October 3rd, 2006
There was an excellent opinion piece by Nina Planck in the NY Times last week about the e. coli 0157 outbreak caused by contaminated spinach. What does this have to do with cheese? It is related to cheese in that Ms. Planck makes a connection between the spinach problem and the current commercial dairy and feedlot situation. I thought the piece did a fantastic job at outlining some of the serious issues happening in agriculture and the importance of understanding the root cause of an outbreak like this.
I do feel like a little extra information would arm consumers with a more complete picture about the use of grain on dairy farms. Every dairy except one that we visited this summer feeds their herds some percentage of their diet in grain. Because I wanted to have my facts straight before I started blabbing on the blog, I emailed one of the herdsmen I interviewed this summer with my questions about cows and grain and he sent back a response that I found incredibly useful. Below is a link to the NY Times piece and also the information I received from Andy Kehler at Jasper Hill Farm where they milk 35-40 cows.
Andy Kehler’s email to me:
“While Nina’s piece about ecoli and its connection to the dairy and beef industry was informative, I believe that there is crucial distinction that needs to be made. As a dairy farmer that does feed grain, I was disturbed that I am being lumped into a category of farming where I don’t feel that I belong. There was no distinction made between herds that are fed grain as a supplement to balance a ration and herds where the majority of their diet is grain based. Nina says turn your attention to the dairy and beef industry,but I believe the culprit is actually corn. It wasn’t until farms started feeding large ammounts of corn that 0157 started becoming a problem. It is cheap and easy to grow and the government will pay you to grow it. You have to feed enough corn to create ruminal acidosis in the animal- the ph in the rumen drops creating an environment where 0157 can can exist- this also leads to laminitis (where layers of the hoof start separating) and other metabolic problems in dairy cows.
Dairy cows have been bred over the last 100 years to produce more and more milk. They have gotten farther and farther away from their “natural state” where they could calve in the wild and forage. Most dairy cows can’t consume enough grass to meet the energy demands that their bodies require after they calve. This is when they are under the most stress- recouperating from calving, growing if it is their first or second calf and producing the milk that they are genetically predisposed to make. As a dairy farmer I feel that it is my responsibility to formulate a healthy ration for my herd and I believe that grain is a very important part of a healthy diet. As a farm we are lucky that we have been able to get away from pressures that fluid milk producers have, and can put the health of my cows and the quality of my milk at the forefront of what we do. I also have a herd where I can treat each cow as an individual and adjust each cows diet on a daily basis. This is impossible do on a large dairy.
The real problem here is that as a society we have made the choice that cheap food is more important than food safety. If we look where agricultural subsidies go, most of them go to the production of corn. In order to take advantage of these a farm must be of a certain size, for handling corn takes a lot more equipment. It is hard to justify the investment in equipment if you are milking less than 80 to 100 cows. Nina is asking us to look at the culprits- dairy and beef farmers. Comercial dairies need to squeeze as much milk out of each cow as possible in order to remain competitive. What ends up happening is they are trying to get as close to ruminal acidosis as possible- feed them as many calories as possible, without crossing that line where the rumen becomes too acidic. The industry creates a scenario in which a farmer has to push their cows as much as possible to produce more milk per animal.
There are around 3000 large farms in the U.S. There are tens of thousands of small family farms that are really struggling right now to stay alive because as a society we have chosen to ecourage and subsidize cheap milk and cheap beef. This is why this distinction is so important. I applaud Nina for shedding light on this issue, for I do feel that there is a serious threat to food safety here. I do, however, think the issue is more complex than she alludes and that the last thing that our small family farms need is to be blamed for making people sick.”