The Importance of Knowing Where Food Comes From
Ron Erskine, DVM, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences,
College of Veterinary Medicine, Michigan State University
In 2010, under the crush of the recession, the Michigan State Fair, located in Detroit, was cancelled for the first time in 160 years. A sad reflection of a depleted city, echoes reverberate in abandoned barns where farm kids once groomed their show animals, while the ghost of Seabiscuit lingers on the track where he galloped to his first stakes race win in 1936.
The fair cross-pollinated rural and urban cultures, and served as an educational outlet for Michigan agriculture. From my perspective, as a workaday participant in the effort to produce an adequate and safe food supply, the dissolution of the state fair was yet another severed cord of communication between the farming community and the consumer.
We are exposed to a deluge of media and Internet reports concerning food and the state of agriculture in the United States. Much of the disseminated information has been misleading, contributing to misguided perceptions of farm practices. This is not a condemnation of our collective public need to be informed. However, our society's insight of farming has dramatically declined; at the time of the Great Depression in the U.S., one in five people (20 percent) were farmers, now it is less than two percent.
I was part of the 98 percent majority, raised in suburban Chicago, with little exposure to farming before my education in veterinary school. But I have learned that we are blessed with inexpensive and convenient food relative to the rest of the world. This empowerment has led to complacency in our need to understand agriculture; which allows hyperbole and sensationalism to sway our opinions. Food is a critical natural and strategic resource, and undeniably, changes must occur in agricultural practices to insure our food supply will remain sustainable. But decisions on agricultural policy should be founded on knowledge, not ignorance. Agricultural literacy is the pathway to this knowledge, and those of us who are involved in food production systems must lead the way.
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For more than a decade, my fellow faculty members and I, along with scores of students, private practice veterinarians, and volunteers participated in one of the most popular exhibits of the state fair, the Miracle of Life. Visitors experienced hatching baby chicks, nursing piglets, ewes with skittish lambs, and the main attraction, cows birthing their calves. Hundreds of onlookers cheered each new arrival, sharing a common wonder for what is considered a routine event on a dairy farm. While tending to the animals during those long, warm days, I began to comprehend that my participation was primarily as an educator, not as a supervising veterinarian.
The most frequently asked question from visitors was predictable, “When is the cow going to have a baby?” (Any dairy farmer would reply, “The cow picks her own time”). However, the second most common question surprised me, “Why is the calf separated from the cow on another side of a fence?”
On most dairy farms, the calf receives a thorough cleaning by the cow’s rough tongue, and soon after is placed in a nursery. Similarly, we moved each newborn calf at the exhibit to perform a brief physical exam, sanitize the navel cord, and bottle feed the first meal of colostrum; a nutrient and immune-rich first milk from the cow. However, our calf care protocol raised visitor’s concerns for separation anxiety and isolation on the part of cow and calf, which ran counter to their perception of animal welfare. I recognized that perhaps our practices, though clinically sound, were deemed as indifferent to the maternal-neonatal bond.
Like any mother, cows have a maternal instinct for protecting their offspring. However, their misgivings over calf removal are transient. As they reenter the milking herd from a two month absence that occurs during late pregnancy, their behavioral interests quickly shift towards finding their place in the social hierarchy of the herd, and basic needs such as eating and milking. The price of maternal angst is paid because securing calves away from adult cows greatly increases chances for survival. Numerous microbes that are carried in the cow’s body, relatively innocuous for older animals, can be lethal causes of pneumonia and diarrhea for newborns. Keeping calves in a separate nursery reduces exposure to these diseases, as well as the potential for inadvertent trauma from the cow or her herd mates.
Additionally, calves are bottle fed and trained to drink from buckets, which requires considerable effort on the part of calf raisers, and imprints the calf with human contact. This human-animal bond has long-term benefits. Calves are the next generation of cows in the herd, and are raised for two years before their first calving, a considerable dependent-care investment for the dairy farm. On farms where cattle are more frequently exposed to calm, frequent human interaction, my job as a primary care bovine (cow) physician is easier. This human contact is particularly essential for dairy cattle, as they are milked as part of a daily ritual. Although some 4-H show animals may act like pets, cattle are not companion animals. However, benefits gained by consistent human exposure are analogous to dogs. Puppies that have considerable training and human bonding are less likely to exhibit unwanted behavior or traits. Likewise, the basic needs of replacement heifers are intensively monitored by caretakers who are, in essence, surrogate mothers.
My career of service to dairy farms has granted me a lifelong education, daily revelations of the realities and challenges of agriculture, and an understanding of the importance of a safe, wholesome food supply. My state fair experience underscores the disconnection between well-intended people who are concerned about animal welfare, and ironically, dairy farm managers who are concerned about…animal welfare. From the farm side of the communication divide, dairy farmers and veterinarians can welcome responses to the public’s concerns, and demonstrate our ability to provide comfort, welfare, and innate behavioral and physiologic needs for the animals under our care. The dairy industry has a wonderful story to tell about the vital role we play in the health and well being of our society, and that we achieve this by operating under ethical standards of animal husbandry.
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