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Dairy Today Expo Extra

RSS By: Catherine Merlo, Dairy Today

Dairy Today's Catherine Merlo brings you the latest from the World Dairy Expo.

PETA Comes to Expo

Oct 04, 2012

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is here at World Dairy Expo this week in the form of an earnest young man whose mission is to end the practice of de-horning calves.

David Byer, manager of PETA Corporate Affairs, attended yesterday’s Virtual Farm Tour, which featured Golden Oaks Farm of Wauconda, Ill.

The sophisticated dairy, which milks 720 Holsteins, is one of the last dairies in Illinois’ suburban Lake County. The farm encompasses 2,300 acres and raises 70% of the feed for its herd of 1,400 registered Holsteins. It sits about 45 minutes northwest of Chicago O’Hare, or as the dairy’s CEO Tom Patterson says, "within an hour of 5 million to 6 million people."

Golden Oaks is not only moving forward with high-tech breeding but with environmental stewardship, including a major composting operation called Midwest Organics Recycling. Its Organimix, a mixture of cow manure and landscape waste, is sold to landscapers, Whole Foods stores and the Chicago Botanical Gardens. The dairy hosts tours for hundreds of school children every year. Golden Oaks has even launched its own farmers’ market. In 2010, Golden Oaks was honored with the Illinois Environmental Stewardship Award.

"Public perception is key in all of our decisions," Patterson told the packed room of about 175 dairy producers and industry people.

During the question-and-answer session that followed the Golden Oaks presentation, a woman asked if the dairy had ever had any trouble with PETA. Byer, sitting behind her, spoke up and said he was from the animal rights group.

You could have heard a pin drop. Then someone from the audience said, "You’re pretty brave to come in here." Byer calmly remained in his chair. Golden Oaks’ head herdsman, Ethan Heinzmann, responded that the dairy had not had any PETA trouble.

In fact, the dairy has been pursuing the one thing Byer has as his mission. Golden Oaks and Heinzmann are interested in developing livestock selectively bred from "polled" genetics. Polled cattle are born without horns. The dairy has been polling genes from its red-and-white Holsteins and looking at breeding them into its black-and-white Holsteins.

"Polled genetics is something we want to continue to pursue," Golden Oaks president Tom Patterson told me afterwards. "We’ve already had some success with it. But it takes time. When you’re talking about the number of Holsteins in North America, making an industry transition could take decades."

PETA sees polled genetics as a way to stop the painful act of de-horning calves. Patterson sees naturally hornless cows as safer for the rest of the herd as well as the humans who work around them.

Byer says he wants to find common ground between dairies and PETA in looking for a solution to end de-horning. The 31-year-old lawyer, who works from an office in rural North Carolina, says he has meetings scheduled this week at Expo with about half a dozen corporations and large cooperatives to discuss that common ground. He was well-spoken and polite.

Byer will remain at Expo all week. By Wednesday, he told me, it had already been "a worthwhile week."

"I’m excited that people are talking about polls," he said.

But he wants more. "I want to hear people planning to take actual steps and talking about it on their own," Byer said. "At the end of the day, it’s all about tangible steps because change can begin now."

Byer was in the right place today. He met face to face with a dairy that’s already taking "tangible steps." Like many U.S. dairies, Golden Oaks knows what it’s doing and where it needs to go. It doesn’t need PETA to get in the way.

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