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The bucolic scene of Holsteins grazing on a grassy hill that adorns milk cartons and cheese wrappers is nothing more than fantasy these days. While the meat industry has come under intensive scrutiny (and with good reason) for the massive factory farm system of raising cattle in confinement, animals in the dairy industry are arguably worse off.
Eating milk, cheese, sour cream, ice cream, and other dairy yumminess is impossible to do with a clear conscience — and I’m not referring to the fat or cholesterol. Calves born into the industrial grip of today’s dairy industry have a road ahead of them that is short, but not merciful. Dairy cows are subject to brutal conditions before being sent to slaughter for beef and male calves are worth next to nothing in the dairy business. Some are simply left to die after birth. Many are slaughtered for low-grade “bob veal” a few days after they are born and will end up as cheap hot dogs or dog food.
While a small number of dairies are bucking the industrial trend, the vast majority of dairy products we eat come from factories that are nothing short of horrific in many cases.
Where Milk Comes From
We’ve become so far removed from the source of our food that many Americans are oblivious to where most of what they eat is actually coming from, dairy included. Yes, milk comes from cows. And how do cows get milk? Like other female mammals, they produce milk to feed their offspring. In the business of raising cows to produce as much milk as possible, which is the goal of most of the U.S. dairy industry, cows are kept in perpetual states of lactation and impregnation.
“One of the things people don’t think about is the effort it takes a cow to produce milk,” said Marlene Halverson who has worked on farm animal welfare issues for years. “The amount of energy and the physiological capacity to produce the kinds of yields that industrial dairy farming is demanding of cows today is huge.” The average dairy cow on industrial farms produces roughly 20,000 pounds of milk a year — 10 times more than she’d normally produce to feed a calf.
Professor John Webster, author of The Welfare of Dairy Cattle, wrote, “The amount of work done by the cow in peak lactation is immense …To achieve a comparably high work rate a human would have to jog for about six hours a day, every day.”
Sounds exhausting. And that’s just the beginning. In between milkings, Halverson says, a high-producing dairy cow’s udder will fill up with 6.5 gallons of milk. That makes walking with a cow’s normal gait next to impossible because of the swollen size of the udder, greatly increasing the chances of lameness.
Of course, cows haven’t always produced so much milk. As Nicolette Hahn Niman accounts in her book, Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms, early in our country’s history, cows weren’t even milked year round, but only in the months where there was good enough grass. “Like cured meats, butter and cheese were methods of preserving milk during the seasons of plenty for the cold months to come,” she accounts.
And cows used to serve multiple purposes — milk, meat, and labor. But increasingly cows were bred for single traits, such as milk production. After World War II, industrialization of our food system ramped up with the availability of cheap energy, pesticides, fertilizers, and mechanization. By 2005, Niman writes, cows’ yields were increased by seven fold in a century’s time — mainly through manipulations of breeding and diet and the additions of antibiotics and hormones.
But the largest surge in so-called productivity came decades after WWII. “It was the 1970s when the dairy industry really started ramping up milk production in Holstein cattle,” said Halverson. “Cattle before the 1970s were healthy, normal dairy cows, they didn’t have issues with lameness, mastitis (a painful udder infection), and reproductive problems in huge amounts.” All that selective breeding and milk demand has made the Holstein a much more fragile animal.
Under healthy conditions, it’s not uncommon for a dairy cow to live between nine and 20 years while being productive in the herd, said Halverson. While many cows can even live to 25 years, today’s dairy cows don’t even come close to that. “They are living two or three years and being culled,” she said. The next stop from there is to live out the remaining days alongside beef cattle awaiting slaughter at a feedlot.
Life on the ‘Farm’
The vast majority of dairy cows in the U.S., around 75 percent, will never graze in pasture and most won’t spend any time outside. And most cows that are outside aren’t nibbling on greener pastures, but are instead confined in barren dirt lots, a report by Farm Sanctuary details. This will sound familiar if you know anything about beef cattle raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).
Like feedlot beef cattle, dairy cows aren’t fed the diet nature intended for them and are instead pumped full of animal by-products and grains, which leads to metabolic disease (and more horrific things like Mad Cow). “Unlike omnivorous chickens and pigs, all cattle are naturally designed to live entirely from slowly and methodically foraging vegetation,” wrote Niman in Righteous Porkchop. “Bovines in the wild spend most of their waking hours in a state of ambulant grazing, walking an average of 2.5 miles a day, all the while taking 50 to 80 bites of forage per minute. Life in a confinement dairy promised a cow an environment and a diet that violated her very evolution.”
Dairies vary across the country, explains Gene Baur, president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary. In the Midwest and Northeast cows may spend some time outside in warmer months and then are kept tethered by the neck in “tie stalls” in the winter. In the Southwest and California, two booming dairy areas, cows are kept in “dry lots,” that most closely resemble CAFO feedlots “where the cows are packed by the thousands in a series of barren, feces laden pens,” said Baur. And then there are “freestall” dairies that are essentially giant, crowded warehouses, which are no fun either.
( “Graziers” — farmers who are returning their animals to pasture — are the exception. More on this below.)
If cows aren’t done in by an unhealthy diet, horrible living conditions (which for some include walking and sleeping on concrete), overproduction of milk, lameness, mastitis (the number one reason for culling cows), then they are also forced to endure having their tails docked without — a painful process that renders them defenseless against biting flies. And then there is the agony of having their newborns taken from them directly after birth. This has been detailed in reports of the noises mothers make when their calves are removed and stories of cows breaking free of operations and traveling miles to other farms to find their calves.
And for the calves, life is no picnic. Female calves will be kept for milking to replace other cows in the herd. And for male calves, it’s bleak. If they aren’t left to die or sent to slaughter within days, then it’s off to a veal operation, which are “virtually synonymous with animal cruelty,” as Paul Shapiro Senior Director, End Factory Farming Campaign of the Humane Society said, and slaughtered around 4-5 months. And the rest are either raised for beef on the farm where they are born or sold to another beef operation and slaughtered around 13-14 months. In fact, “the veal industry was literally born out of the dairy industry,” said Baur. “It was developed to take advantage of the unwanted male calves born to dairy cows.”
And there are many. “In one recent year, about 4.5 million male calves were born in U.S. dairies,” wrote Niman. “Of those, 42 percent were immediately sent to slaughter; over half went to confinement veal operations; the remainder to feedlots.”
Halverson, who worked with 14 animal welfare scientists to design a set of high welfare husbandry criteria for a program her sister Diane created at the the Animal Welfare Institute, said they often recommend euthanasia on the farm for male calves. “It is the most humane way if the farmer or someone he or she knows isn’t going to raise the calf — it seems like a terrible waste, but when farms send their male calves to an auction house they may only get $10-15, if the calf sells at all — it’s not worth it in terms of the suffering of the animal.”
The much-maligned veal industry, infamous for housing calves in tiny crates, has seen a small shift. Some farmers are engaging in “specialty veal” operations that have much more humane conditions for animals, sometimes even allowing them to remain on pasture with their mothers or in or to live in groups in large pens or hoop houses with other calves — but these are few.
Usually the stories are much worse.
“We recently did an investigation at a bob veal plant in Vermont, it was certified organic, very small plant,” said Shapiro. “Despite this, the abuse that we documented on camera was absolutely horrendous: skinning of animals alive, live animals on piles of dead animals outside, calves being beaten, being shocked with electric prods over and over, being dragged, kicked, all in front of a USDA inspector no less. When we released the results of the investigation the footage was so damning that the USDA shut the plant down — it’s been shut down for more than 3 months and a criminal investigation is still pending.”
How Did Things Get So Bad?
The story of dairy’s downhill slide is familiar throughout the food world. “There has been a real drive to get cheaper and cheaper food and that is one factor that led to factory farming, not only in the dairy industry but throughout all of agribusiness. We think of food as being cheap but in reality there are a lot of external factors that we don’t really pay for when we go the supermarket,” said Shapiro. “Those are increased animal suffering, increased environmental degradation, and increased food safety risks.”
One of the drivers for that has been consolidation of the dairy industry. Farm Sanctuary reports that the total number of U.S. dairies has dropped 55 percent since 1991, but for operations where the herd size is over 100, it has increased by 94 percent. Megadairies with thousands of cows are now replacing smaller, family farms. In California there are now dairies with over 10,000 cows and the state’s San Joaquin Valley is home to 2.5 million dairy cows, Niman reports.
But it’s not just the size of operations that is problematic, it’s the capitalization — the money that is needed to sustain an industrial-style operation. A capital-intensive dairy system is ‘inelastic.’ “The farmer can no loner respond to changing market conditions by increasing or decreasing herd size or milk output,” Niman wrote. “Instead, (just as we’ve seen with poultry and pig contract growing), farmers that have opted into the industrialized system are now servants to massive debt.”
This means farmers end up subjecting their animals to the harshest conditions in efforts to produce more and more milk. A perfect example is the use of Recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) growth hormone, pushed by Monsanto, in efforts to increase yields. The results instead have been catastrophic for the health of cows, which is of course not good for business either. The industrial system has also given birth to the huge prevalence of the udder infection mastitis, which accounts for $2 billion in annual losses, Niman writes.
This style of raising animals has taken its toll on the environment as well, from air to water pollution, as well as contributing heavily to emissions of methane gas caused by cattle not eating their natural diet. One dairy in northern Minnesota has been described by the State Department of Health as a public health hazard, Halverson said. On days when winds bring the pollution from the dairy’s manure pits to their residences, the neighbors have been advised by the Department to leave their homes and stay with relatives or in hotels in town. The industry’s grip on state agencies has prevented this facility from being closed down — instead it has received extensions from the pollution control board.
Too Much of a Bad Thing, Not Enough of a Good Thing
The irony of all this increased production is that it’s unnecessary. Many people can argue for health reasons that we don’t need dairy products to begin with, but as Niman writes, the industry has actually saturated itself. In 1986 the government actually paid dairy farmers to slaughter 10 percent of the U.S. herd.
“Responding to the ongoing dairy excess, the federal government has long purchased cheese, butter,and nonfat dry milk under a dairy price support program,” Niman explained. “The products are stored and, to the extent possible, funneled into domestic and foreign feeding programs, including school lunches. What can’t be poured into some type of program is put into storage. At times the dried milk surplus has been extreme. ‘In 2002, storage costs alone for the powder peaked at $2.3 million a month,’ said Michael Yost, associate administrator of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.”
And while we have too much of a bad thing, we’re lacking in the alternatives.
A small number of dairy farmers are returning their animals to the pasture system of using rotational grazing, allowing their animals outdoor pasture access as much of the year as possible and supplementing their diets in winter with hay, grain and silage. Halverson says many of these farms are moving away from selective breeding and are now cross-breeding Holsteins with more robust Normande and Jersey cattle. “They are not demanding as much milk from their cows. They get lower yields,” she said. “But their costs are also lower because they are not so highly capitalized as dairy factories, needing lots of labor and paying enormous vet bills.”
It’s a choice that’s also better for the environment and it results in a healthier product, to boot. It’s also many steps up when it comes to the treatment of animals (although, of course, the cows in any operation don’t make it out alive and male calves still have bleak prospects).
So, where to find these “graziers,” as they’re known?
The best bet is to check for local dairies where you live, find out if their animals are pasture raised, and then go see for yourself. Online resources like the Eat Well Guide and LocalHarvest.org are helpful in locating good dairies or stores that sell their products. And there are labels (some good and others misleading) to help make sense of what you’re really getting.
There are also larger businesses, like Organic Valley, that have taken steps to improve the welfare of their animals. “Our dairy animals have the best life of any dairy animals in this country, that’s for certain,” said Wendy Fulwider, the company’s animal husbandry specialist. “We do have pasture requirements, so they do get to spend a lot of time outdoors and they get excellent pasture to eat. They get exercise and sunshine and have the most nutritious milk. They are incredibly healthy.”
The company is a cooperative of 1,350 farms and has a minimal requirement of 120 days on pasture per year, they follow the organic standards and don’t use hormones like rBST. “Our cows live longer than conventional cows, they are healthier, they’re not spending their entire life on concrete and they are eating minimal amounts, if any grain. It’s not uncommon to have a 10- or 12-year-old dairy cow on our farms,” said Fulwider.
Halverson agrees that the easiest way to feel better about the dairy you’re getting is to look for the organic label. “But I realize there is controversy over organic dairies, especially in California where certain dairies have been accused of raising their cattle on feedlots essentially,” she said.
Gene Baur paints a harsher picture. “The vast majority of dairy is from industrial type operations. Even Horizon, which is an organic-type farm is basically a factory farm,” he said. “What they have done and what other large agribusinesses have done, is work to lower the standards for what is organic and so even Horizon I would call a factory farm.”
Both Dean Foods’ Horizon and Aurora Farms have come under attack from groups claiming they violate organic standards because of their animals’ lack of access to pasture.
Niman sees hope for the future in graziers, which are better for the environment, animals and health.
Still, the safest best would be to skip the dairy altogether. “People should be thinking more about their food choices and eating in a way that is consistent with their own values and their own interests,” said Baur. “I believe for most people that will mean not eating animal products because the way these animals are treated is brutal and all their lives end in a violent way, which is bad for the animals and for people. If people ate in a way consistent with their own values they wouldn’t be supporting that system. Also people should eat in a way consistent with their own interests and eat in a way that is healthy, that does not lead to heart disease and cancer — that also means not eating animal food but choosing plant food.”
No matter what people’s eating choices, there is always room for improvement. “There are a variety of ways to improve animal welfare each time you sit down to eat. For example, the alternatives to dairy that are out there are more plentiful and better than there have been. Now, any supermarket you go to is going to have a wide variety of soy and rice milks and other alternatives,” said Shapiro. “At the same time there are dairy producers who don’t engage in many of the practices that we talked about.
“So, whether they are interested in reducing or eliminating consumption of dairy or looking for higher standards of animal welfare dairy products, I think all of those are good options for consumers. It’s not to say that anyone is going to be totally cruelty-free in our diets, even the strictest vegans, it is to say that each one of us can move in a better direction when it comes to our food choices and making them more ethical no matter where we are on that spectrum.”