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Dairy farming is the practice of raising animals such as cows, goats and buffalo to produce milk for human consumption.
Words by Grace Hussain
The dairy industry has worked hard over the years to portray a positive image to consumers. The ads associated with the 1990s-era Got Milk campaign had everyone from Angelina Jolie to Shaquille O’Neal sporting a milk mustache. More recently, the industry has infiltrated virtually every corner of social media through partnerships with influencers as part of their #undeniablydairy campaign. Yet contrary to what the industry’s popular campaigns would have you believe, dairy farms pollute the environment and are fraught with animal welfare issues.
Dairy farming consists of raising mother animals and collecting the milk that they produce after giving birth. Though cows are the most commonly farmed animal within the dairy industry, there are other animals that are also raised for their milk. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, cattle produce 81 percent of milk, buffalo produce 15 percent, goats 2 percent, sheep 1 percent, and camels 0.5 percent.
The milk that is gathered from the mother animals is either bottled to be sold to consumers or used to create other drinks and food items such as cheese and yogurt.
Cows are the main animal raised to produce milk. However, there are a number of other animals raised for milk production. The dairy herd in India, the top producer of dairy in the world, is half made up of buffalo.
The milk produced on dairy farms goes on to be used in several different ways, including to create cheeses, yogurts, chocolate and a number of other popular processed foods.
Industrialized dairy farming, which is the dominant way of raising dairy cows around the world, uses intensive methods. Intensive farming means increasing the resources used in the production process in order to increase productivity, rather than simply extending the farm over a larger area. An example within dairy farming is the use of antibiotics to prevent disease, instead of simply to treat an animal that falls sick. The food that is grown for dairy cows to consume is also an example of intensive farming, since large amounts of pesticides and fertilizers are used to grow most farmed animal feed.
There is an entire academic discipline, dairy science, dedicated to increasing efficiency within the dairy industry, with degree programs at universities across the U.S. and around the world.
As time has passed, dairy farming has moved away from the idyllic image of a farmer with a piece of straw hanging out of their mouth squeezing streams of milk from a cow’s udder into a dented metal bucket. The techniques employed today use cutting-edge technology and require significant investment.
A milking pipeline is a feature common in medium-sized dairies. The system consists of parts that attach to each teat of a cow and a pipeline that runs the milk directly into a refrigerated storage tank.
Milking parlors are the part of a dairy farm in which cows are actually milked. There are different types of parlors that allow cows to come and go, but many dairy cattle are still housed in tie stalls, in which they are tied into the same small stall for the entire time that they are being milked, with workers walking from cow to cow.
When to stop milking an individual cow can be difficult to determine. Automatic take-offs sense when milk flow has reduced and automatically detach from the cow.
Fully automated milking systems allow cows to enter the milking parlor when they are ready to be milked. They are encouraged to enter the parlor with treats at every milking and are outfitted with a special collar that records the last time they were milked to prevent them from going in too soon.
Dairy products can be found gracing tables around the world, but the consequences of dairy farming often go unnoticed. And the consequences are serious, both for us and the cows.
Cows that are actively lactating, or producing milk, are housed in barns. The types of housing vary. Some cows are kept in tie stalls in which they are tied by their neck into one small space. Others are housed in free stalls that allow them to move from the stall to the alley and interact more easily with each other.
While female calves are often raised to replace their mothers when the older cows are sent to slaughter, male calves are unable to produce milk. Because of this, the most common outcome for them is being slaughtered for veal, often after a short life during which their nutritional needs are deliberately left unmet and their movement is restricted to achieve more desirable qualities in their meat.
Manipulating the estrus cycle is common practice in the dairy industry to make a herd all come into heat at the same time so that farmers are able to synchronize their herds.
Dairy milk produces far more greenhouse gas emissions than alternatives. Milk from cows produces 3.15 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2)-equivalent gases per liter, whereas rice milk, the second worst option, releases just 1.18 kilograms of CO2-equivalent gases per liter.
The mother cows in the dairy industry produce milk for ten months out of every year, during the productive period of their lives. The remaining two months of the year are considered dry. The process of drying off is very painful for cows, because they typically experience engorgement of their mammary glands. The engorgement is especially severe for high-production cows.
The average dairy cow produces 82 pounds of manure every single day. Multiply that by the mean farm size of 1,300 cows in the United States, and you can estimate that more than 100,000 pounds of manure are produced per day. Nutrients from the manure oversaturate the ground and surrounding grasses, leading to runoff into surrounding waterways and seepage into groundwater.
Giving dairy cows bovine somatotropin (bST) to increase milk production for 8 of the 10 months that they are lactating is common practice in the U.S. The hormonal drug is available for over-the-counter use, meaning that its use does not need to be overseen by a veterinarian.
Though animal welfare scientists tout various ways to improve the welfare of the cows on dairy farms, such as using pain management when performing medical procedures like castration or dehorning, the reality of dairy farming remains the same: cows are repeatedly impregnated to maximize milk production, and separated from their babies shortly after birth.
Dairy farming is practiced around the world. However, in most countries in the Global South, animals raised for dairy production are maintained by households that use them both to supplement their own diets and as a source of income, selling milk to their communities.
Though they are not the top producers of dairy, France, Switzerland and Italy are known for their cheese. The country that produces the most dairy is India, followed by the U.S. Interestingly, half of India’s dairy production comes from buffalo and not cattle.
In 2017 there were just over 50,000 dairy farms in the United States. The number of dairy farms in the U.S. has fallen consistently for the last several decades, even though milk production continues to rise. Meanwhile, the median size of a dairy farm has gone up considerably from 80 cows in 1987 to 1,300 cows in 2017.
The price that farmers can expect to make from their milk is, in itself, extremely complicated. Market price for milk is determined by a range of factors, including guidelines set by the government and the intended use of the milk, as well as supply and demand. The difficulty of predicting the price of milk, combined with a trend toward plant-based alternatives, is driving even some of the largest milk producers to file bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, smaller dairies face even bleaker profit margins, as they are unable to reach the scale of production that allows larger corporations to produce massive amounts of milk at a lower cost per gallon.
Dairy-specific breeds of cattle first emerged during the 19th century. As families began to relocate from rural areas where cattle were mostly raised for the family and direct community, to cities, where keeping cows was not possible, larger-scale dairy farming began to emerge. Though the farms were still far smaller on average than they are today, new technologies such as pasteurization, tuberculin testing for cows and milking machines allowed farmers to keep more cattle and supply the demand for milk from the cities.
The USDA expects that the production of milk will continue to rise through 2031, due both to an increase in the number of cows and an increase in their individual milk production. Their projection includes an increase in production to 26,330 pounds of milk per cow per year, pushing dairy cows to produce as much milk as possible. Despite an increase in consumer interest in drinking alternative plant–based milks, the USDA projects that consumer demand for milk via other dairy products will continue to rise.
With 54 percent of young people in the United States having never seen a cow, perhaps the most impactful step you can take is to help them learn more. Consider a visit to a farm sanctuary or sharing the information you learned in this article by politely responding to posts tagged with #undeniablydairy. To learn how to reduce your dairy and meat consumption, consult our Take Action guide here.
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