Last week, Northern Express wrote about a confined animal feeding
operation in Mesick. Here, two owners of CAFOs in Alpena and Mount
Pleasant talk about their operations and their value to society.
Confined dairy cows are healthier animals.
So says Corby Werth, a dairy farmer with 185 cows in Alpena, and Jerry
Neyer in Mount Pleasant with 1,000 dairy cattle. They say that confined
animal feeding operations (CAFOs) is a term used for regulatory purposes,
but that CAFOS in Michigan are generally owned by families who have been
farming for generations and take pride in their work. Thats in contrast
to mega-dairies out west, where the largest dairy CAFO in Oregon holds
55,000 milk cows.
Werth and Neyer agreed to explain the operations of a dairy CAFO to the
Express, hoping to shed light on the operations.
Both farmers keep their cattle sheltered from the elements in a facility
with curtains they raise or lower to let in sunshine or block the bluster
of wind and snow. The farmers make it a point to give the cows enough room
to move around and to lie down, in part, because cramming cows into tight
quarters stresses them out, which can lead to illness, udder infections,
and lower profits, Neyer said.
Some guys will do it (pack them in), but most of us dont do it or very
much at all. If they dont have a comfortable place to lay down, they
wont get the rate of gain as fast as they want. Not only will the cow
suffer, but so will the producer.
Although dairy cattle in their CAFOs dont get to walk around in a sunny
pasture, they are healthier, eat a more balanced diet with nutrient
supplements, and are less likely to be caked with mud or manure, which
means cleaner milk for the consumer, Neyer said.
A dairy cow begins her working life at the age of two, beginning with
artificial insemination, which is actually less dangerous for both the cow
and farm workers, Werth said.
A bull in the pen, they are big and not exactly easy on animals.
Sometimes they can kill the cow, said Werth, whose grandpa was killed by
As for those who are concerned about bovine growth hormone that increases
milk production, Werth and Neyer are among virtually all dairy farmers in
the state who have voluntarily pledged not to use it. But neither farmer
believes its really harmful to humans. Its a hormone thats naturally
occurring in a cow, and it was an extra amount we gave to them when their
hormone levels naturally dipped lower in the cycle. I considered it
greener because youre making more milk with less animal, Werth said.
Once the calf is born, its removed from the mother and bottle fed with
powdered milk. The calf must be separated in order for the mother to be
commercially milked, the farmers explained.
What happens to the calves on our farm is they are kept with other calves
in an individual pen, bedded with the straw. They are kept with the mother
for an hour, and shes able to lick it off. Werth said. The big reason
we do that is for the safety of the calf. The cows, when they get up and
going, the calf automatically wants to nurse. So its for the safety of
the animal, the cow knocking the calf down, stepping on the calf. Thats
why we remove it.
TWICE A DAY
Male calves are typically sold to a beef farm, while the females are kept
to later provide milk. Farmers milk the cows twice a day in a mechanized
milking parlorusually producing about 6 to 10 gallons a day per cow,
about two and half times the amount of milk as they did in the 1950s.
Females have a nine-month gestation and are kept pregnant most of their
lives in order to keep milk production going. On average, they give birth
to a calf once a year. Once they stop producing milk, they are normally
slaughtered and sold for beef. If antibiotics are given to the animal in
the case of illness, they cannot be slaughtered or sold until 30 days
afterward to ensure the medicine has been flushed out of the cows system.
Like all dairy farmers, Werth and Neyer said they dont routinely
administer antibiotics, only doing so when an animal is sick. (In
contrast, beef cattle and pigs are routinely administered low levels of
antibiotics daily at most CAFOs in order to promote growth.)
Critics believe its cruel to keep a cow nearly constantly pregnant and
milking. But Neyer doesnt agree.
Natures that way, out there in the wild, Neyer said, adding that deer
have fawns once a year. Your pets would do that all the time if you
didnt get them neutered or spayed. Its a natural thing. Its not
unnatural to have a calf every year.
Critics contend that this style of intensive milking leads to a shorter
life span for the cow, averaging two to seven years. Organizations, like
the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter also have qualms with the potential
environmental impact of dairy CAFOs, such as manure spillovers to
groundwater, rivers, streams, drinking wells, land, and air--the stench of
the larger CAFOs is often very nasty and can burn nostrils and raise havoc
with asthma sufferers.
CAFO manure is typically used to fertilize the fields of corn and hay,
which is fed to the cattle. Although this is a long-time and traditional
farm practice, the amount of manure from larger CAFOs is vast and the
nutrient load can overwhelm available fields. Manure from a CAFO is often
a brew of growth hormones, antibiotics,and chemicals used to clean the
facilities. The manure can also contain dangerous pathogens, such as
e-coli, according to the website of the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter, the
states most active CAFO opponent.
Dairy cow manure may also contain birthing fluids and blood, milkhouse
wastes, and copper sulfate thats used in the footbaths for cows before
they are led into the milking parlor.
Werth, who has had no environmental problems, said they scrape the manure
into a lagoon, which has a solid cement floor with plastic side walls.
Its completely contained like a swimming pool. We irrigate it into the
fields for nutrients, he said. There is no chance of contamination
Phil Durst, a Michigan State University extension agent in Mio, said
organic wastes such as placentas pose no concern since they are naturally
broken down by bacteria. Copper and sulfurthe two elements in copper
sulfateoccur in soil and dont create a problem that hes aware of. He
believes the excretion of growth hormones or antibiotics are in amounts
too small to be of concern, although neither is tested in manure before
The biggest threat to the environment is to overload fields with manure.
Too much nitrogen and phosphorous will contaminate groundwater. Therefore,
the manure is analyzed for the content of both elements before its
applied to fields, Durst said.
Its really important to manage manure and nutrients well. I find that
farmers are conscious of that, he said.