an organisation that is revered & trusted in the bush, to one that is (rightly) viewed as lower than HIV ridden prostitutes, and all doors have been closed to them. It will take real reporters a long time (possibly a generation) to rebuild that trust.

  8. Steve, I can tell by your approach that you’re not a good person for me to debate the issues with. But anyway, you’re entitled to eat your meat three times and many of the rest of us are entitled to question that necessity. Thanks, in part, to the bloody good, courageous journalism of the ABC, which brought to the public’s attention something we absolutely needed to know so we can make informed choices. It is the meat industry, not the ABC, that has broken the public’s trust. Your dad sounds like he was a good man. Ciao.

  9. Susan, to be crystal clear, there was nothing Good about the 4 corners article.

    It was courageous, to put an innaccurate story up, and to hoodwink the interviewees.

    Anybody who watched that article is misinformed, not informed. 4 Corners let down the public.

    The meat industry has broken nobody’s trust. The activists, the ABC & the government have all broken trusts. None of them will pay the appropriate penalty.

    THAT is the pity. If we could vote on it here, the death penalty would get a fair run. Unfortunately we are too healthy, there isn’t anyone with a terminal condition, as there has been plenty of talk of someone just so afflicted popping down to Canberra & exacting justice on behalf on the beef industry.

    There’d be no tears if such were to happen.

    The ban on live export was ill-informed & knee-jerk.

    That a government could destroy so many livlihoods based upon nothing more than what appeared on a TV screen, with footage from ACTIVISTS, is Australia’s shame & embarrassment.

    Eating beef: (It’s natural!)

    One should not eat meat 3 times per day? But that is what the boss feeds us. What else to eat?
    (You wrote as if there is something wrong with beef)
    I put the example forward to you to demonstrate that eating beef every day of one’s life need not be a bad thing.

    Beef is there walking around on the hoof, just waiting to be shot & cut up. No financial outlay for the boss.

    The more I eat, the more I am paid!

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