by Sally Colby
Maple Lane Farms in Marietta, NY seems like a typical family dairy farm. It’s home to 1,200 cows, mostly Holsteins, half of which comprise the milking herd. Crops including corn, soybeans, wheat and hay are grown for a TMR.
Tim Leubner manages the crops while his siblings manage the cow herd. A large freestall barn houses the majority of the milking herd, another barn is used for maternity and fresh cows, and a third barn houses dry cows. Cows are milked three times a day in a double 16 parallel parlor.
Sounds like a typical dairy farm, but three young and insightful family members are taking the farm to the next level. Tim’s daughters Evelyn, Claudia and Jojo saw too much negativity surrounding dairy farming, and are devoting time to debunking common misconceptions about the industry. Evelyn is a sophomore at SUNY Cobleskill, working toward a B.T. in Animal Science. Claudia is a high school junior and Jojo is in eighth grade. Claudia and Jojo work on the dairy farm after school, and Evelyn works on the SUNY Cobleskill farm and also at home.
After graduation, Evelyn’s goal to work in public relations in the dairy field, and that was the inspiration behind @nyfarmgirls. “We started @nyfarmgirls on Instagram about three years ago,” she said. “We just started using Facebook and it’s going pretty well so far.”
Evelyn explains that she and her sisters noticed there weren’t many farmers on social media explaining what happens on their farms. “No one was really out there telling their story,” she said. “Because of that, there were a lot of misconceptions about what really goes on. On our page, we go over every single thing we do on our farm so consumers aren’t wondering what’s happening.” Evelyn added that they don’t shy away from explaining tough subjects such as why calves are separated from their moms shortly after birth, what happens to cows when they’re no longer productive and how cows go willingly to the parlor to be milked.
Although their message has been positive, Evelyn says they’ve received quite a few negative comments on social media, primarily from extremists such as animal rights activists and vegans. “Lately, it’s because of the februdairy hashtag,” she said. “But we don’t let them get to us because they don’t get their information from a reliable source and sometimes they just like to pick fights. They’re very confused about what actually happens.”
Evelyn says she and her sisters don’t respond to hateful comments on Facebook aimed at the dairy industry because there are numerous dairy farmers who follow and defend them. “We’re more active on Instagram,” she said. “We respond to some of the comments if we think it’s worthwhile.”
As is the case with those who don’t understand dairy farming, many of the comments @nyfarmgirls receive are emotionally based. “We talk to a lot of people who have tried what we’re doing,” said Evelyn. “A lot of them give up because they don’t like being attacked all the time. But we aren’t going to stop just because one group of people is coming after us.”
Since newborn calf management is a concern for many consumers, Evelyn recently explained the farm’s newborn calf protocol on Facebook. She begins her post with how the cow licks the placenta to help stimulate blood flow in the calf, followed by moving the calf to a straw-filled box in a warming room. After receiving three quarts of colostrum, calves are treated with health measures including navel dipping, a mineral supplement and a vaccine to prevent several diseases. Calves are marked on the forehead with a crayon so other employees in the calf barn know which calves have received the protocol. Calves are then transported to the calf barn and placed in individual pens with fresh bedding, navels dipped again, fed more colostrum, and eventually trained to drink from a pail.
After posting a photograph of a calf with the red crayon mark on its head, Evelyn found that people often misinterpret what they see in a photograph, which reinforced the importance of providing full explanations of all procedures.
When attacked for ‘profiting from animals,’ Evelyn’s response is that in order to make profit on a dairy farm, cows need to be as comfortable as possible.
When she receives particularly abrasive comments, Evelyn often writes a full response, then realizes the original poster probably isn’t going to pay attention to it. “With some of the comments aimed directly at us, I feel the need to respond,” she said. “Then I rethink it and don’t respond. I can get my emotions out that way.”
Evelyn and her sisters believe they have an opportunity to help the non-ag public learn accurate facts about agriculture through their social media efforts. “Doctors know about health, accountants know about money, and dairy farmers know about cows,” she said. “Come ask us first.” The sisters started offering merchandise about a year ago, and a new sticker states ‘Ask a farmer, not Google. We know cows’.
For the past three years, the sisters have volunteered at the birthing center exhibit at the New York State Fair. Evelyn says the most questions at the exhibit are asked when newborn calves are placed on a sled and transported to a different pen. “We get a lot of questions about why the calf isn’t with its mother, and doesn’t the calf need the mom?” she said. “People need to know why we do that. It’s for the safety of the calf.”
Follow the Leubner sisters and their efforts to promote the dairy industry on Instagram and Facebook at @nyfarmgirls.