>A Few Things You Might Not Know about Milk

>Dairy lover. Butter fiend. Milk addict. Friend of cheese. Yogurt connoisseur.

Go ahead. Call me names. They’re all true.

I am a dairy lover, deeply committed to my glass of chilled milk at bedtime and my 5 o’clock plate of cheese bites. And don’t get me started on the silken feel of Greek yogurt. I will get tears in my eyes as I rave about yogurt as the perfect snack.

Yes, I’m a dairy-lover, but before last week, when the California Dairy Advisory Board invited me to tour two California dairies with 12 other bloggers, I didn’t know much about milk production in America. One was a mega dairy with 2800 cows. The other was smaller, with 900 cows. One injected their cows with rBST, the other didn’t. Neither produced organic milk.

Let me tell you what I saw and learned.

cow on rotary milker
A beautiful Jersey cow pushing her way in to the front of the line to get milked.

Jerseys vs. Holsteins.

  • There are two principal breeds of cows used for milking in America: Jerseys and Holsteins. This seems to be as divisive an issue as Team Jacob vs Team Edward or even Team Angelina and Team Rachel. Dairies are passionately loyal to the cows they raise. 
  • Jersey cow dairy owners will brag that their cows produce a richer milk that’s perfect for cheese (5% milk fat vs. 3.6% for Holsteins), and that their cows are much better looking. (It’s true, it’s hard to resist the long lashes of a brown Jersey cow). 
  • Holstein owners will tell you that their cows produce more milk, period, and that they are great milking cows. And, let’s face it, their black and white pattern is what we picture when we think of a cow.

Cows Are Pregnant for Most of their Milking Cycle.

  • Milk production and cow pregnancy are closely related. I’m not sure why this didn’t occur to me earlier, as a mother of 3, but cows need to give birth in order to produce milk. 
  • Cows are milked for 10 months out of the year. Their milking cycle begins the day they give birth to a calf. 
  • Three months later, they begin insemination and are milked while pregnant for the next 7 months. 
  • Cows get their maternity leave before giving birth, enjoying their last two months of pregnancy in peace, before going back to milking right after giving birth.
  • The dairymen we spoke to used sex semen to inseminate the cows, semen that had been processed to increase the number of female cows (heifers). If cows did not conceive after a few rounds of artificial insemination, they are put together with a (lucky) bull to reproduce the old fashioned way.
Cows spend 8 minutes on rotary milker twice a day.

Cows Produce a Lot of Milk

  • Cows are milked twice, and sometimes three times a day. It’s important to make sure they don’t get too engorged, or the pressure could make their teats more vulnerable to mastitis and infection.
  • The teats are inspected and cleaned prior to milking. Any cow with signs of infection is removed and taken to a medical area for treatment.
  • On large dairies, cows step onto an 80-cow rotary milking machine which takes 8 minutes to milk a cow. The cows were so eager to get on the rotary that they were pushing to get to the front of the line. Then they stood calmly as the apparatus was attached to their udders and walked off happily when they reached the end of their spin. 
  • Milk production varies with the season: 48 to 50 lbs of milk per cow in winter and fall and up to 65 lbs in spring and summer.
Truck where cow feed is mixed to ensure each bite is nutritious and balanced.

Eating Grass Is So Yesterday.

  • The cows on the two dairies we visited did not eat grass. Ever. 
  • Instead, they ate a carefully calibrated mixture of hay and over a dozen possible protein and fat sources including cottonseed, rolled corn, corn distillers (a bi-product of ethanol production), corn sillage, sunflower pellets, and soybeans. It was amazing to see that these cows eat many corn bi-products I learned about on the Iowa Corn Trip and that our food supply is so intertwined.
  • Most dairies have a dietitian on staff to optimize the cows’ nutrition while keeping costs low. As the prices of commodities fluctuate, so do the ingredients in the feed. The cows’ diets also vary depending on where cows are in their lactating cycle and pregnancy.

Less Cows, More Milk. The Shrinking Dairy Carbon Footprint.

  • The US is now producing twice the milk it did in the 1940s with half the cows. In 1944, there were 25.6 million cows in the US. Today there are 9.3 million cows in the US. Yet the total milk production in the US is now up by 59%.
  • When asked, the farmers we met said this drastic improvement in milk production is much more due to better genetics and better nutrition, than the use of rBST.
    Dairy manager demonstrating how milk is tested for antibiotics.

    Hormones in Milk? Of Course!

    • One of my chief concerns before going on this trip was about the presence of hormones and antibiotics in milk, and their connection to early puberty. 
    • I’ve been buying organic milk for my family for years, out of conviction that organic milk contained less hormones and would not lead to early puberty for my kids. But studies show that the rise in early onset of puberty is probably tied to our higher protein diets and obesity problems. The Milk Board website reports that US milk consumption declined from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, at precisely the same time that the average age of puberty declined. 
    • I learned that there are hormones in cows’ milk, just like there are hormones in the breast milk we produce. 

    There Are No Antibiotics in Milk.

    • We asked the farmers and their veterinarians dozens of questions about antibiotics. Everyone told us without a second’s hesitation that sick cows are isolated and not milked when they are given antibiotics. They are not returned to the milking rotation until all antibiotics are out of their system.
    • We were also shown where the milk is tested for antibiotics prior to leaving the dairy, and told that the milk is tested again at the processing plant. If antibiotics are found in milk, the entire truck is destroyed, and the dairy has to pay a fine and compensate the other dairies included in that delivery.  The tests look for all antibiotics given to the cows, not just a sample.
    • As a result of the trip, I am now fully confident that non-organic milk is free of antibiotics.

    A Few Thoughts on rBST 

    • I will continue to purchase organic milk for my family because of my concerns about rBST.
    • What is rBST? rBST is a synthetic version of natural bovine growth hormone (known as BGH or BST – Bovine somatotropin), a hormone cows produce on their own. Some farmers choose to inject their cows with rBST, an extra dose of a synthetic form of BST hormone to stimulate milk production.
    • Who makes rBST? rBST until 2008 was manufactured by Monsanto, and sold as Posilac. They then sold the business to Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals.
    • rBST and cancer: Studies have shown that rBST milk contains increased levels of the cancer-causing hormone IFG-1, is of lower nutritional quality, and has increased levels somatic cell count (higher levels of pus in milk). 
    • rBST banned around the world: rBST usage is banned in Canada, the European Union, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. The European Union stated that rBST substantially increased health problems with cows, including foot problems, mastitis, and injection site reactions. In 1999, Canada prohibited the use of rBST because it presented a health threat to animals.
    • the FDA and rBST: Since 1993, when the FDA approved rBST for use on cows, they have insisted that it shows no significant difference from the milk of untreated cows. They have warned dairies who advertised their milk as “hormone-free” or “rBST-free.” Monsanto and local governments have joined the FDA in efforts to remove the mention of rBST and hormones on milk cartons, claiming it confused customers and caused unnecessary fear. Public opposition and demand for information on rBST has grown. An Ohio ban on hormone-free labelling was overturned in October and a similar ban in Pennsylvania was overturned in 2008. Hormone-free labelling is still banned in Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, and Oklahoma.
    • We spoke about rBST at length during our tour of the Charles Ahlem Dairy. We were told that it is not technically a foreign substance because cows already produce it on their own. We were also told that only about 40% of cows at the dairy receive rBST injections, if they need them. And they don’t receive them all the time, only at certain points of their lactation cycle. The dairy manager assured us that he did not see any increase in cow illnesses as a result of the injections, and that keeping cows healthy is in the dairy’s best interest. He added, “We treat our cows like professional athletes. We would not do anything to harm them.”
    • A 2007 USDA Dairy Survey estimated rBGH use at 15.2% of operations and 17.2% of cows.
      A one-month old baby calf drinks milk and eats feed.

      Cows and their calves are separated at birth 

      • On the dairies we toured, the calves were removed from their mothers as soon as the cows had licked the placenta off of them. 
      • Every effort is made to keep the calf from suckling at his mother’s teat, potentially infecting it. 
      • Instead, the cows are milked for their colostrum which is kept separate from the regular milk supply and fed to the calves by bottle, along with a carefully monitored feed.
      Jersey cows return to their water beds after a spin on the rotary milker.

      California Cows Are Living Large

      • Although the cows we saw did not graze in pasture, their living conditions were exemplary.
      • They spent most of their time in spacious, open-air barns with fans and water beds to relax on. Keeping cows cool is critical as they do not have sweat glands.
      • The walking paths to and from the milking stations were padded to minimize impact. 
      It may not look like much, but this ground water monitor keeps us safe from run-off.

      Concern for the Environment

      • At both dairies, the farmers proudly demonstrated their environmental processes.
      • We heard about lined ponds where the cow waste is channeled.
      • We learned about how the manure is recycled as fertilizer.
      • We saw ground water monitors.
      • Farming is a family business, and both dairies were highly motivated to keep their farms from polluting the land they wanted to pass on to their children.

      I am so glad that I went on the #CAMilkMom tour and am grateful that the California Milk Advisory Board paid for my flight, hotel, meals, and a $200 babysitting allowance while on the trip. Although what I learned did not alter any of my beliefs on rBST, and did not convince me to stop purchasing organic milk, I was greatly impressed with the efficiency of the farms and the level of care for the environment and the cows by the farmers. Our world population continues to grow, and our farmers have made tremendous improvements to meet demand and keep prices affordable. But as consumers, we need to stay informed, and make sure that technological improvements don’t come at too great a cost for quality and safety.

      13 Responses to >A Few Things You Might Not Know about Milk

      1. >It's more like when it rains it pours! So many great opportunities for learning all at once, and then months with nothing.

        I have loved both the Iowa trip and this milk trip. Both amazing chances to learn about food!

      2. >Thank you for sharing. I appreciate your fair reporting.

        We don't drink milk for several reasons. Overprocessing, milk-pooling and the regulations that have put small family producers out of business being our main beefs (ha ha).

        I want milk from farms that graze their heifers and let the calves nurse from their mothers.

        It's good to see that farms like you toured are trying to keep their standards high but I don't think it's enough.

      3. >I am a card-carrying sister in the dairy-loving club, as you know! My two girls have consumed organic dairy products since birth and the older one started menstruating at 13 1/2 and the younger one at 12 has not started yet. I don't know if that's nature (I started at 12) or nurture, but I'll never find out. I figure it can't hurt! They also just drink less milk than most kids in general, and eat more yogurt and cheese. Thanks for representing us Moms and going to the source for answers. I feel better about animal treatment (although I'm guessing you saw a "model" farm, unlike the ones in Food, Inc.), but I'll stick to my Organic Valley products. Your post inspired me to go on their website to poke around and I was happy to see that of the more than 1,000 farms in their cooperative, more than 50% have herds of 50 cows or less, and only 4 have herds of over 750. They also spend time on pasture and, at least on some farms, keep calves with mothers for a period of time. Call me old-fashioned, but I want to drink milk from the happy cows that I see grazing the green hillsides of bucolic farms in Vermont. And the sight of a calf nursing warms my heart.

      4. >I love dairy, but like you have been organic for a very, very long time. However, this post does make me feel better out the regulations going into dairy production and how things are handled.

        Thank you for sharing with us all. This is amazing information.

      5. >Great post! Great information. My name is Barbara Martin AKA Dairy Goddess. I am a blogger and I believe I got to speak with you via video on your farm tour. I wanted so much to be there in person but had to attend to my new cheese business. Thank you for taking the time and sharing your very "DAIRY" experience. http://www.dairygoddess.wordpress.com

      6. >I love the format of your post! It really lays the information out in a way that's very easy to follow!
        We really enjoyed having you visit us. This experience has inspired me to take our blog to a level that incorporates more of our business, as well as our family. Thank you for helping us share the Real CA Dairy Families story!

      7. Came to this by way of your hog farm post. Love the way this is laid out; it’s very easy to read and straight-forward and I’m glad you enjoyed your visits.

        I was raised on a very small (38 cows) organic farm, whose milk goes to Organic Valley, one of the companies mentioned in the comments above. My family’s farm is what most people picture, though on all dairies I’ve ever visited the calves are not left with their mothers. I do sometimes buy Organic Valley, getting coupons and discounted products as member benefits helps on a budget, but will also buy conventional dairy.

        My boyfriend’s family runs a 100-cow conventional dairy. A large, free-stall barn with cows milked in a parlor and feed formulated and mixed. They do go on pasture when available and they use rBST. Certain cows have names and it’s their family doing all the work, with occasional hired help.

        I’ve also visited some large dairies – 3,000 cows was the largest I visited. That particular dairy is still a family operation, albeit a large family spanning several generations. The operation got so big largely because of the need to provide income for several families that are all part of the large family i.e. several brothers farming with their families. They wanted to keep working on the home farm, but in order to do so needed to expand. They also have quite a few hired workers.

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