"Buy Local." "Buy direct from the farmer." "Whatever you do, don't buy from Walmart."
This is what we've been hearing on the street, social media, and more as Walmart's vertical integration of milk has made ripples & waves among dairy farmers and consumers.
That means we get the question - "Where can I buy your milk?" But the real question that's being asked is "How can I support farmers, especially family farms?"
For the few farms that both milk the cows & bottle the milk right there on their farm, you can buy milk at their farm stand and sometimes in the local grocery story. And if that works for you, it's great for you & for that local farmer.
But honestly that might not be the way a lot of us shop. I understand, I'm a busy mom and can't stop at every little farm stand. I've got a schedule and it's full - I just need to pick up all of our food for the week during my once a week grocery shopping trip.
So where then can you buy the milk that our cows make so you can support our family's farm?
Well, since we don't bottle our own milk or have the expertise to turn it into cheese or ice cream or cream cheese, we've joined with other family farmers and together have hired folks who are experts in those areas to take the milk from our cows and get it to your local grocery store shelf (or restaurant or school as lots of food ends up there too!).
We're part of Prairie Farms as members owners. After #DairymanDan feeds & cares for our cows & Rita the robot milks them, Luke, our milk truck driver comes & picks up the milk and usually brings it (along with milk from other neighboring farms) to a cheese plant in Luana to be made into Swiss Cheese & Cream Cheese.
But I'm grabbing a gallon of milk, not Swiss cheese...
Yes, that's right but if you're picking up a gallon of Prairie Farms milk it means it's made from milk that comes from our friend Jason's cows, for example. He lives nearer the plant that bottles Prairie Farms milk in Dubuque so his milk truck driver usually takes his milk to that plant. Since we work together you're helping us both (along with all the other family farms that are part of Prairie Farms). It doesn't matter if you buy a gallon of Prairie Farms milk (or their many other products) or a block of Swiss Valley Cheese (which isn't Prairie Farms branded but is made by Prairie Farms).
Throughout the United States there are many dairy farmer owned cooperatives that sell products in your local grocery store, sometimes branded the same as their cooperative name sometimes branded differently. Do you know other dairy cooperatives in other areas of the country? What brand should you look for in the store near you to help those dairy farmers?
Some other brands, like A&E or Blue Bunny (and even Great Value Walmart milk) here in Iowa, are milk processors that buy milk from individual dairy farmers and although they have contracts, unfortunately if A&E or Blue Bunny decides they don't need the milk that a farmer produces they can not renew the contract & stop buying that farmers' milk. When dairy farmers own the cooperative, that can't happen because the dairy farmers & the board they elect are in control.
Is there anything else I can do?
The most important thing is to eat dairy foods! In reality 97% of dairy farms are family owned & ultimately even that Great Value Walmart milk likely comes from a family dairy farm. To support our family specifically, buy Prairie Farms products whenever you can!
If you just want to make sure that you're buying local milk and milk products you can check the number on the package and if it starts with a "19" it means it was packaged & made into cheese or butter or some other dairy product at a plant in Iowa! At "Where is my milk from?" you can even enter that plant number & find out specifically where it was packaged!
One more way to help is to donate to the Great American Milk Drive who donates milk to your local food pantry. If you shop at Hy-Vee in the Midwest just tell the cashier to add an extra gallon to your bill when you check out!
Thanks for caring about family farms & making choices with your wallet. It's easy to pick up the loss leader $1.48 gallon of milk (I know because I'm so tempted too!) & if buying that means your family can enjoy more dairy products than go ahead & grab it. But we, as Prairie Farms farmers owners, would love for you to enjoy Prairie Farms products & support us in the process! Thank you!
P.S. If you want to know more about how we're part of a dairy cooperative check out this post!
UPDATE: Since the writing of this post, the farmers of Swiss Valley Farms & Prairie Farms, voted to merge their dairy cooperatives, which means that we're now part of the cheese division of Prairie Farms. The principals of a dairy cooperative still stand true & we're looking forward to the opportunities that the merger will provide for us, the the dairy farmers.
So I grew up thinking that a coop was a place that you could buy organic local food in bulk because that's what my experience was and although that's true and there's plenty of coops like that out there, a coop, or a cooperative, really just means that a group of people have come together to cooperate on something and they legally form a cooperative.
So we've joined with other farmers to pool our milk together and then hire other people to take it from there! Because once our milk leaves the farm someone else has to take over in their specialty area from processing the milk into the many yummy dairy foods to marketing & selling those products both locally & globally!
What happens to our milk once we've milked the cows is one of the top questions we get asked. The simple answer? As member-owners our milk goes to Swiss Valley Farms. But you might have a few more questions... so read on!
What would your other options be if you weren't part of Swiss Valley Farms?
1) We could process it ourselves, which some people like Hansen's do but that would mean that we'd need to have some additional expertise & the machines/supplies necessary to pasteurize, make cheese, yogurt, ice cream, etc. which would take time away from caring for our cows.
2) We could also sell it on the open market to whichever milk plant, like Blue Bunny, needs or wants milk and then figure out how to get it there, again taking time away from caring for our cows, which is our specialty.
But does being part of a dairy cooperative really give you any advantages?
Yup! Here's at least three great reasons!
1. Farm to Table... and Beyond! We get tell you where our milk usually goes and what it gets made into and I think that's great because if you really want you can follow your food from Farm to Table, which is quite popular these days. Typically after our milk hauler picks up our milk along with other farms in the area, it gets taken to a cheese plant in Luana, Iowa. There's a wide variety of cheese that it can become from there, our favorite is the Swiss, because you can try it yourself by purchasing some here!
But not all of our milk ends up on tables in the USA, some of it gets made into cream cheese that ends up in cheesecakes halfway around the world in Asia! And that's pretty amazing to me, since on our own we'd never be able to make our milk into Swiss cheese for your table or into cream cheese and then figure out how to get it to Asia! Swiss Valley was even recognized this year as the 2016 Dairy Exporter of the Year by the US Dairy Export Council! Watch a video about it here!
And there's even a plant in Rochester, MN that makes processed cheese that ends up being used in all sorts of things like Goldfish or Cheez-its... yup there's real cheese in those crackers!
2. Learning & Training Being part of a dairy cooperative also gives us on-going learning & networking opportunities in and out of Swiss Valley Farms. As young farmers we have the opportunity to get together with other "Young Cooperators" each spring for 2 days of learning from Dairy Extension Staff and consultants, discussing what's happening within the cooperative, touring a farm or one our cheese plants, and having a little fun getaway from our 24/7 lives as dairy farmers!
Every year 2 couples get chosen to represent Swiss Valley Farms at the National Milk Producers Federation's Annual Meeting with other Young Cooperators from around the country. We were blessed to have been chosen a few years back. We learned a lot, met some great people, and had fun!
But there's even little things that have their advantages, like the monthly newsletter we get that highlights what's happening in the various cheese plants, awards that our cheeses' have won, and accomplishments & articles about other farmers, and more.
3. Market Protection Lastly and probably the biggest reason a lot of dairy farmers are part of dairy cooperatives is that part of being a member-owner ensures that Swiss Valley Farms will always give our milk a place to go to be processed and sent into the marketplace. When milk supply far exceeds demand for dairy products and the price we get paid for our milk is low the first milk that Swiss Valley Farms uses in it's products is milk from it's farmer owners, like us.
If we were selling our milk on the open market and trying to find the milk processor that would pay us the most for our milk, at times when the market is down, we'd get a lot less. We may miss out on the highest of high prices but we also are protected from the lowest prices or even not having anyone who wanted to buy our cow's milk at all, which sadly can happen.
Along those same lines, being part owner's of a company that makes our cows' milk into cheese adds value to our cow's milk because cheese has a much longer shelf life and is a much more unique product than milk on it's own.
Isn't that complicated? All that milk and all those plants?
Yes, it takes a lot of work and people to get the milk from our farm to the local grocery store shelf or half-way around the world for Asian cheesecakes! Milk is perishable so it has to stay cool & travel quickly & efficiently and we don't want it making any unnecessary trips!
Swiss Valley Farms has a great team of folks who communicates between each of the cheese plants about how much milk they need and the many milk haulers who pick up milk from Swiss Valley farmers 365 days a year! Cows make milk everyday which means the cheese plants have to be making cheese everyday too! Weather, natural disasters, equipment malfunctioning, customer purchasing and a variety of other factors can come up and milk has to be redirected to fill needs or find a processing home. It can get complicated!
Milk is perishable and typically spends less than 24 hours in the HUGE stainless steel food grade milk silos at the processing plants. Milk travels incredible quickly & efficiently thanks to the hard work of the many logistic teams at all the different milk cooperatives & companies in the US.
So, How big is Swiss Valley Farms?
Swiss Valley Farms has farmer member owners in 4 upper-midwest states that all come together at their corners - Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota so although milk doesn't actually travel very far from farm to processing plant it can cross state lines! Of the over 500 dairy farmers who are member-owners of Swiss Valley Farms, each of their farms is a little different - that's the beauty of dairy farming! Some are smaller and some are bigger; some milk their cows in tie-stalls & others have robots milk their cows; some cows spend all summer on pasture while others stay in the shade of the barn with big fans (like our gals!) and a whole lot of other variables!
Yeah, but do the farmers actually have decision making power?
While I can't vouch for every dairy cooperative at Swiss Valley Farms, yes they do or I should say they can, if they want to be involved. Every district elects a director who together make up the board of directors who meets at least monthly with the management team that they've hired to make decisions in the cooperative. And each district also has representatives that meet to discuss cooperative issues. My mother-in-law, Pam, served on the board for 26 years, the last 8 of which she was the Chairman of the Board. I can vouch that as Chair she typically had weekly conference calls with the CEO and vice-chair, talked with farmers in her district, and consulted with other district directors about the ins and outs of cooperative business. Is it easy to represent a diverse group of dairy farmers? Not always (is it ever really easy to cooperate?) but together we can do so much more than we could on our own and dairy cooperatives truly allow smaller farms to continue to survive as economies of scale push most every industry to grow & expand.
What about other dairy cooperatives? Are there more?
Yup! You may have heard of them. Dan's aunt & uncle are part of AMPI (Associated Milk Producers Inc.), and I since grew up in the Twin Cities in Minnesota Kemps & Land O' Lakes are the dairy cooperatives I grew up with. And don't forget Cabot Cheese out in Vermont and lots of other dairy cooperatives throughout the country. The amazing thing about being an American dairy farmer is that I have options, a lot of options, about which other farmers I join to help make our cows' milk into cheese, yogurt, ice cream, cottage cheese, chocolate milk, and more!
And Guess What???
And it just so happens that October is National Co-op Month. Did you know that in the United States there are more than 29,000 cooperatives that serve 350 million people? Maybe you're even included in that number... what kind of cooperative are you part of? Electric, Dairy, Grocery, Credit Union, Health Care... there's a lot of options!
Let me know in the comments!
Saving Dan's health and body is one reason we "hired" Rita the robot to milk our cows but it's far from the only reason.
It turns out Rita knows each of our cows really, really well... but then again she only knows them like Amazon, Facebook, and your FitBit knows you, by your data.
Dan and his parents have always known each of their cows well; they are able to pick out which one is which just by looking at them (I almost always have look at the ear tag to know!) and they know their individual personalities and quirks. When they were milking the cows, and therefore seeing them, twice a day everyday Dan could usually tell if a cow was feeling sick or if there was another problem based on how much milk she made or if something seemed off with her milk but now, with Rita's help, he knows even more!
It's often said, "You can only manage what you can measure", and while management certainly encompasses more than measuring things, measuring certainly helps. With Rita's help Dan has many more measurements that allow him to manage & care for our cows much better than before! So how does Rita do it?
First each cow is fitted with their own "FitBit" RFID (radio frequency identification) tag, which if you remember didn't work when we first started! When each cow comes into the milking box Rita identifies who she is and decides what to do next. Depending on how long it's been since the last time she's visited, Rita either starts milking her or kicks her out to come back and try again later (sometimes they just want some cow treat!).
Then Rita starts cleaning the cow's teats to get her ready to milk. Another anatomy lesson for you... a cow's udder actually has four separate compartments, or quarters as they are appropriately called, that each have their own teat for the milk to come out of. So after Rita cleans those four teats, she attaches a milking cup to each teat individually to start milking. The amazing thing is that Rita then measures the flow of the milk from each quarter so she knows when to take each milking unit off (movie below) as well as measuring how long a cow has been milking from each quarter. She can also measuring the conductivity which is an indication of if an infection (like mastitis) is starting in that quarter. If anything seems out of the norm (shorter than normal milking time, lower overall milk given, higher than normal conductivity), Rita alerts Dan and he makes sure to check on that cow. In the past Dan had a general idea of how much milk a cow was making because it went into glass measuring jars before being transferred to the main cooling tank but now he knows exactly and is able to catch a variety of problems before they begin!
Another thing that the RFID "FitBit" does is measures the cows activity level... how much time she's lying down, walking around, or standing still. Why would we want to know that? Well, about every 3 weeks a cow's activity skyrockets which means she's ready to get pregnant or is "in heat". We can often see their elevated activity visually but if we miss it, or don't know exactly when it started or ended, Rita lets Dan know, which means he can help the cows get pregnant with more accuracy.
Not only does Rita measure how much milk each cows gives, she also gives each cow an individualized portion of cow treat/feed to eat while she's milking. When the cow leaves the box Rita can tell how much she ate (based on weight), so if she doesn't eat enough Rita alerts Dan and he checks up on her in case she's getting sick (you don't like eating when you're sick, right?).
Now Rita gives us all this data & more but it's still up to Dan to take the time to look, analyze, and act on the information that Rita is giving him to make the best decisions for each cow... does she need to get milked again because Rita missed a teat? does she have a hurt foot or a tummy ache & that's why she hasn't come to get milked yet? does she need more to eat in the robot because she's making so much milk? is today the day to try & get her pregnant again? and on and on...
It's really quite amazing how much information and data there can be, and now-a-days in most every field there's plenty of data. Dan's aunt visited two weeks ago and loved looking at all the data that Rita gives us because in her job at the Post Office she dealt with lots of data too. Although at the Post Office, instead of how much milk a cow makes, her data was how many pieces of mail got delivered or lost, how fast they got to their destination, and more.
Dan's parents have used computer programs to track the health & well-being of their cows for decades and we still track many of those things with Rita and her accompanying software (family history, birth & health records, production timelines, and more). But now we have even more data helping us know with more accuracy how each cow is doing, meaning we can care for each of them even better!
How does information & data help you get your job done better?
P.S... Guess what? We've been sharing our dairy life with you for a whole year now! Hope you've enjoyed the journey as much as we have. Make sure to stick around because we're just getting started both in the barn and on the blog!
Maybe you've been wondering as I've talked about "doing calf chores", what in the world does that mean? After doing calf chores for 2 months I think I'm qualified to let you know all about it.
Now I thought about calling it calf care, because really that's what it is but then I thought more about it and decided at least for me they really are calf chores. Not that I'm not caring for the calves because as you find out that's all calf chores are about but let's be honest when you do your dishes, mow your lawn, dust, clean your toilet, shovel snow, or any other variety of jobs around your house to CARE for it, do you call it "household care" or "chores"? I think most people call them chores. You might even like doing some of those things but it's still a chore, at least some of the time - something that has to be done to properly care for your house and family.
So here's a typical morning or evening of calf chores on our current farm.
Water. Lots and lots of water. Lots and lots of water that must be carried to calves in 5 gallon buckets. Calf chores start and end with water. We try and give our calves the water that's already been used once to cool our milk down (a more complicated mechanical process than I can tell you about!) which means we have a little hose that water runs out of into 5 gallon buckets that we carry out to the calves and then take back for refill after refill. This also means the little calves don't have to drink the cold water straight from the well.
AND, we give them water in the middle of the day as well. For the most part Dan's mom did this while Dan was recovering but if she had meetings and had be be gone I'd run down and fill up those buckets! Calves are thirsty creatures, especially in the summer!
Next is grain, which varies depending on how old the calf is - we have 3 different kinds of grain and grain mixes that we'll even mix together more as they transition between the grain types. For both carrying water and grain buckets I borrowed the kid's little red wagon to haul the buckets back and forth, making less trips to and from our "hut city".
As they get bigger and after they've eaten their grain they get some hay to munch on. The grain contains most of their carbs and some additional vitamins & minerals while the hay contains more of their protein and fiber, giving them a customized balanced diet.
After they're all fed we make sure their living quarters are clean and comfortable. From birth to around 2 months each calf gets their own little hut to live in, helping keep any colds from passing too quickly while they're especially young and susceptible. We can also keep a closer eye on them individually to see how much they're eating or drinking or what their poop or pee looks like, so we can hopefully catch anything that's off of normal as quickly as possible.
Next they head into big huts that can hold a small group of 4 calves, which helps them begin to socialize with other calves and we're still able to keep a close eye on them. Eventually those groups are combined into even bigger and bigger groups until they have a baby and join the milking cows.
To keep the little calves' individual huts clean and dry we use recycled newspapers and papers that we grind or shred up into fluffy little pieces that we toss into their huts. I got to help bag up the ground up papers twice while doing calf chores - a rather messy dirty job! We get old newspapers from area newspapers and businesses as well as friends and family who save theirs for us... want your old papers to get a new life on our farm? Let us know!
The older calves get straw to sleep on - which by the way is different than hay. Hay is made from alfalfa and is what cows or horses or other animals eat while straw is the leftover grassy part after small grains like oats or wheat are harvested and cows sleep on it. Since I didn't grow up on a farm I still have trouble remembering and saying the right thing - which is important when telling someone else which calf chores you have or haven't done.
Finally, the little calves need to be fed milk. For the first few days we feed them their milk with a bottle and then transition them to drinking from a bucket. Calves get milk for 6-8 weeks before transitioning into drinking just water.
And that's how we care for our calves, our calf chores. Really it's much more in-depth than that... what questions do you have? Wanna help sometime?
"Hey, look at those cows!" Is that what you would say if you saw the scene in the first picture? Turns out those aren't cows at all. What? They look like cows... black and white spots and all! Isn't that a cow?
Welcome to Dairy 101, where we'll be exploring the basics of Dairy Farming! We're starting in June Dairy Month, but I'm sure it'll be an on going series. We'll start with the basics and that means some definitions of what to call all these animals we have around our farm!
So, if those aren't cows, then what are they? Those are steers, which means they're boys who got both their baby-making stuff and, therefore, their mean aggressive streak taken away. They still have the black & white pattern though and most people would call them a cow. By the way, did you know cows come in many different shades & colors? These steers are actually Dan's uncle & aunt's as we usually sell our baby boys for other people to raise into steers.
So, what is a cow then? A cow is a mama. A cow has to have had a baby before she gets to be called a cow. And we do have a lot of cows, with more on the way in the new barn. Since a cow has to have a baby before she can make milk and milk is quite important to what we do, these girls do get the most attention on the farm.
You probably know this next one. Those babies that the cows are having are called calves - boys or girls. They get to stay calves for about the first year, at which point they either start being called a steer or a....
Heifer. The girls start getting called heifers around a year, when they're starting to get ready to have a baby (ideally around 2 years old). I like to equate being a heifer to the teenage years, they're just continuing to work on growing and preparing to have a calf.
Now there are a few special boy calves that as they get older are called bulls. They get to be the ones to help make the next generation of calves. But they do have to be kept in a more controlled area and you have to be careful around them, because it is true that they can be aggressive. For safety reasons , we don't have any bulls on our farm, but that's probably a post for another day!
So, what if you want to talk about all those animals we just talked about? What can you say to encompass them all? You could call them bovines or more often they're all called cattle. And a specific group, like the around 150 cattle on the current farm, is called a herd.
Now there are even more definitions, especially when talking about all those cows we have around. They go through cycles and have differing needs during each time period, so for our ease of communication it only makes sense that we have even more definitions.
Just before a cow or heifer (if it's her first baby) has her calf, we call her a springer. That means she's getting close to that baby calf springing out of her! When they're close to having their baby, we like to check on them a few times a day in case they need help, so we often will go "check on springers".
Now any mama out there, will tell you that having a baby usually isn't a walk in the park and there's a lot of transitions that take place! That's what this next group is called: transition cows. For about three weeks before and after giving birth these cows often get a bit of extra special attention. All farms have differing programs for their transition cows which can include special vitamins, a special group of beds, extra food, peppermint or some other type of lotion rubbed on their udder, and more! At our farm, cows or heifers usually begin their transition about 2 weeks before they're expected to have a baby by joining the...
High Cows. High? What are they high on you might ask? They're making high amounts of milk! At our farm the cows get to hang out in two groups - the high cows make high amounts of milk and the Low Cows make a lower amount of milk. Why, you may ask? Well the simple answer is that each of these groups gets a slightly different mix of food, minerals, etc to support how much milk they're making which is partially based on the place they are in this cycle. They usually start out making more milk in the High Cow group and then as time goes on they begin making less and transition to being a low cow. There's a bunch of other great reasons to - maybe someday I'll give you the longer more complicated answer!
After a cow has been a springer, transition cow, high cow, and a low cow, she finally becomes a dry cow before hopefully starting all over again! Maybe you already guessed why she's called a dry cow... she doesn't have any milk. At least 6-8 weeks before a cow is expected to have another baby, we make sure she stops making milk so she can focus on growing the baby inside of her and preparing for her next cycle of making milk!
And lastly, the saddest part. Every so often we have to send some cull cows away. Because we do have to make a living from milking our cows, we do have to analyze our cows to determine if they're paying their way - are they making enough milk to offset their costs of food, shelter, and care? Eventually they no longer pay their bills and we have to say good-bye. We send ours off for others to buy either to try making it in another barn and herd or to end up in the beef supply... and that's probably another can of definitions to open (that I have no clue about!).
So the next time you're driving down the road and see a group of cattle or a bovine in a book, don't assume it's a cow - it might be a steer or heifer or even a bull!
Do you have funny terminology in your industry that other may not understand? What is it?
* And just so you know I did have this post checked & reviewed by my father-in-law, who has a degree in Dairy Science (did you know you could get a degree in that?)
Growing up a city-girl, after marrying my dairy farmer husband and spending a few years abroad, we came home to expand the family dairy farm and want to share our journey & farm life with you!