Tails of Dairying-do

My favorite joke from a trip to Wisconsin, motherland of cheeseheads, cheese curds and cheesy jokes, was “You can really smell that dairy air!” (Go on, say it out loud.) But on recent trips to two different NC dairies, I did not smell the dairy air, thank goodness. In fact, I mostly smelled the fresh green grass of the pastures in which the ladies were lounging.

Truth be told, I found this post a bit daunting to write. Dairy practices can be a highly controversial topic; I’ve tried to present the facts as they are. Some think that dairies shouldn’t exist, and I respect their opinion. And some of what happens on factory farms is, in my opinion, cruel. That said, gross generalizations are pretty poor substitutes for facts; if you’re curious about how a dairy treats their cows, ask them. My objective isn’t to tell you how to think, but what to think about.

In this post, we’ll look at what a dairy is in the United States, how milk gets from the cow to your store, and some characteristics of dairies. Next time, we’ll finish the other half of this post and then we’ll take a look at Homeland Creamery in Julian, NC, and then learn more about just why milk is so much more than white liquid in another post.

Milk bottle showing cream at the top

Milk bottle showing cream at the top

What’s a Dairy?
In the US, we consider a dairy a place with animals that provide milk and a space for gathering their milk, usually called the milking parlor. To confuse the matter, milk then goes to the “dairy” or “dairy plant” for processing and bottling and the cream goes to the, in my opinion, most important place in this supply chain which is called the “creamery”.

The most common cows you’ll see on dairies in the US are Holsteins, the black and white ones, and Jerseys, the tan ones. Holsteins produce more milk, but Jersey milk has more fat, which makes Jersey milk more valuable since the milk fat is sold at a premium.

Just like with most agricultural systems, there’s a wide variety of dairy management systems that range from dairies with herds of less than 30 cows practicing low intensity operations that produce milk for niche markets all the way to production facilities that may have more than 5,000 cows producing milk as a commodity.

These farms vary widely in terms of how they treat their animals, but a gross characterization is that most large dairies (greater than 1,000 cows) have herds that are confined to barns year-round and have average productivity span of less than 5 years. At that time, the cows are removed from the productive herd and sold at auction, usually for meat.

On small farms, the cows may be turned out to pasture when not milking and their average productivity span is usually about 10 years. These farms may practice pasturing, allowing the cows to graze when not milking, although almost all receive supplemental grain and silage unless their milk is being sold as 100% grass-fed.

In the United States, most cows calve each year. Dairy cows are most productive, i.e., lactate the most, after giving birth. Depending on the farm, female cows may be kept for herd replenishment or sold to another dairy. Males are usually sold to for meat production.

Calves in are usually separated from their mothers within 48 hours and are kept with other calves of the same age. Doing so ensures they are eating well and being cared for, reduces disease transmission and directs more of the cow’s milk to production. However, there are a few countries, where keeping calves with their mothers for six weeks or more is practiced, although it is not the majority.

Of all the things I looked into about dairying, this bothered me the most. I looked a bit, but did not find much research about long term effects of separation of the cows from their calves. Aside from the distress some cows and calves may show (but not all of them), I’m curious about the later life effects for the calves and whether improved health of the calf might not outweigh the economic gain of the milk production. Any dairy scientists out there who know the answers?

Margins on dairy farms are usually pretty slim; since milk is a commodity product, the price you pay at the store may not reflect the actual cost of producing the milk on the dairy closest to you. To make a profit (or just break-even), dairies have to either produce more milk for less cost, or get more money for what they’re selling.

One way to do that is to distinguish your product from what is being sold on the commodity market. In our area, several farms are taking this latter route, including the two I visited, Reedy Fork Farm, which produces certified organic milk they sell to Organic Valley, and Homeland Creamery, which produces their milk as naturally and humanely as possible.

Next time, the second half of dairies…

Further reading:

Great article from Modern Farmer: http://modernfarmer.com/2014/03/real-talk-milk/

Interesting survey of 1500 Swedish dairies: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1712350/

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