Short answers to complex questions from you about food & farming.
Question: I’ve been hearing that I should give up dairy a lot lately. Why ? (sent by Conor D.)
Answer: The argument most opponents of Dairy make typically falls into two categories:
1. Keeping animals (all livestock-based farming) is bad.
a. Ethical/humane reasons
b. Environmental/global warming impact
2. Dairy is specifically bad because
a. Forced lactation
b. The way they treat calves, especially male
The decision to accept or reject ALL livestock-based farming is one you must make for yourself. Raising livestock has been one of the essential legs on the stool of civilization since we domesticated animals over 10,000 years ago. When done right it forms a beautiful symbiotic relationship, when done wrong it’s a scene from a horror movie. Most small to midsized farmers care greatly for their animals, knowing that their success is inextricably linked to the well-being of their animals. Farming isn’t just an occupation, it’s all encompassing. Farmers usually live where they farm and farm where they live, so from midnight calvings to early morning milkings they’re engaged either physically, mentally, or sensorially 24–7–365. Serving your charges without reprieve melts you into the ecosystem. Being acutely aware of weather, soil, water, seasons and the cycles of life enmeshes you into the ecosystem. Farming is evolving, using new and old techniques to improve the overall health of the system. Farmers increasingly strive to work within, enhance, and enrich, not to dominate, control, and deplete as seemed to be the collective thinking the second half of the last century. If you’re concerned about the treatment of animals, buy from farms that align with your beliefs, look for Animal Welfare Approved or similar certifications. If your concern is the environmental impact learn more about Regenerative Agriculture and buy from farms using practices that are restorative to the environment.
The objection that dairy is specifically cruel has to do with how milk is produced. Milk is produced by female bovines (cows) to feed their babies (calves), just like with every other mammal that produces milk to nourish its young. The common misconception is that cows always make milk, which isn’t true. They only make milk when they have a calf to feed. Cows on dairy farms follow the same biological cycle they would in nature, giving birth to a calf (freshen) and producing milk to feed that calf. While that calfs nursing, they get pregnant again (9-month gestation), and as the due date approaches wean the aging calf by producing less milk, eventually stopping milk production to focus all excess nutrients and energy into the developing fetus. The main difference in dairy farming is that the calves are not allowed to nurse like they would in nature. Instead calves are separated from the cows and fed milk replacer, while the cow’s milk is collected for human consumption. The quality of life for new born calves does vary greatly depending upon their sex. Female calves have value as a future producers of milk, so they typically stay on the farm or are sold as replacement heifers. For the males (bull calves) it’s a different story. Most impregnation is done via AI (Artificial Insemination) allowing one genetically magnificent bull to impregnate thousands of cows, so the chances for a bull calf to go that route are slim to none. Additionally, because farmers have bred dairy cattle to have the best genetic “dairy” traits, these bull calves don’t have the best “beef” cattle traits, so they’re not highly sought after to raise for beef. Sadly, without much demand for them, the low value leads most of them into being raised for veal, or when beef prices are really low, they may just end up dead. To be born a dairy bull calf is to lose the genetic lottery, and even when they get a chance to live a short life it’s usually not a good one. The life, or lack thereof for bull calves is the reason many turn away from dairy.
On the pro-dairy side consider the jobs that are created, the family farms and rural economies dependent upon it, and the inspiring work ethic of dairy farmers who spend their lives serving their herd. Dairy farmers squeeze their life into the time in between milkings. When a cow is bagged up (full of milk) they need to be milked (usually twice a day) or they’ll get extremely uncomfortable. Like in Goodfellas : You’re sick — milk the cows. Your daughter is getting married — milk the cows. Place got hit by lightning — milk the cows. Being a dairy farmer is all consuming, 24–7–365, requiring determination, grit, and perseverance to make something healthy and delicious. The daily cadence of human and animal working together to provide sustenance is an elemental thing of profound beauty. The reason we revere farming is because in today’s temperature-controlled world of modern convenience and virtual experience, farming is real. Viscerally real, life and death, beauty and pity, humbling and honest. So, don’t just go with what you heard, or what you read somewhere, step up, read up, and make your own informed decision.