The Harrison family of Sweetwater Valley Farm in Philadelphia, Tennessee, has about 1,200 milking cows. Owner John Harrison, a 4th generation dairy farmer, and his wife Celia have been building their business since August of 1987. The Sweetwater Valley Farm team are more than happy to debunk the myths associated with the dairy industry, walking consumers through the business and the choices they make every day and in the documentary More to the Moo: The Life of a Modern Dairy Farmer. Below are three common misconceptions about the dairy industry explained.
Myth: Calves are needlessly separated from their mother.
Truth: Calves are separated from the herd, but not unnecessarily.
“We want to make sure we separate out a cow when she’s about to go into labor and, that way, once she has her baby, nobody is going to step on the baby, no other cows are going to be too close to the baby,” explains daughter Mary Lyndal Harrison. “She can have her space to do her thing, get her baby cleaned up… then she’s going to back to work. She’s going to go start giving milk again and we’re going to take care of the baby so that it can get the right nutrients the baby needs.”
At Sweetwater Valley Farm, like at many other dairy farms, the calves are placed in a separate barn, where they are provided grain, water and milk from a nutritionist. Once they are two months old, the calves are placed into new groups based on age division, receiving new diets according to their age. They are slowly introduced to the herd, joining the cows when they are big enough.
“It’s really important that we take care of calves,” Mary Lyndal emphasizes. These calves will grow up to birth their own calves and produce milk. To give a happy life to the cows and calves, ensuring calves safety and nutrition is an important step in cow care.
Myth: The dairy industry is stuck in the past.
Truth: The dairy industry relies on modern technology and data to provide for their community.
Sweetwater Valley Farm is one of the first dairies in the region to implement robotic milkers. In addition to the technology customizing udder placement according to each cow, the system also tracks when and how much milk each cow provides.
“It’s important to have this kind of technology—really, it’s the data we’re collecting and how we’re utilizing it,” explains farm manager Kevin Cornet. “We need historical data on all our cows so we can make management changes and we can see trends easier, whether that’s by group or by herd or even an individual cow basis.”
These cows also wear the latest tech fashions.
A tracker goes around the neck of Sweetwater Valley Farm cows. It measures their eating and ruminating patterns to compare to the milking data. With these data sets combined, it can be determined what—if any—changes need to be made for individual cows.
“We want to measure as much as we can possibly do. That way it gives us the ability to manage as much as we possibly can.”
Myth: The dairy industry does not aid or interact with their communities.
Truth: Dairy farms and their farmers provide for and interact with their local community.
Sweetwater Valley Farm provides tours of their facilities for curious community members, but that isn’t the only interaction their dairy farm provides.
Mary Lyndal describes the thought process behind expanding the dairy’s interaction with its community. “People are fascinated with the farm. They want to come out; they want to see everything. They want to see the products and they want to see how we make the products.”
This fascination inspired the family to create spaces for their neighbors and East Tennessee tourists to relax and enjoy time on the farm. In addition to their cheese store that provides delicious dairy products and souvenirs, the Harrison family has also opened the Seed to Sandwich Café. The café has become a local attraction, where residents stop in for a specialty cheese sandwich, milkshakes, coffee, and more created with local products.
While providing a space for the community with specialty foods, like many other dairy farmers in the Southeast, Sweetwater Valley’s milk is found in regional brand Mayfield. Whether it’s designed for the public or focuses on production, the families that comprise the dairy industry play a large role within their communities.
“We are a place for the community to come and socialize. We’re a place that employees feel good and their family feel good coming to work here—our children feel good coming to work here,” summarizes owner John Harrison.
To learn more about the dairy industry, watch the award-winning More to the Moo: The Life of a Modern Dairy Farmer, available now, as it follows the Harrison family on a day in the life of a modern dairy farmer.