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.
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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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.