By Nicholas Albright, SPCA volunteer
“Mom’s favourite line is that we’re stressed so that our cows don’t have to be” says Erin Harris when asked if her farm has a philosophy on animal welfare.
The Harris family run Kootenay Meadows Farm in Creston. They achieved organic certification in 2008 and are best known for their cheeses (Kootenay Alpine Cheese Co). They have 160 cows. Last month they began a new and exciting venture, bottling and distributing their own milk in returnable glass bottles. The first stores to carry the milk are The Kootenay Co-op and Save-On-Foods here in Nelson. They also raise free range pigs, and supply some beef products.
The Nelson SPCA’s Farm Animal Advocacy Group promotes local farms that practise high standards of animal welfare. Our visit to Kootenay Meadows was for our own education — none of us are farmers — and we left with very favourable impressions.
Harris was very comfortable answering our questions on animal welfare. An inhumane aspect of conventional dairy farming is that lactating cows can be continuously tethered in small stalls with no access to pasture.
“Continuous tethering is very recent, in the last 10 years, when grass went out of style,” says Harris. “I don’t think you could put a halter on any of our cows!”
The cows certainly do appear spirited and content, with plenty of space and lots of straw in the barns. The cows are out at pasture for at least six months a year. Many of the cows have names, reflecting the family’s close relationship with their animals. “Bandit” for one is apparently quite the escape artist.
Another major welfare issue for dairy farmers is the fate of the male calves. The breeds used for dairy cows don’t produce high quality beef, and so the male calves often get raised for veal. Veal calves may be kept in isolation, in crates and slaughtered very young to provide tender meat. Harris is aware of the welfare issue.
“All of our beef calves get sold in Alberta, we don’t know that some aren’t ending up as veal. Eventually, we would love to raise our own beef as well,” she says.
The organic certification has strict regulations on feed, antibiotic and hormones, but it also includes high standards for animal welfare. This includes access to pasture, anaesthetics for painful procedures and short transport times. For a cow’s final journey, Harris says “we haul ourselves and it’s always butchered the same day so they are never there for a long period of time.”
Organic farming is criticized as inefficient, but Harris disagrees.
“Organic yields will almost equal conventional yields after about five to eight years,” Harris says.
She added that “with global climate change, when temperatures go up and we get less water, it all goes back to the soil. If we haven’t taken good enough care of it then we’re kind of….”
The sentence didn’t need finishing.
Kootenay Meadows get 26 litres a day from each cow, while the BC average is 31 litres.
“We feed a lot less grain than most farms so that they’re not pushed quite so hard to produce,” says Harris. “That also has a lot fewer health issues.”
The Harris cows are milked for seven years, compared to just three years average in BC.
Kootenay Meadows is proof that animal farming really can be humane and sustainable, and at the same time efficient and commercially successful. Look for their products in local stores. For more information and farm tours visit kootenaymeadows.com.