I’ve been wanting to write a blog about milk and cattle for a while since there are many people who are critical of dairy farming and dairy products. I had a chance to talk with a couple of dairy farmers to give me some credible, first-hand information about the subject.
Let me begin by saying that I LOVE all things dairy. I am an advocate for things like raw milk and cheeses, homemade yogurts and milk kefirs, self-churned butters and the like. I’m not sure there’s a day that I don’t use some form of dairy product. I’ve also realized that I am one of an increasingly small group of folks who love a glass of plain old, cold milk.
Nutritionally speaking, milk and dairy products like cheese and yogurt provide a large gamete of vitamins and minerals. Of course, there’s the calcium, up to 30% of your daily value in one glass of whole milk. Milk is also chock full of protein and provides a good source for vitamins A, D, B12, riboflavin, niacin, phosphorous, and potassium. There is NO OTHER milk (product) in which these nutrients occur naturally – they have to be added to things like almond, rice, and soy milk to even come close to milk. Additionally, raw milk contains beneficial enzymes that help our bodies digest milk (as opposed to pasteurized milk, where pasteurization kills these enzymes), and the nutritional content of raw milk is higher as well.
Some groups would have you believe that milk is TERRIBLE for you. In this article, PETA cites many reasons to attempt to get people to stop drinking milk and consuming dairy, including: acne, cholesterol, saturated fats, and antibiotics, although their citations don’t seem credible. And, PETA isn’t the only group who want you to stop drinking milk, unfortunately. Other animal welfare and vegan groups will have you believe that the dairy industry is cruel, ripping calves from their mothers, pumping cows full of hormones, and providing a product that is primarily “pus” and not really milk at all. It seems that in today’s world, society is getting further and further away from milk and consuming milk alternatives, or simply not consuming any milk products at all. This lack of consumption, coupled with an unsteady and falling market, is making things hard for dairy farmers.
Courtney Lorenz (Lehman) is the daughter of a dairy farmer in York County, Pennsylvania (my hometown), and spent many years helping on the farm. Their farm, Lehman’s Dairy, has been around for three generations, milking roughly 120 head of cattle a day. She told me what a typical day on the dairy was like: “Wake up at 4 am for first milking. Milk cows and wash milkers. Feed cows. Feed calves. Planting or other things that need done for crops. Quick lunch. Get more things done around the farm. Second milking/feeding around 4 pm.” A solid 12 hours between first and last milking, every single day.
In response to people thinking that milk is full of pus, she says, “Milk goes through a long and tedious process of being homogenized and pasteurized. Sick cows are usually separated from the herd.”
She also wants people to know that “Dairy farmers are the hardest working people and it’s a shame that they don’t [get] compensated what they deserve for their hard work and daily dedication. There is no vacation for a dairy farmer!”
Nathan Blessing, also of York County, Pennsylvania, is a herdsman for Yippee Farms, LLC, managing 2,300 head of cattle.
I asked him about his favorite and least favorite parts of being a dairy farmer. He said, “Cows have always been my passions. They are no doubt my favorite part of being a dairy farmer. I also enjoy being part of a group of talented people who share the same commitment to cow comfort.” His least favorite part? “I have a hard time managing life outside of dairy farming sometimes. Cows are 24/7/365. They don’t believe in holidays or vacations *haha*.”
In regards to those who believe that it is cruel and unnatural to take calves from their mothers, he said, “The separation of cows and calves after birthing has benefits for both the cow and the calf. Separating the animals reduces the risk of mastitis to the mother. Mastitis is a mammary gland infection in cows. Mastitis can be caused by calves not drinking enough from the cows udder, therefore, not letting her completely milk out/down. Not all cows produce enough colostrum (first milking after calving). The separation allows us to feed the calf adequate amounts of colostrum.” Through years of selective breeding and herd management, dairy cows today can produce more milk, and if they aren’t milked, mastitis is imminent. Not to mention, often times, bottle fed animals are much less wary and more friendly towards humans, making them easier to handle in the future.
I also asked him what he thought about those who think milk is unhealthy and full of pus. “Milk is very healthy; excellent protein, vitamin D, potassium, every successful dairy farm has a management plan to reduce and monitor their SCC (somatic cell count), this is what is referred to as “pus.” SCC is a just a measurement of how many white blood cells are present in the milk. When a cow has a high somatic cell count then we can assume that she is fighting an infection (mastitis) and give her the appropriate treatments. As dairy farmers, we are paid premiums to have and maintain low SCC.”
When asked how the low dairy prices are affecting his farm, he indicated that it is largely small dairies that are being hit the hardest by low prices. “Seems like everyday more farmers/producers are getting letters in the mail that they no longer have a milk market.” Nathan’s farm lies at an intermediate size, and he says that they’re currently in the middle of an expansion, but that profit margins are still tight. At the end of the day, “We just keep our focus on taking care of the cows.”
He did have a lovely takeaway point to get across to anyone reading this, especially to the younger generation: “My message would be to the younger generation. I want them to know that there’s more to the dairy industry than milking cows. There are endless opportunities in the dairy industry, from hands on farm labors, mechanics, herdspersons, to dairy nutritionists, hoof trimmers, vets, etc.”
I was only able to get in touch with two York PA dairy families, but I suspect the attitude and unease both these farmers expressed is the same throughout the dairy industry. I hope you could see that these dairymen love their animals. Cows are their livelihood, and it only makes sense for them to take good care of them. Unfortunately, the economics of the dairy industry simply aren’t allowing for small farms to remain in business without carving out their own niche (raw milk, cheese, etc.).
What can you do to help? Simple. Buy local. Support your local, family owned dairy. Visit a dairy. Educate yourself on what really goes on in the milking parlors. Talk to a dairy farmer. Drink more milk. And don’t believe all of the propaganda and hateful things you read on the internet.
*Special thanks to Nathan Blessing & Courtney Lorenz for giving me their time to shine some light on today’s dairy industry.*