Over the past 50 years the answer to a simple question—where does milk come from?—has changed.
Where does milk come from? It’s one of the first questions we’re able to answer as children.
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 cows are unlikely to live on anything you would recognize as a farm. It is the product of an industrialized process which owes as much to chemicals and genetic modifications, as to nature.
These changes have provoked concerns and a growing movement of pasture-based dairy farmers who are rejecting the modern day conventions of dairy farming and trying to create a viable alternative.
How pasteurization changed everything
To understand how dairy farming has changed in recent times, we need to look at the impact of pasteurization. This is the process of heating milk to utlra-high temperatures for short periods of time, which reduces the amount of bacterial growth in the milk and extends its shelf-life to up to 70 days.
It was invented in 1864, but only started to be used commercially in the early 1900s. It is this process which is referred to when we see milk labelled as UHT. Ultra high temperature (UHT) pasteurization, known in the US as ultra pasteurization, is now used throughout the world.
So why should we care about this? On the surface it seems a positive development, a way to create a more stable and dependable product. But along with convenience it introduced radical change to the dairy industry. It meant that milk distributors and sellers no longer relied on local supplies; they could buy milk from wherever they wanted.
As transport links, refrigeration and packaging improved, the distances milk could travel increased. It opened the way for milk to become a global commodity which could be bought and sold across continents. In doing so it created a competitive market in which small-scale dairy farms often struggled to survive. They found themselves either going out of business or being absorbed into one of the larger companies.
In the United States, the number of milk cooperative farms went from 561,065 in 1964 to just 117,313 in 1980. Since then numbers have dropped by a further 75%. This has corresponded with the emergence of a small number of powerful multi-national dairy providers.
We now have companies such as Dean Foods, which employs more than 26,000 people in 100 plants located throughout the US and Europe. The company produces more than 50 different local and regional dairy brands, presented as locally produced goods. Some of these brands, well-known in the US, include Silk® soy and almond milk, Horizon Organic® and International Delight®.
The global nature of production is seen with a company such as Fronterra. The New Zealand based corporation has become the world’s biggest exporter of dairy products, selling to more than 100 different countries.
But while these large corporations have become dominant, there are still small-scale operators who reject the production methods adopted by the conventional dairy industry. Instead they promote a local, pasture-based model of farming.
Mark McAfee, owner of Organic Pastures Dairy based in California, is one of these new breed of independents who have turned their backs on the conventional business model for dairy production.
When we started, I realized that we needed a business plan which was vertically integrated, meaning that we controlled the whole food chain. I didn’t want to have some broker or processor between me and my consumer, because the processors seem to do two things: rob the nutrition from the food and also rob the money from the farmer.
Mark MacAffee, Organic Pastures
This kind of ethos has seen a growing number of local dairy farms looking to provide an alternative to the corporations.
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 express any of their natural animal behaviors.
One of the consequences of industrializing dairy farming is that the animals are regarded more as units of production than living breathing creatures. 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.
What about certified organic milk?
The growth of CAFO farming has gone hand-in-hand with it 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 strict herbivores. 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.
A return to the pasture-based dairy
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 can’t 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 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; 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.
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 dairies becoming a growing voice with their development of an alternative model. Ultimately, it is up to the consumer to do some research. Labels are just a start, and as we have seen, can be misleading.
Consumer checklist for finding great milk
- 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. Just because a cow is out on pasture does not mean she is grass-fed. Milk is a seasonal product, but to produce it all year, most dairies supplement their cows with grain. Find out how much supplemental feed the cows receive, and importantly, what is in it.
- Look for organic.
- Humane and environmentally sound practices. Find out how the dairy handles male calves. Ask what measures they take to deal with manure and methane.
- Transparency. The dairy should be glad to answer all your questions, and even provide tours on occasion. 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.
Have your read our Sustainable Kitchen Guide for buying humane, healthy and ethical milk, cheese and dairy? Find it here.