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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ellington

My Most Respected Profession - Dairy Farming

Anyone who has read Whispering Winds of Appalachia knows that one of the main characters, and arguably my favorite character, is the son of a dairy farmer. This was not a random choice of profession, but rather an attempt to highlight an area of agriculture that most people know nothing about. We go to the store once a week to buy milk, never stopping to think about the time, labor, and sacrifices it took to get that milk from a Holstein cow into a carton, onto the shelf at a grocery store, and finally into our bowl of cereal. Personally, I think that is a travesty.

If we are going to consume an animal product, I firmly believe it is important to know where it came from, start to finish. There are multiple reasons I feel this way. Primarily, I think farmers are some of the hardest working people in our society and miss opportunities to showcase that, because while we are scrolling and posting on social media, they are working to keep us fed. Often the people who work the hardest have the smallest amount of free time with which to showcase their way of life.

Secondly, there is a plethora of misinformation in popular culture that tries to vilify those working in animal agriculture. Advertising works, and larger organizations prey on pathos and heart strings to convince consumers to buy whatever they are selling, and have no trouble throwing farmers under the bus, since they know they are working too hard to spend time fighting misinformation every day. I believe if everyone spent time working on a farm and saw the blood, sweat, and tears farmers put into raising animals, they would quickly see through the (pardon my French) bullshit. The following are some of my favorite facts about animal agriculture that most people are hoodwinked about.

  • It is a federal law that there cannot be antibiotic residue in food products we consume in the United States. In fact, the laws here are more stringent than they are in Europe, a place some people point to as doing animal ag "better". When you see packaging that claims the meat does not contain antibiotics, you should think, "obviously, it's illegal", and not be fooled to think that's the only package you should buy.

  • There is a such thing as ABF meat, where antibiotics have NEVER been used in the life of the animal. While this sounds nice, often the case is that these growers struggle to get very treatable bacterial conditions under control, causing the overall quality of life of that animal to decrease as they succumb to various illnesses. Since we already discussed residue being illegal (drugs have withdrawal periods), my opinion is that judicious use of antibiotics in agriculture is not only warranted, but humane.

  • Many animals are mean to each other! People see gestation pens for pigs and automatically think it's too small and inhumane. I agree it's not pretty, but people fail to realize these pigs will not only attack each other, but given room to move around, they often squish their offspring. No one wants to see flattened piglets. This is true for the practices of many types of animal raising.

  • The final point, in my opinion, sums everything up. What is more important to an animal's physiology and biology, living or reproducing? The answer is obviously living. One of the first things to go when an animal is not well fed, comfortable, and healthy is its reproductive capabilities. Hence, if an animal is not cared for well, it won't reproduce. Farming relies on reproduction. A literal prerequisite for a successful farm is that the animals are overall happy, healthy, and fed, otherwise they wouldn't reproduce. Of course, there are bad outliers in any field, but every single farmer I have ever worked with cares about their animals more than the average pet owner cares about their dog or cat. It should be evidenced by the way they often make sacrifices in their families and with their free time. Animal agriculture is a full-time job. Animals don't go on vacation. They need care every single day.

This post is specifically about dairy farming, which I think is arguably the most labor intensive and my personally most respected profession in the world. Dairies always have cows in the milking barn, the number of which depends on how large the herd is and how often they calve. Cows are milked twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. If they are not milked, they can become very sick. Therefore, a dairy farmer wakes up before dawn, spends several hours milking, spends another few hours cleaning, and repeats the process in the early evening, every. single. day... until the farmer dies of old age, sells the farm, or Jesus Christ returns. Between milking shifts is when every other task of the dairy gets completed. Bottle calves have to be fed. Calves on grain need to be fed. The pasture cows have to be fed a calculated mix of TMR from a tractor. Cows have to be synchronized and bred. Cows have to be palpated to be checked for pregnancy every single day. Cows need to be monitored for dystocia (difficult birthing) and helped if there is a problem. Sick cows require treatment, either by the farmer or by a veterinarian. Feed has to be mixed and checked for quality. Every single piece of equipment on the farm needs maintenance at some point or another, and there are more than 365 pieces of equipment on a dairy, meaning every single day something needs to be fixed. Someone has to keep track of statistics on milk production, calving rates, finances. Decisions have to be made on sick or old cows. Male calves have to be sold. Etc. Etc. Etc.

In summary, from 3am or 4am until the farmer goes to sleep, he has something to do, often too much to feasibly complete in a day. The idea of a 40-hour work week is laughable to those in agriculture, especially dairy farmers. So, while you go to the grocery store after work on a weekday, or maybe even on a Saturday, before you go see friends, please know somewhere out there a dairy farmer is still working to make sure there is milk to replace the carton you just pulled off the shelf. No breaks. No vacations. Just honest, hard work.

Sadly, with the introduction of very large, consolidated dairies, it's harder for family-owned and small farms to survive. Trucks are eliminating dairies from their routes if they don't fill a certain percentage of their tank, leaving smaller dairies without someone to sell to. Also, large dairies have the luxury (like all else) to work with smaller margins. This just isn't possible for a lot of farmers struggling to service loans for equipment that at some point will need to be replaced again, over, and over, and over. This is why when you drive around rural Appalachia, you will see old, dilapidated milk parlors and grain silos, remnants or ghosts of the past. Someone's honest living and entire lifestyle at some point fading away, not due to their laziness or lack of foresight, but simply due to the changing nature of capitalism and the society we live. in.

I had the pleasure of working at the University of Georgia Teaching Dairy while I was in veterinary school, milking before classes and exams, feeding calves on the weekends, mixing TMR and driving the tractor to feed the cows on pasture. Quite frankly, the work kicked my ass, and I only did it part time for a very short period in life, but it's my favorite job I have ever had. I could not possibly respect the dairy industry more, because I have seen firsthand what it takes to produce milk.

I'm not going to change anyone's opinion if they are set against farming, and that's okay, but please next time you buy milk consider what it took to get there. And if you happen to meet someone who dairy farms, please consider telling them thank you. I guarantee they work harder than you (and me) every single day, have for a long time, and will for the foreseeable future.

Thank you for taking the time to read! Until next time,


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