Dairy Excel/Dairy Channel: People love progress but hate change

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Resistance by groups opposed to modern agriculture has taken a new twist. Now they’re going after university researchers and extension agents.

In the past, these groups have tried to use a variety of disguises to further their various agendas. Animal rights groups, local concerned citizens groups, vegetarian groups and “environmental” groups have used many ploys to try to block large livestock farms from operating in an area, including:

* Claims that modern agricultural practices are putting the family farm out of business, which somehow equates to killing babies, producing unwholesome food, or worse.

* Claims that keeping large numbers of livestock in one place presents insurmountable risks to the environment.

* Claims that large scale livestock operations will put existing smaller scale operations out of business.

* Claims that modern agricultural practices constitute unnatural or inhumane treatment of animals.

* Claims that bad behaving exceptional operators (who give all the good operations a bad name and provide the exception that such groups need to undermine the reputation and credibility of all agriculture) prove that all large operations are bad.

Why are we losing family farms?

We are losing family farms because the economic environment for farming provides a financial advantage for farms with lower costs of production (prices farmers receive have not increased as fast as the cost of production inputs).

One way to reduce costs of production is to take advantage of economies of scale of larger production units. Families have resisted the need to change to larger production units and modern state-of-the-art production facilities because:

* They do not wish to borrow large sums required to finance such facilities;

* They do not wish to deal with hired labor;

* They do not wish to change the way they have produced their agricultural commodity in the past.

Ohio is a “milk deficit” state. We import milk from other states to meet the demand for dairy products for our population. The same is true for other commodities such as beef and pork.

Large scale modern farms do not put smaller family farms out of business. I believe it is the inability to change (to remain profitable) or unwillingness to change that is putting small farms out of business.

Do large scale farms present insurmountable environmental risks?

Farming operations receive closer scrutiny than at any time in past. They must comply with stricter regulations than ever before. Neighbors and concerned citizen groups are more likely to take action to interfere with operations or building/expansion projects. Farm managers are more aware of attitudes and fears in their neighborhoods than ever before.

Modern farms employ greater safeguards against accidental environmental damage from misapplication of manure, fertilizers and pesticides. Runoff and waste water are more closely monitored and regulated than ever before.

The result of these trends is that today’s modern farms are more environmentally responsible and are less likely to cause environmental problems than the smaller scale operations they have replaced.

I think the environmental risks presented by large scale modern farming operations are manageable. Farms have plenty of technical help available to meet these challenges.

What about humane treatment of animals?

Confinement of livestock presents problems to many people who know that such confinement is different from the “natural” environment these animals lived in before man domesticated them. Casual observers often do not understand why animals must be confined or why we use such strange but necessary techniques as artificial insemination, dehorning and tail docking.

We must continue to evaluate our animal management systems to make sure we are not placing unnecessary stress on our livestock. We must make certain our nonfarm neighbors understand how concerned we are with animal comfort and health, not only because healthier animals produce greater quantities of higher quality products, but also because we care about the welfare and comfort of our livestock.

I think everybody would agree that modern dairy facilities provide a safer, more comfortable environment for cows, heifers and calves than ever before.

What about large dairies in western Ohio?

You have probably heard about the large dairy facilities being built in western Ohio. In several counties, local groups are going to unprecedented lengths to block the development of these new operations by Dutch families and others who find the region desirable for large scale dairies.

Despite the millions of dollars in increased economic activity these operations produce, many people are frightened or angered by these farms. Some activist groups, such as animal rights or meatless diet organizations, are taking advantage of these fears to advance their nonanimal agriculture agendas.

These new farms have a huge multiplier effect on the local economy of Ohio. They provide new jobs, improve local markets for grain and forage and help to keep existing dairy processing capacity and dairy infrastructure such as farm credit, service and supply firms from leaving the state or going out of business.

These counties lost their dairy farms in the past three decades. These new dairies are returning a small fraction of the number of cows that once inhabited Williams, Wood, Wyandot and Putnam counties. But local groups are doing everything they can think of to block the development of these farms, including filing lawsuits against extension agents and university researchers who have provided information and services as requested.

It reminds me of the comment I heard several years ago from a dairyman in Stark County who said, “People love progress but they hate change.”

(The author is an agricultural extension agent in Columbiana County. Questions or comments can be sent in care of “Farm and Dairy,” P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)

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