DFA member shares the Udder Truth

Written by Brian Bosiljevac
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If you ask SwissLane Dairy Farm, bigger is most certainly better. The Oesch family, who runs the dairy, shared their story when they chose to participate in an Internet video series produced by Dairy Good, a consumer-focused website owned by Dairy Management Inc.

The video series, called The Udder Truth, features three dairy farmers disputing myths in the dairy industry. Annie Link, whose great-grandfather started SwissLane Dairy Farm, was asked to talk about how big farms aren’t factory farms.

“For us, we want people to see that farms come in all shapes and sizes,” Link says. “We all are passionate about what we are doing, no matter if we have two cows or thousands of cows. The way we see it, caring for more cows means we are connecting with more people. We aren’t some corporation — just a big family very passionate about what we do.”

Link estimates there are about 100 family members in the Oesch family, and of that large group, 30 family members live within two miles of the farm and 19 of them work on the dairy every day. SwissLane employs 50 people and more than 35 percent of employees are family.

As Link says in The Udder Truth video, “just as our family has grown, the farm has grown right along with it.”

SwissLane milks 2,000 cows in Alto, Mich. Although that would classify the dairy, which has been around since 1915, as a large farm, they are proud to say they have been a family farm since day one.

The Oesch family made its biggest jump when they doubled their herd size from 500 to 1,000 cows from 1999 to 2000, and they have continued to expand ever since. Currently, they milk 1,500 cows three times a day in the main barn. They also have 500 cows in what they call the “robot barn,” which utilizes robotic milkers.

“We definitely would rather buy cows instead of sell them,” Link says. “It’s safe to say we just love cows.”

The Oesch family is passionate about promoting the dairy industry. This is the 10th year Link has been providing tours of SwissLane, called Dairy Discovery. The tours are designed for school trips, groups, birthdays and other special events. Dairy Discovery gives visitors a holistic view of what happens on a dairy farm. Guests can do everything from bottle-feed calves, get lost in a hay maze, learn about dairy nutrition and much more. So far this year, Dairy Discovery is averaging six tours per week.

“The idea to start Dairy Discovery actually just came from me being a new mom in the community,” Link says. “I was running my kids to piano lessons and sporting events. I started talking with other parents, and one of their first questions is always what do you do for a living. People were always so shocked when I told them I was a dairy farmer and they had so many questions for me. I think there is definitely a need for it because people want to know where their food is coming from and we absolutely love showing them what we do.”

In addition to running tours to promote the dairy, Link is also active on social media. She utilizes Facebook, Twitter and a blog to show what is happening on the dairy. With just a quick photo and a post to social media, she is able to share her story with anyone.

“Some advice I would give someone starting social media for their dairy would be if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything,” Link says. “There is a lot of negative stuff out there, but I’d love to see more dairy farmers showing positive stories about what we do. It’s important to address the negative, but do it in a positive way and move on.”

Her passion for the dairy industry is part of the reason she was chosen to speak for The Udder Truth video series. The video that featured SwissLane debunked common dairy myths associated with larger farms.

A common misconception about large farms is they are owned by corporations only looking to make money, and don’t care about their cows. SwissLane was able to showcase their large family in the video while explaining that families are running the majority of farms in the country, even the large ones. Link also discussed how much they truly care for their cows. They are taking milk, feed and manure samples on a daily basis to make sure their cows are healthy.

“The better care we take of them, the better they’re going to perform for us,” Link says in the video.

Another myth the video targeted is that large farms pollute the environment. Most people don’t realize that many dairy farmers are actually looking for greener opportunities, Link says. Not only is SwissLane working become a more sustainable operation, but they are helping their community while doing it.

The Oesch family has a pit on their farm that holds 8 million pounds of manure. They currently partner with their local energy company, which is using the manure in their methane digester to provide power for 110 homes in their community.

“It’s something we are really excited to be part of,” Link says. “We love working with our cows and providing dairy to consumers, but any time you can help make your community better, it is an added bonus. We’re lucky to have that opportunity.”

The Udder Truth videos provided a great opportunity for dairy farmers to speak for themselves and answer questions that people have about the industry. There are many undercover videos being released trying to condemn the dairy industry and farmers in general. It’s important for everyone involved in the industry to share the positive stories and great work that is happening all over the country, Link says.

“Every time I hear about another undercover video being released, it really turns my stomach,” Link says. “I get sad and frustrated just thinking about it, but unfortunately for this generation, it is the new normal. We need to realize anyone who comes on our farm has the ability to record everything. That means we need to over communicate to employees our values and standards we have set in place. Then we need to look at our day-to-day business and ask ourselves ‘are we okay with everything that is happening being recorded?’ Because it can be.”

When approached about filming the Udder Truth video on SwissLane, Link’s first instinct was to turn it down. She assumed there was a better option out there somewhere, but after discussing it with her family, they all agreed that if they truly want to be open and transparent, this was a perfect opportunity. Link says her hope is that her video, along with the other two focused on myths surrounding antibiotics and cow health, will show people the true side of dairy.

“I also hope this changes the way people in the dairy industry look at social media,” Link says. “Fear-based messaging is the overwhelming tone out there right now. Let’s build trust through transparency, and hopefully we change that tone.”