Now to everyone's disbelief yes if you are cordial and polite these dairy owners are very willing to discuss the operation with you and even let you take some pictures. This is one of the misconceptions that annoys me. Everyone thinks that these dairies put up huge walls and no one is even allowed to pull in the drive. That is not the case. Now granted for biosecurity reasons they probably don't want you trampling around with the cows but if you are polite and respectful it isn't hard to get a tour of these farms.
Bridgewater dairy is a family run dairy. Yes you heard me correct. They milk around 5300 cows and most of the family members are very much involved. So this idea that a large dairy is a "factory farm" run by large corporations or robots just doesn't fit the bill here.
Now lets meet the family:
Dr. Leon and Nancy Weaver
Dr. Weaver grew up on a beef, hog, and tobacco farm while his wife Nancy was raised on a small dairy in PA. Dr. Weaver practiced dairy veterinary medicine for 11 years in California and later served 15 years on the clinical and research faculty of the University of California's Veterinary Medicine Teaching and Research Center in Tulare, CA. Nancy has a degree in accounting (Fresno State University) and is a Certified Public Accountant. She heads up all of Bridgewater's human resource, financial, insurance and accounting functions and is an active member of the Bridgewater management team.
Chris Weaver is the one that I interviewed. He is responsible for all farm and dairy personnel, equipment, and operations. This is what he had to say about himself "I grew up as a city kid, with close ties to the dairy industry. I rode along on a lot of calls with my father and really enjoyed the farm families he worked with. After I graduated college I began working on dairy farms in many different states (California, New Mexico, and Michigan) for about 5 years before we started BWD." Check out the website Bridgewater Dairy to meet some of the other staff!
I thought it would be good to ask Chris some questions that many people have concerning the diary industry and larger dairies specifically. Here is what he had to say......
Many people see large farms as factory farms and not family run. How do you respond to this?
"We don't particularly like the verbiage factory farms, because well large dairies are not factories. The ownership is personally involved and passionate about what we do. Any one that works with us or any large dairy operation knows its hard work. We recently hired a new maintenance supervisor, and in the hiring process a friend told me he knew a great candidate that he would talk to, later that friend said he had talked to his acquaintance and he said "I've seen how hard those guys work, I don't want to work that hard".Seriously, we must love what we do. It's hard work and I know a few factory owners or managers and they don't work nearly as hard as we do.
Dairy farming is a 24 hr 7 day a week 365 days a year job, sure we have lots of employees, but we are all in constant communication about the health and welfare of the cows. A cow is a living being, there is no one size fits all answer we are continually giving personal attention to animals in different periods of their lives. From trimming their toenails, to making their beds comfortable, to preparing them for the maternity ward."
How long is the average lactation for a dairy cow and how is this beneficial for a cow and not just the dairy?
"The average lactation of a dairy cow is about 13.5-14 months, with an average lifespan of 3 lactations. Just to clarify after a calf is born we raise that calf for 24-26 months before she gives birth to her first calf. Once the first calf is born her first lactation can begin. I'm always amazed how many people don't recognize that a cow has to give birth before they can produce milk. Any way a cow that completed 3 lactations is usually almost 6 years old. We have cows that have had 9 lactations and some that have less than 3 lactations for a variety of reasons.I always think we all want animals to live forever and I certainly do as well. So I like to put it into perspective for the non-animal people out there. Small dogs like poodles or terriers can live 15-20 years, and then 12 years is really old for a Golden Retriever, and 8 is ancient for a Great Dane. It seems the larger the animal the shorter the lifespan. So 6-10 years is pretty reasonable for a cow as well. Actually a 10 year old cow is ancient."
What do you feel the industry should do to help with transparency and have you implemented any steps to help with this on your farm?
"I think the industry has gone great lengths to create transparency, but we tend to be afraid of the people that are out looking for the mistakes we make. And we definitely need to be cautious.There are different routes of transparency. Fair Oaks Farms is part of the milk marketing cooperative we belong to. Our coop has set up this large scale dairy with a full tour and visitor center so that anyone can see everything that occurs on a large dairy. Our protocols are essentially identical to this visitor farm.
We recognize that it is not feasible from a liability standpoint, or for the health of the cows to have tours wandering through all of our dairies all the time and Fair Oaks is our solution for the industry. But then to bring the solution to a more local level we do host some specific tour groups, but most importantly we have recently added an individual that specializes in quality control, and protocol management. Her goal is to ensure the employees are trained to do the best for our animals and given the best resources to complete their task. While she is still learning the ropes our goal is that anyone can challenge her or us and we can give a protocol that answers a specific question or problem in the industry and scientific research that stands behind the protocol (actually we already have that it just resides in my dad's head or in his computer, we just need to get it written down) or we can take them out to the animals and show them how it is done. Granted we are not likely to do this for everyone in the county. We found this with tours and other things we have done. The tours take so much personal time of ourselves or our managers that it becomes hard to focus on the animals and manage a tour."
How do you feel about your cows?
"How do I feel about our cows. I love them. My house sits 500 feet away from one if the barns in Lyons, Ohio and we regularly take walks with the kids to see the cows. I should say this is where we succeed as a family not close family but a family of employee's. I only hire managers into the Bridgewater Dairy entity that love animals. It's not hard to tell the difference between someone that loves cows and someone that doesn't. If they don't obviously love working with cows, they won't survive as an employee. Our employee's are part of our family, and so are the cows."
I feel that it is very important for people to go out and meet the faces behind these farms. You can learn a lot from just a few minutes of talking with these folks and even put some of your fears and concerns to rest. Want to know what else is cool about this farm? Even though they milk around 5300 cows they still let them out to pasture when conditions are right!
Happy cow's don't only come from California but Ohio too!
Enjoy the rest of dairy month and go out and meet the people behind the milk!! (And cheese of course!)