Here come the Cows!

Continuing our journey we visited two very different dairy farms on the Eastern Shore and learned about the process of milking the cows and the environmental regulations. It was my first time on a dairy farm and I was looking forward to seeing how they run their operation and getting the chance to perhaps pet a few cows. We first met Sean John who helps run the Jones Family Farm, a humongous corporation that has about 2700 heads of cattle. He was an excellent tour guide who explained what he thought about being a farmer and the difficulties of meeting environmental standards.

To start we entered where they milk the cows in a rotated formation, there are cows waiting to be milked, cows that are being milked, and ones that are finished and heading back to their pens. What’s incredible was that all of their cows are milked three times a day otherwise the heifers are in discomfort or pain. This means that their operation is constantly running 24/7 without so much as a break. As I watched the workers bring in the next group of cows to be milked, I was impressed by how efficient they were in getting the job done. They first wash the teats and apply a disinfect medicine before hooking up the suction tubs. It takes about four minutes for milking, there are two basements below that collect the milk and freeze it. With each rotation they collect about 10 gallons of milk that will be picked up by a truck every 10 hours and is processed and ready within 2 days. We learned about how they keep tabs on the reproductive cycle of each heifer by using color-coded tags and a device around the neck. What surprised me slightly was hearing that all of the heifers are constantly producing calves and only have one month of “rest.” It was difficult to imagine putting ourselves in that position, so I felt sympathy for them. One thing that disturbed me a bit was the fact that Sean only wanted the cows to either milk, feed, or lay down. If they moved about it would defeat the purpose of fattening them up. He did though take good care of trimming the hooves so that they can stand up without difficulty. If there is something wrong with one individual, he will separate her from the rest and take care of her until she is back to full health. When a heifer can no longer reproduce she is sold for beef.

Sean showed us the rest of the farm explaining how they raise the calves to reproductive stage and where they store the feed for the cows. They have approximately 2,000 acres to support the dairy cows, mostly they grow corn and small grains. An interesting fact that we learned was that the cows actually love cold weather because their body temperatures are already very high. During the summer times they have to use fans to keep them cool or else they will overheat. The day we visited was bitterly cold for us, our toes and fingers turned quiet numb because of the wind blasting in our faces. But we were happy that at least the cows were loving it. Sean explained to us that he is constantly trying to be a step ahead when becoming sustainable, he showed us his phosphorous processor and the three lined lagoons he made. He always wants to be ahead of the environmental regulations even those that are not in placed yet. One thing he wasn’t able to jump ahead was a new phosphorous management tool that requires zero phosphorous discharge. He believes that’s a bit out of reach and is frustrated that it means more work on his part to distribute the phosphorous he already collects. Seeing the entire farm and the operation on such a big scale really was fascinating to me and I was shocked that they were able to keep it running so well. It was a real eye-opener for me and I became more grateful for the work that they do to supply milk for much of the growing population.

The next stop was visiting Judy Gifford who owns St. Brigid’s Dairy Farm which is a much smaller operation than Jones’s Farm. She operates very similar but the location really felt like a farm instead of a huge dairy facility. After having scrumptious chili for lunch, Judy talked a great deal about the environmental issues that are caused by poultry farms and what her role as a farmer entails. She told us that a farmer needs to accomplish three things to have a successful business. The first is to have an abundance of whatever they are growing whether that is chickens or cows and that they are inexpensive to buy. The other factor is that they are safe for human consumption meaning there have been tests done for diseases or bacteria. She explained that there is a fourth part that is very difficult for any farmer to fulfill and that is making their operation environmentally friendly. It’s easy to do three of the four but almost impossible to do all. Her opinions about global warming and the environmental issues are very different from her neighbors who just want to farm and make money. However it’s clear that she is aware of the negative impacts of excessive waste and nutrients/phosphorous on the environment and that she wants to change that and make it better. Judy showed us around her farm and we had an opportunity to pet some of the cows! It was fun watching them be so attentive and curious about our presence but were hesitant to approach us. With some patience though, a few did come forth and touched our hands with their wet cold noses. We also got to meet Maggie, the Border Collie Shepard in charge of herding the cows and she displayed some nice skills but mostly to show off. What was so interesting was that Judy named her cows and for the most part knows who is who – daughter to mother and mother to grandmother. A fun anecdote was that while I was petting the cows, I happened to step in dung with both feet. Not the best move but luckily I had the chance to get my shoes rinsed off before leaving.

I really enjoyed visiting these two magnificent places and I have a better understanding of how dairy farms operate. It was neat to hear from Sean and Judy about what being a dairy farmer means to them and how they are striving to become more sustainable. Similar to how I learned a new perspective about poultry farms, I also learned a new story coming from dairy farmers themselves. I’m glad that they are at least trying to reduce the environmental issues of waste and phosphorous discharge but I feel that there needs to be a more community effort to accomplish this feat. I just hope that in time poultry and dairy farmers can work together with the government to subsidize costs and benefits towards a more green operation as a whole.

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