SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — As health professionals work with patients and consumers, they have a role in providing correct information about food production.
“I want to close the information gaps so you are more equipped to answer questions,” said Abigail Copenhaver, registered dietitian, during a presentation at the Let’s Talk Dairy Workshop, hosted by the St. Louis District Dairy Council.
“Dairy businesses are all run very differently depending on the topography, markets and environmental factors,” said Copenhaver, who together with her husband and two other couples operates a 1,500-acre, 800-cow dairy farm in Stanley, New York.
Since farmers are modest and conservative people, Copenhaver said, they often are unsung heroes in regards to environmental factors.
“Since the ‘40s, farmers have reduced their carbon footprint by 63%,” she said. “We recognize the environment is very important and crucial for us to sustain our presence in the food industry, and that 63% reduction has come from using less water and less cropland to produce more food.”
Farmers have the option to choose the type of farming system that fits their operation.
“Conventional farming means they are not seeking added value when they put food onto the market,” Copenhaver said. “But they utilize technology to reduce their environmental impact to be a sustainable business.”
Biotechnology involves science and different plant breeding methods to help farmers reduce risk and increase efficiency.
“This spring, we’ve had a lot of water and some years it’s really dry and sometimes we have issues with pest control,” Copenhaver said.
“Being able to work with technology that allows farmers not to worry about losing as much crop really helps reduce risk,” she said. “I can’t just put in these crops and hope for the best because I need a plan so my girls are getting their nutrition met.”
Organic farmers must follow the rules of the National Organic Program, Copenhaver said.
“But what’s commonly misunderstood is since they’re following the USDA organic program that means they’re more regulated than other agriculture,” she said. “But that’s not the case — if they use pesticides, they have to be approved.”
The entire dairy industry is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
“All dairy farmers no matter what method of production you’re using have to be inspected by their milk co-op and the FDA and these are unannounced audits,” Copenhaver said.
“Every time our milk is hauled off by the milk truck there is a sample taken from each farm and it must be clear with no antibiotics before it is unloaded at the plant,” she said.
“If the truck picks up at three farms and one of the farms is positive for antibiotics, all three farms’ milk will have to be dumped and that farm won’t get a milk check. So, there is a big incentive for the farmers to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Therefore, she stressed, it doesn’t mater what version of milk is purchased at a store — there are no antibiotics in any of these products.
Caring for a dairy herd is a pretty simple concept, Copenhaver said.
“If you keep your cows healthy, content and all their needs are met, milk production will naturally follow,” she said. “Milk production is one of the first things to drop if a cow is not feeling well.”
The veterinarian visits Ivy Lakes Dairy every week.
“We do ultrasounds on our ladies to know if they are going to have boys or girls,” Copenhaver said. “Our hoof trimmer comes twice a year.”
Cows are very social, she explained.
“A lot of times cows are grouped with the same animals they grew up with as calves,” she said. “It is natural for farmers to bring them all as a group to the parlor when they’re being milked because that’s what keeps them relaxed.”
In addition, cows love consistency, Copenhaver said.
“When we design parlors, we think about how to keep the cow calm and comfortable,” she said. “It takes from five to seven minutes for a cow to milk, so most of their time is spent in their pen.”
Since the stomach of cows has four compartments, Copenhaver explained, they can get energy and nutrition from products that humans can’t.
“Eighty percent of a cow’s diet is not digestible by humans,” she said. “The rumen is able to use bacteria to break down non-digestible fibers that we can’t use and turn it into energy they use for milk production.”
For example, people can’t eat cottonseed, which is sometimes fed to dairy cows.
“We’re feeding a cherry pulp to our cows as an energy source, and it also increased the palatability by making the feed sweet,” Copenhaver said.
For more information about the St. Louis District Dairy Council, go to www.stldairycouncil.org.