Where cows are happy and food is healthy
Food can be depressing. If it’s tasty, it’s carcinogenic. If it’s cheap, animals were tortured.
But this, miraculously, is a happy column about food! It’s about a farmer who names all his 230 milk cows, along with his 200 heifers and calves, and loves them like children.
Let me introduce Bob Bansen, a high school buddy of mine who is a third-generation dairyman raising Jersey cows on lovely green pastures here in Oregon beside the Yamhill River. Bob, 53, a lanky, self-deprecating man with an easy laugh, is an example of a farmer who has figured out how to make a good living running a farm that is efficient but also has soul.
As long as I’ve known him, Bob has had names for every one of his “girls,” as he calls his cows. Walk through the pasture with him, and he’ll introduce you to them.
“I spend every day with these girls,” Bob explained. “I know most of my cows both by the head and by the udder. You learn to recognize them from both directions.”
“This is Hosta,” he began, and then started pointing out the others nearby. “Jill. Sophia. This is Kimona. Edie would be the spotted one lying there. Pesto is the black one standing up. In front of her is Clare. Next to her is Pasta, who is Pesto’s daughter.”
I asked about Jill, and Bob rattled off her specs. She is now producing about 8 gallons a day, with particularly high protein and butterfat content. Jill’s mother was Jolly, a favorite of Bob’s. When Jolly grew old and unproductive, he traded her to a small family farm in exchange for a ham so she could live out her retirement with dignity.
When I pushed for Bob’s secret to tell the cows apart, he explained: “They have family resemblances. They look like their mothers.”
Oh, that helps.
As a farm kid myself, growing up with Bob here in the rolling green hills of Yamhill, where the Willamette Valley meets the coastal range, I’ve been saddened to see American farms turn into food factories. Just this year, I’ve written about hens jammed in cages, with dead birds left to rot beside the survivors, and about industrial farms that try to gain a financial edge by pumping chickens full of arsenic, antibiotics, Tylenol and even Prozac.
Yet all is not lost. Family farms can still thrive, while caring for animals and producing safe and healthy food.
For Bob, a crucial step came when he switched to organic production eight years ago. A Stanford study has cast doubt on whether organic food is more nutritious, but it affirms that organic food does contain fewer pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Bob’s big worry in switching to organic production was whether the cows would stay healthy without routine use of antibiotics because pharmaceutical salesmen were always pushing them as essential. Indeed, about 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States go to farm animals — leading to the risk of more antibiotic-resistant microbes, which already cause infections that kill some 100,000 Americans annually.
Bob nervously began to experiment by withholding antibiotics. To his astonishment, the cows didn’t get infections; on the contrary, their health improved. He realized that by inserting antibiotics, he may have been introducing pathogens into the udder. As long as cows are kept clean and are given pasture rather than cooped up in filthy barns, there’s no need to shower them with antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, he says.
Many cows in America now live out their lives in huge dairy barns, eating grain and hay and pumping out milk. But evidence is growing that cows don’t do well when locked up, so now many dairies are reverting to the traditional approach of sending cows out to pasture on grass.
“Pasture does wonders for cow health,” Bob said. “There’s so much evidence that they are much happier out there. You can extend their lives so much by keeping them off concrete, so the trend is going that way.”
Is it a soggy sentimentality for farmers to want their cows to be happy? Shouldn’t a businessman just worry about the bottom line?
Bob frowned. “For productivity, it’s important to have happy cows,” he said. “If a cow is at her maximum health and her maximum contentedness, she’s profitable. I don’t even really manage my farm so much from a fiscal standpoint as from a cow standpoint, because I know that, if I take care of those cows, the bottom line will take care of itself.”
This isn’t to say that Bob’s farm is a charity hostel. When cows age and their milk production drops, farmers slaughter them. Bob has always found that part of dairying tough, so, increasingly, he uses the older cows to suckle steers. That way the geriatric cows bring in revenue to cover their expenses and their day of reckoning can be postponed — indefinitely, in the case of his favorite cows.
I teased Bob about running a bovine retirement home, and he smiled unapologetically.
“I feel good about it,” he said simply. “They support me as much as I support them, so it’s easy to get attached to them. I want to work hard for them because they’ve taken good care of me.”
Like many farmers, Bob frets about regulations and reporting requirements, but he also sympathizes with recent animal rights laws meant to improve the treatment of livestock and poultry.
“You hate to have it go to legislation, but we need to protect the animals,” he said. “They’re living things, and you have to treat them right.”
Granted, such a humane attitude may be easier to apply to dairying than to poultry. It’s tough for cage-free poultry farms to compete economically with huge industrial operations that raise millions of birds jammed into cages, and healthy food that is good for humans and animals in some cases will cost more.
Moreover, we’re never going to revert to the kind of agriculture that existed a century ago. Bob’s 600 acres used to be farmed by five different families, and that consolidation won’t be undone. But neither is it inevitable that consolidation will continue indefinitely so that America’s farms end up as vast, industrial, soulless food factories.
I loved growing up on a sheep and cherry farm, even if that did mean getting up at 3 a.m. in the winter to check for newborn lambs, and I hope medium-size family farms remain a pillar of rural America. As Bob’s dairy shows, food need not come at the cost of animal or human health and welfare. We need not wince when we contemplate where our food comes from.
The next time you drink an Organic Valley glass of milk, it may have come from one of Bob’s cows. If so, you can bet it was a happy cow. And it has a name.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.