Recipes - Dairy Farms
Prior to Covid-19 travel restrictions, I made a visit to the Czech Republic. It was an eye-opening experience in the value of relationships, but also the range of trust in dairy.
The Czech Republic has a growing dairy industry and some of the largest farms in Europe, with 1,000 head of dairy cows and some even larger farms.
Working with FarmSystem, QualiTru’s new service partner in the Czech Republic, I visited farms and dairy plants to learn about their current sampling procedures and to piece together the Quality data chain.
We found that farmers relied on payment data automatically collected off the back of the truck. Equally, plants relied on that data to determine their operations. In fact, one plant we visited based their production process on the protein and fat of the sample in the receiving bay.
Coming from the US where the payment sample is constantly questioned, I found this sense of trust, both admirable and confusing.
How could the farmer know that they were paid adequately and fairly? Can the Quality Manager really know that the farmer is producing the safest milk possible?
This process is not unique to the Czech Republic; in fact, most of Europe is more or less the same. Milk is picked up by the truck driver and a sample is automatically collected from the truck. The farmer and plant agree that the automated sample is correct.
Farmers may collect herd health samples monthly or occasionally evaluate bulk tanks. Plants may take raw milk samples more frequently, but that is solely based on management’s proactiveness. The data from the sample is used for component and microdata (bacteria counts). However, if the sample is not collected aseptically, the microdata is likely to not be accurate.
In the US this process is not standard, or at least not yet. The collected payment data varies between states. The truck driver either collects the sample from the silo or inline prior to the truck. Alternately, it may be collected in the receiving bay at the plant from a line or dipper. These procedures have their own sets of questions and potential for problems, but that is for another post.
In one way, I admire the level of autonomy and trust between processors and farmers. However, it is a bit disheartening to know that many products do not have controls throughout the process to monitor for microbiological risks. I don’t believe it is intentional, rather the opposite. There appears to be inadequate education and awareness of how to collect accurate samples and appropriately analyze the data.
Hopefully with more conversations that ask the right questions, we will get closer to a perfect balance of well documented and trusted supply chains. Central to those discussions is that microbiological data is only as accurate as the sample and that sampling equipment and procedures need be designed to not contaminate product samples (aseptic sampling).
According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘aseptic’ is defined as “free from contamination caused by harmful bacteria, viruses, or other microorganisms.” Thus, according to the Oxford Dictionary, the opposite is considered a ‘septic’ sample, “infected with microorganisms, especially harmful bacteria.”
The entire food safety movement over the last hundred years has revolved around the idea that food fit for human consumption has the lowest bacteria counts possible. Further, our sanitation standards are so effective at removing gram-negative bacteria that we take it for granted. In the dairy industry, we have complete, unquestioning faith in our pasteurization process and system sanitation procedures. The problem is that bacteria are like small children, and they generally do what they want, when they want, and where they want. Like children, their presence should never be ignored.
Our general manufacturing protocols, sanitation standard operating procedures and the hygienic design of equipment all revolve around the idea of maintaining the lowest number of total bacteria in our food, and verification through sampling, sometimes by using the septic method of a petcock valve. Even worse, septic sampling may involve using a dipper or spoon. In some cases, only finished goods are sampled, which allows a reaction to issues, instead of proactively controlling possible variables.
It boggles the mind.
Why is it not standard practice to sample along the entire production line and take all samples aseptically? It seems so fundamental.
If you are making business decisions or verifying your hard work, why not use a sampling method that has a minimal chance of being contaminated? How can you make a single business decision if you are not sure of the result from a sample?
In this new COVID-19 world, we are all seeing the value of sampling and how global decisions can not be made without good reliable data. The same is true on a microbiological level at a food processing plant or producers’ farms.
If you are not sampling, you are in trouble.
If you are using a sampling method that is errored, you are wasting your time.
I travel quite a bit as Director of National Sales for Qualitru.
My trips are usually planned weeks in advance and my visits can range from training distributors and Co-op field and sales representatives to giving presentations to regulatory bodies or visiting farms. A few months ago, I had a planned visit to Florida and Georgia focusing on struggling dairy farmer who were looking to increase the accuracy of samples being collected for payment. Their pneumonic samplers were a constant source of contamination and inaccurate sampling and the farms were looking to change. I landed in Florida and met up with the Co-op field representative and over breakfast we went over the list of farms we were scheduled to meet with over the next few days. As I went through my list, the representative stopped me mid-way down.
“We can’t go to that farm,” he said.
I was puzzled, and my face must have shown it. The representative looked grim and then told me the following story.
The farm owner on the list had lost his son ten years earlier. On the anniversary of his death, the farmer called his neighbor and arranged for help with cutting the crops later that year. The neighbor was confused. All the farmer had said was that his family was going to need the help and hung up. What wasn’t said was that the farm owner was on the verge of losing his farm due to the falling milk prices and the increased cost of feed. The farm was drowning in debt and there was no relief in sight for him.
Later that same afternoon the farmer got into an argument with one of his daughters when she brought up selling the family farm. The farm owner stormed out and his daughter thought he walked away to clear his head.
Instead he walked into the woods of his property, took out a gun and shot himself.
September 8-14, 2019 was National Suicide Prevention Week.
Tragically, this farmer’s story isn’t an isolated incident. Looking back, everyone who knew the farmer said there were signs, but at the time no one heeded them. Dairy farmers have a higher suicide rate than veterans and this has been increasing steadily for the last four years.
We in the dairy industry are part of a community and we need to do our best to look out for each other. If you think someone needs help, please reach out. You could end up saving a life.
Someone might be considering suicide if he/she:
- Talks about wanting to die
- Talks about feeling hopeless, trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talks about being a burden to others
- Increases the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acts anxious, agitated or recklessly
- Sleeps too little or too much
- Withdraws or feels isolated
- Shows rage or talks about seeking revenge
- Displays extreme mood swings
If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States at 1-800-799-4889 and suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
I recently was scrolling through my social media feed and came across a picture of the cow with a set of Virtual Reality goggles over its head. Reading the article, the premise seemed sound, although a bit outlandish. Let a cow see itself relaxing in a lush green pasture and it will make higher quality milk.
I have read studies out of Brazil where cows’ stress hormone, cortisol, is measured against different handling methods. To no one’s surprise, cows as a species are easily stressed.
So this begs the question, what makes cows happy?
First off, you need to make the immediate assumption that cows are like crotchety librarians. They want to follow a schedule, don’t want anyone running around chaotically and for God’s sake, be quiet! Old time dairy farmers have always said, if you keep them cool, dry and fed they are happy.
There are a few other specific things we can be doing though that will make our girls more comfortable. Cows are social and love to be brushed, either by an installed barn brush or other means. I recently read about robotic farms that require the hired hands to spend time in the stalls brushing the cows. Why? Because cows love it.
When moving cows, it is critical to not make a ton of noise or hurt them. Harming a cow causes it stress, which lowers milk production. The Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) is an organization that certifies that animals that humans use for food are treated well. The curriculum is designed to protect the animals, but it also makes handling and movement much less stressful on them. There are some simple blocking movements, for example, that will steer cows where they are supposed to go without every touching them.
The bedding also plays a critical role in overall cow health and contentment. Because cows spend hours lying on bedding while manufacturing milk, it needs to be dry and comfortable. Finally, make sure that cows have ample room to move around. Being confined to tight quarters makes them tense and increases overall stress.
Taking care to provide cows with comfortable, stress free living environments will add measurable benefits to production and overall milk quality. Happy cows = healthy cows = better milk.
I am always astonished by the strength and purity of small dairy farm family values: work hard, family is the most important thing in the world, and don’t forget to thank God every night for our blessings. In a world of massive technological leaps, the dairy farmer still works with his hands and takes pride in doing so.
In the last four years, we have lost over 25% of the farms in the U.S. at a rate of 5-8% per year. The media is riddled with stories titles like, “The Death of the Small Farm,” and “Advice to Small Farms, sell-out Now”. Through all this loss, milk production and the number of cows are at an all-time high and steadily increasing. This means that while the small farms are slowly disappearing, the bigger farms are becoming even bigger.
When I visit these mega dairies, I am equally astonished, but in a much different way. They are run like well-oiled machines. Bedding is changed at 6 am sharp, feeding at 8 am, milking from 10 am to 2 pm, and system clean-in-place wash at 2:15 pm. The carbon footprint of dairies has dropped by 63% since 1944, because of increases in efficiencies.
My question is a simple one. Are we as an industry making important trade-offs for more production and revenue?
The small farms do not have the capital to install cow brushes in the barns, because it is an added expense that they cannot provide. On the other hand, the small farming family will walk into the barn to scratch and pet the cows, because they love their animals. The small farm used to part of a community of people in a geographic area that all came together on Sundays, and whose children all attended the same schools. The mega farms are constantly under scrutiny from states and towns, because of water usage, land stewardship, methane production and animal care. On small farms, the cows are named Snowflake and Bessie and are not culled until it is absolutely necessary. On mega farms the cows are named 62359 and 62360 and their life spans coincide with their productivity, generally about four years.
The farmer and his family have been an American icon of what it means to work hard, be independent and create a life for a family. Mega dairies are the beacon of efficiency, production and industrialization. While nostalgia about family farms runs deep, progression towards large herds is inevitable. I hope both entities will continue to have a place in the future of the dairy industry.
Nostalgia about family farm life may run high to the consumer.
I am a dog person. I once had two pugs named Smith and Wesson, whom I was closer to than some of my relatives. I am also a hunter. I eat the animals I kill and try to never shoot at anything I can’t kill in one shot.
Here in lies the dichotomy of being human. Animals are both pets and food. They, however, are not human.
People like to attribute human traits, emotions, or intentions to animals. It is considered to an innate tendency of human psychology.
Never has this been truer than in today’s dairy market. Animal welfare is one of the main reasons why consumers are switching from milk to almond beverage. Further, people who continue to eat and drink dairy want to know from which farm their milk is coming. This new reality also comes with a higher scrutiny on producers and that scrutiny is incredibly public with the advent of social media.
In today’s dairy market, producers are under extreme financial duress. When coupled with the potential for bad publicity, producers could be one YouTube video away from going out of business.
True, there are instances of abuse out there, but these are truly few and far between. General dairy practices are coming under fire now in this era where human like animal care is being unfairly demanded by some in the public. I recently watched a video where the narrator who was an animal rights activist walked through a free stall barn, railing about the manure in the alleys. To anyone in the industry, you could clearly see that the mechanical scrapers were doing their job well. However, this person was making a judgment from the perspective of what constitutes acceptable human living conditions and not those that are entirely suitable for a cow.
Assigning human emotions to farming can be dangerous, as it leaves out substantial amounts of environmental factors and species dependent characteristics. It would be extremely easy to keep the alleys of a barn clean if the cows would simply stop pooping in them. The problem is that nothing we do will make this happen. Cows poop, whenever and wherever they want. Farmers respond in the only manner that is reasonable; they clean their milking parlors using an industry standard protocol.
We in the dairy industry need to keep educating the public. 99.9% of dairy producers do that they do as a labor of love. The average farmer takes home roughly $7.39 per hour and works weekend, nights and holidays. They deserve our respect and as an industry, we need to help educate the public on good farming practices.
Heading back to the U.S. for our fall Board Meeting, the first thing I do when I land is head to the store for breakfast to buy my favorite go-to whole milk plain yogurt. Right away I notice the taste is different than what I am used to, not bad, just lighter. I’m expecting my typical full fat almost ice cream feel, but instead a lighter spoonful. Tastes good, but different experience. There are many different influences from recipes, seasonal butterfat levels to different customer tastes. Sensory preferences can change a lot, especially coming from Norway to Minnesota it is quite noticeable. While other brand name products aim to maintain the same flavors and textures from one country to the next. Quality must develop consistent engineering and testing plans to maintain conformity and manage risk, but also accommodate to geographic limitations.
While most of my go-to dairy brands change and there are a few that I stay loyal to when I travel. I can buy Jarlsberg cheese whether I am in Ireland, Norway or the U.S. and it tastes the same. This requires a team to ensure the equipment operates consistently between location, ingredients, training, SOPs and good controls for monitoring microbiological and solid levels. Many factors can shape sensory or introduce unwanted pathogens. Poor training may leave operators with different routines that result in varying cleaning cycles or fermentation times. Without good SOPs, training may not properly outline all areas to monitor. It takes a team to make sure that all risks are covered.
More importantly, it requires a proactive attitude or culture to look for department overlaps to mitigate risk or maintain consistent products. One team I work with has a standardized data collection and analysis program for receiving raw milk. These SOPs include materials, sample frequency to lab procedures. The idea is that more control and analysis on the front end then product Quality follows. Preventative controls in receiving should create good insight into the rest of the process to improve Quality Control. Control becomes more important as companies introduce brand names in new territories and seek to maintain consistency.
Four months ago, if you would have asked the plant manager of the FAIRLIFE Michigan plant what they would be doing in July, ‘catching up on projects’ would not have been the answer. This FAIRLIFE plant was at capacity daily and it could barely keep up with demand. It ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with little or no down time. It was kicking out product as fast as it could, and even then grocery stores could not keep the product stocked on their shelves.
Then “The Video” came out.
Within a week of “The Video” hitting the internet, FAIRLIFE lost 20% of its market demand. The sight of a farm employee kicking a baby cow was everywhere. News outlets all over the world covered the story. It exploded all over social media, and everyone had their opinion. Influencers were emotionally sharing their thoughts, and even grandmothers were re-posting the video and talking about how awful the industry had become since she was on the farm. These were not the creation of PETA or another animal advocacy group, and consumers knew it. As Regulators in the Dairy Industry stayed silent, FAIRLIFE went into public relations crisis mode. Unfortunately, no amount of posts on their website, or ‘We are Sorry’ marketing actions can erase in consumers minds what was captured on “The Video”.
A month after I wrote my first article on FAIRLIFE, not only does the 20% reduction in consumer demand hurts FAIRLIFE financially, but it is also having a ripple effect throughout the dairy industry. For Example:
- The USDA is beginning to get barraged by comments to remove dairy from its family nutrition guilds that it publishes every few years.
- Animal advocacy groups are getting swamped with new members wanting to protect the dairy cows.
- Almond drink, or plant based ‘Milk’ producers are seeing increases in second quarter earnings, and overall the US has bad overall taste in its mouth.
There is an overall bad taste in the mouth of US consumers when they think of where their milk comes from. We are about to see a change in the dairy industry, and it will not be a good one. After four years of depressed prices, the dairy producer is about to meet their next challenge and that is public opinion and perception. Luckily, most consumers think that yogurt, butter and cheese come from a grocery store and not from a cow. These products will continue to grow, but fluid milk or milk drink products may be in for a rough time.
Food Safety has moved from a concern to assumed. Consumers are more interested in what the cow’s name is, and if they get to go outside, rather than concerned if they are drinking safe milk.
We need to do better as an industry. We need to adapt to this new consumer perception.
Many of us have seen or heard of the recent Fair Oaks undercover videos showing disturbing animal abuse at a Northern Indiana.
Dairy Farm Social media is filled with animal rights groups who are raging against animal cruelty and blaming the entire dairy industry. An average person may be sitting in a cubical eating a small yogurt cup and shaking his head, trying to understand what kind of person would harm a baby cow. The continual stream of negative attention is making it seem like the entire industry is nothing more than cows that are slaves to corporations and that baby cows are being beaten daily. The facts about the dairy industry are dramatically different, but at this moment, these details are irrelevant to the average consumer.
Somewhere in the US that person is tasting the last yogurt cup he will ever purchase and will instead quietly start buying almond yogurt from now on.
The dairy industry is in real trouble.
After four consecutive years of depressed milk prices, the industry was looking forward to the third and fourth quarters of 2019, which were projected to see increases in milk prices and give the remaining dairy producers some much needed financial relief.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) just announced that the US has lost 2,700 dairy farms last year alone, and that the rate of dairy farm suicides is currently higher than that for veterans.
For example, Wisconsin lost 915 farmers to suicide in 2017 at least in part due to the hardships attributed to the financial losses in the industry. The relief to the industry was projected to start in 2019 and continue to increase over 2020, but after the Fair Oaks exposure the dairy industry may see a continuation of the depression or even worse, a further slide down.
Those of us who work in the dairy industry understand that these were completely isolated incidents, perpetrated by employees who had only been on the farms for a few short months.
We understand that they were immediately terminated and are now facing criminal charges, but can we truly blame the general public for not understanding? I have personally been on hundreds of the largest dairy farms in America and have never once observed anything even close to what was captured in the videos.
To the contrary, I have only seen the farms that will not even allow the employees to speak loudly to the cows or move them around by whistling. The vast majority of dairy farmers take great care of their cows, because they know that a content cow produces better tasting and higher volumes of milk.
The employees of Fairy Oaks have been terminated and may be charged criminally, and Fair Oaks has been terminated as a supplier of Fairlife. The link below is Fairlife’s response to this incident, but I would bet the general public is completely unaware of that actions taken.
Now, after videos of isolated incidents at a single farm, the entire industry is being persecuted and the already financially stressed farmer is about the take the brunt of it.
Mastitis caused by infections in dairy cows contributes to an overall loss of $550 million dollars annually, according to the United States Dairy Association (USDA). The natural components of milk make it the perfect breeding ground for bacteria to grow: fat, protein, lactose and an average incubation temperature in the udder of between 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit. There are several on-farm practices that protect the cow from getting mastitis, like pre and post dipping the udder after milking and controlling the amount of moisture in the bedding. Utilizing single use cloths for removing debris from the udder and diligently following written Mastitis Control Plans help to lessen outbreaks. Even so, the farmer is still reliant on a veterinarian to visit the farm and take samples to confirm any suspected diagnosis and treat the cow. By the time the veterinarian is involved, the cow may have bacterial counts upwards of 400,000 (what) per quarter requiring isolation from the herd in the hospital group from 10-14 days.
Farmers already have access to the paddles and the California Mastitis Test (CMT) kits, which are regularly used to monitor cow health during treatment for mastitis while they are in the hospital groups. The next level for dairy farmers is the create an on-farm microbiology lab to preemptively look for E. coli, coliforms, Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus agalactiae, mycoplasma’s and overall standard plate counts in their healthy herd. This might seem like a daunting task, but with a small incubator and three district packs of 3M Petrifilm, dairy farms would have the tools needed to diagnose mastitis while it is still sub-clinical and increase the overall quality of the milk sent to the processor. By string sampling into a sterile collection unit and then transferring the sample to the petrifilm and incubating it, the farmer can take proactive control over the process and increase the health of the herd.
If sampled regularly, this proactive approach to herd health will lead to the lowering of costs and an overall increase in milk production, as there will be fewer cows needing to be isolated in hospital groups. This increase in herd health will also reap the benefits of lower microbiologic counts and more assurance of achieving the quality premiums on which farmers rely.