I take my dairy seriously. I work with cows everyday, and I eat dairy foods everyday. I’m particularly interested in the role dairy products play in a healthy, active lifestyle.
When I see “dairy” in the media, my interest is piqued.
Sometimes balanced perspectives about informed food choices or farm families make news, but often it’s sensationalized claims and inflammatory language aimed at making us worry about our food.
On a personal level, I believe in the large body of research on the health benefits of eating dairy foods. Nobody likes long lists of research, so I’ll just mention a few here, here, here, and here.
I know we’re lucky to have a well-regulated food supply in America with an excellent record for safety. Whether you’re buying organic or conventionally raised milk or dairy products from anywhere across the country, they are quality and nutritious . I support the right to choose which foods you buy, and I know many factors — taste, preference, economics, nutrition, science, and availability — come into play. It is my sincere hope, however, that you don’t make your food choices based on fear.
I feel saddened and frustrated when I read myths about food and farming that promote misunderstanding and fear. Unfortunately, I suppose that’s the goal of scare-tactics.
One of the first terms I think of when it comes to these tactics is “factory farm.” It doesn’t sound nice, and it brings negative connotations.
What exactly is a factory farm?
Let’s explore some possible scenarios…
Does a factory farm mean you use robots?
That can’t be right because I know of plenty of caring farms like this one using state-of-the-art robot technology to milk their cows. Organic dairy farms even use robots.
Many dairies of all sizes and types also use regular milking machines (handled by people) to milk cows, and that works well too.
No matter what type of equipment we’re using, caring for the cow well is always the goal.
Maybe a factory farm means the farm is owned by a corporation?
Many businesses, large and small, can decide to incorporate or hire outside employees. This is true across all farms too. A family may work with an accountant or lawyer to develop a business structure that makes the most sense, whether it’s a sole proprietorship, partnership, LLC, or a corporation. None of this will have an adverse effect on cow health or welfare.
So is a factory farm just based on size?
If that’s true, then I wonder what the cutoff is? Average dairy farm size has definitely increased over the years, but so have things like labor efficiency and cow comfort research in today’s barns. There is no minimum or maximum size for organic or conventional dairy farms, but any type of farm must be properly permitted for their location and inspected in order to sell milk.
Dairies can be large or small no matter where they are, what label they sell their milk to, or even if they have their own dairy processing plant.
What about antibiotics??
Antibiotics can be a touchy subject, but I don’t think they need to be. First, any dairy food you buy will always be free of antibiotic residues. Any drug that’s approved for dairy cattle will have a specified withhold period. During that time the cow’s milk will be diverted from the main tank and dumped. Milk is tested before it leaves the farm and again at the processor to ensure it’s safe, clean, and antibiotic-free. Many farms believe in modern animal medicine, including antibiotics, when appropriate, and a thorough system is in place to ensure antibiotics don’t enter our food supply.
Organic dairies are not allowed to use any antibiotics, so they must find alternative remedies and deal with sickness or infection in other ways. The key to remember is whether you eat organic or conventional dairy, it’s all antibiotic-free. The only difference is organic cows can never be given antibiotics, and other cows may have needed them at some point.
On our dairy we work with our vet to make responsible choices and get proper prescriptions when needed. Within the last few years it also seems like more new supplements and natural remedies are available. I use more natural preventatives for my calves, and we give all our cows these little green vitamin pills (which are organic approved) shortly after they give birth. Antibiotics are not always the answer, but sometimes an infection or respiratory disease means I think they’re the best choice.
It’s official; I don’t know what a factory farm is.
Like any savvy reader, you’re probably questioning my motives and biases about now. I’m a dairy farmer defending my beloved dairy foods.
Certainly we as dairy farmers need people to keep buying milk. It is indeed our livelihood. But there are much easier ways to make a living. Pretty much anything is less labor-intensive 365 days a year than milking cows.
But we believe in raising dairy cows. Our family farm has done so for over 100 years. We aim to make a profit because we’re a business, but we also like cows. Somedays I wonder if I even know how to do anything else. Could I do anything else?
Yes, I crunch numbers, organize spreadsheets, and share writing and pictures on my blog, but my entire life has always revolved around dairy chores in one way or another.
We may milk hundreds of cows instead of ten or twenty, but that doesn’t make our farm a factory anymore than having hundreds of people in a school or hospital makes them a factory.
Next time you hear or read a news story that tries to scare you into a food decision, just take a minute to breathe. Think about the background, and use your own good judgement. Maybe you want to do some quality research or connect with a farmer, but maybe it’s a scare tactic that’s not worth your time. Either way, I hope fear never has a place at your dinner table.
Got comments? I’d love to chat and hear your perspective.