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Over the past 50 years the answer to a simple question—where does milk come from?—has changed. Here’s what you need to know about where modern milk comes from, how to evaluate milk labels and how to buy humane, healthy dairy products.

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Where does milk come from?

Milk comes from cows. And cows live on farms. We know this because our childhoods are full of books and pictures about life on the farm. It’s a world of blue skies, red tractors and vibrant green fields in which cows gently graze.

As adults, we know this is an idealized vision, but it’s where our ideas of dairy farming remain rooted. We have a vague idea that farms have become modernized, that they’re more business-like these days, but we still link them to those picture book images of the countryside.

And we still think of milk as being the product of a dairy farm; it’s something which is natural and wholesome. This is how dairy products are sold to us. Look at the packaging on supermarket shelves and you see happy cows surrounded by those same farmyard images we remember from our childhoods.

Milk still comes from cows, but in most dairies cows are unlikely to live on anything you would recognize as a farm. These days, milk is the product of an industrialized process which owes as much to chemicals, antibiotics, hormones and genetic modifications, as to nature.

The trouble with CAFOs

If modern dairy production is no longer reflected by images of farms and rural life, then where does our milk actually get made? What does a conventional dairy look like? Well, what you’re likely to find is a concrete and steel environment, something which looks similar to any other kind of industrial processing unit.

You will see cows, often more than 1,000 in number, penned into small confinement areas, housed within a large warehouse building. These animals are likely to spend their entire lives inside the facility, with free movement severely restricted and feeding via a mechanized system. What you are unlikely to find is grass or pasture.

These industrial style operations are what the US Environmental Protection Agency has classified as CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). The CAFOs now represent the norm for conventional dairy farming. When you pour yourself a glass of milk, there is a good chance that this is where that milk has come from.

The methods they use have developed as a result of the fierce commercial pressures to remain competitive in a global market. The operators have looked at ways to maximize their outputs while minimizing their costs. And when they looked at the old pasture-based model of dairy farming, they didn’t see rolling hills or cows grazing freely in a natural habitat; they saw inefficiencies and wastage.

The development of these industrialized methods has undoubtedly created a more profitable business model for these CAFOs, but they have also raised increasing concerns about the processes used from an ethical, health and environmental viewpoint.

The main concern has been with the welfare of animals kept in these conditions. With such densely packed living quarters, the cows are unable to behave in ways that are natural to them.

One of the consequences of industrializing dairy farming is that the animals are regarded more as units of production than living, breathing creatures, able to experience suffering. This is at a time when studies have shown that cows are much more social and active animals than previously thought. Research has shown that cows that are kept in holding pens are prone to develop a multitude of behavioural problems in an effort to cope with their barren environment.

They are also being fed grain, or worse; grain mixed with various fillers and concentrates. Many of these concentrates are made from animal by-products such as chicken manure. In Canada the use of chicken manure in this way has been banned, but in the United States it is still permitted.

Another issue is with the unhealthy environments created by the CAFOs in terms of disease. The close proximity of the animals creates a perfect breeding ground for the spread of viruses and infections. In an effort to combat this the operators will often cut off the cows’ tails as a way to reduce the spread of feces and dirt.

The other method used to control the spread of disease is antibiotics. These are not administered to a particular animal which is sick, but as part of the feed given daily to all cattle. It is a practice which helps to promote the mutation of diseases which are resistant to antibiotics.

The hormone controversy

It was discovered around 60 years ago that injecting cows with growth hormones extracted from cattle pituitary glands could increase milk production. In the 1980s, it became technically possible and economically viable to manufacture large quantities of these hormones. The genetically engineered hormone forces the cow’s body to artificially increase milk production by 10-15%.

This use of growth hormones continues to be a controversial topic. Their use has been linked to an alarming rise in the numbers of deformed calves as well as an increased rate of mastitis; a painful bacterial infection of the udder. Public fears have also been expressed about possible human consequences of drinking milk containing these hormones and a possible increased risk of cancer.

In the conventional dairy industry the use of growth hormones has become a standard practice. Cows forced to produce unnaturally high quantities of milk in this way are prone to becoming malnourished as they are losing more nutrients through their milk than they are ingesting from their feed.

The US Food and Drug Administration has given approval for the continued use of growth hormones in the dairy and meat industry. In other parts of the world, however, they have been banned. It is prohibited in Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and in the 27 countries of the European Union. This has resulted in these countries banning the import of milk from the United States, unless it can be shown to be hormone free.

So while the debate continues in America, the rest of the world has moved towards a consensus that the risks are significant enough to prevent these hormones from being used.

Double trouble: methane and manure

There are also environmental problems linked to CAFOs. Packing so many creatures into a confined area creates a build-up of methane, a greenhouse gas believed to contribute towards global warming. More local factors also come into play, such as the contamination of local water supplies via the use of feces and urine lagoons. The contents of these waste areas is so potent with chemicals and pharmaceuticals that it cannot be used to fertilize fields, as would be the normal use of cow manure.

It is these kinds of issues which have created a general unease about the methods adopted by CAFOs. These concerns have led to many dairy farmers rejecting these practices and promoting a more traditional form of pasture based farming.

Living byproduct: dairy = veal

Dairy cows need to give birth to a calf every year in order for them to keep producing milk. Their daughters can live on to replenish the herd, but from a dairy point of view the male calves serve little purpose. Moreover, their meat as full grown bulls is deemed too unsavory and strongly flavored to be sold commercially and only a small number of male calves are needed for breeding purposes.

For this reason most dairy farmers sell their male calves to veal farms. Veal is the meat of a young calf that is slaughtered at an early age, usually between 14 to 16 weeks old. The meat is sold throughout the United States and Europe, and is prized for its delicate flavor and tenderness. The practices involved in creating veal, however, have become a contentious issue.

The calf is taken away from its mother just days after birth and endures being shipped—sometimes long distances—to a separate veal farm. This is a very stressful process for both mother and baby. Many of these veal farms use small cages to house the animals. Their movement is deliberately restricted to reduce the amount of muscle development and keep the meat tender.

Some conscientious pasture-based farms have looked at alternative models which do not require calves to be treated in this way. Organic Pastures Dairy castrates its male calves and releases them into a herd of steers—castrated male bulls—that are then 100% grass fed.

These steers are allowed to grow to maturity before being slaughtered by an animal welfare approved slaughter process and the meat sold as 100% grass fed ground beef.

I am repulsed by veal. I absolutely will not participate in it at all and nobody here believes in it. I just think that it is horrible to kill young babies—it’s just not what I do.

So we grow all of our cows to maturity where they have a full life on green pastures. At maturity, the steers—which are castrated bulls—are sent to our ground beef program, which is an animal welfare approved slaughter process. But we do not do anything with veal whatsoever and never have.

Mark McAfee, Organic Pastures

Dairy farmers like McAfee are unfortunately very few and far between, but their efforts show that dairy does not need to lead to the horrors of veal production. Sadly, until consumers demand this link be broken, it is likely to be the most common way of disposing of male calves.

Where are the horns?

When you think of a dairy cow, you probably never imagine them with horns. Yet most are born with tissues on their heads that are destined to grow into horns. These tissues are typically destroyed at a young age, using caustic chemicals, hot irons, saws—a very painful and traumatic process that is typically done without any pain management.

This is called dehorning or disbudding. In some countries the use of anesthetic is mandatory, but not in the US.

Some breeders have managed to breed polled dairy cows, who are born without horns, but they are not common.

What about certified organic milk?

The growth of CAFO farming has gone hand-in-hand with the introduction of antibiotics and hormones into the production process. The antibiotics are used to fight diseases, while hormones help to artificially increase milk productivity.

For certified organic dairy producers, these kind of chemical treatments are not an option. Organic regulations only allow farmers to use vaccinations and vitamins. This means they have to focus on preventing disease, rather than controlling it with antibiotics. Administration of hormones to enhance milk production is similarly prohibited.

Under US organic standards, cows must be out on pasture for the entire grazing season, which must be at least 120 days each year, and get at least 30% of their diet from pasture. At other times of the year, such as winter, cows may be housed indoors, but must always have access outside.

Reassuringly, the cows avoid contact with chemical pesticides and petrochemical fertilizers, as they are banned from both their feed and from being used on the pastures on which they forage.

While this definitely represents an improvement over the conventional system, there has been some concern that there is insufficient oversight of the organic dairy industry.

A recent report by the U.S. Office of Inspector General found that many certifying agencies fail to test for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in routine product tests, even though GMOs are banned in certified organic food.

Other concerns have been raised about huge dairy conglomerates who not only do the minimum required to be certified, but also take liberties when interpreting some of the more loosely worded sections of the regulations—for their own financial benefit. In the past, investigations have shown that some of the largest organic dairies in the US retain much of their factory farm attributes.

This has raised the specter of commodity organic in the dairy industry—leaving some consumers wary of relying on the label.

There has also been much debate about the effects of feeding grain to cows, who are grass-eating ruminants. While there are serious concerns about using farmland to grow grain to sustain animals who are meant to eat only grass, the other issue is whether grain feeding alters the fat content of the milk—changing it from being balanced and healthful to dangerous due to the higher ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats in grain-fed dairy.

The fact remains, cows evolved to eat grass and forages, not grain. So even though organic regulations will ensure you are not exposing yourself to drugs, hormones and pesticides, it still allows for most of a cow’s diet to come from something other than pasture.

A return to the pasture-based dairy

Issues with industrial dairy practices have provoked serious ecological and animal welfare concerns, not to mention the effect such milk and dairy products have on human health. A growing movement of pasture-based dairy farmers are rejecting the modern day conventions of dairy farming and creating a viable alternative.

The most healthful and natural life for a cow is one lived on pasture, in a herd, foraging for grass. Many small producers are returning to raising their dairy cows this way.

For many pasture-based dairy farmers the animal welfare implications of CAFOs prevent them from adopting any of their intensive production methods. They refuse to justify the poor treatment of their livestock on the grounds of increased productivity.

By maintaining the pasture-based model, with cows grazing freely in fields, they are able to provide their animals with a dramatically improved quality-of-life compared to their CAFO counterparts. The freedom to move in a natural habitat allows them to be healthy, active, sociable and playful, the kind of behavior impossible for animals in the densely packed holding pens of a CAFO.

The other welfare advantage offered by pasture-based farming is the access it provides the to the cows’ natural diet: grass. In a CAFO the animals are usually fed on grain, or worse; a food substance which they are not designed to digest. A diet of grain can lead to a raft of health problems.

Many pasture-based dairy farmers also eschew the use of hormones to artificially increase the production of milk in their cows. They are willing to accept lower milk yields in return for a healthy animal which is not harmed through forced overproduction.

100% grass-fed

Just because a dairy is pasture-based does not mean the cows eat only grass and forage. The term “grass-fed” should not be confused with 100% grass-fed.

Milk is a seasonal product, and in nature it is tied with annual grass and reproductive cycles. To produce outside of the normal season, cows are given supplement feed.

There are very few dairies that are 100% grass-fed and seasonal, and if you are lucky enough to have one near you, count yourself extremely fortunate.

How to evaluate and buy the best milk and dairy

So to return to the question we started with—where does milk come from? We can see that the answer is really not simple at all. What you find when you look behind the rural fantasy world promoted by the dairy brands is a process which has changed beyond recognition over the past 50 years. Milk has gone from an organic and natural product of the farm to an artificially enhanced construction of an industrialized process.

These changes have brought with them various welfare, health and environmental issues. And these concerns have led to independent, pasture-based dairies becoming a growing voice for an alternative model.

Ultimately, it is up to you to do some research on dairies near you to find humane, healthy and responsible options. Labels are just a start, and as we have seen, can be misleading.

Checklist for buying milk

  • Choose truly local producers. Don’t be fooled by giant dairy operations that offer local-seeming brands.
  • Pasture-raised. Healthy milk comes from healthy cows, living in natural conditions. There is nothing better than pasture for cows.
  • Grass-fed. Most dairy farms must supplement with grain in order to produce all year and in high quantities. The more grass and forages eaten by cows, the better the milk. Supplemented grain should be kept to a minimum and be organic.
  • Seasonal dairy. Most seasonal dairies sell their milk for cheesemaking, but some do sell milk to the public as well. If you can buy products from a seasonal dairy or a dairy that is 100% grass-fed, it is well worth the price and effort.
  • Humane and environmentally sound practices. Find out how the dairy handles male calves. Ask how they deal with manure and methane. Find out if they use anesthetics during disbudding.
  • Transparency. The dairy should be glad to answer all your questions, and even provide tours. A dairy that is operating to high standards of animal and ecological welfare will be proud of their practices and want to share them with the public.

Questions to ask about milk

Animal welfare

  • What do you do with male calves
  • How much time do cows spend on open pasture?
  • Apart from tagging for identification, do you physically alter the animals, such as docking tails, disbudding?
  • How often are cows made pregnant?
  • How long do your milking cows live, and what do you do with them once you are done with them?

Ecological welfare

  • How do you handle manure?
  • How large is your herd?
  • How long do you let pastures rest between grazing?

Health

  • Do you administer hormones to your cows?
  • What is your policy on antibiotic use?
  • Do you use pesticides or herbicides on your fields?
  • What do you fertilize your pastures with?
  • What do your cows eat? Does it contain GMOs?

Where to buy local pasture-raised milk and dairy

  • Farmers market
  • CSA
  • Direct from a local dairy
  • Some supermarkets

When you find local dairies you like, ask them where you can find their milk. They will know where their milk is distributed.

Buy the best dairy possible

The best dairy possible comes from 100% grass-fed cows from a local, family owned pasture-based seasonal farm that has a humane policy for raising male calves and disbudding. The farmer should never use hormones and only use antibiotics when necessary to treat an acute infection. The farm should employ responsible grazing and pasture management, and avoid using pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers (or sewage sludge). The best possible dairy will also be seasonal, letting their cows rest in the winter rather than forcing them to produce all year.

There aren’t many such dairies in existence, so if you are going to compromise, you should have an idea of what issues are critical.

Here is our list of non-negotiable issues for milk:

  • Local family farm
  • Mostly grass fed (100% grass-fed dairies are rare)
  • Any supplemental feed is high quality with no chemical additives, animal by-products or unwholesome fillers or GMOs
  • No hormones
  • Antibiotic use reserved only for treatment of illness
  • Cows live on pasture
  • Humane handling of male calves
  • Humane disbudding process

Milk should be local, but when it comes to cheese, which is less perishable, you have more options. Buy cheese from small, artisan cheese makers who can tell you where their milk comes from.

If you are able to find a good local source of milk, but they don’t make other dairy products such as yogurt, kefir or sour cream, you can easily make your own.

Consider going dairy free, or replacing some of your dairy with alternatives

It’s not often that you get to eat an animal product without having to kill the animal first. It would seem that consuming milk would be about the kindest, most harmless way of eating animal protein. But the reality is quite different than this ideal.

There is a great deal of cruelty that takes place in the modern dairy, cruelty toward both the cows and the newborn calves. When you add to that the environmental impact of enormous dairies that produce enough manure and waste to fill manure lagoons the size of small lakes, you can see why cutting out dairy or cutting back significantly is a sound choice.

If you can find a truly responsible, local pasture-based dairy that feeds their cows grass and doesn’t produce veal, then by all means, enjoy. As there are precious few dairies that operate this way, most people will not have this option.

What to do? Well, the first option is to cut dairy out of your diet. The second is to find the best dairy in your area and eat it sparingly. You can replace your everyday dairy use—such as milk for cereal or cream for coffee—with coconut, almond or other nut milks.

This may seem extreme, because we are not used to denying ourselves entire food groups based on ethical concerns. But if you were able to stand at the edge of a vast manure lagoon that threatens to contaminate the local watershed, or be present for the brutal removal from its mother of a newborn male calf destined for the veal trade, you would see how extreme those realities are.

Read more about delicious dairy free cooking here.

More about dairy from the EthicalFoods.com arichives

Where does milk come from?

Over the past 50 years the answer to a simple question—where does milk come from?—has changed. read more…

Breaking the link between dairy and veal

Many exclude veal from their diet on principle. And vegetarians avoid meat altogether. Yet anyone consuming dairy products may still inadvertently be supporting the production of veal. read more…

Is milk a seasonal product?

Like everything in nature, milk has its season. We’ve grown accustomed to fresh milk year round, but at a cost. There are welfare, health and environmental consequences of turning milk into an industrial product. read more…

Environmentally friendly milk packaging

Conscientious dairy farmers are hoping for a a new generation of environmentally friendly packaging—without the specter of GMOs. read more…

Carbon footprint: how does cheese rate compared with other proteins?

The Environmental Working Group released a study and subsequent guide illustrating how the proteins we most commonly consume rank in environmental impact. read more…

Raw vs pasteurized milk

Raw milk enthusiasts claim that when produced and handled properly, raw milk is a nutritious food that even some lactose intolerant people can enjoy. What is raw milk, and how does it differ from the pasteurized milk to which we’ve become accustomed? read more…

Dairy farms and manure: dealing with waste

Where cows gather in numbers you’ll find the two ugly M’s—methane and manure. Forward looking dairies are tackling these issues in some interesting ways. read more…

Climate change: how drought affects dairy

As meat and dairy prices rise, questions on the viability of the industry’s dependence on just a few key grains are being asked a little louderand this time by more than just sustainable foodies.

Interview: Mark McAffee of Organic Pastures

Mark McAfee, farmer and owner of Organic Pastures Raw Dairy in California, explains why people should choose raw milk, the strict regulations inhibiting the growth of raw milk dairy, and why organic costs more. read more…

A1 vs A2 milk

Is there any significant benefit to A-2 milk? There is a book out, called Devil in the Milk: Illness, Health and the Politics of A1 and A2 Milk, which puts forward the case that there are actually two kinds of milk in the world today. read more…

Seasonal dairy farms

We are all familiar with organic milk, and now we’re seeing other specialty dairy options, such as raw milk, or milk from grass-fed or pasture raised cows.  What you probably have not yet seen on supermarket shelves is milk from seasonal dairies. Some dairy farmers are turning away from forced year round production and making milk the natural way. read more…

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