The debate rages on over organic milk vs. regular milk. For the most part the debate has focused almost entirely on nutritional issues. But the question remains, what about the treatment of the cows? Are cows raised for organic milk treated more humanely than cows raised for regular milk? Are those smiling cows on the cardboard milk containers and on the billboards a true representation of the life of a dairy cow? You may believe organic milk is truly cruelty free. But is it really?
I have been reading for years now about the unavoidable, innate cruelty involved in procuring dairy products for human consumption. Sometimes I wondered if what I was reading was an exaggeration. I wanted to believe that the horrible descriptions I read of the daily lives of dairy cows were examples of the worst case scenarios. I figured there had to be dairy farms where the calves were not immediately removed from their mothers and that after years of having their babies and milk taken from them that at least the cows were sent off to pasture and had a nice retirement. Organic means cruelty free right?
I decided that if I really wanted to know the truth I would have to ask an organic dairy farmer directly. Since I live in Sonoma County I figured I could just visit a small organic dairy farm and see for myself. I searched the web for a list of small organic dairy farms in Sonoma County and could not find any farms that offered tours for individuals that didn’t cost a lot of money. I went with Plan B and decided to try my luck and call a few of them.
I will admit, I was a little nervous. I wasn’t sure how was I going to introduce myself. I certainly have no experience in being an investigative reporter and I was worried that they would just hang up on me when I started asking questions. I decided to say that I was doing some research on what the differences were between conventional and organic milk and wanted to find out more about the industry standards for organic milk. This was the truth because I was really hoping that the organic milk standards would be very different from the conventional. I made a list of 5 questions. Before I share what I found I just want to say that the people I spoke to from the organic dairy farms were quite nice and helpful over the phone and by email.
Interviews with organic dairy farmers:
I ended up contacting 3 dairy farms. Two of them by phone and the third by e-mail exchange. I also asked each of the dairy farms if what they did was industry standard. One of the dairy farms was actually certified by the American Humane Association. This dairy farm also sourced from 25 different local organic dairies in Sonoma and Marin counties. All of the dairy farms said they followed industry standards for organic dairy farms.
All of the dairy farm representatives gave the same answers to my questions. They also gave similar reasons as to why they did what they did. Here is a summary of my questions and their answers.
1. When do you separate the mother and calf?
We separate the calves from their mother within 24 hours after they get their colostrum (the first secretion from the mammary glands after giving birth, rich in antibodies). If we keep them together longer the bond will be too difficult for them both. The sooner we separate them the easier it is for both the calf and the cow.
2. What does the calf drink?
The calves are fed pasteurized or raw milk from the dairy that we cannot sell. There is colostrum milk from the cows that have just calved that we keep separate from the rest of the milk and give to the calves. The calves get milk on average from 6 to 8 weeks and up to 3 months.
3. What happens to the male calves?
The bull (male) calves are given colostrum and sold to auction ASAP. They are most often sold for veal or purchased by a local organic beef producer. The female calves are kept as replacement cows to impregnate and produce more milk.
4. How many years do you breed the cows?
The cows are bred once a year usually by artificial insemination. They are pregnant for 9 months. On average they are bred 5 to 8 times.
5. What happens to them when they stop calving or their milk production drops, aka retirement?
Usually cows are sold after their production level decreases, typically around the age of 7 or 8 years. The cows are sold for beef. “Most people don’t realize that dairy cows are basically fast food meat,” said one of the farmers.
It was interesting to hear the perspectives of the people representing the organic dairy farmers. One of the women I spoke to answered my question about what happens to the cows after their milk production drops in a slightly exasperated way. She seemed a little annoyed that the general public would think the dairy farmers should retire their cows to green pastures. Her response to me was, “Honey, there are almost two million cows in California to feed and keep healthy. It doesn’t compute to keep cows once they stop producing calves each year. Milk would be enormously more expensive if the dairies had to continue to take care of the cows who were not producing. It is an environmental issue as well. It is illegal to bury the cows on the land. You have to take them to rendering plants. That way their bodies can still be made use of.”
Another dairy farm that responded to me by e-mail stated, “A cow eats 90 pounds of food and drinks 25-50 gallons of water per day. Though it would be nice to be able to keep them all, it would be financially unfeasible to keep a cow on a dairy for the remainder of its full, natural life.”
Well, I see their point. I mean they are in business to make a profit right? How could you possibly make a profit while caring and feeding for hundreds or thousands of cows who are not producing any milk for you? And the impact on the environment, huge. Especially now, in California, with the water shortages. It really doesn’t make sense to let them live beyond their productive years, especially if new calves are being born every year to ensure more milk production. It also makes sense that the male calves are sold for veal just days after they are born. They are useless to the dairy farmers. Even the separating of the calves from their mothers within the first day made a little more sense to me after one of the representatives answered, “If we keep them together longer then breaking the bond will be too difficult for them both”.
I get it, the dairy farmers are trying to do the best they can with their limited options. If I were a dairy farmer I don’t see how I would be able to stay in business and do anything differently. The burning question for me is this: Is there a “humane” way to produce cow’s milk for human consumption? The next question is, should humans be consuming cows milk at all?
I have come to the conclusion that if I were meant to be consuming cow’s milk then I would have been born a calf. Due to my love of cheese and ice cream, it took a long time for me to come to this conclusion, but it no longer makes sense to me to drink the milk of another species. The thought of taking a baby away from it’s mother at one day old so I could drink its mothers milk is now unacceptable to me. Most people would be horrified if we took a newborn colt away from its mother so we could drink her milk. The same is true for baby elephants or newborn puppies. Why is this not true for cows?
We have been drinking cow’s milk for so long that it is almost impossible for us to see the inherent cruelty in the act of breeding cows into existence so we could take their babies and their milk. Drinking cow’s milk and eating the products derived from milk is so culturally acceptable that it is seen as normal, natural and to many people, necessary. I want to challenge these beliefs and hope that if you have read this entire post that you will consider reducing or eliminating your support of a practice that is not normal, natural or necessary. Organic does not mean humane.
I have read this blog and I really enjoyed it!
Thanks Ray, glad you liked it!
This was very informative and helpful to me thank you very much
Thank you for the positive feedback Jenne!
Thanks for this informative article. I am also worried about this cruel treatment to cows.
Hello Angela. If you haven’t seen the deplorable acts done to the dairy cows here in Fl. Check out these very recent videos. I am very angry at what I have seen. It breaks my heart and I am at the verge of boycotting dairy.
Very helpful. Most articles on this subject are so fierce and self righteous, I find myself sceptical of the information. But this is a clear look at the facts, not demonizing the farmers in particular who, after all, are simply providing a product the rest of us want. Now I just need to wean myself off dairy…
Thank you Judith, I do not find demonizing farmers helpful. Like you said, they are providing a product that is in demand. If there is no demand for dairy then these farmers can and will choose a different product (hopefully not livestock) to farm.
I dont know when you wrote this. But thank you so much. I am vegetarian. After reading what they do to the babies is horrific. Your comment about taking colts or puppies and others away from their moms a day old really hit home in my mind. I love dairy or better I loved dairy. No more dairy. Thank you!!
Thanks Roxie! I wrote this about 5 years ago. There are so many yummy dairy alternatives to enjoy these days. I’m glad this article inspired you to give up dairy.
Thank you, Angela. This helps me a lot. I love dairy products, but I do not like what we do to cows we rear.