Organic Dairy Farming is a Family Affair

Feeding calves is a job that even the littlest can 'help' with. Micah and Naomi ride the rails as Rebekkah watches the calves.

Feeding calves is a job that even the littlest can 'help' with. Micah and Naomi ride the rails as Rebekkah watches the calves.

     It’s an idyllic picture: a large boisterous family gathers around the big wooden kitchen table of this organic farm. The food is from the family garden – fresh carrots, a big bowl of salad, potatoes and meat. There’s always room for one more. Today it’s a neighbour with health issues and her autistic son who’ve come to spend the day with them. The help is mutual – the neighbour assists Jane with the never ending work in garden and house.

Sarah Rottier wants to make sure the new calf gets that all important first colostrum from the dairy cow mother.

Sarah Rottier wants to make sure the new calf gets that all important first colostrum from the dairy cow mother.

     “Dad, did you see there’s a new calf?” No, he hadn’t. Sarah, just graduated from high school, bright blue finger nails, long blond hair, decides the cow should be milked out right away for that precious first colostrum milk. I follow her out to watch as she gently guides the cow into a shute. Strong deft fingers draw the milk from the swollen teats into a bottle.

     After supper it’s time to go feed the calves with milk – this is Rebekkah’s job. The milk is in pails on a little wagon. She ladles the milk into smaller pails, which her younger brother Micah brings to each calf as she directs him. One ladle goes into a bowl for the farm cats which have gathered around, waiting.

     Three year old Naomi squeals – the calf, having finished its pail of milk, is now sucking on her arm and clothing. Rebekkah pulls her out of the pen, comforting her.

     It is a feel good evening, and many would say it’s a feel good farm. Karl and Jane Rottier and their seven children operate one of only a few organic dairy farms in Alberta. When the Alberta Milk Board made an appeal for organic milk to fill the growing demand of the market, the Rottiers were ready. They’ve always tried to operate their farm as naturally as possible. Various health issues in their wider family had made them sensitive to the importance of producing healthy food.

     It isn’t always so feel good though. There are many challenges. Trying to make hay in the usually moister Westlock summer to comply with organic regulations of 25% hay, is trying. Especially this year! Not being able to use antibiotics freely means finding other ways to keep cows healthy – usually more expensive ways. Everything seems more time consuming. It means hiring an extra person for all the extra work. There are no quick fixes. Organic farming is more about prevention, than healing. And then there’s the bookkeeping. What a headache, they say.

     But it’s still worth it. “I wouldn’t even think of going back,” Karl says. And it seems the whole family is happy about it too. At least tonight.

 

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