A Disturbing Look at the Dairy Industry
Most dairy enthusiasts would be horrified to know the conditions
cows endure and how closely dairies are tied to veal operations
and the rest of the meat industry.
The bucolic scene of Holsteins grazing on a grassy hill that
adorns milk cartons and cheese wrappers is nothing more than fantasy
these days. While the meat industry has come under intensive scrutiny
(and with good reason) for the massive factory
farm system of raising cattle in confinement, animals in the
dairy industry are arguably worse off.
Eating milk, cheese, sour cream, ice cream, and other dairy yumminess
is impossible to do with a clear conscience -- and I'm not referring
to the fat or cholesterol. Calves born into the industrial grip
of today's dairy industry have a road ahead of them that is short,
but not merciful. Dairy cows are subject to brutal conditions
before being sent to slaughter for beef and male calves are worth
next to nothing in the dairy business. Some are simply left to
die after birth. Many are slaughtered for low-grade "bob
veal" a few days after they are born and will end up as cheap
hot dogs or dog food.
While a small number of dairies are bucking the industrial trend,
the vast majority of dairy products we eat come from factories
that are nothing short of horrific in many cases.
Where Milk Comes From
We've become so far removed from the source of our food that many
Americans are oblivious to where most of what they eat is actually
coming from, dairy included. Yes, milk comes from cows. And how
do cows get milk? Like other female mammals, they produce milk
to feed their offspring. In the business of raising cows to produce
as much milk as possible, which is the goal of most of the U.S.
dairy industry, cows are kept in perpetual states of lactation
"One of the things people don't think about is the effort
it takes a cow to produce milk," said Marlene Halverson who
has worked on farm animal welfare issues for years. "The
amount of energy and the physiological capacity to produce the
kinds of yields that industrial dairy farming is demanding of
cows today is huge." The average dairy cow on industrial
farms produces roughly 20,000 pounds of milk a year -- 10 times
more than she'd normally produce to feed a calf.
Professor John Webster, author of The Welfare of Dairy Cattle,
wrote, "The amount of work done by the cow in peak lactation
is immense ...To achieve a comparably high work rate a human would
have to jog for about six hours a day, every day."
Sounds exhausting. And that's just the beginning. In between
milkings, Halverson says, a high-producing dairy cow's udder will
fill up with 6.5 gallons of milk. That makes walking with a cow's
normal gait next to impossible because of the swollen size of
the udder, greatly increasing the chances of lameness.
Of course, cows haven't always produced so much milk. As Nicolette
Hahn Niman accounts in her book, Righteous
Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms,
early in our country's history, cows weren't even milked year
round, but only in the months where there was good enough grass.
"Like cured meats, butter and cheese were methods of preserving
milk during the seasons of plenty for the cold months to come,"
And cows used to serve multiple purposes -- milk, meat, and labor.
But increasingly cows were bred for single traits, such as milk
production. After World War II, industrialization of our food
system ramped up with the availability of cheap energy, pesticides,
fertilizers, and mechanization. By 2005, Niman writes, cows' yields
were increased by seven fold in a century's time -- mainly through
manipulations of breeding and diet and the additions of antibiotics
But the largest surge in so-called productivity came decades
after WWII. "It was the 1970s when the dairy industry really
started ramping up milk production in Holstein cattle," said
Halverson. "Cattle before the 1970s were healthy, normal
dairy cows, they didn't have issues with lameness, mastitis (a
painful udder infection), and reproductive problems in huge amounts."
All that selective breeding and milk demand has made the Holstein
a much more fragile animal.
Under healthy conditions, it's not uncommon for a dairy cow to
live between nine and 20 years while being productive in the herd,
said Halverson. While many cows can even live to 25 years, today's
dairy cows dont even come close to that. "They are
living two or three years and being culled," she said. The
next stop from there is to live out the remaining days alongside
beef cattle awaiting slaughter at a feedlot.
Life on the 'Farm'
The vast majority of dairy cows in the U.S., around 75 percent,
will never graze in pasture and most won't spend any time outside.
And most cows that are outside aren't nibbling on greener pastures,
but are instead confined in barren dirt lots, a report
by Farm Sanctuary details. This will sound familiar if you
know anything about beef cattle raised in Concentrated
Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).
Like feedlot beef cattle, dairy cows aren't fed the diet nature
intended for them and are instead pumped full of animal by-products
and grains, which leads to metabolic disease (and more horrific
things like Mad Cow). "Unlike omnivorous chickens and pigs,
all cattle are naturally designed to live entirely from slowly
and methodically foraging vegetation," wrote Niman in Righteous
Porkchop. "Bovines in the wild spend most of their waking
hours in a state of ambulant grazing, walking an average of 2.5
miles a day, all the while taking 50 to 80 bites of forage per
minute. Life in a confinement dairy promised a cow an environment
and a diet that violated her very evolution."
Dairies vary across the country, explains Gene Baur, president
and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary. In the Midwest and Northeast
cows may spend some time outside in warmer months and then are
kept tethered by the neck in "tie stalls" in the winter.
In the Southwest and California, two booming dairy areas, cows
are kept in "dry lots," that most closely resemble CAFO
feedlots "where the cows are packed by the thousands in a
series of barren, feces laden pens," said Baur. And then
there are "freestall" dairies that are essentially giant,
crowded warehouses, which are no fun either.
( "Graziers" -- farmers who are returning their animals
to pasture -- are the exception. More on this below.)
If cows aren't done in by an unhealthy diet, horrible living
conditions (which for some include walking and sleeping on concrete),
overproduction of milk, lameness, mastitis (the number one reason
for culling cows), then they are also forced to endure having
their tails docked without -- a painful process that renders them
defenseless against biting flies. And then there is the agony
of having their newborns taken from them directly after birth.
This has been detailed in reports of the noises mothers make when
their calves are removed and stories of cows breaking free of
operations and traveling miles to other farms to find their calves.
And for the calves, life is no picnic. Female calves will be
kept for milking to replace other cows in the herd. And for male
calves, its bleak. If they arent left to die or sent
to slaughter within days, then its off to a veal operation,
which are "virtually synonymous with animal cruelty,"
as Paul Shapiro Senior Director, End Factory Farming Campaign
of the Humane Society said, and slaughtered around 4-5 months.
And the rest are either raised for beef on the farm where they
are born or sold to another beef operation and slaughtered around
13-14 months. In fact, "the veal industry was literally born
out of the dairy industry," said Baur. "It was developed
to take advantage of the unwanted male calves born to dairy cows."
And there are many. "In one recent year, about 4.5 million
male calves were born in U.S. dairies," wrote Niman. "Of
those, 42 percent were immediately sent to slaughter; over half
went to confinement veal operations; the remainder to feedlots."
Halverson, who worked with 14 animal welfare scientists to design
of high welfare husbandry criteria for a program her sister
Diane created at the the Animal Welfare Institute, said they often
recommend euthanasia on the farm for male calves. "It is
the most humane way if the farmer or someone he or she knows isn't
going to raise the calf -- it seems like a terrible waste, but
when farms send their male calves to an auction house they may
only get $10-15, if the calf sells at all -- it's not worth it
in terms of the suffering of the animal."
The much-maligned veal industry, infamous for housing calves
in tiny crates, has seen a small shift. Some farmers are engaging
in "specialty veal" operations that have much more humane
conditions for animals, sometimes even allowing them to remain
on pasture with their mothers or in or to live in groups in large
pens or hoop houses with other calves -- but these are few.
Usually the stories are much worse.
"We recently did an investigation at a bob veal plant in
Vermont, it was certified organic, very small plant," said
Shapiro. "Despite this, the abuse that we documented on camera
was absolutely horrendous: skinning of animals alive, live animals
on piles of dead animals outside, calves being beaten, being shocked
with electric prods over and over, being dragged, kicked, all
in front of a USDA inspector no less. When we released the results
of the investigation the footage was so damning that the USDA
shut the plant down -- it's been shut down for more than 3 months
and a criminal investigation is still pending."
How Did Things Get So Bad?
The story of dairy's downhill slide is familiar throughout
the food world. "There has been a real drive to get cheaper
and cheaper food and that is one factor that led to factory farming,
not only in the dairy industry but throughout all of agribusiness.
We think of food as being cheap but in reality there are a lot
of external factors that we don't really pay for when we go the
supermarket," said Shapiro. "Those are increased animal
suffering, increased environmental degradation, and increased
food safety risks."
One of the drivers for that has been consolidation of the dairy
industry. Farm Sanctuary reports that the total number of U.S.
dairies has dropped 55 percent since 1991, but for operations
where the herd size is over 100, it has increased by 94 percent.
Megadairies with thousands of cows are now replacing smaller,
family farms. In California there are now dairies with over 10,000
cows and the state's San Joaquin Valley is home to 2.5 million
dairy cows, Niman reports.
But it's not just the size of operations that is problematic,
it's the capitalization -- the money that is needed to sustain
an industrial-style operation. A capital-intensive dairy system
is 'inelastic.' "The farmer can no loner respond to changing
market conditions by increasing or decreasing herd size or milk
output," Niman wrote. "Instead, (just as we've seen
with poultry and pig contract growing), farmers that have opted
into the industrialized system are now servants to massive debt."
This means farmers end up subjecting their animals to the harshest
conditions in efforts to produce more and more milk. A perfect
example is the use of Recombinant
bovine somatotropin (rBST) growth hormone, pushed by Monsanto,
in efforts to increase yields. The results instead have been catastrophic
for the health of cows, which is of course not good for business
either. The industrial system has also given birth to the huge
prevalence of the udder infection mastitis, which accounts for
$2 billion in annual losses, Niman writes.
This style of raising animals has taken its toll on the environment
as well, from air to water
pollution, as well as contributing heavily to emissions of
methane gas caused by cattle not eating their natural diet. One
dairy in northern Minnesota has been described by the State Department
of Health as a public health hazard, Halverson said. On days when
winds bring the pollution from the dairy's manure pits to their
residences, the neighbors have been advised by the Department
to leave their homes and stay with relatives or in hotels in town.
The industry's grip on state agencies has prevented this facility
from being closed down -- instead it has received extensions from
the pollution control board.
Too Much of a Bad Thing, Not Enough of a Good Thing
The irony of all this increased production is that it's unnecessary.
Many people can argue for health reasons that we don't need dairy
products to begin with, but as Niman writes, the industry has
actually saturated itself. In 1986 the government actually paid
dairy farmers to slaughter 10 percent of the U.S. herd.
"Responding to the ongoing dairy excess, the federal government
has long purchased cheese, butter,and nonfat dry milk under a
dairy price support program," Niman explained. "The
products are stored and, to the extent possible, funneled into
domestic and foreign feeding programs, including school lunches.
What can't be poured into some type of program is put into storage.
At times the dried milk surplus has been extreme. 'In 2002, storage
costs alone for the powder peaked at $2.3 million a month,' said
Michael Yost, associate administrator of the USDA's Farm Service
And while we have too much of a bad thing, we're lacking in the
A small number of dairy farmers are returning their animals to
the pasture system of using rotational grazing, allowing their
animals outdoor pasture access as much of the year as possible
and supplementing their diets in winter with hay, grain and silage.
Halverson says many of these farms are moving away from selective
breeding and are now cross-breeding Holsteins with more robust
Normande and Jersey cattle. "They are not demanding as much
milk from their cows. They get lower yields," she said. "But
their costs are also lower because they are not so highly capitalized
as dairy factories, needing lots of labor and paying enormous
It's a choice that's also better for the environment and it results
in a healthier product, to boot. It's also many steps up when
it comes to the treatment of animals (although, of course, the
cows in any operation don't make it out alive and male calves
still have bleak prospects).
So, where to find these "graziers," as they're known?
The best bet is to check for local dairies where you live, find
out if their animals are pasture raised, and then go see for yourself.
Online resources like the Eat
Well Guide and LocalHarvest.org
are helpful in locating good dairies or stores that sell their
products. And there are labels
(some good and others misleading) to help make sense of what you're
There are also larger businesses, like Organic
Valley, that have taken steps to improve the welfare of their
animals. "Our dairy animals have the best life of any dairy
animals in this country, that's for certain," said Wendy
Fulwider, the company's animal husbandry specialist. "We
do have pasture requirements, so they do get to spend a lot of
time outdoors and they get excellent pasture to eat. They get
exercise and sunshine and have the most nutritious milk. They
are incredibly healthy."
The company is a cooperative of 1,350 farms and has a minimal
requirement of 120 days on pasture per year, they follow the organic
standards and don't use hormones like rBST. "Our cows live
longer than conventional cows, they are healthier, they're not
spending their entire life on concrete and they are eating minimal
amounts, if any grain. It's not uncommon to have a 10- or 12-year-old
dairy cow on our farms," said Fulwider.
Halverson agrees that the easiest way to feel better about the
dairy you're getting is to look for the organic label. "But
I realize there is controversy over organic dairies, especially
in California where certain dairies have been accused of raising
their cattle on feedlots essentially," she said.
Gene Baur paints a harsher picture. "The vast majority of
dairy is from industrial type operations. Even Horizon, which
is an organic-type farm is basically a factory farm," he
said. "What they have done and what other large agribusinesses
have done, is work to lower the standards for what is organic
and so even Horizon I would call a factory farm."
Both Dean Foods' Horizon and Aurora Farms have come
under attack from groups claiming they violate organic standards
because of their animals' lack of access to pasture.
Niman sees hope for the future in graziers, which are better
for the environment, animals and health.
Still, the safest best would be to skip the dairy altogether.
"People should be thinking more about their food choices
and eating in a way that is consistent with their own values and
their own interests," said Baur. "I believe for most
people that will mean not eating animal products because the way
these animals are treated is brutal and all their lives end in
a violent way, which is bad for the animals and for people. If
people ate in a way consistent with their own values they wouldn't
be supporting that system. Also people should eat in a way consistent
with their own interests and eat in a way that is healthy, that
does not lead to heart disease and cancer -- that also means not
eating animal food but choosing plant food."
No matter what people's eating choices, there is always room
for improvement. "There are a variety of ways to improve
animal welfare each time you sit down to eat. For example, the
alternatives to dairy that are out there are more plentiful and
better than there have been. Now, any supermarket you go to is
going to have a wide variety of soy and rice milks and other alternatives,"
said Shapiro. "At the same time there are dairy producers
who don't engage in many of the practices that we talked about.
"So, whether they are interested in reducing or eliminating
consumption of dairy or looking for higher standards of animal
welfare dairy products, I think all of those are good options
for consumers. It's not to say that anyone is going to be totally
cruelty-free in our diets, even the strictest vegans, it is to
say that each one of us can move in a better direction when it
comes to our food choices and making them more ethical no matter
where we are on that spectrum."
January 27, 2010