When Good Cows Go Bad

January 4, 2018

So, following our post about our sheep being on drugs, a friend asked me to write more about my explanation for why there are ABSOLUTELY ZERO ANTIBIOTICS IN YOUR MILK!  None.  Unless you're buying milk direct from some really sketchy farmer (which is illegal in the state of Iowa anyway), your milk has been rigorously tested for residual antibiotics and is totally safe.

 

We'll pretend this is my new cow, Bessie.  Say she's one of 99 cows in my milking herd, because we've given up beef cattle because we want to work even harder for quite possibly even less money.  Let's say I just paid $1,600 for her at the local sale barn because I'm really a sucker for punishment and/or incredibly optimistic about where milk prices are headed.

 

So she's been bred to a studly young thing that we picked out of the AI catalog, and has calved in as a fresh cow.  Maybe she's a little bit of a nutbar and likes to fight during milking, but she ends up with mastitis in one quarter.  Mastitis is what happens when bacteria (which love warm, damp, and food) get introduced up in to the teat canal.  Left untreated mastitis can destroy a quarter of the cows udder, and if it gets bad enough will kill the cow, slowly and painfully.  Obviously, I like Bessie and I don't want her to die, plus she's worth a good chunk of change, and even losing production out of one teat is a problem.

 

What will we do to help Bessie?  We'll call the vet, knowing that there are exactly two antibiotics that are available without a prescription, but neither of them is right in this situation.  My best bet for clearing this up is a medication that goes directly up in to the teat, so that's what the vet prescribes.  Now, not only do I have an angry, sore Bessie, I have to get fairly expensive medication up in her teat without getting kicked in the head for my trouble.  Because I know that ending up with medication in my milk tank is a HUGE problem, I will mark Bessie's leg with a band signaling that she's to be milked and dumped, rather than milked in to the tank with the rest of the herd.

 

When Bessie has completed her course of treatment and has tested clear for mastitis, how will we know when the medication has cleared her system?  We'll take a milk sample and have the creamery we're contracted to run tests on it to be sure that the only thing in our milk is actual milk.  To be sure that we don't have any underlying infection issues in the other 98 girls they'll also check the somatic cell levels, which is how many white blood cells are in the milk.  Having a low (good) SCC means more $$$, which is a great incentive, especially when we consider that it also means our cows are healthy and happy.

 

What happens if I forget to test her and I just go ahead and dump her milk in the tank?  When I milk, it goes in to a tank that holds say 22,000 pounds of milk (about 2,558 gallons) which in the current market is worth about $3,396.80.  When this gets picked up by the creamery they pump it in to a truck that holds several farms worth of milk, so say $10-12,000 worth.  As the creamery takes in this milk they test the whole shebang for antibiotic residue the same way I should have tested the bucket of milk from Bessie.  Now though, instead of dumping $7.50 worth of milk from my one cow, I'm on the hook for the whole $12,000.  Best worst case scenario I discovered the problem before they picked up, so I dumped my tank and took the hit for $3,400.

 

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Now, back to the Prairie's Edge reality.  This is just another part of what we need to be doing a better part of explaining to our customers.  Not only do farmers WANT your food and our animals to be healthy and safe, it is really, really expensive for us to do anything else.  I do absolutely think there are management and production changes that could be made to enable us to reduce medication use in livestock farming, but let's argue about things that are actually a thing.  There are no antibiotics in your milk. 

 

And yes, I did ask an actual NE Iowa dairy farmer about what size tank they have for their herd, in the interest of accuracy.

 

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