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Got Milk?

“Whoa Becky! That’s a lot of milk you got there!” (her name really is Becky)

My Sundays are starting to become synonymous with farm tours. But today’s tour was of a slightly different variety…a non-organic dairy. To understand the food movement, we have to look at all sides. Within organic practices there are many disparities and the same goes for non-organic. It drives home the point even more, “You have to know where your food comes from!”

It was a 380-cow dairy farm. They use no growth hormones (rBST) and only use antibiotics but once or twice a year for vaccinations. The cows still eat primarily a diet of silage (moistened corn and hay) but their environment and treatment is way better than most confined feeding operations. While not pasture-raised, they are put out to graze between daily milkings. One, 20-acre field is made available during summer and fall months which provides exercise and a natural, grass diet. The barns are very spacious and airy with screen-sided walls to the outside. Rubber floors make it nicer for the cows to stand. Alleyways are cleaned out twice a day and sandy beds get freshened up frequently with new sand. It may not be a day at the beach but the cows are clean and not stressed. The sand is used in place of straw because it doesn’t harbor bacteria like straw. Hay is still used as seen in the picture above but usually for pregnant cows and young calves who need to stay warm.


Shiny new milking parlor

Today was open house for their new state-of-the-art milking parlor (see photo right). All the farmers in the area were streaming through – lots of wranglers and roper boots. You could tell the farm is customarily spic-n-span but the milking room was especially shiny. Keeping it clean is built into the design with grated floors to make it easy to hose down.

185 cows are in production at one time. The other 205 are either too young or too close to giving birth. They are kept in a separate barn with alternating access to the same pasture. Cows don’t go into milk production until they are 2-years old and when they have their first calf and pregnant cows are pulled from production when they are 3-months from delivery in order to let them rest. With the new facility, they can milk all 185 cows in 2.5 hours including the time spent bringing them into the parlor. The room accommodates 24 stations. That’s about 5-7 minutes per cow. Compared to the old parlor with only 14 stations, it took over 4 hours to do the same job. Keeping cows pregnant is a daily task, a veterinarian visits the farm every day to monitor the ladies’ health and schedule the artificial inseminations.


Tucked out back was the manure pond. While contained in a concrete structure with no possibility of leakage, it was in stark contrast to the practices of an organic dairy. Yes, organic dairies have manure and save waste for compost. But most of the dung on pasture dairies is naturally spread by the cows as they rotate fields not collected in a lagoon. In this scenario, the nitrogen-rich water is later sprayed on the fields as fertilizer. Since it is straight manure, the soils have to be tested for other nutrient deficiencies and treated with artificial amendments versus using a compost tea which would carry all the nutrients necessary (see post 10/12/11). If pasture-raised, the farmer wouldn’t have to grow as much feed leaving fields to develop mature, carbon-sequestering grasses upon which the cows would graze eating primarily a diet for which their digestive tract was intended.

The farm family was delightful and their farm a picture of Americana. It represented a lot of good things in our agricultural system and perhaps they are the lowest lying fruits to later transition to organic. In the meantime, their co-op only accepts milk from dairies who share the same husbandry practices. Only problem is, there is no label for this type of product. So unless you do some research to find out what’s in your area, you won’t know the story of the milk on the shelf. And by the time you do that research, you’ll have discovered a local, organic dairy and probably decide to just go with them. In the case of this dairy, their milk gets trucked across state line to be bottled three hours away. So much for local.

My next stop is an organic dairy. I had hoped to do the visits in reverse and go to the organic dairy first but you take’em as they come. Stay tuned!