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Wednesday, 03 September 2014 13:44

Dairy whistleblower describes experiences at Osborne Farms

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fr cattlecallWhen Gna Wyatt called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals about the manure piles covering Osborne Farms in Clyde, she wasn’t trying to make headlines. She just wanted life to get better for the cows she had spent the summer milking. 

 

“Honestly, I just thought someone would come in and say, ‘this has to be cleaned up and we would be cleaning it up and we would go about our day,” Wyatt said. “I had no idea it would spiral into everything. I wanted somebody to see what I saw.”

Wyatt, a 28-year-old mother and nursing student who grew up with a stepfather who worked on dairy farms, took a job as head milker at Osborne Farms back in May, a position that involved getting to the farm around 4 a.m., gathering the cows for milking and turning them out to pasture. She would leave around 6:30 a.m. and return for another milking in the evening. 

“It wasn’t a glamorous job at all, but I actually enjoyed it,” Wyatt said. “I’m kind of an animal person and I’m kind of an outdoor person, so it suited my school schedule and my kids’ schedule and it was decent money.”

It wasn’t the first time Wyatt had been on the Osborne farm. Her stepfather worked there for a four-year period while she was in high school. The farm’s appearance surprised her when she returned as an employee. 

“Even though I’ve been around dairy farms my entire life, I am not an expert,” Wyatt said. “I did not know the amount of sewage or waste that should have been there or should not have been there. However, at first glance it was a lot of waste just pooled up.” 

So, she asked Tom Osborne, the farm’s owner, about it. 

“Tom had made the comment that yes, it needed to be hauled off, but he didn’t have time to do it because of having to hold down his fulltime job as well as run the farm alone,” Wyatt said. 

But as time passed, the chore was never done, and Wyatt began noticing other issues as well. Some of the cows seemed “ridiculously skinny to my standards,” with one of those skinnier cows dealing with a “horrible limp” due to an overgrown hoof, making it hard for her to keep up with the herd.  Another cow, one Wyatt named Maggie, also began having problems keeping up, so Wyatt had to put her in the sick pen closest to the barn or else spend 45 minutes coaxing her back in from the field. 

In addition, Wyatt said, many of the cows had patches of hair missing from their backs from lying down in the waste at night. Their tails were matted with it, and she and her brother once spent an hour trimming all the tails, filling up a 10-gallon bucket with the matted hair. 

“Those are the things that kind of disturbed me,” Wyatt said. 

She kept asking Osborne about it. But no veterinarian was called, no manure hauled off. 

“My brother had asked to use the Bobcat to scrape the holding pen and things like that, and he had done a lot of that on his own time just to help us to keep it a little more clean,” Wyatt said, but Osborne always had a reason why it wasn’t a good time to do so.  

 

Making the call

Wyatt’s quick to point out that she doesn’t have anything against Osborne as a person, calling him an “awesome guy” and a “hard worker.” She thinks a lot of the issues stemmed from the challenge of balancing a fulltime job at Evergreen Packaging with sole management responsibility for the farm. 

When she first knew the farm as a high school student, she said, it didn’t look like that. At the time, Tom’s father Massey was managing it. 

“I don’t think it is a top priority anymore,” Wyatt said. “Honestly, when I first started working there I felt sorry for Tom. I felt like he was burning it at both ends.”

But she was growing increasingly uneasy with the conditions. 

“My brother and I sat and talked about it,” Wyatt said. “I was like, there’s gotta be a way we can have someone tell Tom this has to be done. We’ve mentioned it a thousand times. His dad has complained about it.”

So, the two started looking for options. Eventually, they found People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and Wyatt’s brother gave them a call. 

“He was like, ‘Somebody’s actually listening to us,’” Wyatt said. “So we talked.”

They did more than talk. They let a PETA staffer in to film a video now proliferating online, a trigger for subsequent inspections by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Resources, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Haywood County Animal Services. 

 

The aftermath

Wyatt was utterly unprepared for what came next — the publicity, the questioning of the video’s veracity, the general backlash against PETA. 

“The things that they said about it possibly being staged — no. Absolutely not,” Wyatt said. “It was really like that. It is really like that.”

In the Smoky Mountain News’ original Aug. 20 coverage of Osborne Farms, Haywood County Extension livestock specialist Tony McGaha had raised some questions about the truth of the video, pointing out that the cows pictured had remarkably clean backs for animals that allegedly slept and ate in 3 feet of manure. He said that in his visits to the farm, the area in question was fenced off, and he postulated that perhaps someone had run the cows through that area on purpose, camera rolling. 

Reports from Haywood Animal Control, DACS and DENR had seemed to support McGaha’s point of view. Though the farm got slapped with six violations from DENR, all related to manure storage and dealt with environmental concerns, not animal welfare concerns. According to Jean Hazzard, director of Haywood County Animal Services, she didn’t see anything in her three post-video visits to the farm to raise a red flag. 

“They are in an area where it’s dry,” Hazzard said. “They’re able to lay down, move around and not sleep in a wet area. They can sleep in a dry area and they can lay down during the day in a dry area.”

“All the cattle were in acceptable condition,” she continued. 

Though Hazzard doesn’t have a background in farming — she’s been called to only about three dairy farms in her 20 years on the job — she visited in tandem with an inspector from DACS, and neither saw red flags that demanded a more expert opinion.  

“At this point pretty much I’d say the case is closed,” she said. 

But PETA didn’t take kindly to McGaha’s interpretation of the situation, sending a letter demanding a retraction of his statements to the Smoky Mountain News so that PETA would not have to “seek alternative means of protecting itself.” N.C. State University’s Office of General Counsel is now reviewing the request. 

According to Wyatt, the video is very much true, though McGaha’s reasons for doubting it are likewise based on truth. 

“It was a complete and utter lie,” Wyatt said of the allegation that the video was staged. “It’s not a lie on behalf of the guy [McGaha] that said it. I’m sure when he got down there, there was wire [fence] up. I’m positive of that. The reason I know this is because I put the wire up there.”

But each time she put the wire up, Wyatt said, Osborne would take it down, eventually hiding it from her so she couldn’t put it up again. Except for inspections. When an inspector rolled up the wire would go right back up. 

“Where they stood to eat was in that mess twice a day, every day,” Wyatt said. “They did not go out to the field to sleep. They slept in that mess.”

Skeptics of the video have asked, though, why the cows didn’t look a little dirtier given that they were supposedly living and sleeping in manure. Not just McGaha — the question has been raised across the Internet. There’s a simple answer, Wyatt said. The manure-covered pen contained both a “soupy” section and a “mushy” section. The animals slept in the mushy” section, which was dry enough that it wouldn’t be able to actually coat their backs. 

“The soupy, of course they would be covered in,” Wyatt said. “However, of course they can’t lay down in that so they trudge out of that and lay in the mush.”

 

Past violations

This year wasn’t the first that Osborne Farms has had an issue with manure. In early 2013, DACS inspection revealed a similar situation in which cows were lying in manure accumulated in the staging area outside the milking parlor. 

“They have to scrape it on a regular basis. They had not done as they should have and there was some accumulation. We did note that,” said Jim Melvin, inspector with DACS. “Our inspector did note that there was a cow or some cows that were actually lying in that condition.” 

However, the farm quickly complied with the required maintenance and fixed the problem within the required 30 days. That was the only violation noted in records going back to 2007, and it did not result in milk contamination, Melvin said. 

Going forward, Wyatt has no ill wishes toward the farm. She doesn’t work there anymore — a job change and school transfer have her living in Whittier now — but she’s glad to know that the cows she got to know over the summer are enjoying a better standard of living. 

“I want people to see that it’s not PETA trying to make a name for themselves or about PETA at all,” Wyatt said. “In all actuality it’s just me and nobody heard me. I’m not a dairy farmer but I’ve been around this forever, and I’ve never seen the things that I saw.” 

The Osborne family did not return a call requesting comment. 

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