A Mom’s Dairy Adventure: Milk From Farm to Fridge

What type of milk do you buy for your family? Whole? 2%? Skim? Do you buy organic or conventional? Or do you reach for soy, almond, or even hemp milk in your dairy case? Having so many choices and so many conflicting news reports to sort through has made purchasing milk an overwhelmingly complicated decision.

Our family’s milk is delivered weekly to our door in 1/2 gallon glass bottles by Lamers’ Dairy in Wisconsin. It is not organic, but is certified to be free of antibiotics and growth hormones such as rBST. Most importantly, the milk tastes great and my kids can’t get enough of it. It took us a long time to find the right milk for our family, but when Sophie weaned from breastfeeding, I had to start the milk decision process all over again.

Sophie could not tolerate whole milk. Her diaper rash was horrific and every bottle made it worse. All of the sudden, we had to make a choice between soy milk or lactose free milk. I stood at the dairy case, recalling rumors of soy milk increasing breast cancer risk and lactose free milk causing obesity overwhelmed by too much information and not enough knowledge.

This brown Swiss calf is cute, but the traditional black and white Holsteins produce more milk.

When the  Mid-East American Dairy Association invited me to travel to Ohio to witness milk’s journey from farm to fridge, I jumped at the chance. We toured two dairy farms, a cheese factory, and had breakfast with students at an elementary school. I even got to try my hand at milking.Along the way, we spoke with nutritionists, farmers, and even an NFL linebacker (Joe Thomas from the Cleveland Browns,spokesman for the Dairy Council’s Fuel Up for 60 Program).

Many US farms cows no longer graze outdoors. Given access, most choose to stay inside. At the Richman farm, some cows had access to grass fields while waiting to give birth.

My two biggest questions when setting off on the dairy trip were about the presence of antibiotics in milk as well as the use of growth hormones such as rBGH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone – the synthetic lactating hormone manufactured by Eli Lilly to boost milk production, sometimes also known as rBST). I also wondered what conditions the cows were living in on larger farms, and whether they were still being treated respectfully instead of as assets contributing to the bottom line.

We visited two farms. The first farm, the Richman Dairy Farm had 80 Holstein, Jersey, and Brown Swiss cows. They were milked twice a day, eight at a time. The second farm, the Andreas Dairy Farm, had 1300 Holstein cows that were milked three times a day, twenty-four hours a day. Huge difference in size but both the small and large farm had happy, healthy cows living in large open air barns.

The Life of a Dairy Cow:

  • Calf is born and separated as quickly as possible from mother to prevent injury to calf and mother. Mother’s colostrum is collected and fed to the calf by bottle.
  • Calf is bottled fed milk for up to 3 weeks before being weaned.
  • Calves live outdoors in pens on hay and flourish in the open air.
  • Between 22 months and 24 months, calves which are now called heifers are impregnated and once they give birth, they begin to be milked.
  • Once they’ve given birth for the first time, dairy cows are milked continually with the exception of a 45 to 60 day “dry period” before giving birth.
  • The average life of a dairy cow is 4.5 years during which they give birth three times. Some cows live much longer.
  • When the cows are retired, they are sent to meat processing plants. If cows die on the dairy farm due to injury or illness, their meat and hide are still used, but not for human consumption.
Baby cows in pens
Calves are separated from their mothers immediately and placed in outdoor pens.

rBGH Usage

I asked both farmers about their usage of growth hormones to boost milk production. The PR team was eager to remind me that the synthetic hormone recreates a hormone naturally produced by cows, an argument that doesn’t do much to reassure me. There’s nothing natural about artificially boosting a lactation hormone above normal levels and rBGH is banned in most other developed countries due to its effect on cows’ health. But both Bill Indoe and Dan Andreas were dismissive of rBGH, saying they’d tried it in the 1990s and had found that it wasn’t an effective tool for their dairy.

It seems that rBGH is becoming increasingly out of use in the US, due to consumer feedback, and the growth in demand for rBGH-free milk. Both Yoplait and Dannon are now using rBGH-free milk. But you’ll still find rBGH in many ice creams as well as in some of the milk served in public schools.

milk antibiotic tests
Samples of milk just tested at Pearl Valley Cheese Factory.

Antibiotics and General Milk Quality

All milk is tested for the presence of antibiotics when it leaves the dairy, when it arrives at the processing plant, and again if it is to be used in cheese or yogurt. Sick cows are identified by the handlers prior to being milked and are brought to an ICU on the farm to receive antibiotics or other treatment. They are not returned to the general milking pool until the antibiotics is out of their system, based on the medication directions. The conventional milk we drink today is guaranteed to be free of the four to six main antibiotics used by the dairy industry.

The NY Times recently reported that the tests only look for a handful of antibiotics and many dairies use other antibiotics that are not being tested for. Traces of these non-tested antibiotics are found in older dairy animals sent to slaughterhouses. The FDA is currently considering drastically increasing the number of antibiotics tested in milk. The proposal has many dairy farmers worried because the new antibiotic tests would take up to a week and could either lead to recalls or the hold up of milk delivery.

In addition to testing for antibiotics, all milk is tested for fat, protein, and bacteria and somatic cell content. Low somatic cell counts show that animals are healthy while low bacteria counts show that equipment is clean. There are bonuses for higher fat and protein and strict quality standards for bacteria. Although we’re more worried than ever as consumers about our food supply, milk today is much closely regulated and cleaner than the milk we drank 50 years ago.

Raw Milk, Pasteurization, and Homegenization

Raw milk is a hot topic nowadays because many states outlaw it, although many consumers would like to purchase it because of studies showing raw milk reduces allergies and asthma. Some of the farmers we met drink raw milk from their cows, confident in its cleanliness and freshness, while others only drink fat free milk bought at the supermarket.

A runny, creamy raw milk brie is one of my favorite cheeses in the world, but I fully understand why raw milk is banned in many states. Raw milk is dangerous, especially for small children, and difficult to regulate. Sixty percent of dairy-related foodborne illnesses are caused by raw milk while only 1% of the population drinks it.

Pasteurization is the process of heating milk to kill bacteria. Some milk is ultra-pasteurized to provide a longer shelf life. Most organic milk and lactose-free milk is ultra-pasteurized, giving it a different taste. Regular pasteurization involves bringing milk to 145 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes. Ultra-pasteurization is bringing milk to 280 degrees Fahrenheit for 2 to 3 seconds. It can extend shelf life by 60 to 90 days.

The cream, or fat, in milk naturally rises to the top. Homogenization reincorporates the cream back into the milk to create the desired fat grade: skim, 1%, 2%, or whole. Some dairiesoffer un-homogenized milk which needs to be shaken before being poured and have flecks of butterfat.

The cost of feed continues to climb while the price of milk stays at 1990s levels.

The Bleak Economic Reality of Dairy Farming

Dairy farmers are in a tight spot, economically. Milk prices have held steady since the 1990s while input costs such as feed and equipment have skyrocketed. With this summer’s drought sending the price of corn and soy through the roof (many estimate a 40 to 60% increase), it is only going to become harder for dairymen to break even.

As farmers work to feed and house their cows, the price they’ll receive for their milk is unknown. The price of milk is set at the end of the month, once the milk has already been delivered and drunk. Because milk is a highly perishable product, there’s little they can do beyond purchasing expensive insurance to protect themselves from a drop in prices.

Small dairy farmers need to either grow or get creative to stay in business during years when costs are greater than the price of milk. Some sell prize cattle, like the the Endoes of Richman Farms. Some bottle and distribute their own milk locally. Others, like Lad and Brenda of Hastings Dairy, turn to Agri-tourism and social media. Most take out loans, if they can get them, just to stay on the land and continue their calling to raise cows and give us milk.

We need to stop romanticizing the past to help farmers continue making good food.

Continuing the Dairy Adventure

I am back in Chicago living the life of a busy mom of four. The golden fields of Ohio with their gently mooing cows are truly a world away, but the impact of my Ohio Dairy Adventure continues.

I have renewed confidence in my decision to not buy organic milk. The rBGH-free milk we drink is cheaper, tastes great, is not ultra-homogenized and is produced locally. In choosing this milk, I realize that the cows are most likely fed GMO grain in addition to grass from the fields and that they may be given antibiotics that are currently approved by the FDA while not being milked. Every food decision we make involves many factors and is a compromise. There is no perfect food. This is the right dairy choice for us at this time.

I also have a deeper understanding of the pressures on dairy farmers and am more committed than ever to buy locally grown milk. I want to support my local dairy farmers by buying their milk, even if its more expensive, and help small family farms stay in business amidst increasing economic pressures.

Our food system is in jeopardy. We romanticize outdated farming practices while only the very rich can afford to buy products farmed this way. Family farms come in all shapes and sizes, but most are going to face a tough winter. They’ll need our help more than ever in opening up dialogue, visiting farms, and showing interest in learning about food supply.

12 Responses to A Mom’s Dairy Adventure: Milk From Farm to Fridge

  1. Fantastic recap, Vanessa! It was so great meeting you during the Dairy Adventure! I hope our paths cross again soon!

  2. Great post! I didn’t know about ultra pasteurization. Your experience sounds very similiar to what I saw at Fair Oaks dairy in Indiana. I believe they have about 19,000 cows. Their latest advancement is a facility that converts animal waste into natural gas. The dairy is converting all their trucks to natural gas which they say will save them 1,000,000 gallons of diesel each year!

    We’ve been out of the hog business for several years and are focused on crops, so I try to keep up on animal ag since many of these operations may be feeding what I grow.

    • Brian,
      The larger dairy was also converting animal waste to gas. Amazing stuff. Was out to see a hog farm last month and can understand why you got out of that business. Sounds like the price pressure of feed is only going to increase, making it tougher and tougher to make money on animal agriculture. If people love their bacon, they’re going to have to pay more for it! Thanks for the comment and for reading. Glad you enjoyed it.

      Vanessa

  3. Beautiful photos, great post, and I’m so glad you had this opportunity! A friend of mine shared your blog post with me… I’m glad she did! I’ve enjoyed looking through your other posts, too.

    You did a great a job at reporting your fact-finding mission, but there are just a few things I would like to clear up. I am a veterinarian and the daughter of a forever-long line of dairy farmers, so your story is near and dear to my heart.

    First, calves need to be fed milk or milk replacer (“formula” in human terms) for much longer than 3 weeks. Weaning, the transition of a calf from a liquid diet of milk or milk replacer to a solid diet of a sweet starter grain and forages, occurs on most farms at about 8 weeks of age. Weaning should not be done until the calf is consuming enough grain to avoid health and weight loss issues during weaning. When calves are ready to wean, we slowly decrease the amount of milk or milk replacer offered to them at each feeding, and the calves in turn get more of their fill from eating more grain.

    Although housing calves in hutches, as your photograph so neatly captured, is our “gold standard” for calf housing, calves can also be successfully housed in barns, as long as fresh air is delivered appropriately and the barn is kept clean. It is not an easy job for workers in places like the Upper Midwest to care for calves out in the elements, so many farms are moving toward keeping their calves in barns with high, open sidewalls that allow a lot of fresh air and natural light into the barn.

    Heifers are bred at around 15 months of age so that they will calve for the first time at a mature size at about 24 months of age. Cows do continue to grow as they age, but it is more difficult to see because it is not as much by height as it is by girth… like many of us! :)

    Your comments on rBGH are interesting. As with anything in life, complications can occur. Most problems with rBGH happen if it is not handled appropriately or the cows are not managed quite up to par, which is attempted but not always garaunteed in field research trials. rBGH can actually be helpful to cows that are overweight to direct the energy they consume more towards milk production instead of putting on more fat. Cows that are too fat often get very sick when they have their next calf, and this was one common reason I would get called to a farm when I was in practice.

    On a positive note, the use of rBGH increases the efficiency at which the feed cows consume is used for milk production. An article from the University of Georgia summarizes some of the positive impacts of rBGH this way: “Supplementing with rbST increases milk production by an average of approximately 15 percent in the U.S. dairy cow population and reduces the costs of production of a glass of milk, therefore potentially making milk more affordable for the consumer (my note: and more affordable to produce by the farmer!). By increasing milk production per cow, the number of cows needed to maintain current milk production level is decreased, thereby saving natural resources. The use of rbST to increase milk production in just 15 percent of the U.S. dairy cow population would reduce the carbon footprint of milk production equal to taking approximately 390,000 cars off the road or planting approximately 290 million trees annually.”

    I LOVE your quote: “We need to stop romanticizing the past to help farmers continue making good food.” I love the little red barns all over Wisconsin as much as anyone, but my job now with The Dairyland Initiative is to help dairy farmers build and remodel their facilities to promote health, animal well-being and productivity… yes, all three of those are positively related!

    I think every dairy farmer I work with believes they have a responsibility to do what they do for a much higher calling than just making a profit: they truly believe and understand that they are feeding a hungry world with wholesome, healthy, affordable food.

    THANK YOU, Vanessa, for sharing your experience and thoughts.

    • Thanks for your clarifications and insight Becky. I can imagine that it gets very cold in those hutches for the calves, even with their thick winter pelts. It’s good to know that barns are also a viable option. I also appreciate your note on rBGH, and have a better understanding on how it can selectively be used for specific animal issues. I am still concerned about potential abuses and the fact that it is outlawed in many other countries.

      • Yes, it is amazing how well calves do in hutches… I had several farmers tell me at an educational event I presented at last week for dairy producers that their calves always did better in hutches, but barns are the way to go if they want to keep the help around!

        We keep calves warm up here with a LOT of straw for them to “nest” in (calves lie down for about 70% of the day), and many farms will put jackets on their calves during winter. Calves benefit from extra feedings of warm milk as well while temperatures are chilly.

        As with laws even in our own country, public opinion can often outweigh science… that’s not always a bad thing, but maybe helps to explain why some technologies are acceptable practices in some countries but not in others. From a veterinary perspective, there are several drugs and therapies approved for use in the EU that are not approved here, and vice versa. Given the inconsistencies between countries, I certainly do understand consumers’ concerns about this and other technologies.

  4. Great blog post! I am really glad that you took the time to visit dairy farms and went with an open mind. I’m glad that Becky cleared up a few of the points I noticed were a little off. I’m sure the tour had a ton of information and it’s hard to keep it all straight! I can vouch for Becky as she used to be our vet and I still text her when I am working through a problem on our farm, she’s a great resource.

    If you have any follow up questions there are tons of dairy and other types of farmers out here on the internet sharing the stories of our farm and answering as many questions as we can about how we produce your food. Check out #agchat on twitter, AgChat foundation on facebook or AgChat.org and you’ll find all kinds of farmers available to answer your food questions!

    I look forward to checking out your blog more! I’m a huge food lover andit looks like we have that in common.

  5. FDA? Yeah, FDA will protect your kids alright.
    I would NEVER give this kind of milk to my children.
    I am not sure you know much about milk and cows and the whole business. You went on a tour to see the farm, but most other CAFO’s will not let you in. Their conditions are horrific. The cows are sick. They milk them anyways.

    Did you know that a milking cow is supposed to live around 14 years, and not 4? Why do you think they live so short in CAFO conditions? They are sick. They cannot eat corn and soy. They get too sick, so they go to slaughter after just 3 and a half years of suffering.
    These animals need to eat grass, not GMO corn and soy. This is not normal, this kind of milk production.
    I am from Europe and my entire family – I mean, all of us, from Great Grandma to my daughter – always drank only RAW milk. No one EVER got sick – just the opposite! Raw milk is not dangerous! It is a whole real food that heals and nourishes. But RAW milk has to come from a healthy cow, that is out in the sun and eating clean green grasses. Pasteurization only facilitates the farmer who wants to produce cheap dirty milk and all these bio tech companies providing drugs for his sick cows. I would never drink CAFO milk raw – not even cooked.
    Healthy cows that eat grass do not need any drugs and their milk does not need to be cooked and nuked.
    I do not appreciate this misinformation – there is a whole lot of it, “warning” against raw milk. It is the lack of education and understanding, like this article, that destroys real food and real farmers.
    Good luck with your CAFO milk adventures.

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