Decisions

One of the things that I hear so often that always gets me going on social media is that us dairy farmers don’t care about our cows, and its all only for the money. That is the number one thing that as soon as I see someone say that in a comment, I know for a fact that I am dealing with someone who actually has no idea what it’s like living this life.

I’ve probably said this a million times before, but if we really were only in it for the profit then why exactly do I find myself constantly curled up in a corner sobbing when things go wrong. As a dairy farmer, some days it feels like my cows are the only ones that understand me, and I’ve even referred to them as my best friends from time to time. And I know even to other dairy farmers that sounds ridiculous, but I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true.

I do know that there are things that happen on a dairy farm that most likely look weird to people who don’t live and understand the life, that are all done to help benefit the cow, not the farmer. Most likely that’s why all the stigma around dairy farming started in the first place, one confused person looking and not understanding what was actually happening.

Another important thing that I constantly stress is that not all animals are the same, and animals are not humans. Animals are so much better than humans, but they also have different anatomies, and different ways of having a healthy and happy life. One example would be that most of the time people will take their kids to get a flu shot during flu season. Cows don’t need flu shots, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of another animal getting one either. But even more important than that, is I’ve seen people compare cows or calves to things like puppies. It doesn’t work to compare two completely different species and say that they are exactly the same. Dogs and cows need completely different things to be healthy and cared for. Would you give your dog cat food?

Where am I going with all of this you may ask? Well as I grow older and I find myself more involved with the goings on on the farm, lately I find things get harder. Just last month I lost a calf after only eight days of life, and there wasn’t anything I could do. And now, I find myself faced with a decision about one of my heifers.

The other day the vet came to the farm to do pregnancy checks, to see who all was officially pregnant or not. Every one of my cows who were supposed to be were, except for one, Charlie.

For constant followers of my blog, this name might seem familiar. I’ve talked about her a few times, especially during the blog posts from my last year at the fair when she was my Reserve Grand Champion Milking Shorthorn, just like her mother. Well recently her mother became unable to have more calves due to prolapse. Prolapse is a weird thing, and sometimes it can kill a cow, but other times it might even fade with time. But if we had bred her again, with her next calf she would have bled out internally. So we were relying on her daughters, Rey and Charlie, to keep bringing Milking Shorthorn calves to our farm.

Well the vet came, and before he even checked her, he said that she was dangerous and that we should get rid of her before she hurts someone. They had to have a halter on her to even be able to do the check. And then after the check the vet said she most likely will not breed ever, which is not good in humans and is definitely not good in dairy cows.

And so now I find myself stuck with a decision. When I was younger, things like this, though this hasn’t happened to me yet, but when bad things happen it was never down to me. It always happened to quickly or it had to happen or the cow would die. And now I’m older, and I make my own decisions. But I don’t want to have to make this one.

I’m in college, and the only thing I want to really be worrying about right now is my finals coming in two weeks. But I find myself having to sit here and write this out on the first day of Thanksgiving break before even trying to work on school stuff, because it’s all I can think about. And I don’t want to have to be thinking about it.

If dairy farmers were only in it for the profit, this decision would be a no brainer. She’s never going to give milk, so out the door she goes. Except that’s not how any of this works. Because we do care, we care a whole awful lot. And I know the vet said she was dangerous, and that she has the possibility of hurting someone. And I know we’re already struggling, just because dairy farms don’t bring in that much money in the first place, and we have more medical bills and stuff now because of what happened to my dad a few months ago. I know what the decision will most likely be, and will honestly probably have to be. But I don’t want to have to face it, and I don’t want to have to do it. Because I am a dairy farmer, and like it or not, or understand it or me or not, I and every other farmer like me, we care about our cows.

The Hardest Part

Farming has been a part of my life for almost half of it by now. I can’t count the numerous hours I have spent among the dairy cows in the barn taking care of them, or the countless times I have agvocated on social media or on this blog. I can’t imagine myself ever doing anything different. It’s definitely not the only thing that I do, or will do with my life when I graduate college, but I can’t imagine it ever not being a part of my life anymore. Even with the bad days and the hard times, it is always still worth it, for the cows much more than for me.

But with all that, comes like I just mentioned, the hard times. The hardest part about farming is the days when there’s nothing more that can be done. It’s the days when something comes out of the blue that couldn’t be seen or guessed, and suddenly the worst happens. It’s happened plenty of times over the years, and the last time was just a few days ago.

About six years ago now I experienced my first cow dying. It was on Halloween, 2013, and it was a Jersey, along with being my first Jersey. If you’ve been following my blog or you know me, you definitely know this already. Recently another one of my cows who is a half Holstein, half Jersey was due to have her calf. She had a great, happy, bouncy Jersey a week and a half earlier than she was supposed to. For the first day I was nervous, because normally that early leads to a bunch of problems in either the mom or the calf. But for the first few days, everything was completely fine. Which is probably why this hurts so much.

Her name was Jamey. I loved her the moment I met her a few days after she was born. There was no reason to believe that anything was wrong or would’ve been wrong by the end of the week. She was just a normal, bouncy calf. Impressively she even drank her milk perfectly, and drank a full bottle. We don’t know and once again like so many times before will probably never know for sure, but that right there could’ve been the problem.

Maybe it was my fault. Maybe it was someone else’s fault. Maybe it was nobody’s fault. It was more likely nobody’s fault, but I can’t help but feel like it was mine. I always do a little bit.

Something calves can get some time is bloat. I don’t know if that’s the correct term for it, or if it’s supposed to be they got bloated or what it is exactly. But either way when calves get bloated, something that is done is to give them a bit of Dawn dish soap, and walk them around in the barn. It’s happened to many of our calves before, there was no reason to think it would’ve been anything different. Maybe it was because she was a week and a half early. It was most likely that, and because something inside was probably not formed correctly or something along those lines. Something we could never have predicted or known about until it was too late.

As you might have been able to guess by now, Jamey got bloated. Only we didn’t catch it in time, or because of being a week and a half early there was a bigger problem and we didn’t know. That’s the worst part about all of this, is we didn’t know.

Jamey didn’t make it. Eight days of finally having something happy involving a Jersey in October after six years, and now it’s worse.

This is the hardest part about being a dairy farmer. I always know that someone really doesn’t know what it’s like to be a dairy farmer when they try to tell me that farmers only care about profit, and they don’t actually give a crap about the cows themselves. Oh how wrong that statement is.

I only knew Jamey for eight days, and it still feels like my heart has ripped from my chest. Three days later and I can still hardly write this without crying or wanting to cry. Things like this should never happen, and yet things like this are so unexpected and unable to be caught or prepared for that it doesn’t help to say that. The worst lesson to learn about farming is the terror at any cow getting sick, and the heartbreak when they’re gone. More than that, farmers more than anyone really know what it means to have to learn to move on. And even after an eight day old calf comes into your life and passes, that’s still one of the hardest things to do.

If you do this you should read this book

Last week I finally finished my first novel length book after working on it for months. It is also my first nonfiction book, and it details every single experience I’ve had with all of my animals. And so if that doesn’t already interest you, I have a list of a few things that might make you want to read my book.

1. If you know me personally and know about my animals, obviously you should read my book.

2. If you’re a loyal follower of my blog and want something that goes into much more detail you should read this book.

3. If you want to read a book about animals that includes pictures at the end of each chapter then you should read this book.

4. If you only know about dairy farming from things you’ve read or seen on the Internet and want to read actual, true stories then you should read this book.

5. And lastly if you simply want to know more about cows, alpacas, ducks, cats and dogs then once again you should read this book.

Memory: True Stories of an American Farmer is available on Amazon now.

This is my truth

By now it seems that the whole world knows about the animal abuse discovered at Fair Oaks Farm. I myself have been waiting to write my thoughts out on here because I was waiting to get all the facts.

And the facts as much as I know them are these: yes, the abuse did happen. And the people who did it were fired. The manager sent out another video apologizing for not seeing it sooner and detailing the steps the farm will be taking now. But the other facts are that ARM watched this abuse happen for months and all they did was film it. They talked about on the farm they were supposed to see something and say something, but they didn’t report it for MONTHS.

So since both of these videos have appeared animal activists have renewed their fight against the dairy industry that they would have everyone believe is cruel although many of them have never set foot in a dairy farm in their lives. There are bad people everywhere and in every business. Dairy farming is no exception to that. Even on my small dairy farm where like five people work we’ve had people who were employed by us abuse our cows. But they no longer work for us because like most dairy farms abusing our animals is not what we do.

Well this, this is my truth and the truth of at least 97% of dairy farmers as far as I know. My cows are the most important things in my whole life. I owe everything I am to them. I think about every single one of them every day, whether dead or alive. And yes some have died because there was absolutely nothing left for us to do for them. No day goes by where it doesn’t hurt.

People would like others to think that farmers do everything for profit. I’ve done my research and I’ve seen it in my own life. I’ve said this in other posts, but the milk price has dropped 18% since 2014. When we sell calves to other farms when we don’t have much room left, we barely get $10. One we sold recently we got like $4 for. Dairy farming might be the least profitable industry in America these days. But that doesn’t stop us.

We don’t do it for the money. We do it for the cows. The cows that we love with all of our hearts and that we would never think of trying to hurt. The truth is that milking cows that activists think is so bad takes like ten minutes out of their day and is like a breast pump for human women. They give so much milk every day that it is too much for one calf to drink and often times by the end of the day it drips out of their udders and makes them uncomfortable.

When cows have calves, they are some of the worst and best mothers I have ever seen. I’ve seen cows give birth and never look at them again, even if the calf is right in front of her. I’ve also seen others take over and clean up the calf even if it’s not theirs. And the fact is that cows weigh over a thousand pounds by the time they have their first calf. Often cows will lay sideways or in weird positions. If a calf was left close by they would easily be squashed or hurt by the end of the day. So when we move the calf for their safety it’s often just to the end of the barn, not that far away from the mom.

Everything dairy farmers do is for their cows. Before you go and attack someone’s livelihood make sure you know exactly what you’re talking about. Don’t believe everything you read or see on the Internet if they’ve never set foot on a farm either. Talk to your local farmers. Every single farmer I know would be more than willing to give you a tour of their barns that they’re in more often then their house. They will show you everything they do and answer any questions that you have. Then and only then once you know the real, full, honest truth from both sides then you can choose which side to take. But until then do not try to tell me what I do is wrong or that I hurt the cows that mean more to me than my own life. Because I will never stop loving them and I will never stop doing what I do because I know it’s the right thing for the cows and that they wouldn’t survive without us. And that is my truth.

The one in which I go into a feminist rant

Throughout my relatively short life on the farm there are two main stereotypes I have heard and had to deal with. One: dairy farming is a cruel industry, and two: it’s a man’s job. I might come back to the first one because I talk about that a lot, but today I’m choosing to focus mainly on the second one.

As a woman in the dairy industry I sometimes find the second stereotype to be even more annoying than the first one. I’m not sure what it is that made me think a lot about this lately but it seems to continually come up and weigh on my mind in these past few days. But maybe it’s just the fact that I have yet to post on this topic that made me think that now is the correct time to do it.

There are many things over the last few years about why women shouldn’t be farmers. The biggest one is that it’s a “man’s job” because women can’t handle the “hard stuff”. It’s either that or when women want to be farmers their immediately labeled a tomboy or assumed to be a lesbian. I’m not saying that being a lesbian is a bad thing because I don’t think that at all and many of my friends are or a member of the LGBTQ community.

But that is off subject a bit. As a woman who is definitely a tomboy but not a lesbian I find every single stereotype about women farmers to be annoyingly stupid. As someone who has also been a feminist for a very long time I find basically every single stereotype annoying. Another aspect that continually comes up is that a straight woman farmer needs to have a boyfriend or get married so they’ll have a man to help them do that stupid “hard stuff” that I mentioned before. I have never had a boyfriend in my life, through nothing but my own choice. And I may never have one or get married because I don’t know if that is what the future holds for me or not and because unlike another stereotype that comes up not just in farming but in everything a woman’s life should not revolve around a man or being in a relationship.

Whenever I tell someone at college that I plan on taking over the farm after I graduate I always get a slightly surprised reaction no matter who I tell. It is probably because I am going to college for creative writing and not at an agricultural school but I’m sure my being a woman is unconsciously a part of it too. Because it’s a man’s job that still to this day some people think only a man can do.

The idea of something being a man or woman’s job is ridiculous to me. I firmly believe a person should be able to do the job and career they want without being judged or having things assumed about them because of that type of label. Why shouldn’t I as a woman be a farmer, and why does that have to be so uncommon? Because of the hard stuff that I keep mentioning?

Let me tell you about this hard stuff that I supposedly can’t handle. I can lift grain bags that weigh up to fifty pounds. It can be a struggle but I can do it. And if I can’t do something like that I figure out a way that I can. But that’s not the hard stuff I hear about the most. What I hear most is about the emotional hard stuff.

When I was thirteen years old my first cow died. She was nine months old and while I did not actually see her body after I saw her the day before and it’s something I will never forget. When I was sixteen on the way home from a bowling match I got a call telling me my cow that was having a calf that night had the calf that was born dead. A few months before on our alpaca farm we had an alpaca die for the first time. That was the first dead body I ever saw. And about one month after the cow had the calf that was born dead, the cow had to be taken away because if we had waited one more day she would no longer have been able to stand. She died on the trailer. And when I was eighteen nine days after my newest calf was born she died and we still don’t know why. And just last year my third cow that I ever had and that I loved for five and a half years died. Not to mention the other pets I have that I’ve lost. All this and I only stopped being a teenager last year. So you tell me, what exactly is the hard stuff that I can’t handle?

Hope for the future in a time of struggle

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Kit the calf in the evening.

 

For  dairy farmers across the United States things have been hard for a long time. Most recently a rumor asserted that methane produced by cows is one of the biggest methane outputs in the environment. The debate over whether almond milk is healthier than regular milk, whether almond milk should be considered milk, stretches back many years.  Animal rights activists, most often PETA, suggest the whole dairy farming industry is cruel and wrong because of videos taken out of context or suggest the way large factory farms handle their cows stands in for all.

The number one problem for many small family  farms today  is the dropping milk price. According to Hoard’s Dairyman, the retail price of milk has fallen 18 percent since 2014, and the price in 2018 was under $3 every month of the year. This is “particularly noteworthy given the fact that there have been only four other months since May 2004 with prices below the $3 threshold, with three of those months coming during the depths of the economic recession in the summer of 2009.” 

Many farms can’t afford to continue, as heartbreaking and terrible as the decision to sell the cows is for farmers. In around the next year or so, the price of milk is predicted to go back up, and to hopefully return to what it used to be. But many farmers can’t afford to wait that long. Specifically in New York State the current cost of living in a median home is somewhere around $281,000. Even when the price of milk returns to what it used to be, it will still be a long time for dairy farming to be able to be called a “sustainable” industry, meaning that it is able to sustain a family without any other jobs in the mix, again.

Even with all of these struggles, there are still many family farms that continue to do the work that they love and that has often been passed down through generations. One such farm is ‘Holthouse Dairy’, in Clymer, NY. The farm is run by Steve Holthouse, with the help of most of the family. The small farm  that consists of around fifty milking cows, and twenty five younger ones, has their own share of the struggles with the current economy, but still make the most of what has been a lifestyle for many family members for years.

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An outside view of Holthouse Dairy.

“I probably began helping in the barn when I was around fourteen, but I really began working on the farm when I graduated high school in 1981,” said Steve Holthouse. “Now I am the official owner of the barn, after my dad retired. He still comes out every day and does what he can, and my sister, Nancy, and my daughters help too.”

 

Steve described a lot of what happens on the farm, which includes feeding and general care, milking twice a day, and getting the cows the right medicine when they get sick.

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Steve Holthouse as he milks a cow during the normal nightly milking time.

 

Due to the financial stresses from the falling milk prices, dairy farmers need to bring in money from other areas.  Dairy farming is no longer the only type of farming that the Holthouse family does. The dairy farm sits on the top of the hill next to Steve’s parents’ house, and as you travel back down the road to the next house which is where Steve lives with his wife and daughters,  in the backyard there a different farm can be found; the alpaca farm.

Back in 2013, when Laurie Holthouse temporarily lost her job as a case manager in Corry, Pennsylvania, she got the idea of owning alpacas.The want and love of alpacas stayed with Laurie and considering everything else happening up the road at the dairy farm, a year later the alpaca farm began in what had been the backyard.

“What first interested me about alpacas was the yarn and products that was made from their fleece,” Laurie Holthouse said. “I then found out that a teacher at the high school back then had some, and she invited us over to her farm. After I got some hands on experience I loved them even more.”

Although Laurie said now that she has to work along with being the owner of six alpacas adds more stress to her life, and prevents her from doing things like going on vacations as much as the family used to, they also serve to bring “a lot of love and joy to (her) life”.

She described everything that she has had to do for them over the years; giving them food pellets twice a day, making sure they have enough water, observing them to make sure nothing out of the ordinary is happening, monthly shots, and an annual shearing day, in which the alpacas get a “haircut” and professional shearers are called in and the family collects the fleece from them. It also makes the alpacas cooler and less likely to be overheated in the summer.

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Laurie Holthouse feeds her boy alpacas on a Friday evening before moving to the next barn to feed her girls.

 

Although both farms are radically different, both Steve and Laurie Holthouse had many common things that they talked about that pertained to both farms. Both mentioned having favorites among the animals, and both had very similar stories when it came to hardships.

Laurie described how in the beginning the family had had seven alpacas, but lost one to a really bad sickness that alpacas can get called the meningeal worm. She went on to explain how the first situation with the worm led to the family being able to prevent it from striking again as bad and have had a few times where they’ve been able to save the remaining alpacas. 

“Just recently, like back in January, both of our living boys caught the m worm,” Laurie said. “We gave them all the medicine that gets rid of the worm, but one of the things the worm does is paralyze them so they can’t stand up again. After a few weeks we had the one getting up by himself, but the boy who is the brother of the one that we lost had been down for months, and we though for sure we would lose him. But just recently we finally got him up for the first time, and he stood by himself for like five seconds. And then the time we got him up after that was forty-five minutes. And the time after that was an hour. And then he was up all day, and then as of like last week he got himself up by himself again. It really is a miracle.”

Laurie added that another fact that she found in the process of saving the boys is that ducks are one animal that is known to eat the snails that cause the worm, and so after almost losing both boys, she added four ducks to the farm.

Steve described a few times over the years where accidents happened, including a few times where his dad fell and dislocated his hip, and one time where he himself almost chopped off one his fingers. He explained that though farming is often a dangerous business, the worst thing to go through in his opinion is when one of the cows dies.

“I think the medical problems are the worst struggle out of everything,” Steve Holthouse said. “It’s really hard to see one of the cows suffer, especially in the instances where you know there’s nothing left you can do for them. The fact that there’s barely any money to be had out of dairy farming anymore is hard too, but I think losing one when you can’t do anything more for them, or you don’t know why is the worst thing I’ve experienced as a farmer.”

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Some of the cows of Holthouse Dairy enjoying their evening food time.

There is no denying that any type of farming is hard, whether dairy, alpacas, or something else. And with the current economy and times, dairy farming is harder than ever before. But the Holthouse family is holding on and doing what they can to continue their family business for as long as they possibly can. There will be many more struggles, both in the world economically and on the family farm itself, whether it is the continuing almond milk debate, which has been a growing debate over the last several years, or continuing to fight backlash from others. Holthouse Dairy continues to try to spread their message that they have never done anything but love and care for their cows, as most farmers do. Although things look hard for farmers everywhere at the moment, and will likely look hard again in the future even if milk prices rise, farming will continue, and on both of the farms for the Holthouses, miracles will also continue to happen as new generations take over for years to come. 

“And it really is just the good times and the miracles are what makes this all worth it,” Steve Holthouse said.

 

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Kit says goodbye to her farmer at the end of the day.

Shame on you

You would think by now I would learn not to comment on posts on Facebook where people are just going to respond and say what I do for a living is terrible, but it seems I haven’t learned. Well today someone said shame on you to me for doing nothing but loving and treating my cows right. And for some reason it’s sticking with me. Because I am not and never will be ashamed of what I do. Nothing will ever convince me the last seven years of my life were wrong and shameful. But if love is shameful then fine, shame on me. If meeting my first cow and having an instant connection so much that she has been my best friend for the last seven years is shameful, then fine, shame on me. If sitting next to a dying nine month old cow that should still have been alive today except for the accident that no one could control, at fourteen years old, and realizing that I was never going to see her again after that night, and therefore having to grow up and become an adult at fourteen years old is shameful, then yeah shame on me. If being told I’m much more mature than any other kid my age, and having the only reason for it being because I learned to be responsible and take care of something other than myself because I had my cows is shameful, then fine shame on me. If having my first panic attack of my life because I thought one of my cows was going to run into the road is shameful, then yup shame on me. If seeing a calf be born dead and see the mother get worse and worse and then get better a bit only to get worse again and then we lose her, and because of this watching and needing updates and watching and checking on my cows every single time they’re pregnant because I can’t let it happen again is shameful, then shame on me. If having one of my cows do a backflip and fall over her head and not be able to breathe until I know whether or not she’s going to be ok, and then going to hide and cry in the bathroom in both relief and horror after what just happened is shameful, then shame on me. If having a heifer slip and fall on my ankle and almost break it, if not breaking it a little and going back into the barn after knowing I could walk on it and feeding the heifers because they needed it and it was time to feed them and never actually getting it checked out, resulting in me walking with a heavier foot fall and having my ankle hurt every time it’s humid, but not really caring because I’m used to it now is shameful, then shame on me. If losing a calf after only nine days, or after one day and having to go somewhere and pretend like everything is normal when it’s really not but it’s a feeling that can’t be put into words is shameful then shame on me. If losing a cow after five and a half years and months later still walking into the barn and feeling like there’s a hole in the world where she should be is shameful, then shame on me. If time and time again I found myself worrying about one or another of my cows for a different reason or another no matter what the results end up being is shameful, then shame on me. If you’ve never felt the love of a cow, if you’ve never had the experience of sitting down next to a cow and having them turn and their head and fall asleep on you, with both of you feeling absolutely safe and at peace and can sit there for hours, then you don’t know what you’re missing. If anything mentioned above seems shameful to you, then you will not understand ever and I’m sorry for you. You may say shame on me, but I will never be ashamed to love a cow.