When you hear the words large dairy farm, what is the first thing you think of?
Factory farm? Corporate farms? How about family farm?! No? I didn’t think so. There are so many misconceptions about these dairy farms. Unfortunately, much of what you will read online or videos you watch won’t tell you any of the facts. I am here to tell you, I am apart of a large FAMILY farm and hopefully, after reading this you will have a better understanding of what these farms are really like. Here in New Mexico we are known for our big herd size and dairy farms. New Mexico has the largest average herd size at over 2,000 cows per dairy. Lots of open spaces and the climate are the main factors behind this. But it might surprise you to hear that 95% of all dairies in the United States are family owned and operated. And it is no different here in New Mexico where 96% of our dairies are family owned.
LARGE FARMS SUPPORT MORE FAMILIES
In the past, one dairy supported one family, the dairy producer’s family. Now, our farms are supporting more families. For example, our farm supports my husband’s whole family which includes his parents, his 5 brothers and each of their families and, of course, us. Six members of his family work full time on our dairy and then we have our employees and their families. Some of our employees have been with us for over 25 years. It is important to us to be able to provide a good job for them and their families. On average, a dairy in New Mexico creates 26.6 direct jobs on the farm and 108 indirect jobs such as vets, nutritionists, marketing, milk processing and sales jobs.
COW CARE IS OUR PRIORITY
One of the main concerns people have is about how we care for our cows. People worry that larger farms won’t treat cows the same as smaller farms. One group of scientists looked into this exact topic in an article called “Is Bigger Better? Farm Size and Animal Welfare”. What they found will probably surprise a lot of consumers, but is no surprise to the farmers. Farmers, no matter the size of their farm, view their animals the same. We all treat our cows with the best care we can possibly provide. The study also found that “larger farms are more likely to implement science-based, standard operating procedures, train their employees, utilize technology to track and monitor animals and implement costly changes to improve welfare” (Robbins, von Keyserlingk, Fraser, Weary, 2015, p. 121-126).
ADVICE FROM SPECIALISTS
Larger farms are able to have a lot of different specialists to assist them with management decisions. On our dairy, we have a vet that comes every week to perform herd checks and pregnancy checks. Some dairies have a full time vet on staff to continually be on site answering questions. Our cows have a nutritionist that plan their diets based on their nutritional requirements. We have a crop adviser to help us utilize and maximize the use of land and water for producing food for our cows. Environmental scientists (where my job comes into play) help farmers with their state and federal permitting and environmental compliance to protect surface and ground water.
I have a question for you. Do you have vacation days at your job? You are probably thinking, yes, of course, most jobs do. Well when you are the dairy farmer on a small dairy (200 cows is the average herd size in the US), the producer may be one of only a couple of employees. In some cases you maybe the ONLY employee. So if you want to take off for a day or a weekend, you need to find someone to fill in for you. That is easier said than done. It needs to be someone who knows how to operate a dairy. Well most people that know how to dairy farm, are dairy farmers and have their own farms to run. It can make it almost impossible to get away. When talking with farmers on smaller dairies, you will often hear how they haven’t taken a vacation in 20+ years! One of the most amazing stories I have heard, was during the Dairy Sustainability Awards Meeting. A dairy farmer was being honored for his sustainability efforts on his farm. He was in his 50s and had never been on a plane or stayed in a hotel. He hadn’t spent a weekend away from the dairy ever. The person who nominated him for the award found a cousin who could run the dairy while he was away. Larger farms give you the opportunity to take time off. Even at our farm, we have to rotate when we are going to be gone which usually means no big family vacations. We wouldn’t be able to get away without our whole family working together and helping out when someone is gone. Earlier this year, our family really wanted one night to all be together on vacation for a big birthday dinner. Well with a lot of planning, we were able to have one night where we were all on vacation together. Maybe in another ten years it will work out again!
It is getting harder and harder for young producers to expand to their own farm. In the past, when a dairy farmer’s child was old enough they would “go out on their own” and start a dairy. Now families are expanding within the same farm. Multiple generations are working together under one roof (that roof just grows with them). One reason this benefits dairies is because dairies buy supplies at retail prices, but sell their product at wholesale. We purchase our supplies from companies a lot bigger than us. Staying together and growing the dairy, allows the dairy to buy things like feed and supplies in bulk and saves us money. These savings can improve our margins which is much needed especially during harder years.
So the next time you hear something about a “large dairy”, remember there is still a dairy farmer or two or six that are putting their heart and soul into their dairy. Large or small it doesn’t change the fact that our main priority is caring for cows and producing a wholesome product.
Do you still have some questions about our farm? Leave a comment below or send me an email. I would love to hear your questions.
Udderly in love with dairy,
New Mexico Milkmaid
Robbins, J.A., von Keyserling, M.A.G., Fraser, D., and Weary, D.M. (May 2015). Is Bigger Better? Farm Size and Animal Welfare. Know Your Food, 121-126. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3920/978-90-8686-813-1