The dangers of farmers choosing to live in a bubble

A lot of farmers I know who grow and produce for the commodity market (i.e. producing food or fibre that is functionally indistinguishable from that of your competitors) live in a self imposed bubble. They farm because they like it, they are good at it and they love the isolation from the rest of the world that it allows them .

Over the last few months I have had this increasingly emotional desire to wrap them all up in cotton wool and protect them even further from the world. There will of course be a lot of them who will say they can look after themselves thank you very much and so they can

I am beginning to think I get out too much or I think/care too much but my gut is telling me its not going to get any easier and more people need to get out of the bubble and have conversations with the people who buy the end products made from what they produce

Let me give you just one of multiples of questions I get asked. Just last week I had a conversation with some-one that I spent 3 days with at a workshop at the Melbourne Business School  who was very knowledgeable on a hell of a lot of things except the ins and outs of grain feeding cows. What he wanted to know was why we don’t say on the milk cartoon/bottle labels whether the cows have been grain fed or grass fed..I was bit ( a lot) shocked by this question. Well to start with it would be very difficult because as you can see from this slide we have a huge variation in cow feeding production systems in the Australian dairy industry

Feeding systems

  This chart describes the range of production systems operating across Australian dairy farms – & how farmers are increasingly becoming more flexible and opportunistic.

The reason being is smart farmers take advantage of what’s best for their farm system and their cows at any given time. The more supplementary grain you feed the more milk you should get remembering this is only cost effective when all the moons align.

When I asked why he thought this was important he said grain was bad for cows and consumers should be able to make ethical choices. Indeed consumers should be able to make ethical choices. The trouble is more and more consumers are making very ill-informed ones. Yes too much grain is bad for cows just like too much sugar is bad for kids. But smart parents like smart farmers are very diet conscious and control the amount  of sugar they give to their kids. Grains (or supplementary feeding as farmers call it) is a great option for cows as its higher in sugar aka energy than pasture and if you can buy it cost effectively it provides the opportunity to produce more milk per cow and this helps to keep milk affordable as well as a highly nutritious staple for families in Australia.

As you can see from the graph 50% of dairy farms in Australia supplementary feed their cows grains to generate 52% of milk production. I can assure you that the 2% that feed their cows a diet of all grains really know what they are doing and their cows are healthy and firing on all cylinders. Its also very important to remember that cows are feed grains not suitable for human consumption and this option can mean life or death for cows in a drought and we have a lot of them in Australia..

I am very reliably given to understand that a lot more is now known about cow nutrition than human nutrition and its safe to say dairy cows in this country have a much healthier diet than a lot of humans. Do we need to remind ourselves that over 50% of people in this country are overweight  You will also be interested to know that the smart farmers employ nutritionists to advise and monitor cow diet.

.Last week I wrote a very popular post on Art4AgricultureChat because I was very concerned (furious) about some other misconceptions that keep cropping up everywhere I go. See here.

Shares

I am glad it  resonated because its more and more critical that people make informed food choices not only for them and their families but also for the planetI

We have got to stop  this ever growing propensity to demonise certain types of agricultural systems out of hand

The media and websites are full of stories about the perils of conventional, large-scale agriculture, pointing to simpler ways of producing food that appear to be more in harmony with nature.

Large vs. small, family farms vs. corporate, organic vs. mainstream, free range vs. housed, grass fed vs. grain fed.The reality is it’s not the system it is how it is managed that really counts.

When it comes to the best approach to natural resource management and animal well-being we need to focus on measurable results that, in turn, will generate innovation and solutions to some of our most pressing problems on this planet. Not the least of which is to provide affordable, nutritious, ethically produced food that allows a reasonable return on investment for farmers that will allow them to feed a future 9 billion people and maintain life on Earth as we know it.

It is not just the community that is putting pressure on farmers. Some farm businesses and major retailers have taken to denigrating other farm management systems as a marketing tool to promote their own.

Judicious use of scientifically validated technology is one of the great advantages developed food producing nations like Australia has over many other countries. We have rigid and well regulated systems and safety checks in place that make our food some of the safest in the world, irrespective of whether it has been derived by conventional or non-conventional methods. If we read the labels and play by the rules we can be confident that the technologies that we use on farm are safe and the food that we produce is superior and as safe as any in the world.

Our farming systems can not be locked into a religious type paradigm of what we think is best .We must continue to adapt to our changing resource base, the seasons and climate, the economy and our markets. We also know that nature does not always get it right and some times we need to use technology to tip the balance back in favour of the farming system and the ever increasing people we need to feed.

We must acknowledge this if we are going to keep feeding our world from an ever shrinking resource base with a market place that continually wants to pay less for food that costs more to produce we must always use technology and innovation smartly. Equally we must consider the collateral effects of its use ensuring that our management and farming practices are at best practice rather than just reaching for the key to the chemical shed or the drug cabinet.

The majority of Australian farmers big and small, boutique or commodity will always aim to produce the best quality and safest food that is grown with the best interest of the environment and animals that it comes from.  Its time to salute everyone of them.

Thank you to the wonderful Deb Brown for sending me this great image to sum up my blog

Deb Brown

6 thoughts on “The dangers of farmers choosing to live in a bubble

  1. Well put.
    We as farmers need to start looking outside the box for ideas and ideals. We also need to stop point scoring off each other.
    Farmers are notoriously hard to get to work together as one entity. How do we change this, though?

    • Hi Ali
      Thanks for the great feedback. How do we change it? That is definitely the question everyone in agriculture should be asking and answering. I must admit after reading Women Don’t Ask I was reminded like farmers we have a culture in some industries/society that is so ingrained it will take a revolution to change. My next post is about the cotton industry conference and cotton farmers are trailblazers in the ‘we are all in this together’ mindset and I picked up some insights I am keen to share

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  3. There is little wonder that you had a puzzled look in relation to the question about feeding cows grain when you admit that “I can assure you that the 2% that feed their cows a diet of all grains really know what they are doing and their cows are healthy and firing on all cylinders”. The message is ‘let’s give them what makes a lot of money and forget about their biological requirements as animals’. Feeding all grain suggests cows being lot fed and probably on cement 24/7. Cows were born to eat grass hence the four stomachs…. and born to graze. The tendency towards high productivity – in the case of cows putting them in feedlots and feeding lots of grain or in the case of hens putting them in cages so they can’t move – is all part of a mentality of maximising returns irrespective of the method. It reminds me of economist Ross Gittins (SMH 16/8) when he said: One of the greatest failings of economist is their confident assumption that their way of looking at the economy is the only way – certainly the only useful way – of understanding it. The bubble story suggests something similar. It also reminds of Joel Saledin and his statement in the DVD FRESH that he likes to foster the cow-ness of the cow and the chicken-ness of the chicken. He does this by giving them access to their natural habitat – grass.

    No the question that was asked was not a silly question at all. It was only a silly question to you because you are not in the same mindset (paradigm) as the questioner. If you would like to get a benchmark on feeding grain to cattle I suggest you read The Omnivores Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

    • Hi Kerry
      Thank you for your reply. Please be assured I didn’t think the question was silly quite the opposite.
      I was shocked because I knew how impossible the request would be to follow through in this country due to the huge diversity of dairy farming systems..
      Having been lucky enough to grow up in agriculture and had the opportunity to both learn from books and hands on experiences I now have an intimate knowledge of soil and cow health and well being. Whilst I highly respect Michael Pollan and his opinions and his right to make a considerable amount of money from them he doesn’t fall into a recognized lists of experts I would tap into on grain feeding of cows
      May I ask have you been to a dairy in Australia where the cows are fully housed?

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