Thursday, March 27, 2014

Trying to prove that Nebraska isn't a humdrum state

I've been living in Nebraska for the past 12 years and I've always thought Nebraska is at least a little bit terrible. I think this is understandable since I came from the fantastic state of Colorado. I thought it was about time I gave Nebraska a chance and see what it has to offer.

It's okay  that you didn't make the list Lauritzen Gardens, I've already seen you
This meant I was off to Google to figure out what the best things in Nebraska are. I quickly found this link to help me out. However, it seems that I'm not the only one with a low impression of Nebraska because that "article" only had 8 items on their top 10 list. So, I had to make my own list of sites:
  1. Chimney Rock
  2. Lake McConaughy
  3. Carhenge
  4. Sandhill cranes
  5. Pioneer Village
  6. The Arch
  7. State capital
  8. Memorial Stadium
  9. Joslyn art museum
  10. Omaha Henry Doorly zoo
Thankfully, I had already done items 7-10 in those 12 years. So for the purposes of The List, I only had to do items 1-6.

I hit items 5&6 on the way out to Colorado last Christmas, but I hadn't started blogging then. But, to be honest, those items weren't really worth blogging about anyway. Pioneer village is kinda boring unless you like old stuff and costs too much money. The Arch is kind of cool, but again, it's a lot more expensive than I would think.

This past weekend, the wife and I took a long weekend and hit up items 1-4. I'll write up another blog post or two on that specific trip.

Sorry, Nebraska is a humdrum state

All in all, I think I've given Nebraska a solid chance. But, it still doesn't hold a candle to most of the rest of the country. 3 of the 10 things on my list essentially boiled down to "we were important once, remember?". But Nebraska doesn't even have fallen glory, Nebraska was important simply because you had to go through it to get to the other parts of the country. So, while Nebraska isn't as terrible as many people think, it's not a diamond in the rough either.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

I milked a cow and learned about our food system (Part 1)

Yesterday, my wife and I went to Branched Oak Farm and got to help milk their cows.
Cows finishing up their milking
So far, this has been my favorite experience on my list. There is no way that I ever would have done this sort of thing had I not put together my list. Someone on Facebook suggested doing this and I thought it was something weird and out of place with everything else. In the days leading up to going to the farm, I got to thinking more about why I am doing this and decided that it's a great way to learn about our food system that we've become so disconnected from.

We were at the farm for almost 3 hours and talked a lot with the farmer about the current state of the food industry, so I'm breaking this into two posts (though, they're both still long). This first one will focus on simply the milking process and the second one will focus on the conversations we had about the food system.

Summary (TL;DR version)

Overall, dairy farming is a fairly simple process. That's not to say that it's easy. Doing this every day during the heat of summer and cold of winter would wear on me. I think everyone should see if there's a farm around them that will allow them to learn more about where their food comes from. If you have kids, this would be a great learning opportunity for them.

I don't see how these farmers make a living at it, but I am definitely going to try to purchase what little dairy I do buy from these local little guys to support their environmentally sustainable and compassionate practices, and I would encourage you to do the same (it tastes better too!).

About Branched Oak Farm

Branched Oak Farm is a little organic dairy farm just north of Lincoln, NE. They primarily do dairy and some vegetables. The farm is 240 acres and they have about 25 cows. Only 10 of which were currently being milked when we visited. This is because the cows get milked 305 days a year and 15 were in their "off" rotation. So, during the summer, they go up to around 25 cows being milked per day.

They sell their products (primarily various cheeses) to Whole Foods, fancy restaurants (e.g. The Grey Plume and The Boiler Room), and other small places. You can also go to the farm and buy raw milk (which can only legally be bought at the farm in Nebraska, more on that in part 2).

Their herd is mostly Jersey cows, not the typical Holstein black and white cows you normally think of when you think of milking cows. They select their cows primarily for their longevity and the fat percentage. The fat percentage is mainly because they need that for the types of products they produce.

You would think that most dairy farmers would also select for longevity, but unfortunately they don't. Cows generally start lactating at the age of 2 (after their first calf) and then average 2.5 lactations before they're turned into ground beef. This means most dairy cows are slaughtered around the age of 5, this is a terrible waste to me, but I'll talk more about that in part 2. In general, this farmer lets his cows live out their life. So, his cows live about 15 years or so. As they reach the end of their lifespan, he might send them off to the slaughterhouse or, more frequently, they'll simply die on the farm of old age.

The Setup

My wife is the dairy buyer for ConAgra Foods (think ReddiWip, Swiss Miss Cocoa, Healthy Choice), so she knows a whole heck of a lot more about dairy than I do. She and the farmer got along swimmingly because people love to talk about what they know, and they both know dairy. Anyway, she had been to a dairy farm before through work, but it was a much larger operation that this one. Still, she knew pretty well what they did. Overall, she said the process is pretty much the same at scale as what we did, just bigger.

The first step is preparing the parlor for the milking and the food for after the milking. The parlor is a much more ergonomic setup than the stereotypical sitting on a bench next to the cow and reaching down to milk. In the picture below, you can see you're able stand and work with the udders.

The steps to prep are fairly simple:
  1. Set out some alfalfa in the outside pen for the cows to eat after they're done milking. Alfalfa makes for good milk, evidently.
  2. Scatter some lime on the floor. The lime give the cows a bit more footing on the cement and also will help balance out the pH of the soil as the cows track it back out into the fields.
  3. Put some grain in the trough so that the cows have something to eat while milking.
  4. Prep a bunch of rags for cleaning the udders.

Milking Process

Once prepped, we grabbed the dogs to help herd the cows in. The milking process was surprisingly simple. It's almost like this is something that's been done for hundreds of years and people have gotten a lot of experience with it...

Once the cows are brought into the parlor, it's pretty much the following steps repeated for each cow.
  1. Touch the cow on the tail/leg to let her know that you're there (you wouldn't want your doctor to just surprise you with a prodding hand, would you?).
  2. Wipe off the udders with a wet cleaning rag.
  3. Squirt each udder 3 times to get rid of the milk with the heaviest amount of bacteria. This also stimulates the cow to drop her milk. I really thought getting the milk to come out was going to be harder, but it came out surprisingly easy. Though, if you were to milk cows by hand for hours, I would imagine your hands would get very fatigued and cramp up.
  4. Wipe the udders down again with a wet cleaning rag.
  5. Dry the udders.
  6. Hook up the suction device. Again, this went on very easily. Once you arrange the suction cups vertically, they latch on to the teats very easily.
  7. Let the suction run until the cow is done (about 10 minutes each cow).
  8. Disconnect the suction cups. Once you turn off the suction, these essentially just fall off.
  9. Dip each udder in iodine so that the now somewhat more exposed udder doesn't get infected once the cow goes back outside.
  10. Dry off the udders so they don't get frostbitten in the cold.
  11. Apply Bag Balm to the udders so they don't get too dry. I've seen this product used by people for a long time, but this is the first time I've seen it used for its original purpose.
That's pretty much it. After all 5 cows are done, you simply let them back out into the pen that you set up with the alfalfa so they can eat to make some more good dairy.

After all the cows are done, you clean up the mess the cows made, and by mess I mean the urine and feces that they tracked in and created before milking. Thankfully the cows didn't poo or pee on us, but the farmer said you sometimes do become a shithead while milking...
I think Angie is prepping the last cow here

Economics of Dairy

After we were done milking and talking, we wanted to buy some of his products. One, to simply repay him for spending 3 hours with us. Two, to just eat some delicious dairy products. We picked out a couple cheeses and some yogurt but he wouldn't take our money. So, we took 3 hours of his time and about $15-$20 worth of product. We felt kind of like cheapskates.

On the drive home, we started talking about how profitable his operation is. The short answer is, I don't really see how he does it. He's an organic farm, so he can charge quite a premium on his products so I don't see how non-organic farms are profitable. Here's how I see the economics break down:
  • Each cow produces about 30 lbs of milk per day.
  • As a rule of thumb, it takes about 10 lbs of milk to make 1 lb of cheese (the primary product of this farm).
  • Let's assume that he can sell his cheese for $20/lb (which is probably on the high side). That means he's getting $2/lb of raw milk.
  • This means each cow is producing $60 worth of milk per day.
  • Assume he milks on average 17 cows per day for 305 days. That means he takes in $311,100.
I don't really know the cost side of things, but I really can't imagine that his costs are much lower (if at all) than $311k. The milking parlor alone had to have cost over $100k to put the machinery and whatnot in.

Comparing this to a conventional farmer who has a significantly lower price per pound of milk shows why farms are becoming more and more industrialized and a little less like the idyllic image of farming in America.

Don't forget to check out part 2 where I get all preachy.

I milked a cow and learned about our food system (Part 2)

This post is part 2 on my experience milking cows. In part 1, I talked primarily about the milking process itself, in this post I'll focus on the topics of conversation we had with the farmer. It's time to get preachy and long winded.
Angie and one of the farm cats
Over the past few years, my relationship with food has evolved #thanksobama. This adjusting relationship is largely coming from understanding the current industrialized food system, and how that system got put in place.

I'm not really sure how to string these topics together, so I'm just going to let each section live on its own.


I am a proponent of spending more on quality food and that the lowest cost per pound of food should not be the only decision in the food we buy. Overall, as a country, we are spending the lowest amount of money on food as a percentage of our income than we ever have. We currently spend just under 10% of our income on food vs. over 20% in 1950. Focusing on the low cost so much forces the agricultural industry to start deplorable practices.

Another thing I learned more about is that if organic is really the "best" type of food nutritionally, should it be something that's only reserved for the rich? There's no real answer to this right now, organic food simply costs more because of the practices, and the farmers can charge a higher premium. It's just nice to know that it's a topic of conversation in the industry.

Ag-Gag Laws

I was surprised at how quickly the topic of ag-gag laws came up, and I didn't even bring it up. Ag-gag laws are laws that are put in place to prevent whistle-blowers from exposing animal abuse. Somehow the owner of Branched Oak Farm (BOF) started discussing the topic with another farmer. This was great because I didn't even have to be a participant to the conversation and I could just listen to these two discuss it. 

The BOF farmer was of the opinion that these laws are a bad idea. Essentially, what are companies trying to hide that they need the government to come in and prosecute the people who expose their bad practices? The other farmer felt that the laws were a good way to protect the farmer who happens to smack a cow on the butt and then a picture of that gets blown out of proportion. Unfortunately, I wish it were that simple. The general exposés show abuses far worse than a simple swat on the butt. The BOF farmer is part of the Humane Society of the United States and testified against a proposed Nebraska ag-gag law. I knew from this conversation that this guy was a good guy and treated his animals well.

Ironically, ag-gag laws have turned me away from animal products. Back in May of 2011, Iowa was debating one of these laws. This is initially what turned me into a vegetarian. Simply thinking that whatever they're hiding can't be good and I didn't want to be a part of it. Now, Idaho recently passed a law in response to a video at a dairy farm. This bill has helped me decide that unless I know where the dairy came from (such as places like BOF), I'm not willing to buy it. So, as the ag industry fights animal rights more and more, the more likely I am to not touch their products.

Regardless of whether you think eating animal products is right or wrong, I certainly hope that we can all agree that torturing those animals for the entirety of their existence is a terrible thing to do.

Animal Abuse

I am of the belief that industrialized food production inherently leads to animal abuse. The simple economics involved means that abuse must occur to get the scale needed to turn a profit. A prime example of this is a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). A CAFO confines animals for 45 days during a growing season. Forcing these animals into horribly cramped spaces where they can't even turn around is unacceptable. These conditions are endemic of our food system simply because of the need to drive costs lower. I don't believe farmers are deliberately malicious, they are just trying to do what they can to make a living.

As I mentioned in the previous post, BOF's cows live out their whole lives on the farm, whereas industry norms are to turn them into ground beef after 2.5 lactations. Again, this comes down to the economics, in order to produce enough milk, the cows are pushed so hard that they aren't really worth keeping past 5 years old, so they're slaughtered. Again, I think this is an unnecessary waste of life.

Raw Milk

As someone who doesn't drink much milk, I get unnecessarily worked up about the topic of raw milk. Somehow raw milk has become demonized in this country. It's something that's illegal to varying degrees across the country. In Nebraska, it's illegal to sell in a grocery store, but you can sell it directly from your farm. Yet, in Europe they have raw milk vending machines. I have yet to hear about masses of Europeans dying from this deadly product. As a consumer, I should have the right to buy whatever milk I want. And in all likelihood, that would amount to very little milk on my part.

Branched Oak Farm started selling it simply because people kept calling them and asking if they could buy it. There were about 6 or so people that came during the time we were there to buy milk. The hilarious thing is that it seems like the farmer didn't really even buy into the raw milk idea that much. He just knows that people are willing to pay for it, so he sells it.

Organic Farming

I'm still not sold 100% on organic farming. There have simply been too many studies out there about there being no real difference in nutritional value of organic vs. conventional. However, when you hear of the sketchy things companies like Monsanto are doing, I'm a little wary of them. The BOF farmer's opinion of the matter is that the consumer wants it, so he's willing to provide it. Additionally, the agriculture market is huge, surely there's enough room for the niche of organic food.

The farmer also brought up a couple of other issues that I hadn't really thought of before.

To stay organic, he is not allowed to use antibiotics for his cow. This makes sense because using antibiotics as a growth promoter is a standard practice in the beef industry, so consumers are worried about it. However, if he wants to use antibiotics in the way they're intended, to help fight disease once you're sick, he can't do that. So, when a cow is sick he ends up giving the cow antibiotics and then shipping it off elsewhere. This may not be the best for the cow, but the USDA's "organic" certification means he can't keep it around.

My wife also pointed out that for ConAgra, they test every load of milk they get in for antibiotics. If the load has any amount in there, they reject the load. So, it's definitely a myth that dairy products are riddled with antibiotics.

He also said that the other farmers are actually worried about his organic crops contaminating their GMO crops. This struck me because I've only ever heard the other way around.

Call to Action

Get out there and milk a cow or pet a pig. Get a good understanding of where your food comes from. Experience all the things!