Happy cows, healthy milk, humane dairying
Bob Bansen and his girls
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…”
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 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.
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…”
“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.”
As Nicholas Kristof says at the end of this Op-Ed piece, “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.”
That’s fine by me.