Register Tuesday | February 20 | 2024
Greener  Pastures Photographs by Alexis Aubin.

Greener Pastures

Canadian farmers want to improve life for their dairy cattle, but it comes at a steep price.

It’s a mild day in June and the sky is a mottled blue-grey. Rain patters down, making the fields shine on either side of the narrow, two-lane 132 highway in rural Quebec. Along the road, dozens of wooden signs announce Ferme, and beyond them, quaint wooden houses proudly brandish fleur-de-lys flags on their front porches. In the distance, field after field of wheat and corn. This is Canada’s dairy heartland. Yet there is not a single cow in sight.

When the nation’s non-rural citizens—more than 80 percent of the population—picture a dairy farm, they probably picture an idyllic scene: cows scattered along rolling green pastures; a red, hay-filled barn nearby in case the cows need to seek shelter. This scene, however, is far from reality. Instead, three quarters of Canadian farms use the tie-stall system, where cows are chained inside metal pens not much bigger than two phone booths laid down side by side. The remaining quarter of farms house cows in barns, allowing them to move freely in and out of the available stalls—so-called free-stall barns. But Canada currently keeps no data on how long, or even if, Canadian cows spend time outdoors. If you’ve had a glass of milk or a piece of cheese lately, chances are it’s come from a tie-stall cow.

Cows in tie-stalls produce more milk than their exclusively pasture-roaming counterparts—one of the reasons some farmers like the system—and you wouldn’t necessarily know from taste or quality if your glass of milk comes from a tie-stall, free-stall or grazed cow. But in the age of the conscious consumer—who, less than a decade ago, cried out against battery cage hens—how do we ethically tolerate dairy cattle being tethered inside all day?

To answer that question means asking another: why has Canada, unlike many other countries, made so little headway in getting cows outdoors? Norway, the world’s biggest user of tie-stalls, banned the building of new tie-stalls in 2004 and is aiming for a complete ban by 2023; as of a few years ago, their tie-stall numbers had dropped from 88 percent to 74 percent. Switzerland, where 78 percent of barns are tie-stall, offers financial incentives for farmers who use free-stall. In contrast, there is currently no push towards free-stall coming from Canadian consumers or dairy’s governing bodies—in fact, the major current industry initiative reinforces the status quo.

As a result, Canadian farmers are stuck in outdated practices; many want to do more for their animals but find themselves weighed down by financial pressure and uncertainty about their farm’s futures. Meanwhile, consumers remain mostly unaware of where their dairy comes from. Canada’s dairy sector is paralyzed, and while its stakeholders are pulled in different directions, its cows remain indoors.

It isn’t until you reach a small, family-run, organic dairy farm on the outskirts of Nicolet, five minutes southeast of the highway 132 turnoff, that a huddle of cows comes into view. They’re the type of cow you’d see on a milk bottle, Holstein Friesians, standing at just above shoulder height.

In the field, enveloped by a circle of black, white and brown cow bodies, Louis Fleurent and I are investigated by curious pink noses. Rough cow tongues lick at our rain-splattered jackets. The low rumbling of cow moos is punctuated with the sound of teeth ripping tufts of grass and furry cow heads being scratched against a nearby fencepost. The rain has made the fields smell of grass and mud and the cows enjoy a light shower.

There’ll be a little boost in how much milk the cows make today, says Fleurent, the farm’s owner. A slightly weathered, round-bellied, plaid-wearing man, Fleurent has just emerged from a modest, not particularly modern-looking barn nearby. His family has been taking care of this land, and the animals on it, since the eighteenth century. The farm has been in Louis Fleurent’s hands since 1984, when his father passed it down to him. His only son, Pierre-Luc, has been milking cows with his father since he was twelve years old.

Growing up, Pierre-Luc spent his weekends and summers learning valuable lessons: how to attach the suction milker to a cow’s udder without spooking her; which type of feed leads to the most milk production; which cows get along on with which other cows in their complicated social hierarchy. At age twenty-eight, after studying agriculture at Laval University for four years, Pierre-Luc signed the papers to officially take over the farm. Both Louis and Pierre-Luc have known no other life. The farm is their home and their livelihood. They run it almost entirely on their own, with just one other part-time farmer from outside the family.

In 1988, Louis Fleurent changed the way his family farmed. Their farm had always been run out of a small tie-stall barn, and it still is today, but Fleurent wanted a way to ensure his cows were grazed outside as often as they could be and that they were getting the best feed. Organic farming offered a way forward, both to sustain the farm environmentally, by increasing the longevity of his cows, and financially, by creating a product with a higher monetary value at market.

Strolling into the paddock where his cows congregate, Fleurent explains that to qualify as organic, the cows’ diets must be made of at least 60 percent fresh grass or dried hay; the grass and supplementary grains they’re fed can’t be genetically modified or treated with a synthetic fertilizer. Further, cows should be allowed to graze on grass outside in the fresh air every day, when possible, all year. At very least, they must be grazed twice per week for an hour at a time. Dry cows—those who have not recently given birth to a calf and therefore are not currently producing milk—must be housed in free-stalls. Fleurent is also currently building a free-stall barn for his in-production cows.

Morally, Fleurent agrees with trying to keep the lives of his cows as natural as possible—but he admits that it requires a little extra effort. Unlike conventional farming, where farmers can source seeds, feed or fertilizer from commercial suppliers, many organic farmers choose to grow or make their own because of the difficulties in acquiring organic-compliant materials. Sixty-one acres of Fleurent’s seventy-one-acre farm are dedicated to crop growing, and he makes his fertilizer himself, using cow manure, old leaves and straw. The pastures must be replenished with seeds every year, and the cows are brought outside and back in daily. Fleurent must complete extra documentation in order to keep his organic certification, and purchase extra equipment, like a mechanical weeding machine, in order to avoid using herbicides.

When Fleurent first changed his farm to organic, he says didn’t receive the same level of support as conventional farmers in terms of training courses or access to farming consultants; instead, he learned  through experimentation. He formed a community of organic farmers in his area and cemented a partnership with a local cheese factory, Fromagerie L’Ancêtre, which is now the exclusive buyer of his milk. Eventually, all his extra effort paid off: he has greater control over how his farm is managed and his milk can fetch 25 percent more per litre on average than conventional milk. Moreover, he can prioritize a better way of life for his cows. “It just makes sense to have them outdoors,” he explains in French.

The Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle is the national code that governs the care of Canadian cows. All farmers—organic or not—must abide by it. While the details of the code were decided in 2009 by a group of scientists, veterinarians, members of the public and representatives from the food, retail and farming industries, there has been no real way of knowing who was and wasn’t complying. Representatives from the SPCA, RCMP, Ministry of Agriculture and non-profits like Anima Québec were entitled to regularly inspect places where animals were kept for exhibition, sale or entertainment, like in zoos, pet shops or circuses, but not places where their products were being sold, like dairy farms. Instead, inspectors could only be called upon to visit a dairy farm if they received a complaint about how the animals were being treated.

That changed in 2016, when Dairy Farmers of Canada, the national policy, lobbying and promotional organization representing Canada’s farmers, rolled out a new auditing system. Under the initiative, known as ProAction, representatives from provincial farm associations go out and make sure farmers are ticking the boxes when it comes to taking care of their animals, keeping their milk clean and disease-free and maintaining detailed records of everything from which cows they buy to when the milk truck comes every day.

The goal behind ProAction was to gain public trust for the industry. Though farmers weren’t previously required to record information about animal care, milk quality was already checked daily both by the farmer, who recorded bacteria levels, fat and protein, and by trained milk truck drivers, who inspected milk samples before loading product into their trucks. The farms themselves were also inspected every two years by provincial authorities to ensure their facilities were set up for producing quality milk. ProAction simply adds another box: assessors from the non-profit dairy genetics company, Holstein Canada, have visited farms over the last two years to score a selection of cows on their weight, whether they have any lower-leg injuries and whether they can walk properly.

This translates into a lot of extra paperwork for farmers—some of whom believe the new practices pander to city dwellers who, they say, don’t understand how difficult and time-consuming farming already is—and it doesn’t change the day-to-day life, or grazing time, of dairy cows.

David Wiens, the spokesperson for ProAction, is a third-generation dairy farmer from Grunthal, a district about seventy kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Dairy farmers, he says, have a strong sense of pride. They’ve always cared about the health and wellbeing of their animals and land. “People put their lives into this,” he says. “To a large extent, their self-worth is wrapped up in the care and handling of their animals.” ProAction, he says, isn’t about doing something new or better—it’s about reassuring the public that the current way of doing things is good enough.

But now is the perfect time to rethink what “good enough” means, says animal welfare professor Nina von Keyserlingk. The Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle is almost a decade old, and science has come a long way since then. Research now makes it clear that cows housed in tie-stalls often have a poorer quality of life: a scientific review published last year by the Institute for Global Food Security highlighted that tie-stall cows get injured or sick more often than free-stall cows; other reviews have shown tie-stall cows often have difficulties walking; calves in tie-stalls have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol; and one study even demonstrated that tying cows up for as little as one day causes them to walk and trot more when released, to make up for lost exercise time. Summer grazing of tie-stall cows can help ease the number of injuries and improve the overall health of a tie-stall cow, but these effects are only temporary, with one study finding the positive effects wore off once the cows were indoors again.

Von Keyserlingk stresses that the welfare of an animal goes beyond whether it is too skinny or has injuries. It also has to do with the animal’s mental state—something that ProAction’s framework and Canada’s Code of Practice do not assess. From an animal welfare perspective, she says, the problem is not the housing per se, but rather that a cow’s movement and natural behaviours are limited. Cows are highly social. They establish hierarchies within their herds and can even form friendships. Von Keyserlingk’s team at the University of British Columbia has shown that cows prefer to go outside given the choice, particularly at night when they’re resting. Without the chance to stretch their legs and socialize, cows can become more agitated, bored, apathetic and distressed. Simply giving cows some freedom when it comes to making choices about where or when they’ll feed, lie down or get milked can go a long way to improving their welfare.

Von Keyserlingk asserts that ProAction is a great first step to creating transparency in the dairy industry. But it doesn’t encourage any of the practices, like exercise and freedom of choice, that researchers have shown to be good for cows. For his part, David Wiens says that Dairy Farmers of Canada would not make any recommendations that don’t currently appear in Canada’s Code of Practice. Nor are there plans to incentivize farmers for using free-stalls or putting cows outside. Cows, he says, shouldn’t be “parked in a stall all day”—but changes to the national code will have to come before his organization suggests or enforces these practices with their farmers.

“The Dairy Farmers of Canada are never going to publicly not support their own code,” says Darren Vanstone of World Animal Protection, an organization that advocates for the responsible management of agricultural animals. “But we’re in a very different place now than we were seven or eight years ago.” Vanstone spent more than twenty years in the food retail sector and remembers being put in the firing line of animal rights groups opposing other forms of confinement, like cages for hens and crates for pigs. He’s shocked that tie-stalls have not become a similar point of contention. While Canada’s major animal rights groups all say they oppose the tie-stall system, none are currently campaigning against the practice. Vanstone ventures that the supply management system, which regulates the production and collection of milk, could create progress—but is currently impeding it. “In a free market system,” he says, “a grocer could go to their supplier and ask that they supply only milk from group housing systems.” Under supply management, there’s only one supplier for non-organic milk—Dairy Farmers of Canada, via provincial supply boards—and the milk isn’t differentiated by how it’s produced, leaving no way to opt for conventional milk from free-stall or grazed cows.

Another factor slowing progress is that the Code of Practice hasn’t come up for revision in almost a decade, and so there hasn’t been an easy formal platform to campaign for change. Vanstone, who sits on the committee that helps decide the binding guidelines around how dairy cows are housed, is adamant that the next revision of Canada’s national code will address tie-stalls. His organization plans to lobby for a phasing-out of the system, replacing tie-stalls with free-stalls.

But any effort to change the system will likely meet resistance from the most important corner: farmers themselves, many of whom disagree that the tie-stall system is unsound. Roland Egger, who runs a sixty-cow tie-stall facility just out of Milton, Ontario with his wife, son and daughter, says tie-stalls allow him to be as efficient as possible, by offering the cows high-quality food that makes them produce a lot of milk. “It’s actually good if managed properly,” he says. Like Fleurent, Egger also lets his cows out daily when the weather allows. His system, he asserts, is as good as the organic one. It’s easy, Egger says, for an uninformed or misinformed public to see a scenario like a tie-stall barn and quickly jump to conclusions about how things should be. Although free-stall barns allow cows to roam around indoors, they may not get any time outside. So which is better? He thinks farmers could do a better job of explaining their reasoning for their management decisions to the public, but it’s difficult to do that, he says, when the public lacks basic farming knowledge.

Egger is right about that general ignorance. A recent University of Guelph survey found that a mere 25 percent of Canadians knew that a cow needed to give birth to a calf before she was able to produce milk. In 1851, 87 percent of Canadians lived in rural areas; today, most Canadians are one or two generations removed from food production and the percentage of people living in rural areas is closer to 19. “I’m convinced that there are kids in Toronto who think milk comes [fully formed] in plastic bags,” jokes consumer economics Professor Michael von Massow.

Von Massow says that lack of knowledge means people have trouble sorting through a supermarket milk fridge. The containers are plastered with different claims—high in calcium (all milk is high in calcium), low in fat, vitamins added, recycled packaging, Canadian Made—that can be distracting, misleading, or confusing to the average consumer. “Organic” tends to be the go-to for concerned consumers; for everyone else, price is the signal amongst the noise. Milk bags could go the way of egg cartons, by offering labelling on cow housing, but that would require Dairy Farmers of Canada to separate milk by housing system and consumers to understand the difference.

In a way, tie-stalls are uniquely stubborn fixtures in Canada because they are as old as Canadian farming itself. When French settlers arrived here in 1663, they brought with them their form of farming: small herds of ten to twenty cows were grazed outside on modest family farms during the summer, and, as the days grew shorter and the mercury dropped, they were brought inside the barn and tethered—tie-stall farming was born. At the time, the barn was often nothing more than another room in the lower level of a house; with metre-thick walls and no central heating, the cows created much of the heat for the home. Cows were part of the family. As soon as the greenery began to poke through the snow, they would be outside once again. And so a silent contract existed for hundreds of years—confined and tied up in the winter, cows saw freedom in the warmer seasons.

“That’s just basically gone out the window,” says von Keyserlingk’s colleague, animal welfare professor Dan Weary. The advent of machinery in the 1950s that could be sent out to harvest grass signalled the beginning of cows being kept indoors more often than just in the winter. Soon, it became more profitable to invest money in machinery than it did to employ the labour needed to bring cows in and out of the barn. In addition, by better controlling what cows ate—as Egger acknowledges—farmers could increase the amount of milk the cow produced. “You feed them cheap grain to turn into expensive milk,” Weary says.

Tie-stalls were the first types of settled, non-nomadic farms to exist in Canada and continue to persist, particularly in Quebec, says Weary, because they are often family-run operations that have been passed down through generations. That isn’t to say that inherited tie-stall farms can’t change to a free-stall or an indoors/outdoors system (Louis Fleurent managed it, for example) but labour and setup costs often make the shift prohibitively expensive.

Inside the typical tie-stall barn,cows are lined up in pens bedded with straw or sawdust, sometimes with a foam-filled mattress underneath. A visitor might find some splayed out as they take an afternoon nap, and others standing, flicking their tails as they munch their food. All around is the constant sound of massive fans whirring in an effort to keep the cows cool and keep the dust at bay, interspersed with loud plops as cows relieve themselves. The smell—muddy and slightly sweet from the straw—will hang on your clothes and hair after you leave.

Just down the road from Louis Fleurent’s farm, near the township of Saint-Léonard-d’Aston, is Ferme Mijabo—a ninety-five-cow tie-stall dairy farm run by Jacques Beauchemin. From the road you can see a long, simple-looking building with a pale green roof which is dwarfed by two huge silver tubes housing grain that stand alongside it.

The farm, which has been a tie-stall barn since it was built, was passed down from Beauchemin’s father, who’d inherited it, in turn, from his father. Finances have often been tight and Beauchemin’s kids are more interested in becoming teachers and money loan agents; Beauchemin is unsure how much longer the farm will stay in the family, or if it will survive at all. All around him, once-thriving farms have begun to disappear. “About thirty-five years ago in St-Léo we were about twenty-five producers,” he says. “Now we’re down to three producers. In five years there will be two of us left.”

Beauchemin and his five-man workforce start the day just before 6 am. First, they milk and feed the cows. Then they clean the stalls, harvest grain and complete necessary paperwork. In the evening, they milk the cows a second time. “It never stops,” Beauchemin says. He can’t afford to hire additional staff, which is what he’d need in order to be able to let the cows in and out every day.

For the few months of the year when his cows aren’t making milk, Beauchemin lets them roam on pasture. And he’s building an extension on his barn, a sort of indoor park, to allow the cows to “shake a leg” in the months when he’s unable to let them outdoors. When his cows are happy, he’s happy. In an ideal world, he says, he would have the money to hire more staff to allow his cows out every day or be able to build a more modern, free-stall barn.

Any hopes of further improvement, however, Beauchemin is pinning on his application to a government grant offering up to a quarter of a million dollars for new technology and farming operations upgrades. The grant, called the Dairy Farm Investment Program and offered through Agrifood and Agriculture Canada, is meant to sweeten the deal for Canadian farmers after Canada signed a new free trade agreement with Europe in October 2016. That agreement, known as the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), will see fine European cheeses and yogurts flooding Canadian supermarket shelves and leading to a $116 million loss in revenue from Canadian-made products yearly, according to Dairy Farmers of Canada’s estimates. If the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would allow for free trade between Canada and ten other Asia-Pacific nations, goes through, Dairy Farmers of Canada estimates it could mean another $246 million annual loss. And Canadian farmers can’t fight trade losses simply by producing more milk to export overseas or sell in Canadian supermarkets because supply management limits the amount of milk they can produce. Beauchemin’s biggest fear is that Canada’s dairy industry will virtually disappear if Canada continues to allow imports of milk products from overseas. “We need to save [the dairy system] because we look out for our clients and our animals,” he says, “compared to what might come from outside, where we have no control.”

When the Dairy Farm Investment Program grant became available on August 22 last year, it proved immensely popular—it was fully subscribed within four days. (“It’s a little like the Titanic,” says Beauchemin. “They didn’t pack enough lifeboats.”) If Beauchemin gets what he applied for, he’ll build a free-stall barn for all his cows and a robot where the cows can go get milked when they choose. “It takes a lot of money to make animals comfortable,” he says.

On paper, the Canadian dairy industry looks like it’s doing well. Total milk production is at an all-time high of around 84 million hectolitres. But the number of dairy farms in Canada dropped from nearly seventeen thousand in 2003 to just over ten thousand in 2017, and the total number of dairy cows has dropped from just over a million to close to nine hundred thousand. Morever, the free-trade deals have weakened import controls and tipped the balance heavily in favour of imports; imported milk won’t be subjected to the 200- to 300-percent markup common under supply management, while Canadian milk prices will remain unchanged.

This leaves farmers three options to increase their profit margins: cut labour costs, expand their operations or increase how much milk their cows produce. All are difficult for farmers, like Beauchemin and Fleurent, who run small, inherited family farms. Both already operate with the minimum number of staff they require. For now, Beauchemin maximizes his cows’ milk production by keeping them mostly indoors to control what they eat. Fleurent received a grant from Agriculture, Pêcheries et Alimentation Quebec that allowed him to pursue the opposite approach: he made a large initial investment and then recouped his costs by selling his organic milk at a premium. The final option available to farmers is to expand operations by purchasing limited production quota under supply management. This additional quota can cost as much as $24,000 per cow; with more than ten thousand bids for quota and only three hundred units for sale, the chances of winning that lottery are slim. Beauchemin says he could have doubled his production over the past two years had the credits been available. To use another farming analogy, it’s a chicken-and-egg situation.

Weary sympathizes with the difficulties farmers face—they need to simultaneously take care of their finances, the future of their business and the wellbeing of their animals. The way forward, he says, is to gather the expertise of farmers, retailers, and scientists, allowing the public to weigh in as well about what they want and what they’re willing to pay for.

Policymakers have already learned their lesson about coming up with new farming systems without first consulting consumers. In the eighties, egg farmers acknowledged that battery cages for hens were too small; years of scientific research and millions of dollars went into finding a cage size that allowed hens to move around more, figuring out ways to add perches, even developing toys to stimulate the hens and keep them happy. When these options were presented to the public, however, scientists and industry were shocked to meet strong opposition—people didn’t want hens cooped up in cages at all. Instead, they wanted to see birds roaming around freely in barns or outdoors.

And what consumers say they want and what they are willing to pay for is different again: only 10 percent of US consumers currently buy free-range eggs, which can cost twice as much as conventional eggs. In Canada, major grocers such as Loblaws, Metro, Sobeys and Walmart—as well as restaurateurs such as McDonald’s, Tim Hortons and Burger King—have committed to buying cage-free eggs by 2025. It remains to be seen, however, whether Canadian consumers will be more willing than Americans to pay to follow their consciences.

Given the difficulties, is it reasonable to expect a shift towards free-stall systems and an expectation that more Canadian cows will be allowed to graze outdoors, something closer to the idyllic pastoral scene we already picture? There are some signs that Canadians will support alternative systems—and extra costs—when it comes to milk. Organic milk production has more than doubled in the last decade, but it is unclear why Canadians are choosing organic milk and if it this has anything to do with the way the cows are treated. The missing piece of the puzzle is figuring out what Canadians think. That, ultimately, will shape where our milk comes from in the future.

Back at the Fleurent family farm, Louis gazes out at the cows in his paddock. When he went organic, he took a chance—hoping that following his moral compass would also pay off financially, helping him secure the future of his farm for his family. Thankfully, his choice paid off. And in the end, despite the struggle, for Fleurent the reason he lets his cows outside every day is simple. “You have a responsibility,” he says. “You only till the land for the next generation. It doesn’t belong to you.”