Nature: It’s a Cruel World Out There

People may profess a love of the natural world, but when confronted with what that truly entails, not everyone remains so fond of Mother Nature. The Washington Post recently reported on the stark difference between what consumers think occurs within the animal kingdom, and what really does. The story talks about the trend of watching livestreams of actual animal habitats, and the vitriol that erupts when viewers see horrific – but natural – occurrences, like when a mother eagle rejects her baby and lets it starve.

Here’s where the idea of transparency reveals important truths about both people and animals. “Nature” can be cruel and even violent – and that applies to dairy cows. For example, it is natural for some cows to reject their babies, leaving the animal to perish without proper nutrition. On a dairy operation, the farmer will step in and care for the calf separately, giving it the proper care an absent mother could not. This is another example of how a farm setting is actually more humane than the so-called “natural” alternative, because farmers – unlike nature – have a vested interest in keeping their animals alive.

Read a snippet of the Washington Post story below, and read the rest here.


People love watching nature on nest cams — until it gets grisly

The osprey cam at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is trained on a nest near the Massachusetts seaside, and the pair that call it home are now waiting for three eggs to hatch. But for the first spring in a decade, the camera is dark, and a note on the institute’s website offers only a two-sentence explanation.

“Regrettably, the cam will not be operating this season due to the increasingly aggressive actions of certain viewers the last two years,” it begins.

That is a staid reference to cam fans whose emotions about the nest morphed into vitriol — and fighting words. When the osprey mother began neglecting and attacking her chicks in 2014, anxiety exploded among some viewers, as did demands that the institution intervene to save the baby birds. When the same thing happened in 2015, the public passions took a more personal turn.

“It is absolutely disgusting that you will not take those chicks away from that demented witch of a parent!!!!!” one viewer emailed to Jeffrey Brodeur, the communications specialist who ran the camera. Another wrote: “I realize this is nature, but once you put up a cam to view into their worlds it is no longer nature. You have a responsibility to help n save when in need.”

Bird-nest cams have become hugely popular, and spring is when they’re full of action. Millions of viewers log on to see live-streamed egg-laying, egg-incubating and chick-hatching. Along the way, many become attached to the little birds, eager to see them spread their wings and fly.

But nests are also nature, and nature can be nasty. Last month, a Pittsburgh cam’s bald eagles made national news when they fed a small cat to their eaglets.

Many chicks don’t survive their first year: Some starve to death, their carcasses decaying for all the Internet to see. Some are preyed upon by hawks or crows or cats. Some are slain by their nestmates.

And some viewers just can’t handle the tragedy.

Read more…

Tackling Tough Topics: Euthanasia

Krista Stauffer runs a first-generation dairy farm with her husband, Brandon. Stauffer Dairy — located in Washington state — involves roughly 140 Jerseys, Holsteins and Crossbreds. Krista typically blogs about her experiences on the farm on her website, Here, Krista talks about a tough subject all dairy farmers have to deal with – though they hate to do it: euthanasia.

You wrote about your experience euthanizing a cow for Huffington Post. What made you decide to write so publicly about the subject?

I sent the editor several pre-written blog posts as examples they could use, and he picked that specific one. Not exactly something I would have started out with trying to establish myself as a blogger on their site, but also not a topic I shy away from.

And speaking more generally, why is it important that all farmers discuss this subject?

Simply put: It’s part of farming. We should be talking about all aspects of what we do. It is so easy these days for an activist to film daily routines on the farm – and this task could easily be taken out of proportion. Talking about it, making the public aware that sometimes it needs to be done, the fact that it’s the most humane thing to do for a sick or injured animal and the process in which it is done, can help the conversations we have with consumers. It’s all about transparency.

How did you reach the decision to euthanize one of your animals? What went through your head?

Between my husband and me, we can tell you every animal we have had to put down and why. It is the hardest decision you ever have to make on the farm, yet it is also the easiest. Ending the life of an animal you raised from the time they were born, even if they are being raised to feed this growing population, is not easy. But when you know she’s is sick or injured beyond getting better, or in any way, shape or form she is hurting – your job, your responsibility and your No. 1 concern is ending that suffering.

One time, we had a cow that had an aneurysm. I remember, once we determined what was wrong and that the brain damage was actually causing her pain, it felt like forever before Brandon could retrieve the gun to put her down. But it was only a minute or two. I just sat down next to her, holding her head in my lap, crying and talking to this big, black-and-white cow, waiting for him to get back. It was a horrible experience and one I will never forget, but the choice to put her down was an easy one. No animal deserves to suffer. Ever.

What are the actual, procedural steps in euthanizing a dairy cow?

  1. Determine if euthanization is necessary.
  2. End their suffering immediately by euthanization. On our farm, we use a firearm.
  3. Confirming everything was successful and that the animal has passed.

Why did you choose that particular method to euthanize your cow?

We choose to euthanize with a firearm because it is something we can keep on hand if needed immediately, and we know that we can end the suffering with a single shot.

What is the lesson to be learned from euthanizing an animal?

One can hope that there is something to be learned in how to prevent or treat something differently in the future so that you don’t have to put another animal down. There is usually a lesson to be learned in everything, but sometimes there isn’t and accepting that is hard to do.

How did you explain this situation to your children?

We are open and honest about farm life with our kids. We tell them the facts, but keep it simple. When they ask why we had to put an animal down, we explain it to them. They know that it’s never OK to allow an animal to suffer and that it is our job as farmers to make sure that doesn’t happen.

What is something you wish more consumers understood about euthanasia?

Ending an animal’s life is not something we take lightly. To raise an animal from birth, then have them get sick or injured, thus resulting in you having to put them down, is hard. I have cried over many cows, be it by euthanasia or by leaving the farm to enter the food supply chain. As farmers, we take great pride in the care we provide our cattle while they are on our farm, in our care. We know that they had a good life and that is what keeps us pushing forward.

A Vet Asks: Do Healthy Cows Produce More Milk?

Is rising milk production on today’s modern dairies a good or bad sign for cows? Here’s the perspective from a veterinarian in America’s Dairyland.  John Borzillo has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, and is a partner in Central Wisconsin Ag Services in Alma Center, Wisconsin. Pictured is Dr. Borzillo in a milk parlor.

I am a managing partner in a growing veterinary practice in Clark County Wisconsin, which seeks to bring in a new generation of veterinarians as well as a diverse selection of services to the region’s many dairy farms. I want to offer my perspective on the animal health trends I see up close and personal, just about every day of the year.

Some who are concerned about animal welfare – as are we – contend that farmers are raising genetically altered cattle that are no longer healthy, viable animals.  In fact, this is a problem – but not a recent one. It dates back several decades to a time long before I started my own practice.  In other words, this is an old problem that might have made for a more timely discussion in the 1970s.

There was a time in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s that cattle were bred selectively for their “milk traits” more than any other single trait.  This meant that cows were bred based on the likelihood their female calves would grow into adult cows that would produce more milk than their mothers.  Somewhere in this process mistakes were made, in that many other traits were often ignored, such as those relating to udder health, hoof and leg structure, body size, etc.

To their credit, it did not take dairy farmers long to realize animals bred exclusively for milk production began to lack longevity. Longevity is not something to ignore if your livelihood is tied to the overall health and well-being of animals – as most dairy farmers’ lives are indeed tied to theirs. So over the course of the past 30+ years, farmers and veterinarians have worked together, with geneticists and a host of other experts, to reverse the mistakes of the past and bring back other important cow traits.  The end result is ongoing improvement in dairy breeds, which allows farmers to benefit from cows that make more milk, while having solid feet, sturdy legs, strong immune systems and proportional body size.

To imply that this is an ongoing problem or that the dairy community is somehow intentionally creating unhealthy animals, couldn’t be further from the truth.  What’s also a distortion is the notion that producing lots of milk, and being a healthy milking cow, are mutually exclusive. This assumption is not only blatantly wrong, but also represents circumstances not seen on most farms.  I personally work with farms that collectively house thousands of cows, all producing very large amounts of milk, while maintaining remarkable cow welfare.  On one farm I work with, each cow produces over 10 gallons of milk each day, but the dairy cows have never been healthier – something I would love to take credit for.

But I cannot, and must give credit where it is due. Comprehending how health and high production can exist together requires an understanding of complex farming operations.  Without going into all the details, modern farming is accomplished by a team of professionals, made up of animal nutritionists, herd staff, milkers, genetic analysts and veterinarians.  It’s this team of professionals, coupled with the hard work and spirit of the American farmer, that strives every single day to continually improve how we care for the animals to make safe food, using science, technology and innovation.

The reality of our world is that American farmers have a big job on their hands.  Not only are they outnumbered 99 to 1, they must provide food, fiber, fuel and pharmaceuticals for our ever-growing population.  In order to meet demand, farms must grow.  But with growth in size, farms do not lose the principles of farming that are so often associated with those picturesque red barns and green pastures.

Large farms – yes, even those who some may refer to as “factory farms” – are still family-owned.  Being family-owned means their farming practices are governed by traditions which promote a solid culture of animal care.  So, in essence, large farms couple family tradition with the ability to employ skilled, 24-hour staff, capable of meeting all the needs of milking cows.  From birth to adulthood, dairy cattle receive exceptional nutrition, comfortable housing and individual care.

Temple Grandin: Setting the Record Straight

The rise in milk output from the typical dairy cow has been one of the constants in the dairy business for many decades, here in the United States, and also in most other developed nations that value dairy cattle genetics. It’s a sign that farmers are doing better with both the nature and the nurture of how cows are bred and raised.

That trend, however, drew some unwanted – and unwarranted – attention last month, when The Washington Post ran an online Wonkblog article insinuating that dairy cows and their genetics were being pushed too hard in an unhealthy direction. The main source for that assertion was Temple Grandin, perhaps the most well-known cattle behavior expert in the world.  So when she says there’s a problem, people take note.

Only, what she told The Post reporter wasn’t really what was reflected in the story.  According to the following letter she recently sent to the Colorado dairy industry, Dr. Grandin didn’t imply that two-thirds of dairies are “bad.” 

What did she really mean? Here is her perspective on dairy farming, in her own words.

Setting the record straight
Temple Grandin

The Wonkblog article “Why a top animal science expert is worried about the milk industry” by Roberto Ferdman has caused considerable discussion among the dairy industry and academia. My purpose in this writing is to clarify what was said and what are my opinions of the dairy industry.

The premise of Mr. Ferdman’s 15-minute phone interview with me was to help explain the graphs showing the decrease in number of dairy cows and the increase in production per cow. During the interview I praised the excellent Colorado dairies I visited with Bill Wailes prior to his death. I also indicated that, in my opinion, excellent dairies like these represent a third of the dairies in the United States. This was interpreted by Mr. Ferdman to mean that two thirds of the dairies in the United States are bad. This is not true.

I have and will always be an advocate for animal wellbeing. However, I do believe we need to be concerned about pushing biology too far without the proper support for extremes in production. After learning that high producing cows, such as Gigi, have good longevity, I will stop making statements that relate production to longevity. Recent information from semen distributors has also shown that concentrated selection for size and production has been replaced by selection for health and longevity. It is great to have genetic options to improve traits and wellbeing. In addition, I just learned that recently published and soon-to-be published scientific studies show great improvement in lameness issues previously associated with high producing cows.

There are always areas where improvement is needed. Too many cows that should be euthanized on the farm are still arriving at packing plants. Another problem I have observed is very tall cows and some tall dairy steers are bruising their backs in transit. Truck size is limited to 13 feet 6 inches due to bridge clearance. If cattle are too tall, they may require single deck trailers.

In conclusion, I will be clearer when talking to the public. The majority of the dairy industry is doing a great job with animal well-being through improved facilities, workforce management, feeding and selection, but there are still a few who really hurt all of animal agriculture when poor decisions are made. While I praise the majority, we all need to work together to improve the others.

Meet a FARM Evaluator: Fabian Bernal, Dairy Farmers of America, Inc.

In his role working with dairy producers for the Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) Program, Fabian Bernal can confidently say that animal care and farming practices are better than ever before.

“We have learned a lot from farmers and their cows, and we’re improving the care that cows receive as a result.”

Bernal’s love of animals started at an early age, having grown up on a small dairy farm in his native Colombia. He later moved to the U.S., where he attended Western Kentucky University and he completed his master’s majored in animal science. There, he was mentored by well-known agriculture consultant and veterinarian Dr. Jenks Britt and decided to focus on dairy. Bernal has worked for Dairy Farmers of America, Inc., for five years leading industry initiatives related to animal health.

As a FARM Program evaluator, Bernal is responsible for making sure farmers’ management practices adhere to the key elements of the FARM Program. The evaluator’s role is to visit farms to collect data, make assessments of on-farm practices and have meaningful conversations with farm owners about continuous improvement.

“The FARM Program is about looking at the industry in an objective way that allows farmers to obtain meaningful feedback,” he said. “It’s also an opportunity to share with consumers the great story we have to tell about the dairy industry. And now we have the data to back it up.”

That data can range from basic information about the farm to animal measurements like body condition injuries or locomotion scores. Bernal then makes sure to analyze and discuss this data with the farmer, so they are always aware of such vital details.

But that’s far from Step 1 in the FARM evaluation process. First, Bernal encourages farmers to complete a pre-evaluation self-assessment form, which acts as a checklist of things the farmer should take care of before the evaluator arrives. When he gets on the farm, he does a preliminary interview with the farmer, learning the basic rundown of the operation. Then, the evaluation begins. For a period of 3-8 hours, Bernal checks on the animals and collects his data – marking down anything out of the ordinary. At the end, he’ll have an exit interview in which discusses his findings with the farmer.

“Documentation often could be better,” Bernal says about a common issue he discovers during his FARM Program evaluations. “We find that it frequently gets placed on the back burner. We’re telling people to make sure there’s evidence to document their practices.”

What Bernal enjoys most about his job as an evaluator is how the process initiates meaningful conversations, because those conversations can lead to real change. During one evaluation, he met a foreign employee who was a successful veterinarian in her home country and had her own ideas on how to improve care for the operations’ calves. Later on, Bernal discovered the farm – in consultation with the farm’s vet – had enacted a special training program for calf care with the help of this employee.

And he’s learned much more: “Every farmer has a different management style, goals and ideas. This job allows you to have a better conversation with the farmer about those goals – and how you as the evaluator can be a part of them.”