You know what label I am tired of hearing, “factory farm”. What does that even mean? “That farm has large barns and a lot of cows, so it must be a factory.”? The term has such a negative association. Have any of you used this term before and made an assumption that the cows aren’t happy and the farm isn’t family owned? Have you ever stopped to talk to the farmers to find out why they chose to have a particular number of cows, why the cows are housed in large free-stall barns, or if the farm is family owned?
On our farm, we milk 500 cows and on the farm I grew up on, they milk 1,500 cows. Due to their size and modern facilities, both would fit into the “factory farm” stereotype. However, neither farm is anything like a factory. Both dairy farms are family owned and operated. Did you know 97% of farms are still family owned? As our families grew, so did our farm. We needed more cows to support our growing family and to allow all family members to be involved in the business. By increasing the number of cows, we are able to do what we love and make a good living. Another perk of having a larger dairy farm, is that we are able to take time off and enjoy other activities. With more cows, comes more people. Large dairy farms are able to involve multiple family members and employees while still remaining profitable. We can count on each other to take care of the farm and cows while one is away. It is nice to be able to get away from the farm and enjoy life, something that might not be possible if you had fifty cows and only a husband as a hired hand.
So, you know why we grew in size, but what is the deal with these big free-stall barns? Why aren’t the cows on pasture? The modern dairy barn is termed a free-stall barn and consists of a barn with a stall for each cow, plenty of feed, easy access to water and proper ventilation. The cows are able to move about the pen; eating, drinking, and laying down whenever they please. Our free-stall barn is able to comfortably house 360 cows; the remainder of the herd is housed in two, smaller green-house shaped barns.
The stalls provided are commonly bedded with sand, but mattresses, water beds, and dry solids can also be used. We prefer sand on our dairy farm; it is easy to keep clean and provides adequate cushion when the cows get up and down. Summers get hot and winters get cold. Free stall barns have large, tarp-like curtains and doors that can be rolled down in the winter to keep cows warm and rolled up in the summer to keep cows cool. Just like you and I, cows hate extreme temperatures; perfect cow weather is a breezy, fifty-five degree day. Many free-stall barns also utilize giant fans and sprinkler systems to keep cows cool. We do our best to keep cows comfortable and free-stall barns allow us to do this.
The cows are milked three times per day, but they are never away from their pen for more than three hours a day. We bring the cows to the parlor in groups; we start with pen 1 and work our way through the barn. Our parlor is able to milk 16 cows in a matter of minutes and the entire pen in an hour. While the cows are being milked and the pen is empty, we scrape away the manure and rake the beds of sand. We also make sure they have clean water and plenty of feed. It only takes 10-15 minutes to milk the first group of cows in a pen, but it takes us a half hour to clean the pen, so the cows must patiently wait in the cow yard until we are done. The cow yard is provided with water, shade, and salt blocks to keep the cows happy while they wait. It doesn’t take long and the cows are back up to their pen where they can eat, lay down and do cow stuff.
I still haven’t answered the question, “Why aren’t they out on pasture?”. Mother Nature is hard to control and so are pastures. If you are even able to find enough land for your cows to graze, a lot of upkeep comes with pastures. Pastures need to provide proper vegetation and need to be rotated. If a group of cows is on a particular pasture for too long, they will eat it down to dirt. You also want to make sure your pasture isn’t to rocky or have obstacles that could increase Bessie’s chance of somehow injuring herself. What about when it rains, gets really hot, or gets really cold? Is Bessie close to a shelter area? What if Bessie gets sick on the edge of the pasture that is miles from the barn? How quickly will you be able to track her down? Cows are domestic creatures and need to be cared for; they won’t thrive on their own. You cannot just kick Bessie out the door and say “Have fun!”. Whether your cows are in a barn or out on pasture, there is a lot of work to do to keep them happy. For us, and many others, free-stall barns allow us to keep our cows happy and well cared for. In fact, I sometimes think our cows prefer their barn over the outdoors! There have been multiple times when the cows have managed to open their gate and run around (little rascals), but I never get too worried. After the excitement of finding new territory dwindles down, the cows quickly find themselves back in or near the barn. The barn is the perfect temperature, has food, water and comfy beds of sand…I wouldn’t want to leave either!
Just because our barns are big and we milk a large number of cows, doesn’t mean our animals aren’t properly cared for or make us a factory. We are simply a family that is passionate about dairy farming and wants to continue to grow and evolve. The saying goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, well, don’t judge a farm by its size. Big, small, organic, conventional; all types are vital to the dairy industry and are doing their best to keep cows happy and produce quality milk. So, lets quit using the term “factory farm” and just call them what they are…large family farms.