STIRRING THE POT - October 15, 2008
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Oct 17, 2008  |  Vote 0    0

STIRRING THE POT - October 15, 2008

St. Marys Journal Argus

By this time next week, I plan to be across the Atlantic on a two-week family holiday, courtesy of the 2007-08 St. Marys Minor Hockey Association booster draw (this year's tickets have been sent home with players. Buy some. You never know when your name might come up), and Stonetown Travel. It will be, by far, the longest time I have spent away from the dairy farm since I took over in 1999.This would cause apprehension enough, but probably the most apprehension comes from the very real possibility my entire milking system will be overhauled by the time I return. If all final preparations for the transition from bucket milkers to a milking parlour are not complete in two weeks' time, they certainly should be complete shortly thereafter.Practically no one familiar with the dairy industry -- aside from my long-suffering relief milker (who has taken care of my chores during numerous shorter holidays over the past few years) -- will believe that I still use the 60 year-old technology of the bucket milker. Indeed, some people who are familiar with today's dairy industry might never even imagine that anyone ever DID milk cows with such technology -- aside from those old-timers who milked cows by hand.In short, the bucket milker (and yes, it's an early version of the automatic milking machine) requires that I carry the cow's milk from the cow to the cooling tank, lift it to shoulder height, and dump it through a filtering bowl into the tank. Very few such operations remain in Canada, where almost all cow's milk is pumped from the udder through pipes, directly into the cooling tank.Through August and September, the farm has been hectic with a succession of construction-related tradespeople moving through the steps of building an addition to the old barn. Inside, almost ready to welcome the cows, is a milking parlour. Very soon ("not soon enough," complains the relief milker), six cows per "turn" will line up diagonally along the side of the parlour, and the operator will climb down some stairs and attach milking units that are connected directly, by a series of pipes, to the cooling tank.Actually, the "very soon" portion of the previous statement remains very much up in the air. It's true that "very soon" the milking parlour should be ready to accept cows. But, judging from comments from the off-farm visitors who regularly frequent the barn -- artificial insemination experts; livestock truckers; veterinarians -- there is absolutely no guarantee the cows will be ready to accept the milking parlour in any predictable time frame."There's no time like the winter to fight like hell with your cows," said the son of one local trucker, when he asked me about the parlour at a school event.Possessing a skepticism about technology that borders on Luddism, it was necessary to compile a long list of reasons for the removal of the bucket milkers in order to justify the expense. Quality of the milking environment, wear on the body (although my doctor suggested dairy farmers are all the same; first they wreck their knees crouching in tie stalls using a pipeline; then they wreck their shoulders making the awkward reach-up after they convert to the milking parlour), and the build-up of equity all came to mind. And, notwithstanding the warnings about the lack of bovine cooperation, many dairy-knowledgeable acquaintances have predicted I will definitely appreciate the change.But there are other reasons, aside from mistrust of technology, to lament the old system's imminent passage.All licensed bovine dairy farmers in Ontario are now required to have, mounted on the wall of their milkhouse, a time/temperature recorder (TTR). On a day-to-day basis, this small electronic box flashes its row of lights either green or red, ostensibly informing the farmer if and when a malfunction of the automatic cleansing and cooling system threatens to allow bacteria to multiply in the milk. In a good month on most farms, the TTR fades into the background, forgotten amid the rush from fieldwork to barn chores to family obligations.In a bad month, the TTR repeatedly sends signals to the flashing red beacon in the milkhouse window, summoning the farmer from the comfort of home to figure out whether the malfunction is taking place in a part of the cleansing/cooling system, or in the TTR itself.It may be true that TTRs are now in place on all Ontario dairy farms. But, according to various reports, it's also true that many of them were disconnected from their power source by frustrated farmers shortly after installation.On our farm, the TTR remains connected. But left to do its job without interference, there's no question that the red beacon would flash almost continuously. Not only do we use bucket milkers but we also clean our cooling tank manually (an approach that, true to my quasi-Luddism, will remain despite the switch to the milking parlour). Neither possibility was taken into account when developers of the TTR technology devised methods of monitoring cleaning temperatures and durations under various on-farm scenarios.To satisfy the requirements of the Big Brother-like box on the wall, we discreetly pour hot water in a sink that's entirely unconnected to the milking system, but was outfitted with the sensor that would normally have been placed on the pipeline. In the highly unlikely event of being questioned about our cleaning practices by food safety inspectors, the TTR's failure to accommodate for our outdated technology would render it unable to provide input.With the milking parlour, we'll no longer fly under the radar. The information collected by the TTR will, for the most part, be valid. And the worst part of it is that we'll now be required -- according to food safety legislation that's reinforced by the TTR's flashing lights -- to use a significantly larger amount of water in system cleaning, while still milking the same number of cows. I'm not arguing that we shouldn't be required to use more water. That water is essential to adequately clean the pipeline that will traverse the distance that I currently walk repeatedly while carrying a milk bucket.It's just yet another example of how new technology can sometimes lead to increased environmental effects that are disproportionate with the technology's social benefits.

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