Dairy, a lot of words, and the absence of meaning

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Dairy, a lot of words, and the absence of meaning

The recent Time article about industrial agriculture has some large-scale “farmers” up in arms about some of the claims. I came across this response today, and was surprised at how little information it really contains. There really aren’t any actual facts in it at all, except that the author considers himself a farmer and that he has a cell-phone. It would have been interesting to see a response that dealt with the claims made in the Time article with some evidence to back it all up.

Free from the cycle of exploitation

Free from the cycle of exploitation

I would invite you to check out the original Time article and then read through this post. For now, I’ll just take issue with a few points.

Modern technology enhances individual animal care; for example, I can access whole-health history for each cow from my cell phone. Modern freestall housing keeps our animals comfortable and healthy – protecting them from weather extremes, predators and disease. Also, a veterinarian frequently checks on our herd.

Suggesting that keeping cows indoors for their entire lives, never letting them experience any sort of natural life, is “animal care” is a bit like saying that prisons are a paradigm of individual human health care.

Being able to access health records also is really no indicator of concern for welfare. It only makes sense to maintain accurate and up-to-date records for any piece of equipment, and to dairy farmers cows are really just milk-producing machines, not living beings with any life or meaning of their own.

As a keeper of many animals throughout the years, I’ve had mixed experiences with veterinarians. The American Veterinary Medical Association hasn’t really shown themselves to be concerned with animals in and of themselves, but rather in assisting people who use animals to maximize their profits.

The AVMA has historically been reluctant to adopt a position that conflicts with current practice. Some notable controversial practices that the AVMA has not come out in opposition to are forced molting and gestation crates. They have also approved of such practices as tail docking and ear notching of pigs, and they also approve of battery cages for egg-laying chickens [pdf]. They have consistently positioned themselves on the side of industry, rather than on the side of animals. More information about the AVMA’s positions on animal welfare issues can be found on their website, avma.org.

I’m also struck by the absence of photos or video to back up these claims. What this really indicates to me is an effort to spin words to present a happy picture of content cows happily giving their milk – all the while hiding the calves taken from them right after birth, their milk taken from them by machines, sent off to slaughter when their milk production drops off and they are no longer profitable. Let’s look at the whole picture and let’s really ask the farmers who are producing our food to open up and show us the truth. Let’s stop accepting this sort of hazy misinformation as any sort of answer.

The truth – that’s all we ask.


Ray Prock

August 26, 2009 at 5:30 am


If you can craft a better response to Time in less than 200 words I would love to have your help. As stated in the blog title itself those were my comments to the Magazine. Time unfortunately has a 200 word limit for it’s Letter to the Editor submissions.I have personally invited you to my dairy to see firsthand what we do so I can not be accused of doctoring a picture or staging a video shoot. You claim I keep my cows indoors this is not true my cows also have access to pasture and exercise areas. The access I have to my cows health records is pertinent to maintaining their health just as the records your doctor keeps on your visits.

If the truth is all you ask I suggest yuo not take my comments out of context.

Tracy Habenicht

August 26, 2009 at 8:16 am

“all the while hiding the calves taken from them right after birth, their milk taken from them by machines, sent off to slaughter when their milk production drops off and they are no longer profitable.”

Glenn, you’ve touched on the important part that neither Big Ag nor “slow foodies” want to acknowledge.

These animals are all slaughtered when they are no longer profitable — and that’s not humane. It’s disgusting.


August 26, 2009 at 8:23 am

Thanks for the correction about keeping the cows indoors, Ray. I appreciate the response. I still hold that using a fear of being accused of doctoring photos or video as an excuse to not provide such information is in and of itself a way of avoiding a presentation of the truth. If I had to take a trip to Ottawa to see what was happening in national politics, that wouldn’t be true democracy. Information needs to be presented openly and honestly, and hiding that information while offering an expensive and time-consuming trip as a substitute is no solution at all.


August 26, 2009 at 1:44 pm


There is a difference between monitoring your cows’ health and a doctor maintaining a human’s health: you are monitoring their health because they are your product. As far as I know, my doctor is not scheming ways to maximize my milk production. And let’s not forget that the reason you keep your animals safe from predators and disease is so that you can be the one to use (and eventually kill them). You’re not running a cow daycare. You are protecting your money.

When it comes to the dairy industry, the dairy farmer’s self-appointed role is not only to keep the cows “safe” and “healthy”, it is to keep them pregnant so that they continue to produce milk via forced insemination. Not only are these cows kept pregnant for their entire short lives, but they are continually separated from their young, when naturally they would hold a relationship with their male calves for up to 7 months, and with their female calves for an entire lifetime. Another element to consider is the slaughter process for ‘spent’ cows:

(from animalrights.change.org)

“Dairy cows especially (more than beef cows, that is, given that dairy cows are kept perpetually pregnant) may go to slaughter while pregnant if they become unprofitable before giving birth or if the producers decide to kill a bunch of cows even more prematurely than usual to save money when demand is down. And so while workers stun them, hang them upside down, cut open their throats to let the blood from their body drain out, cut off their legs, and pull off their skin, all that time, there is a calf inside them, fighting and dying a horrifying death. How soon in the process the calf inside dies likely varies according to how developed he or she was and how fast the slaughter process moves. In an “efficient” slaughterhouse, the calf could still be dying–dying but still living, still suffering terribly–at the time of her mother’s dismemberment and disembowelment.

A UK survey in the 1990s at one slaughterhouse found that, “of the slaughtered cows, 23.5 per cent were pregnant and 26.9 per cent of these were in the third trimester.” 23 percent were pregnant. That’s a lot. One percent–or even 1 calf–would be too many.

But it gets worse. In addition to the trauma of still being alive inside their mothers during the latter’s death, fetal calves may also be cut from their mother’s womb while still alive–so that their blood can be drained for use in science, without anesthesia.”

These are some of the reasons why people are concerned about the dairy industry and why we are not simply accepting your statement that you are committed to doing what’s right for the animals.


August 31, 2009 at 10:52 pm

I think the fact that the majority of the public have no idea that cows have to give birth to produce milk is indicative of something rather troubling about the industry. If it were more honest about the origin of milk, the public would start asking about what happens to any calves that are born…and they wouldn’t like the answer.


September 3, 2009 at 5:24 am

Nobody that I have ever encountered in my 25 years in the dairy industry has ever been secretive about the fact that cows have to give birth to start producing milk. It is one of the most commonly asked questions at county fairs, etc., “When do cows produce milk? Can calves produce milk? How long do they produce for?”. It’s easy to liken the analogy to humans (or any other mammal) – cows produce milk when they have a calf, just like a human mother produce with they give birth to a child. When children (and their parents) visit the farm on school tours, I’ve never had any that are taken aback when the see the calves happy in their clean, well bedded hutches. I have a feeling their response might be different if the calves ran in the barn with their mothers.

Some will argue that it would be different if the animals were kept on pasture, but I will defend that by saying that we can keep the animals much more comfortable (and safer) in barns and calf hutches. In there, we have keep them more comfortable by applying fly spray (have you ever seen how many flies get on cattle’s faces in a pasture), treat the first signs of pink eye (transmitted by flies – our most severe cases have been on cattle in pastures where it has not been caught in time), not to mention that in the barns they’re safe from wolves (or any other predators for that matter), and if a cow is giving birth and starts to have trouble, we can be there to assist her, whereas if she gave birth unattended out in a field and had problems, it is likely that both she and the calf would die.

And as far as the milking procedure in general, that is also for the welfare of the cow. Dairy cattle today naturally produce far more milk than a calf could naturally consume. If she was not completely milked out, her udder would become painfully infected and need to be treated with antibiotics (or, if she was on an organic farm, she would either “tough it out” or be sent to market). Many dairies feed their own cows’ milk back to the calves, and on the ones that don’t, the calves are given a “milk replacer”, a nutritionally advanced replacement for the natural product which yields happy, healthy calves.

Also, “dawnofanewera”, if you’d like to be take seriously, I would not use an animal rights organization web site as your primary source.

So here’s my “lot of words”, that hopefully aren’t suffering from an “absence of meaning”. Just trying to bring a little truth from someone who actually works with cattle on a daily basis.


September 3, 2009 at 8:22 am

Hi Julia,
Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

The dairy industry never talks publicly about cows needing to be pregnant and having calves to produce milk. I think it is a major aspect of the dairy industry that gets left out of the pretty pictures painted of diary farms. That so many adults talk to us about dairy and have no idea that cows only produce milk when they have a calf really just indicates to me a more backhanded secrecy – “if we don’t talk show the whole picture maybe people won’t ask about it.” And if they do, well, you weren’t really secretive – you just weren’t up front about it. Even in your post you don’t talk about what happens to those calves – or the mothers’ reactions when their babies are taken from them.

I grew up in the country and I know what that sounds like. I know what mother cows and their calves are like when they are together. I have never seen a tighter bond (except possibly among some birds).

And justifying the milking by talking about how much we have re-engineered cows’ bodies so that they produce way more milk than they need is very strange. We’ve taken an animal that evolved to produce milk for her calves, just like humans have evolved to produce enough milk for our babies, and we’ve totally thrown the system out of whack, making it necessary to continue that cycle. If you were to stop artificially inseminating the cows, they would stop producing milk, and there would be no need to keep milking them. You are justifying one action through an environment that you have created yourself. It would be far better for the cow if you were to stop taking her calves away, let her raise her own children, don’t artificially inseminate her, and let her live out her days in peace. If you weren’t making her pregnant and forcing her to give milk, and hadn’t bred her to produce way more milk than is healthy or good, then you wouldn’t need to milk her.

Even in your answer you are glossing over a lot of details that are needed for anyone to get a real picture of dairy production.


September 3, 2009 at 8:24 am

I’ve personally witnessed the process of artificial insemination of a cow, and I think it’s a large part of why I eventually became vegan. Watching a vet stick his arm up a cow’s ass is not pleasant – and I don’t know how anyone can justify violating someone like that. It gives me the creeps.

mister james

September 7, 2009 at 4:10 pm

Great conversation and post Glenn!

Seems the underlying question comes down to whether we believe that animals are here for us to do with as we please – with no boundary – or if we believe that they (along with us) are part of a beautiful cycle of life that deserves preservation, respect, & the freedom to exist as it might without our intervention. It seems a growing number of us believe we should be seeking ways to cohabit in harmony rather than in domination of life on this planet.

But of course we’ve built centuries of dependency & lifestyle around dominating, cruel, & often unhealthy behavior towards other life forms and seemingly lack the will, awareness, or courage to admit it and change it.

I can definitely understand the resistance to being told that the family business that you have worked hard & honestly at for generations is in violation of some liberal tree-hugging code of conduct, probably written by some snot nose, city boy with a a degree who’s never done a day’s work in his life. I suppose my initial reaction would be similarly resistant. I guess we can only hope that with time (and a lil pressure from the tree-huggers), we’ll look beyond tradition, comfort, & familiarity to a new world. A world where we measure progress and value life…differently.

Ever seen the relationship between humans and dogs in third world countries? Not a leash in sight. 🙂

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