A native of the Dominican Republic, Dr. Silvia Abel-Caines graduated from UNPHU University with a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine in 1988. Two years later, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to continue her research in ruminant nutrition. On top of these titles, she holds a masters degree from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a PhD from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Dr. Silvia is a certified grazing planner and takes a sustainable approach to animal health and nutrition. (She has also appeared on Rootstock’s airwaves before! Listen to her previous episode here.)

“I combine my experience as a veterinarian, diagnosing diseases, and I link them [diseases] to nutritionally related causes,” says Dr. Silvia, explaining what—exactly—being a ruminant nutritionist is all about. “As a nutritionist my aim is to connect the health of the cows, by eating green pastures and a balanced ration, and the way the profile of the product—either the milk or the meat—changes as the cow eats much better.”

In this way the work Dr. Silvia does is two pronged: on the one hand, she’s looking out for the cows and their best interests, and on the other hand, she is ensuring the best results for those of us consuming their products. Dr. Silvia explains that grass-fed cows produce scientifically better milk, containing beneficial fatty acids that are an essential nutrient in our diet. “When we change the nutrition of a cow, the milk produced by that cow changes in the quality of the fat that she puts into the milk,” concludes Dr. Silvia. At heart of the matter, it’s really that easy.

Recently, Dr. Silvia had the opportunity to share her knowledge of dairy and dairy processing with an all-women dairy cooperative in Senegal. She found this experience to be incredibly exciting and rewarding. “Besides giving them the technical training on milk processing, I also told them what I have learned so far on the value of a good co-op with good marketing and good leadership.”

To hear more about her work as a ruminant nutritionist and how Dr. Silvia introduced an all-women cooperative in Senegal to kefir, listen at the link above, on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts. And don’t forget to subscribe!

Want more? Check out these other episodes about animal care. We recently spoke with Temple Grandin, who is famous for understanding animals in ways many of us had never considered before. And check out this episode with Organic Valley staff veterinarian Guy Jodarski to hear how organic animals are cared for holistically rather than with pharmaceuticals. 

Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Dr. Silvia Abel-Caines, Organic Valley’s Ruminant Nutritionist

Air Date: January 15, 2018

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Anne O’Connor.

ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and today we are talking with Dr. Silvia Abel-Caines, staff ruminant nutritionist at CROPP Organic Valley. Welcome, Dr. Silvia.

SILVIA ABEL-CAINES: Thank you, Anne, for inviting me.

AOC: So, you’re a veterinarian. What does a veterinarian ruminant nutritionist do?

SAC: Well, what I do is that I combine my experience as a veterinarian, diagnosing diseases, and I link them to nutritionally related causes for that. So I combine both the nutrition and rations formulations with the way thata I believe cattle should be treated and their health should be improved.

AOC: Okay, so we’re talking about cattle. And Dr. Silvia, you were raised in the Dominican Republic, you have a doctorate of veterinary medicine from there, and you were awarded a Fulbright scholarship, and you continued your ruminant nutrition education, you got your master’s degree at the University of Tennessee. You’ve been working with animals all your life. Nutrition is a complex set of equations, and I don’t know that people understand. When we talk about feeding cattle, a lot of times the pictures that we see in marketing is cattle out on grass and eating grass. How do we feed cattle today in general and what are the different styles, in general, of doing that?

SAC: Well, you’re correct about the picture-perfect cattle grazing and eating green grass. But the reality is that, not just here in the U.S., but also in other countries of the world, 95 or more percent of the cows never actually stay on pasture for more than one or two minutes, or on their way in and out of confined environments. So there is a disconnect between the real nutrition of the cow and the way they were meant to eat and the way we are doing it for a commercial process. So that’s the difference between the two realities.

And as a nutritionist, my aim is to connect the health of the cow by eating green pastures and a balanced ration, and the way the profile of the product—either the milk or the meat—changes as the cow eats much better.

AOC: So you’re saying that even though cows are meant to be out on pasture—they’re meant to eat grass, they have these four stomachs that are meant to digest grass—even though that’s true and we know that, 95 percent of the cows in the world are in confinement operations which, we know, a lot of confinement operations are on concrete and they don’t get out to grass. So tell me about, how did we end up in this state of having our cows in confinement operations when we know that what’s best for them is to be out on grass and eating grass?

SAC: Well, the reality is that what we know sometimes doesn’t correlate with the way we want systems to be done in benefit of the financial status of the production. By that I mean that we know that green pastures are better for cows, but the way that system works, it takes a longer time for the animals to develop to a mature age. And also, if you don’t do it correctly, if you don’t manage your pastures correctly, they will produce less milk or they will gain weight on a slower rate.

So in order to achieve that higher milk production and faster growth, then we put them all together, we reduce the amount of exercise that they do, and we put a higher amount of time on just eating. And reducing that comfort will come with higher milk production, and that’s how we end up with the system today. It is cheaper and it produces more milk when we move the cows from pastures into a controlled environment, controlled by the farmer or by the people that are producing the livestock.

AOC: So what are some of the consequences of those systems for the health of the cow and therefore the health of the products that they produce?

SAC: Very good question. For the health of the cow, we reduce the life expectancy and the typical, the common production from six to eight years, to two, two and a half years of production life.

AOC: Okay, so wait a minute, can we just stop right there? You’re saying that cows that are out on pasture live six to eight years, but cows in these confinement systems only live one or two years?

SAC: That’s right. After reaching their mature age they will have probably two lactations. And so lactation is one year, roughly. So that’s a reduction in the life of the cattle. They remain on the farm for only one or two extra years after they start milking. And the reason for that is that their higher rate of metabolic diseases. Unfortunately, and it is kind of sad to say, especially for me, working directly with the cows, that actually their health is so damaged that functionally they would not be able to survive and have a productive life after a second lactation. So it’s not that they will die, it’s that they become less productive. So the management decision after that is that if that’s not working for me, she’s out of the farm.

AOC: Yet, even with this reality, somehow it’s more cost effective for people who are managing this way to run through these cows this fast way and kind of, what you’re saying is wear them out and move on.

SAC: That’s right—and replace them.

AOC: And replace them. It’s more cost effective to do that than it is to do the longer, slower, have them out on pasture, live longer, have more lactation cycles?

SAC: That’s what they think, but the reality is that the economic analysis that has been done by several universities actually showed the opposite: that profitably it is better to keep the cow longer with a lower production on pasture than doing this very intensive system. But people have chosen this early method because it works for them on a short-term basis.

AOC: Now you’ve chosen, in your career, to work with organic cows.

SAC: Mm-hmm.

AOC: Is that a choice that was based on this knowledge and this understanding of these systems?

SAC: That is correct. I made that choice probably 12 years ago.

AOC: And when you made this decision as a veterinarian, I can imagine, if most systems are doing it this other way, that most veterinarians are being trained for this other way as well. So what kind of experience did you have when you made this decision, moving into saying, “You know what? This is the kind of agriculture that I want to support and that I want to work with.”

SAC: Thank you for asking that question, because when I decided to do that, I have been a member of the American Dairy Science Association since I came to this country, and I have been an active member in other organizations. And when I let them know that this will be my choice from that time on, I got many, many people concerned about the viability of my choice financially, that there are not going to be a lot of people actually interested in having this kind of service and having alternative ways of nutrition, animal nutrition. And they told me that I’m actually supporting the wrong side of agriculture, an agriculture system that will not be able to feed the world.

Before doing that position I definitely got myself prepared. I read a lot, had a lot of research to back up my decision that in reality this is the right way to do it, and at the same time it will probably survive. Specifically in the diary industry, this will be the right way to go.

AOC: Have you ever looked back? Have you ever said, “You know, maybe this wasn’t the right decision. Maybe…”? Or, as you go further down the line, is it being reinforced, “Nope, I made the right decision”? Or where is that at for you now?

SAC: Absolutely never looked back. In reality I wish can just erase the years that I focused on making rations for dairy cows, particularly in the West Coast of the United States, where I look back to them now and I feel pretty embarrassed about it, the amount of formulation that I had to do in order to get 75 to 90 pounds of milk per cow per day. That had a cost.


AOC: So give our listeners a comparison. Seventy-five, 90 pounds of milk a day out of a cow—what’s a reasonable amount today in the organic realm that you work in today that you’re trying to formulate for?

SAC: Sure. With the organic farmers that I have been working [with], the average milk production will be 52 pounds on average. So that’s a significant reduction from what the traditional dairy breed, the Holstein cow, can potentially have.

AOC: But what you’re saying is that reduction is more humane—it has them, a more peaceful life and they live longer and they produce longer.

SAC: That’s correct. And the difference in the nutrition of the animal that comes through that has been demonstrated that produce a milk with a much better nutritional profile, closer to the nutrition that we want for humans today. So—

AOC: Ah, talk about that! So you’re talking about the fatty acid profile. What does that mean?

SAC: Well that means—and bear in mind that I did my PhD on milk fatty acid profile change through nutrition, so if I get too technical let me know.

AOC: (Laughing) We will!

SAC: But the reality is that when we change the nutrition of the cow, the milk produced by that cow changes in the quality of the fat that she puts into the milk. And that’s with analysis of what we call fatty acids. These are essential nutrients that we can get from many sources but we cannot manufacture ourselves in the body. So we must get it from the diet. And the easiest, cheapest way to get it is from a glass of milk.

AOC: So what you’re saying is organic systems produce milk that has this higher fatty acid profile?

SAC: That’s correct. And not just organic systems—actually grazing systems.

AOC: Ah, there we go. Thank you.

SAC: Because you can produce organic milk that is not with an intentionally grazing management. And so I like to work this better-quality milk through the way a cow was meant to be fed naturally, which is with grass—with grazing. So the combination of nutrition and a sustainable way of keeping her healthy, making sure that to be healthy she’s not subject to the addition of hormones and antibiotics and so forth. That combined system yield a beautiful, nutritious milk.

AOC: Ah, okay. So what you’re saying is the more time out on pasture the higher the fatty acid profile. And so in organic systems you have to have a minimum time of you’re 30 percent out on pasture. So the higher that organic farmers manage their cows out on pasture, the better off that milk quality will be.

SAC: That is correct. And as I start working with the farmer and they are at the minimum that they are required to keep their organic certification, I move them, on a consultation basis as we talk and plan for the next season and the next year, to increase that percent of time of cows on pasture—increasing the quality of the grasses that she will be eating during the winter season. And so as we start from 30 percent and move to 40, 50, 60, even 100 percent grass, we see the farmer moving to a more sustainable, long-term farming and also a higher nutritional content of the milk.

AOC: Okay, so I want to just point out something that you said that I think is really important for listeners to understand, and that’s that you’re not just talking about, “Hey cows, go head out on that grass and eat it and everything will be good.” But that grass, that soil, is well tended, well considered, well thought out, well planted, and well maintained by those farmers so that cows are getting a very specific mix of kinds of grasses.

SAC: That is correct. Because if we turn these cows on a pasture that has not been taken care of and has not been invested on the soil quality, we will see that the actual improvement of the health and the milk fatty acid profile will not be consistently getting better. So, yes, it is important to make sure that these cows are eating grasses that are nutritious, that have multispecies present in that paddock, and also that the farmer is more conscious about how to graze. It is a feeding system, it is a management that requires also some training. It requires an intentional system of providing that balanced nutrition that they need.


AOC: If you are just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor. I’m here today with veterinarian Dr. Silvia Abel-Caines. Dr. Caines is the staff ruminant nutritionist at CROPP Organic Valley. And I want to move now into talking about your experience with the Dental Hyrae(?) Women Cooperative in Senegal. So you had this opportunity with the National Cooperative Business Association—can you tell us about what you did with this group of women?

SAC: Sure. I was asked to consider an opportunity to volunteer with a group of women that form a dairy cooperative in Ouro Sogui, Senegal, and train them in dairy management and milk processing. But because they are a 100 percent Muslim country and the co-op was 100 percent women member, they requested if a woman would be able to come and do the training. And so when someone listened to one of my presentations they saw that I could be a good match for that project. And so I was excited to see the possibility of helping a group of young women, specifically in dairy management. And I definitely accepted and embarked in my adventures to serve and volunteer there.

AOC: What an incredible adventure. So this was two weeks in Senegal, and you were able to…you had a translator, right? But this was an all-woman cooperative. And interestingly, I was reading that dairy farming in Senegal is mostly done by women—which is different, of course, than our country.

SAC: Very different. So over there in Senegal, women are the one[s] actually involved in the milking, in the dairy farming. Only when the cattle have to move they are—by tradition and nomadic herding production—only when the cattle have to be moved to an area where the grass is actually green, then they send a male herdsman to move the cows. But the women that I was working with, they were the ones dealing with the milking and the processing—a manual-labor, very intensive way of milk production.

AOC: And milk there is not like milk here. Not everybody can afford milk there, is that right?

SAC: That’s correct. When I got there I even learned more about the way they actually feed their families and the role dairy plays in their diets. Very rarely, a Senegalese woman goes to a grocery store and buys a bag of milk, which is the way they actually sell the milk. They rely on fresh milk deliveries, and most of them have one or two cows or dairy sheep or dairy goats to get their milk. And if that is not possible then they live without it. They have milk powder available, mostly from friends. But even that is very restrictive. And I volunteer in a very rural area of Senegal—the northeast corner, close to Mauritania. And so over there, of course, leaving the urban area means that you have less access to manufactured products. So definitely they rely on what they have in their backyard.

AOC: So you went there and you worked with this cooperative, and you sort of gave them this vision of what might be for them. Talk to me about what—what did you present to them? What was the idea that you brought to them?

SAC: It was interesting because when I got there I was asked to go and technically train them to use the surplus milk that they have during the raining season. But what I found when I got there and I met with the leaders of the co-op—I met with the treasurer, the president of the co-op, and pretty much the leadership—and I felt the energy and the desire that these young women had for not just having a training technically, but to be able to see themselves as entrepreneurs. What to do with that and how can that improve the community and their co-op—I was excited about that.

So besides giving them the technical training on milk processing, I also told them what I have learned so far on the value of a good co-op with a good marketing, a good leadership, trained on the fact that they can associate themselves, improve their lives, and at the same time put a product in the market that they will be proud of—that they can actually put their pictures on and see this is what this group of women can achieve when they work together. And that was so exciting for me.


AOC: One of the things that I love that you did is you actually took their cooperative logo, or pictures, and put it on labels of other dairy products and put it into a refrigerator and took pictures of it for them to see—like, “Hey, here’s a way that this could go.” Right?

SAC: That’s right!

AOC: How was that received?

SAC: Oh, it was great. I really enjoy looking at their faces, because the first time I took pictures of them it was a way for me to train how to remember their names—so I took pictures and took names. But then, after that I thought, well, this will be a nice way to actually use some of the edits in the PowerPoint presentation I prepare to show them that we will be producing, making kefir, and that eventually this can translate into a small business. I decided to do what the co-op that I work with was, that put in the pictures of the faces of the farmers and the products. And I did that. When they saw all the pictures [unclear—blown?] on in the screen, they were surprised. They were laughing, and we were all laughing at the end, and that was like a little dream for them.

AOC: And then, so you did this technical training, which included sanitation and here’s how you keep the milk, and here’s how you store it. Did you also—you taught them to make a dairy product that they hadn’t been making before. Can you talk about that?

SAC: Sure. That was so unique because they asked me to do milk processing. Well, that can be many things—milk can be transformed in many different ways. But because of the limitations with electricity and refrigeration and so forth, I thought that the best way to do it is to transform the milk in a way that they can preserve it a little longer, and being able to use it and sell it in the market in two, maximum three days. And so I am very familiar with doing kefir, which is a probiotic that is similar to yogurt but it’s drinkable and has a higher nutritional content.

So I got a donation from an organic farmer that uses kefir to feed their animals and to use it in their family. I got a donation of the culture. I took it with me to Senegal and there I showed them how to make kefir—how to transform their goat, sheep, and cow’s milk into a product that after 24 hours can be used, it’s higher nutrition, and can be sold in the weekly fresh market.

AOC: It must’ve been very exciting for them to see that new product emerge.

SAC: That’s right. And they actually didn’t even know about that. They knew about yogurt. They cannot afford to buy the yogurt that is sold in the few stores they have. They know the taste of sour milk, which is the way, the Senegalese traditional way of preserving the milk. But of course, kefir has a different nutrient profile than just sour milk. And so I explained to them what will be the benefit of doing that with a live culture compared to just letting the milk sour. And so they were excited about that.

Many of the women came to the training with their small children and babies because they cannot leave them alone. So all of them tried the kefir that we make. And so I was watching the faces of them as they tried milk kefir for the first time. And of course we had to sweeten it up with some other things so they will see the difference between a mango flavor kefir and just a plain kefir—how can we transform that. It was exciting.

AOC: So exciting to do that work with the Dental Hyrae(?) Women Cooperative in Senegal. So exciting for you to share your perspective and stories with us here, Dr. Silvia. I just want to thank you for joining us today and for all you’re doing out there to help bring about a different kind of food system, to have a better life not only for the cows but also for the people. So thanks for what you’re doing. And if our listeners would like to learn more about NCBA and CLUSA, do you know where they could go to find out about this program that they have?

SAC: Yes, they can go to the National Cooperative Business Association website and there, there will be the 2017 projects that they fund. One of them was my project in Senegal. And they can see all the different ways that the National Cooperative Business Association helps farmers all over the world.

AOC: Thank you so much, Dr. Silvia.

SAC: Thank you very much.

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