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Know Your Milk, Know Your Dairy, Part 1

February 20, 2010

There was a pretty ugly exposé on ABC Nightline recently about the inhumane treatment dairy cows receive on large, factory farms.  For me, and for you, this turns out to have a silver lining or two.  First off, there is the simple fact that there is an alternative to factory farms – small, local dairies and farmers abound and you need only seek them out at farmer’s markets and small, conscientious grocers.  The other wonderful thing is that these days, in the spirit of the slogan, ‘Know your food, know your farmer’, we have the opportunity to actually turn to our local dairy and ask about their practices.  Ask a large, factory dairy operation to comment on their processes.  I dare ya.  I double-dog dare ya!

So my good friend Laura watched this Nightline report and is having trouble finding a dairy she can trust to treat its animals humanely.  She has lots of questions and is even exploring what “humane” means to her.  You should be wondering these things too, and I was thrilled to have her jump-start the conversation for me.  I’ve been doing some research on her behalf and will share it with you in this post and a future one.

First, let’s start with some very general questions about how dairies operate and what the life of a milk cow is like.  To get answers, I turned to my good friend and small dairy operator, Nick Kirch of Blue Marble Family Farm.  For a variety of reasons Nick’s farm is not currently bottling or selling milk, but he will be back in business soon.  In the meantime, Nick is my “resident expert” on some general dairy questions.

Nick, would you first describe when a cow begins to milk and for how long?

Cows do not milk until they have their first calf. Before that the cow is called a heifer; after giving birth it is called a cow. Once a cow, the animals do milk when pregnant. The only time that they do not milk is 45 to 60 days before having the next calf. They need this rest period. Without it they produce very little.  A cow’s production peaks at about 100 days then slowly falls off throughout the year. When cows have the next calf, the cycle starts over. Cows can milk for two years or more without calving, but production will be lower.

Artificial insemination is common practice at both big and small dairies. So is natural insemination. There are pros and cons to both.

Most small farms milk twice a day.  Many large farms milk three times a day. This increases production as much as 15% but of course the cow eats more and poops more also. It also means milking every 8 hours.  This may work for large farms with many employees, but it is hard for a small farm with a smaller workforce.

Diet also has a lot to do with the decision to milk three times a day. The cows need higher energy feeds to produce that much milk.  High energy feeds are hard for the cows to digest, just like people eating lots of sugar and candy. When fed high energy diets cows need buffer additives to help their stomach from getting acidosis. You get more milk, but at what cost?  How nutritious is that milk?

The quantity a cow produces varies widely depending on a lot of factors such as diet, breed and genetics. It ranges from 50 to 150 pounds a day.

Nick, how long is the milking life of a cow, and would you describe their grazing life a little?

Most cows begin to produce milk between 2 and 3 years of age.  How long they milk depends on farming practices.  Grazers normally get 8 to 10 years, and sometimes up to 18.  Confinement farms normally get 4 to 5 years up to 10.

Grazing cows are outside or have the choice to be inside or out.  In winter they are fed stored feed, dry hay, chopped hay, corn silage, shelled corn, soybeans or some combination of those.

The female calves are kept for milking.  The males are sold.  Many go to be fed out for steers as beef.   Some do go to veal producing, but it is a small percentage.

Thanks Nick!

These days we think of milk as a commodity, an item on a grocery list, but not as a flavorful, artisanal product.  Milk from small producers is a carefully tended food, treated with love and respect.  You are excited to see fresh strawberries come into season at the farmer’s markets…you love fresh sweet corn in season too, and tomatoes.  You appreciate the hand-crafted cheeses and maple syrup and honey.  Milk is no different – it is not to be compared with average grocery store milk.  The wonderful flavor of a glass of grass-fed, hand-crafted, creamy milk is a gift we should better learn to enjoy.  Thank these small, local producers for the hard work they do to bring it to you.

Wonder what your options are after watching the Nightline film?  Wondering who treats cows humanely?  Stay tuned for Part 2 of Know Your Milk, Know Your Dairy which will check in with small, local dairies for their comments about the inhumane treatment shown in the Nightline footage and they’ll describe life on their farms.

ABC Nightline video


Update:  Know Your Milk, Know Your Dairy, Part 2 is now up!

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 22, 2010 11:21 am

    I have not seen the nightline segment that you refer to, however you are not the first to inquire about our practices since this aired. Who was this put out by? We do not use the practices that were described to me about this segment by another inquirer. We are an organic farm following their guidelines with an annual inspection of our records. We only use milk from our dairy herd for our milk, cheese and ice cream products giving us total control of the product. I know our product is what consumers like yourself are looking for. What specific questions would you like answered? You are always welcome to come to our farm for a visit. About your friend Nick Kirch, he is a great guy, tell him “Hi” for me.
    God bless,

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