Dairy Farms, Myths, and Why it Matters

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.

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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.
Okay —

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.

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About Lisa

Hi, I'm Lisa. Dairy farmer's wife and Minnesotan to the core, I write about rural farm life, running down country roads, and the food, faith, and family that bind everything together. Follow along on my journey.
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8 Responses to Dairy Farms, Myths, and Why it Matters

  1. beautifulballantrae says:

    Dairy farming is a chosen vocation. Most dairy farmers realise that well cared for cows produce more milk aligned with better economics. However, sometimes dairy farmers are NOT good at recognising what the consumer wants or expects in its day to day dairy products. One example of this is BST commonly used throughout the USA., you will argue that BST is a natural product. So is hydrogen or oxygen but administered out of context they would be very dangerous. BST is given to cows in order to increase the volume of milk produced at the same time increasing the level of day to stress the cow is subjected to. The buying public do not want BST used, has the dairy industry listened, NO. BST can be banned, it is in Europe. In New Zealand it is common practice to dock cows tails, to make it easier for the person milking the cows, do they not have flies in NZ. It also helps avoid the spread of infection of disease (brucellosis) from cow to the miller. It is also common in NZ to a abort cows on a set date in order to create a definitive breeding season. These are just a few of the day to day procedures the consumer would find unacceptable, there are others. How can these measures be considered natural or non factory farming, then you ask us to believe all dairy farmers care passionately about their stock and we as consumers can have total faith in that principle.

    I love most dairy products, cows have been a great servant to human well being for centuries and deserve better and for you to argue dairy farmers can not do better is less than honest. I can not, and do not, suggest that you and your family do not uphold the highest welfare standards within your business. But please do not tell me the industry as a whole can not do better and is sadly misunderstood. It can do much better and should do so.

    • Lisa says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      First, please know that I absolutely understand dairy farms aren’t perfect. Even with the best of intentions people make mistakes, and then there are those sad few who don’t take animal care as seriously as they need to. I agree that farming is a choice, though I do think most who choose this life do so because of a love and pride for land and animals.

      You bring up some much debated points on matters like BST. All cow’s milk naturally contains BST, but some farms do give cows additional BST to increase milk production. It’s approved, regulated, and monitored in the US, but that doesn’t mean it’s the choice for every farm. While some farms may use it sparingly as a management tool, others choose to use it more or not all. It’s also important to note that no difference can be found between milk from cows given additional BST or not given it. All of agriculture usually won’t have the same belief on an issue this broad, but you as a consumer can still choose organic milk or rBST-free milk as you wish.

      Overall, at our farm, we’re always looking at new ways of doing things to see where we can do better. I believe that’s another important part of farming.

  2. Emily Grace says:

    Well said! You should totally apply to be the next “Faces of Farming and Ranching”. I just reblogged the announcement via the MT Stockgrowers blog – details are pretty simple…especially since you just took on the term “factory farming” – you can do anything now! 🙂

  3. beautifulballantrae says:

    I am loathe to critiscise asI do feel you make a very good fist of promoting the dairy industry in a positive light, but your reply fails to address my concerns. You state, quite correctly, that BST is approved, regulated and monitored in the US. You make no mention and one assumes cares little of what the end consumer wants. You state that BST free milk is available throughout the USA, no doubt at a premium. A premium for a natural product with nothing added!!!. Where is the consumer benefit of BST?. The premium for BST free milk is because of the extra cost involved in segregation. In Europe there is NO BST therefore the natural product is the least cost. There may be a premium for extra fat ie Jersey milk, or added flavour like chocolate. As a consumer of many day to day products I can choose those products that best suit my needs or principles and avoid those do not meet that critea like fat, sugar or salt amongst others. Dairy farmers play scant regard to what the consumer would like to see in their naturally produced milk or how agricultural livestock should be treated.

    There is much that can, and has been done to improve the feeding, breeding and welfare of the global cattle population before we need to resort to BST. Bulls are used and progeny tested for productive traits but with the exception of Scandinavia there is little reference to health traits, like mastitis resistance, foot disease etc although I concede that reproductive traits are measured but this only serves to acknowledge that monitoring can and does work.

    Much research has been done over the the last two decades to cow cubicle comfort and much cow comfort benefit gained. However in the UK cow slurry is now ultra dried to produce a product for bedding in cow cubicles. In effect cows are laying in their own feaces one assumes this will be rehydrated by their own urine in the passage of time. Will the buying public want this?!!!?

    BSE was the result of poor proceedure and inadequate rendering of animal offal later used for animal feed.

    I can not state the position in the USA but in the UK and NZ it is increasingly common to see livestock slaughtered by the Halal method (80% of NZ lamb) often without pre stunning, despite the demand being approx 10% requirement in the UK. yet there is no need to label meat to which slaughter process is used. As a consumer I want my meat from an animal humanely slaughtered. What do the producers do to encourage this, nothing!. Slaughter houses are getting ever larger units therefore the average distance from farm to abatoir is considerably extended, what do producers do to discourage this, nothing. Factory farming is an expression of birth to plate, producers can not absolve all responsibility to welfare and process at the farm gate.

    You can not show pictures of livestock grazing in sun drenched fields and claim everything in the garden is rosie.

    I am a consumer of both dairy and meat products on a daily basis and have no axe to grind or hidden agenda. I accept that situations that are less than ideal will occur from time to time. I read your recent blog on a leg injury to a calf, I understood your concerns and feelings. But agriculture as a whole has a lot to do to create an acceptable face. I believe there is much added value market potential here.

    • Lisa says:

      The world of food and agriculture is big and diverse; I can’t have all the answers – nor can anyone. I’m just one person on one farm sharing my perspective. I hope you are able to make food choices you feel satisfied with.

  4. beautifulballantrae says:

    I accept your comment and I should add that my previous comments were not personal. However milk production and the market for dairy products is now global like many industries. Producers have become very insular and are no longer the centre of their local communities, they have failed to brand their product as natural, clean and welfare acceptable. In so doing they have missed a valuable trick in the added value market. Vegans and vegetarians very vociferous and increasing in number, their concerns should have been addressed not ignored. UK supermarkets stock large quantities of soya milk and quorn based artificial meat substitutes. I realise you do your best to project a positive image for dairy farming and milk production and I applaud you for that. The whole milk production industry needs to back your efforts. There is a need for meaningful international market research into consumer requirements and expectations. Many years ago Henry Ford was reputed to have said of his cars “you can have any colour you want, as long as it is black” that may have worked then, but today the consumer has the power of choice, the market will ignore that at it’s peril. I hope it is not too late for your sector!. Please continue your good work. Giant oak trees from little acorn grows.

  5. Well said! As a lifelong farmer’s daughter and now farmer’s wife, I get frustrated when people make snap judgments due to scare tactics out there. The major arguments over GMOs and chemicals can be overwhelming. I appreciate you talking it over and giving details to debunk some myths! Keep up the good work!

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