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Hedgebrook Farm: Putting Animals First


While sitting at home on the couch watching your favorite channel or sports team have you seen the "happy cow" commercial? The ad suggests that great cheese comes from happy cows and happy cows are from California. While there may be happy cows in California, wouldn't it be nice to know you were purchasing eggs, milk and meat from farms that put the animals' well-being and comfort first? There is a way! The nonprofit organization Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) began in 2006 to enable customers to know just that.

Southern States customer Kitty Hockman-Nicholas of Hedgebrook Farm in Winchester, VA is proud to display the AWA seal of approval on signage around the farm. Hockman-Nicholas provides her insights on how certification works and how both animal and consumer benefit from the program.

Hedgebrook has been in the family since 1906 when Hockman-Nicholas' grandparents first purchased the land. Once the farmhouse was built in 1907, the couple began harvesting apples and raising beef cattle. When Hockman-Nicholas' father took over the business, Hedgebrook began focusing on dairy cows. The family started their dairy venture in 1947 with 20 Holsteins. Although the family business revolved around Holsteins, Hockman-Nicholas had a passion for the Jersey breed. At 10 years old she received her first Jersey cow to show. This first cow of her own further confirmed her love of the Jersey breed.

Hockman-Nicholas went off to college and explored life beyond the farm for several years. When family duties called Hockman-Nicholas back to the dairy she returned. Not only did Hockman-Nicholas return but she came back, took over the family business and replaced the Holsteins with over 50 Jerseys. Hockman-Nicholas has now been back at the dairy for 32 years. Although an experienced farmer, Hockman-Nicholas is constantly looking for ways to reinvent the family business venture. "I am always looking for new and different ways for our farm and products to be distinctive and of higher quality," explains Hockman-Nicholas. "Although it costs more money to be AWA approved it is worth it for both cow and consumer."

Hedgebrook Farm became Animal Welfare Approved in May 2010. So how did Hedgebrook become AWA certified? The first requirement Hedgebrook had to meet was being an independent family farm. Farms must then meet the standards put in place by AWA. According to the AWA website, "Animal Welfare Approved has the most rigorous standards for farm animal welfare currently in use by any United States organization. Its standards have been developed in collaboration with scientists, veterinarians, researchers, and farmers across the globe to maximize practicable, high-welfare farm management." Farmers must ensure that not only they meet the standards, but that their slaughter operation also will participate in the AWA certification process.

Currently AWA certifies farms raising chickens, hogs, beef cattle, dairy cattle, meat sheep, dairy sheep, meat goats, dairy goats, turkeys, ducks and bison. According to AWA, "Our standards are quite extensive as we cover from birth to slaughter."

Although AWA is the only third party certification label recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the program is completely voluntary. The number one requirement farms must meet regardless of breed is that they are a working independent farm. Once that burden of proof has been met the farmers must rely on species specific requirements.

As the goal of the program is to make sure that animals raised for food are treated as humanely as possible through their lives it's fitting guidelines start at breeding. In essence from birth to milk to beef, the cow should act as natural as possible. Therefore, no artificial insemination is allowed.

Health Management is another area farmers must place special emphasis on. Working with their vet, the farmers must create a plan emphasizing prevention of illness and injury on their farm. A structured vaccination program can assist in keeping a healthy herd. In addition to creating a plan to keep their animals healthy, farmers must plan for the unthinkable and have contingency plans for a number of emergencies such as fire, natural disaster or breakdown of farm machinery.

Another category farmers must comply with is Animal Management. This includes everything from accurate record keeping on the herd to how the farmers deal with the cows on a daily basis from birth to slaughter. Some of the biggest differences seen at AWA farms compared to large commercial farms include: prohibition of tail docking; strict guidelines regarding dehorning; no tethering of calves; and minimum and maximum body condition requirements for the entire herd.

Other items of interest in the guidelines include requirements for pasture access, housing/shelter, bedding, handling, transportation and slaughter. Animal well-being comes first every minute of the day at AWA farms. The requirement that animals be able to graze on grass restricts the number of farms that can apply to the program as many can't feasibly maintain a grass fed herd.

Keeping humane standards throughout the slaughter process not only benefits the animals and conscientious consumers, but it also affects the end product. "Many people don't realize it, but treating the cattle humanely on the way to slaughter has an effect on how the meat tastes," explains Hockman-Nicholas. When stressed prior to slaughter stress hormones flow through the cattle and alter the flavoring of the meat.

Although the guidelines for maintaining AWA certification are rigorous, Hockman-Nicholas wouldn't run her dairy any other way. "The way we take care of animals today under the AWA certification program is no different than how we took care of them under conventional farming methods," says Hockman-Nicholas. The biggest changes Hedgebrook has made since they started the certification process involving feeding and grazing of the cows.

For Hockman-Nicholas, treating her cows humanely is simply standard operating procedure. "We have always gotten compliments about how we treat our herd," notes Hockman-Nicholas. She places special emphasis on developing relationships between her cows and farm employees. For example at Hedgebrook, the same person always hauls the cows, there are "good" people handling the cows at all times and cattle prods are never used to force the cows into doing specific tasks.

Hockman-Nicholas wishes that more dairies had AWA certification. However, with the grass fed requirement she knows many farms that would be interested in participating cannot because they don't have sufficient pasture access. Though these farms may not be able to achieve the certification they can always treat their herds humanely and tout that to their consumers.

With the limited number of farms that are currently AWA certified, Hockman-Nicholas and others with the seal of approval are finding their special niche in the marketplace. As consumers want to know more about what they are eating, having the animal welfare labeling and signage lets them know they are making a humane decision in purchasing from AWA farms.

Hockman-Nicholas has developed another niche market through her cowsharing/cowboarding program. In Virginia, like many other states, it is illegal to buy and sell raw milk (unpasteurized fresh from the cow milk). However, you can drink fresh milk from the cow you own. Lovers of raw milk can purchase a share of a cow at Hedgebrook and board it at the farm.

Once enrolled in the cowsharing program, Hedgebrook will feed, care for and milk your cow. The cowshare "owner" benefits by being able to utilize the milk from the cow. Owners can then either come to Hedgebrook to pick up their milk or have it delivered to them if they live on the Northern Virginia delivery route. Customers on the delivery route can also purchase eggs, meat and cheese. The cowboarding program is a win-win for all participants.

If you don't own a share of a Hedgebrook cow you can still enjoy some of their products. Spring Gap Mountain Creamery in Paw Paw, WV exclusively uses milk from Hedgebrook Farm in their Shenandoah Sunrise and Jersey Gouda cheeses. These products also display the AWA label.

Whether it's through a label on the products Hedgebrook sells or signs throughout the farm, Hockman-Nicholas is proud to let everyone know Hedgebrook has met the AWA certification requirements. "Farmers need to actively promote themselves," she says. "The best way for me to do that is to let consumers know that we provide humane food choices."

Hockman-Nicholas has made another smart choice in her farming operation by choosing to use Southern States products around her farm. "We use everything from the Winchester Southern States," exclaims Hockman-Nicholas. From crack corn to 18% dairy pellets to hog feed in the spring and everything in between Southern States is Hockman-Nicholas's feed store of choice.

In addition to opening her farm to the yearly AWA audits, Hockman-Nicholas opens her farm to visitors year round. Interested parties can participate in educational tours run on the farm. "I am so proud of what we do here and maintain an open door policy," explains Hockman-Nicholas. "We have no secrets. I want everyone to see how to humanely treat animals." Hockman-Nicholas truly does an amazing job keeping her animals happy and healthy. While most dairy cattle have life spans of four or five years, she has one Jersey cow that is still milking at 18.

So if you want to come to Hedgebrook Farm where happy cows live stop on by or visit www.hedgebrook.com. For more information on the Animal Welfare Approved program visit www.animalwelfareapproved.org.


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