Dairy producers heard tough talk about the importance of treating cows with care during Dairy Day at the Colorado Farm Show this year.

GREELEY, Colo. — Dairy producers heard tough talk about the importance of treating cows with care during Dairy Day at the Colorado Farm Show this year.

"We have a chance to shape our legacy. Consumers are ahead of us on this, and we need to sprint — not run — to catch up," said Jennifer Walker, a former veterinarian in private practice and now director of dairy stewardship for Dean Foods, the nation's largest dairy bottler and distributor, based in Dallas, Texas.

Drought, soaring feed prices and an ebb in the price of milk have all been devastating for the dairy industry. Wiggins dairyman Mike Veeman bleakly described current profit margins as "unsustainable."

"I know of dairies that have done a good job but are going out of business," Veeman said.

Another family dairyman, Garrett DeVries, owner of Monte Vista Dairy at Gill, Colo., pointed to the precipitous decline in the number of dairies to around 50,000 today. Federal statistics indicate that from 1970 to 2006 the number of dairies plummeted by 88 percent. "This roller coaster of milk prices we've been on, I don't think we (as an industry) can survive it," he said.

The dairy industry is also reeling from undercover videos released to the public of dairy cow abuse, the most egregious and market-rattling examples being footage from the now bankrupt Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing in California and, more recently, Bettencourt Dairies in Idaho, where at least one employee has pled guilty to animal cruelty charges while two more are on the run.

The connection between rising economic pressures, an increase in average dairy size and the potential for livestock abuse were touched on at times, though the speakers were cautious about drawing too direct a correlation between them.

Temple Grandin, Colorado State University's renowned animal welfare expert, who also gave a wide-ranging talk during the show that drew a packed audience, maintained that size isn't a factor even though consumer surveys show the public thinks it is. The Bettencourt Dairies, a supplier to Burger King, milk around 22,000 cows a day.

"You can be big, and you can be good," Grandin said after speaking and then sitting through related presentations. "It comes down to management. On a large dairy, you break it down so that employees have ownership of what they are doing. They do that in the big feedyards."

An audit of Colorado dairies showed larger dairies actually had better resources to treat and prevent cow lameness. Smaller dairies treated calves better, but also had higher incidence of lame cows, she said.

Big companies don't help their image by going on the defensive and putting up walls to keep away the general public, she added. "The undercover workers are going to get in anyway," she noted.

Walker, the Dean Foods representative, was critical of voluntary industry programs that she said were "window dressing" rather than "cow-centered."

"It's not what we say, it's what we do that matters," she said. "We can't cherry-pick the science when it fits our purposes."

She called for industry-wide best management practices coupled with stricter accountability. Codified practices should include dehorning calves within the first two weeks of life, ending the practice of tail-docking, culling high-producing cows while they are still limber enough to walk and reducing stocking density to remedy an industry-wide problem with lameness, she said.

Frequent injections of bovine somatotropin, a hormone used to increase milk production, and a common practice of denying colostrum to newborn bull calves and giving it only to heifer calves were also questioned during the morning's discussions.

Grandin took agricultural associations to task for too often allowing the "worst actors" to serve on animal welfare committees.

She and participating dairy producers also mentioned the importance of having proper facilities to insure cow comfort. "One of the reasons Colorado is good on lameness is because most of our cows have some access to dirt," Grandin said.

While dairyman Veeman said it is difficult to standardize practices in such a diverse industry and defended economically driven decisions as typically in the best interests of the animals, he still agreed with a lot of what Walker and Grandin had to say, including their criticism of existing welfare programs.

"We need to find a way to put teeth in it," he said.

Noa Roman-Muniz, a CSU dairy specialist who collaborates with Grandin on research into how worker education and management is tied to milk quality and dairy productivity, organized the slate of speakers. She noted that labor management has become a priority.

"It's not your family you are working with anymore, it's often people from an entirely different background," she said. "If you want for them to be accountable, they need to understand how and why things happen. When I train people, I always explain why instead of just telling them what to do."

A panel of dairy operators, including Veeman, DeVries and Beth Atwell, manager of Long Meadow Dairy at Greeley, agreed on that point. They also said understaffing and overwork create a recipe for problems.
Atwell acknowledged that workers do get tired and more easily frustrated by the end of a long day, so her dairy has adopted procedures to counteract that. "We train that if you lose your cool, you walk away and call someone else in to help," Atwell said. "It's worked really well for us."

DeVries said worker pay was an issue. "Things are going to have to change," he said. "Long-term we are going to have to have better compensation." He also called for limiting the length of work shifts.
Roman-Muniz, the CSU specialist, is originally from Puerto Rico, where her brother recently took over the family dairy from her parents. It consists of 120 cows. "We have a quota system. Our price is guaranteed," she described. "It is grass-based with some supplementation, so it is a very different system from the one here."

Still, she said, dairy profitability was a constant struggle in her home country too.

The Colorado dairy farmers left little doubt they are feeling squeezed. "When we get to the point where we can't take care of our animals right, we'll sell the dairy. We'll be out of the business. We've already had that discussion," Veeman said.