Dec 18, 2006
3:58 pm


MILKING OL’ BETSY (For All She's Worth)

Being the season to be jolly, to hunker down with family (or maybe bunker down), to be pathologically pulled to over-consume in every sense of the word, to seek light as the days get darker, I think it’s also time to think of others.

Then again, when isn’t it, even for one’s own well-being?

And not only to think of our beloved sisters and brothers, but the animals sacrificed for human survival.

I eat vegetarian (thus I consume some dairy). Now it’s known that cows producing inorganic milk have a miserable, shortened life, but I’ve heard that even cows producing organic milk have it rough.

And, it turns out, although I almost never buy dairy products, I’m having trouble giving them up, in particular my darling friend Sandi’s chai.

Pastries and crumbles and desserts, too, turn me into Pavlov’s lip-smacking, love-desiring canine—a feeling that can only be fulfilled through buttered delights and the promise thereof.

What can I say as I try to remember and help improve the conditions of others—sisters, brothers, all sentient beings? Hopefully something more than Saint Augustine’s: “Oh rottenous! Oh monstrous life!”

The thing is I don’t want to become a vegan if that leads even minisculely towards the miraculous cow losing her social importance, and thus the opportunity to exist (from a Homo sapiens economicus’ point of view).

At the same time I desire this lovely, life-sustaining sentient bovine to be loved and sustained.

The days of the old family farm, it turns out, have been made all but extinct by the marauding factory monolith known as agri-business—environment and compassion be damned.

Check out The Meatrix for a cute yet I would say necessary bit of propaganda.

This agri-business nightmare, of course, goes for all the poor creatures subject to factory farming, from cattle, to pig, to duck, to supposedly the worst treated animal on the planet, the McChicken.

But I am specifially wondering about the dairy cow.

As luck would have it, after a showing of Uganda Rising— speaking of terror—I ran into a cool person who works for the Department of Agriculture.

I sent her a list of questions relating to the treatment of dairy cows (organic and inorganic), to which she wonderfully responded. I will repeat the answers here for you.

If you can add to, clarify, question or even protest the details further, it would be warmly invited. Please send it around, too, if you know people who knows details on such matters.

I might even send an abridged, similar letter of this type to Avalon Dairies in Vancouver, and ask for feedback.


Facts About Our Friendly, Neighbourhood Dairy Cow

Pete: What is the average life span of a “normal” cow?

Fifteen to 20 years.

P: What is the life span of a dairy cow in the conventional/inorganic dairy system?

Four to 6 years.

P: What is the life span of a dairy cow in the “organic” system?

Four to 6 years. The life span is very similar because the lower production wear and tear on the cows is adversely off-set by the fact that organic producers have less options to treat illnesses such as mastitis.

P: Why do dairy cows die so much earlier—three times earlier—than a normal cow, and of what do they die?

They are culled because each cow comes to a point where the milk production goes below the threshold where the cost of keeping the cow in production is higher then the revenue that you get from the milk.

Health issues also increase with age, which drives the veterinary costs up. It is an entirely economic decision—much more so than the view that they are physically worn out.

They are physically worn out, but only from a milk production/ physiological point of view—not from a “cow life” point of view.

P: What happens to the calves when they are born (I’ve heard they go for veal)? How long are they with mom, and what becomes of them afterwards?

Newborn calves are fed her mother’s colostrums as soon as possible after it is born. This passes on special ingredients from the mother to the calf that assist in ensuring the calf is healthy and has natural immunity to disease. As they get older, they get trained to drink out of a bucket and eat special cereal.

The calves are removed from the cow within weeks after being born.

There is a bit of a difference here between the organic system and the conventional. I think that you have to keep the cow and calf together for a bit longer in the organic system but I am not sure how big the time difference is.

When they are little they stay in their own separate pens to help prevent the spread of disease. As they grow up, they are kept in small groups so they learn to get along with each other. Bulls are usually shipped away at the age of 2 months to the beef industry (to be grazed or included in feedlots).

The cow calves will be kept as replacements on the dairy farm. Female cows—roughly 6 months old—that have not given birth to a calf are called ‘heifers’. Heifers are usually fed silage (cured grass), hay, and grain or put out to graze. At about two years of age a cow will have her first calf and thereby enter “production”.

P: You said a normal cow has three calves in a lifetime. How many pregnancies does the average dairy cow have?

Three. Miscarriages are rare in modern dairy production since it effects the production. To actually give birth to a calf causes a natural hormonal reaction in the cow to start producing milk. Pregnancies without birth do not do the trick and farmers are very careful to make sure to breed the next generation on the basis of optimizing health, milk production and easiness of birth.

P: Do dairy cows also end up going to slaughter? Do they die right off the “assembly line” and go to slaughter? And what is the process of going to slaughter?

Cows goes to slaughter just like any other bovine animal. They do not normally die on the farm. The cows that are to be replaced are picked up in livestock transport trailers to be driven to the slaughter facility.

The meat is not used for products that you find in the deli, but rather for processed meat products such as sausages and pet food.

There is nothing wrong with the meat, it just does not look like the meat that the customer want and would be tougher to chew so there is no market for “cow steak”.

Cows that die on the farm are picked up by a renderer for pet food production. Other products from the rendering process are bio oil and tallow that is used in the chemical industry.

P: What are the fundamental differences between the inorganic and organic systems?

In organic production no chemical pesticides or inorganic fertilizers can be used for forage production.

Organic production has heavier restrictions on what kind of antibiotics can be used to treat sick cows.

Cows in organic systems must have access to 120 days of grazing per year.

P: How much do the inorganic cows graze?

Differs from region to region and is heavily influenced by climate. In high efficiency production systems like in southwestern BC grazing does usually not occur.

P: How often is pregnancy forced with inorganic cows?

The first calving is normally at the age of 2 years, after that the cow will have a calf every 12 to 14 months. A cow normally gives birth to 3 calves in her lifespan. The cows are artificially inseminated.

P: How often is pregnancy forced with organic cows?

Same as for conventional.

P: How penned in are inorganic cows?

Most dairy cows in Canada are kept in a free run system where you have a large open, but roofed floor space where they can walk around. They also have free access to their own dry rest stall where they can lay. The accessible area is about 120 square feet per cow including rest stalls, feed area and walk area.

P: How penned in are organic cows?

Same as for conventional except they get to graze 120 days per year.

P: How much milk do inorganic cows produce?

Approximately 8000 liters per cow per year (7000-9000, depending on feed, number of milkings per day and the health of the herd. The healthier the cow the more milk).

P: How much milk do organic cows produce?

A little bit less then conventional cows due to lower energy feed and more mastitis. Don’t have and data at my fingertips.

P: What are the inorganic cows fed?

The normal diet is definitely grass/corn silage based (about 80 %). This means that forage grass (usually rai grass) or whole corn plants are harvested and then cured in an age old fermentation (conservation) process using lactic acid in the absence of oxygen.

You have probably seen the white plastic balls out on the field or the high silage towers. Those are all for storing the feed in an oxygen free environment. The remaining 20% is grain based (barley, wheat, corn and soy) high protein feed.

The protein feed is also amended with vitamins.

There is no difference in the feed between the organic and the conventional system other than the fact that the organic cows will graze 120 days (they are still normally fed the high protein portion in the field) and the corn, grass and grain used for feed must be produced without the use of chemical (mineral) fertilizer and chemical pesticides.

P: What happens to the waste from inorganic cows?

There is no difference in manure management between organic and conventional dairy producers.

Most of the manure is scraped or flushed out of the barn with an automatic system (specifically designed not to trip up or hurt the animals).

The manure is then stored in clay, rubber or concrete lined lagoons. The storage is designed to house the manure and the rainwater that may fall during the time of year when it is not environmentally sound to spread manure as a fertilizer.

Therefore, the storage volume is very dependent on the climate. In southwestern BC, for example, the storage is designed for a 6-8 month storage during the wet period. When there is a crop that is growing on the field, the manure is spread as a fertilizer so in the spring the stored manure is spread on land for forage and corn production. Spreading continues throughout the summer up until the ground gets frozen or wet.

I would argue that most of the manure is not a waste, but rather a recourse that makes it possible to produce our food without using fossil fuel based mineral fertilizer.

That argument holds to a point.

That point is the volume of manure (or rather the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus contained in the manure) that represents an agronomically justifiable rate.

For example, if you supply more nitrogen and phosphorus than the plants need you would have to call it a waste.

The agronomic need for crop production in a dairy system is normally in balance at 1 to 2 cows per acre of land available for manure fertilization.

This goes for both organic and conventional production.

We are fairly close to balance in BC when it comes to nitrogen (N) in dairy systems, but we do have a problem with a build-up of phosphorus (P) because there is naturally an inappropriate balance in between N and P in manure if you look at it from a plant uptake perspective.

The million dollar question is: should we supply less manure to balance the P and therefore have to supplement for N with fossil inorganic fertilizer?

This, like so many things, is an issue of pollution swapping. If you concentrate too much on one aspect you create a problem in the other end.

P: What happens to the waste from organic cows?

Same as for conventional.

P: Which cows suffer more from mastitis, and how much of a problem is mastitis?

Big problem in both the inorganic and organic systems. Conventional cows have a higher rate of infection but organic cows have longer infections per case because of less treatment.

P: Is their a testable difference in the milk of organic and inorganic cows?

It would probably be possible to detect a difference in pesticide residues in milk if you had enough of a sample population (i.e. enough milk from a large number of cows) and if you were looking at low enough concentrations. The problem is that the detection limit of sampling equipment often makes it hard to get down to necessary concentrations.

Otherwise the quality is very similar.

Dairy cows in Canada cannot be given bovine growth hormone (rbST).

Health Canada decided against licensing the hormone in January 1999 over concerns of its impact on cow welfare. Cows, like humans, do require antibiotics from time to time to treat infections.

The milk from a cow treated with antibiotics is discarded.

All milk undergoes rigorous testing procedures before it is even accepted for processing. Samples are collected on the farm and at the processing plant to ensure milk is safe.

By law, all fluid milk sold in Canada must be pasteurized.

This is necessary to kill any harmful bacteria that may find their way into milk.

Pasteurization also destroys spoilage organisms, which ensures a longer shelf life for the milk.

Milk is natural i.e. nothing is added except vitamins A and D, which is also required by law. The sugar in milk is naturally occurring.

P: Finally, as an observer, and from a quality of life point of view, how would you describe the life of a dairy cow?

Both conventional and organic dairy cows have a pretty shitty life in terms of quality and mental health. That does not really change with scale or intensity of production. I am not sure that a couple of months of grazing does the trick to get a cow to really appreciate its life situation.

In terms of physical health, I would argue that the dairy cows in both systems are probably suffering less then cows in a natural system.

This is due to the fact that it is in every farmer’s immediate interest to keep cows as healthy as possible because a healthy cow produces more milk.

It is actually that simple.


Good luck, Betsy. I’ll keep trying to remember that you feel—despite the distance between us, the walls, the advertisements, the containers etc.—and do a little more for your well-being, body and spirit.


To comment—and please do—press here.



copyright 2006 Pete McCormack