Life and death Smurf stories

This is dairy country, on both sides of the border. So when a local cow makes good, it’s news. As reported earlier this week, a 15-year-old Holstein named Smurf is being celebrated as the world’s best milk producer.

Smurf the Holstein (artist's conception)

Smurf lives at La Ferme Gillette in Embrun, Ontario. Eric Patenaude, a 6th generation herdsman on the large family-run operation, recounted Smurf’s story for media consumption.

The record, which she is still adding to, is 216,000 litres. That’s more than enough to provide an eight-ounce glass of milk for every man, woman and child in Ottawa. The average milking cow yields about 35,000 lifetime litres, says Louis Patenaude, Eric’s uncle.

Smurf produces about 50 litres per day. That itself, while very good, is no record. The secret of Smurf’s success, which allowed her to take the record from a cow in Michigan, is consistency. In early May, she will deliver a calf and begin a lactation cycle for the 11th time. Like professional athletes, most cows wear out at some point and break down. They develop lactation trouble, fertility trouble, foot trouble. Not Smurf.

“She’s a trouble-free cow,” says Eric Patenaude.

Smurf now holds the Guinness World Record for milk production. (And let’s just admit that Guinness World Records are a social construct, a record of observations that isn’t complete or universal, and may not amount to a hill of beans in the bigger scheme of things.) Even so, the designation can reflect noteworthy or unusual results.

In the context of dairy farming, Smurf is loved and pampered. Enter People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA is no fan of dairy practices. Following Smurf’s burst of international fame, the Ottawa Citizen reports that PETA sent a letter to Patenaude arguing Smurf should be retired to an approved farmed-animal sanctuary. As PETA spokeswoman Alicia Woempner put it:

“Like all mammals, cows produce milk to feed their babies,” Woempner added, “and other cows, like Smurf, are repeatedly forcefully impregnated and then their deeply loved babies are taken from them within hours of birth.

“We think that after a lifetime of exploiting her for profit, it would be the right thing for Mr. Patenaude to allow Smurf to enjoy a happy retirement with her youngster.”

Patenaude was gracious in his response, calling PETA an organization that does good for some animals.
He said his immediate plans for Smurf aren’t all that dissimilar to what PETA is recommending: the calf that Smurf is currently carrying will stay with her following its birth. “That calf is staying here. I can 110 per cent guarantee the calf will stay with her. He’ll stay with Smurf, on the farm, for as long as he wants — for as long as he lives.

“We want what’s best for Smurf,” he added. “I think she’s reached 16 years because she’s in the right place. We’re the people who know what’s best for Smurf. They want to put her in an animal sanctuary, but I think at this point she is in an animal sanctuary.”

Do you know of an unusually productive cow? I am sure many farmers have soft spots and keep some animals for life.

Reading about this little flurry reminds me of an article in the New York Times this week, about old-age homes for (I kid you not)…chickens. Yes, backyard chickens are “in” but that craze eventually runs into an uncomfortable problem: hens lay eggs for a few years, but can easily live for a decade.
Cruelty may be preventable, but death is guaranteed. Animal or human, the question is not “if”  but “when?” and “how?”.  A subject that provokes much debate.

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12 Comments on “Life and death Smurf stories”

  1. Ken Hall says:

    “The secret of Smurf’s success, which allowed her to take the record from a cow in Michigan, is consistency.”

    I take umbrage with this articles upbeat feel good sense of why Smurf has been placed in the Guinness Record as the milk production World record holder. Ostensibly her yearly “freshening”, as it is known colloquially, was the most significant reason she produced her current lifetime milk production of 216000 liters.

    Be glad you are not a dairy cow; a Google search will reveal that the average US Holstein today is “culled”, turned into fast food, after fewer than 3 lactations/freshenings. Thus it becomes clear that the real significant reason behind her record is the fact that she is lucky enough to have arrived at the ripe old age of 16 years, rather than the average of 3.5 to 4.5 years for a milk cow on the majority of dairy farms today.

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  2. Paul says:

    Ken, what is the point of your comment. Why should folks not be upbeat by a good story? An unhappy animal will not produce at this level.

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  3. Kathy says:

    20 years ago we kept our dairy cows longer than 3 freshenings. Times must have changed.

    And yes, a content and unstressed cow will produce more milk.

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  4. Ken Hall says:

    Paul asks: “Ken, what is the point of your comment.”

    The point is that this article illustrates the greed now rampant in the US; but, chooses to ignore same. When I was a young-un working on local dairy farms it was not uncommon for farmers to keep their cows for 12-16 years, allowing them to gambol about in pastures during Spring, Summer and Fall, only constraining them to the barn in Winter.

    Today there are virtually no operational “small” farms in my area; however, there are a few milking 600-2500 cows three times a day, feeding them high protein corn and grain along with hay the year around. They are confined to concrete floor semi-open air enclosures 24-7, 365 days per year. In effect these cows are viewed as living breathing protoplasmic “machines” and afforded none of the benefits of being alive that cows of years past were. Sound like a happy/content life?

    A story such as this is upbeat only if the reader is unaware/ignorant of unmentioned/unmentionable background information.

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  5. Paul says:

    An animal would not be this productive if it were really stressed out like you describe. If it were it would basically shut down.

    Ken it sounds like they have different expectations that you do. They are probably happy to have all the food, happy to have a roof over their heads, and happy to be protected by the farmer from predators and other threats. In return they produce lots of milk.

    This is a happy cow.

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  6. Lucy Martin says:

    Ken, I’m glad to say that where I live, one still sees farm after farm (all family run) where the cows do amble about in pleasant pastures, for most of the year.

    I’m not sure how many long most of them are kept. No doubt cows grieve when parted from their calves. Most are slaughtered in the end. Those sorrows aside, they appear healthy and reasonably happy while they live. (No, I’m not being sarcastic in suggesting animals destined for slaughter can also have happy lives, even though that sounds like an oxymoron.)

    I suspect PETA feels everyone should go vegetarian and animals should not be farmed at all. My spouse (vegetarian for almost 30 years) would certainly prefer that we stop killing to eat. Ethically, it’s a very noble goal. In real-world terms, it seems unrealistic.

    Here’s my problem: I suspect plants are more complicated than we give them credit for too. I don’t think anything actually volunteers to show up on our plates. From that perspective, all survival requires some level of killing – that’s just how life is.

    Factory farming is an inevitable result of putting profit above all else. Much of what happens in large scale operations strikes me as cruel, plain and simple.

    On the other hand, how many animals die of old age in the wild? Not many, I suspect. Disease, starvation or predators take most, at the end, and none of those fates is particularly pleasant either. In that respect, animal and human lives are very different indeed, and we are definitely the luckier species.

    Domesticated stock by-and-large exists thanks to the intervention of animal husbandry in the first place.

    So, how about we raise animals with respect? Avoid cruelty. Kill humanely. Eat meat sparingly, with greater appreciation of what it represents.

    Well, that’s what I’d like to see more of, anyway. And we’ve a long way to go, for sure, with industrial trends as they are now.

    Others may feel differently, and I can certainly respect that. (Heck, I live with it, every day!)

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  7. Paul says:

    Lucy, these are very good comments. On this one:

    “Factory farming is an inevitable result of putting profit above all else.”

    I think it is an inevitable result of a growing population that needs to eat. If it were only about profit you would probably invest your money in something that has a better return. Oil stocks perhaps.

    Also, I don’t think there is anything unethical about killing what we eat. Killing what we don’t eat is unethical (with a few exceptions).

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  8. Kathy says:

    Farming today is not just for greed. I don’t know what the milk prices per hundred weight is today, but I doubt if it has increased to the proportion of everything else.

    In 1993, when we sold our small dairy of 60 head, the electric, grain, and other operational costs had increased drastically and the milk prices decreased. The government sets the price of milk.

    We would have had to take on debt and become a 200+ head farm. I can understand why the big farms today do everything they can to pump out the milk volume.

    As with many other things in life, we have, perhaps out of necessity, had to change with progress. We’ve lost something in the transaction.

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  9. Walker says:

    Lucy writes “My spouse (vegetarian for almost 30 years) would certainly prefer that we stop killing to eat. Ethically, it’s a very noble goal. In real-world terms, it seems unrealistic.”

    Lucy, I’m not a vegetarian, but I recently came across a copy of The China Study. Interesting book! It makes a compelling case that one should be not just vegetarian, but vegan (no animal products at all), not for any ethical reasons, but simply for health. This was not a study that set out to prove that vegans had the right answer. The lead author grew up on a dairy farm, and believed, going in, that meat and dairy were good, healthy foods. Get a copy, read it, and tell me that you don’t come away deciding to at least cut back on all foods from animal sources.

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  10. Lucy Martin says:

    Oh, yes, “The China Study”. Walker, my dad got so excited about that book he gave copies away as Christmas gifts. (But not to me because I live too far away. He made me read it on my next visit, though!)

    That came out in 2004, so I don’t remember it exactly. But I thought the authors made a good case for what we’ll call the “western diet” having a direct relationship to “western diseases” such as obesity, coronary heart disease, diabetes, leukemia, and many types of cancer.

    Dairy farmers look away now: after reading that book my Dad gave up milk and started buying soy milk by the case instead. I had given up milk even earlier to fix an excess of phlegm. (Which surely counts as Too Much Information!) I adore cheese and still eat that with great pleasure. As many reader know, there is a fairly vocal school of thought which holds that too much soy is bad for you too, so there you go. Everyone has an ax to grind.

    Michael Pollan’s now-famous summary strikes me as sound advice: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. (By food he means wholesome, unprocessed stuff that your grandmother would recognize.)

    The “not too much” part is where I run into trouble. I miss my high-metabolism youth!

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  11. Paul says:

    I have to say that I think the old adage of “everything in moderation” is not a bad way to go. I eat grass fed beef not because it is better for me but because I like it. I love salad for the same reason. I ride my bike and ski and hike a lot because it is fun! Michale Pollan is an interesting writer but remember stress is very bad for you. Don’t obsess about anything, including food. We only get one ride on this merry-go-round, better make it a good ride!

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  12. Lucy Martin says:

    Continuing the question of what we do or do not eat, and why, the New York Times just finished an essay contest on the ethics of eating meat. The winner is Jay Bost, a former vegan who now chooses to conscientiously eat ethically raised meat.

    Click over to that essay here.

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