I enjoy pretty much everything there is that has to do with the outdoors. Some of my most peaceful moments have been while walking through the forest, sitting on a beach, or boating (minus the loud engine). Accordingly I have a great respect for nature and enjoy learning about the plants and wildlife therein. My plan is to continue that learning process and hopefully enhance it by sharing what I learn. I intend for this blog to serve many purposes, but in the immediate future it will be a place for me, and hopefully others, to share ideas about reducing our individual impact on this planet, protecting wild spaces, and in general just to comment on the things we enjoy most in the great outdoors. I welcome all opinions as otherwise you cannot consider every aspect of a subject. However, I would ask that every opinion be expressed in a respectful way and considered with an open mind. Often there is no single right answer. Thanks.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Factory Farming: Dairy

This post is long overdue and I started it with the intention of writing about both dairy cows and those raised for slaughter, but it took me longer than I thought it would to gather the information, and I was concerned about the length.  This is my third post with regards to Factory Farming, the other two being Factory Farming: Chickens and  Factory Farming: Environmental Impact.

As I mentioned in a previous post my interest in factory farming came about because of a book entitled Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds about Animals and Food (The image on the right is a link to Amazon if you are interested in checking it out).  It was an eye-opening read and while I cannot claim to have become a vegan, or even a vegetarian, I will say that I am much more conscious of my choices.  My family has cut back the amount of meat we eat per week, we are more pro-active in trying new vegetarian recipes, and we also make a much greater effort to purchase organic.  I see this as a way to reduce our impact on the planet, improve our general health and, hopefully, to put my food dollars towards more responsible farming practices.

As in the chickens post I will start by outlining some of the examples of poor treatment as mentioned by Farm Sanctuary, a United States based organization advocating for better treatment of farm animals, and chooseveg.ca, a Canadian website that encourages vegetarian and vegan living.  According to these sources here are some of the negatives of milk produced in a factory farm setting:

  • Veal is the by-product of the dairy industry as cows must be pregnant to produce milk
  • Calves are taken from their mothers at one day old and fed a milk replacement so that we can drink the cow's milk
  • Milking machines can cause electrical shocks, painful lesions and mastitis
  • Natural lifespan of 25 years is reduced to 4-5 years at which time the dairy cow is sent to slaughter
  • Genetic manipulation, antibiotics and hormones are used to increase daily production from 16lbs of milk to 50-100lbs (number varies depending on source)
  • Cows are not fed grass as it does not result in high enough milk production
  • Dairy industry is a large source of downed animals
This bulleted list is enough to make me want to swear off milk entirely, but I do not like to take everything at face value and decided that contacting Island Farms, which produces most of the dairy products we purchase, would be a good place to start.  In 2005 Agropur purchased the assets of Island Farms so, while I was not surprised that my first email inquiry regarding the treatment of dairy cows got passed off to Agropur, I was somewhat concerned by the email I got back from their Customer Response Department.  The email was short and stated the following "Island Farms dairy is no longer a locally owned co-op. We do not own cows.  We now purchase our raw milk from the BC Milk Marketing Board who is responsible for liaising with the farmers regarding animal feed and treatment..."  Other than feeling as if I had been politely told to screw off, it also seems that since Agropur only purchases raw milk they are not concerned with how that milk is obtained, nor do they know where to get the information.

I contacted the BC Milk Marketing Board as Agropur suggested only to get the following response: "Thank you for your inquiry regarding the treatment of animals in the dairy industry in BC. This question would be best directed to the BC Dairy Association. We are just a regulatory body for the milk quota in BC."  I was also provided with a phone number but, thankfully, before I had time to use it I received a much more helpful response from someone at the BC Dairy Association who must have been forwarded my email inquiry (Thank you to the administrative assistant at the BC Milk Marketing Board).  The BC Dairy Association was able to shed some light on the treatment of dairy cows and also gave me a link to the Dairy Code of Practice, which all farms in Canada are expected to follow.

What I did manage to learn from the Island Farms website is that their cows are fed corn, hay, grains and grass and that they are milked twice a day by a milking machine for approximately 8 minutes both times.  Each cow yields 15-20 litres of milk per day.  From the helpful person at the BC Dairy Association I also learned that most of the milk Island Farms sells comes from farms on Vancouver Island, but some does come from Mainland British Columbia (BC).  In addition I was told that Canadian dairy farms are family run and that the average number of cows is 150.  This is in contrast to the United States where dairy farms tend to be owned and run by large corporations and you have a much higher number of cows per farm.

I also revisited the Canadian Virtual Farm Tour website to look at their "good example of a Canadian dairy family farm".  I did not realize that there are two types of dairy farms Tie Stall and Free Stall.  In a tie stall barn the cows are tied next to each other in stalls and milked, fed and watered in that stall while the free stall method allows the cows to move around the barn as they choose except for twice each day when they walk to the milking parlour.  Before I go on I want to clarify some terminology that, not being familiar with farm lingo, I found a bit confusing.  According to my trusty dictionary a heifer is a cow that has not borne a calf, or has only borne one calf.  A dry cow is a cow not currently producing milk, which for dairy cows is about 2 months per year.  According to the virtual farm tour dry cows and heifers are able to graze in a pasture while the milk-producing cows are kept in the barn.

To produce the milk that we drink cows must be pregnant or "nursing".  Thus females are impregnated, give birth after 9 months gestation, and produce milk for approximately 10 months.  According to the virtual farm tour cows have a two month dry period so by my calculation they are impregnated again about three months after giving birth.  On average, in Canada, each cow gives birth about 4 - 5 times.  So what happens to these calves? Obviously the "nursing" is not for their benefit.

I think I can assume that people already know that most male calves are turned into veal.  I think I can also assume that most people are aware of the horror stories related to raising calves for veal so I will not go into that here.  If you would like some information feel free to visit Veg.ca and read their short section on the fate of calves including veal production, or Farm Issues a Canadian website that "represents farmers and stakeholders in Canadian Agriculture".  If you do your own search I am sure you will find much more information, some more inflammatory than what I have referenced here.  I understand that calves are taken from their mothers at birth and fed colostrum for the first few days from a bottle or pail after which they are fed cow's milk or milk replacer until they are weaned.  In some of the documentation I read it was acknowledged that the longer you leave a calf with its mother, the harder it is to separate them.  Their bond forms quickly.  Some veal calves continue to be fed milk until slaughter, some are fed grains.  To make a long story short if we want milk cows must be impregnated, birth calves, and those calves have to go somewhere.

The following excerpt regarding downed cattle is from the Farm Sanctuary website: downed animals are..."animals who are so sick or injured that they are unable to walk or even stand. Investigators have documented downed animals routinely being beaten, dragged, or pushed with bulldozers in attempts to move them to slaughter".  This problem is created when the desire for profit, ie. getting meat to the slaughter house, trumps animal welfare.  A humanely euthanized animal (if euthanized with drugs) would be of no use as the meat would be unfit for consumption.  Giving medication or, at least, medical attention has a cost associated with it and therefore also reduces profit.  According to the Canadian Dairy Code of Practice "A sick, injured or distressed animal should receive prompt and appropriate medical treatment or nursing care. Neither financial cost nor any other circumstance should result in a delay in treatment or in the neglect of animals."  The code also states that any non-ambulatory animal must not be transported.  I can appreciate what the Dairy Code is designed to do and like that much of the document focuses on the idea that better treatment of the cows results in greater milk production.  However, as in my chicken's post, I cannot help but feel that while the Dairy Code is a great starting point it is only as good as the farmers who implement its best practices.  Even some of the best practices do not leave me feeling warm and fuzzy.  In a time when you buy your milk off the shelf and rarely, if ever, see the farm it comes from how can you be certain that it is a result of responsible farming practices?

With regard to the issue of hormones and antibiotics in milk I have learned that, in Canada, the use of growth hormones in cows is prohibited and, that milk from any cow being treated with antibiotics cannot enter the food system.  The hormone that I have seen particularly mentioned in literature about dairy factory farming is rBGH.  I was surprised at how long this hormone has been around for.  One of the first articles I found was from 1989 entitled Growth Hormones Would Endanger Milk on the Cancer Prevention Coalition website.  According to Wikipedia the United States is the only developed nation to permit the use of this hormone in milk consumed by humans.  The hormone was banned from use in many countries including Canada, New Zealand and Japan by the year 2000 or earlier.  If you are from the United States and you are reading this post I would recommend taking a look at the wikipedia information.

So what are you buying when you buy organic milk?  I am curious about this as organic milk at my local grocery store costs almost twice as much as the regular.  If I know that I am already getting hormone and antibiotic free milk (in Canada) the issues that remain are animal welfare and sustainable farming practices.  I tried to get some additional information from Avalon Dairy as their section about certified organic milk products seemed fairly generic.  My email was forwarded to Bradner Farms but I did not receive a response from them.  I also could not find a dedicated website, but did find many references to Bradner Farms on other sites.  According to a Saltspring Dairy webpage "in 1999 Bradner Farms became the first certified organic fluid milk producer in Western Canada" and its milk is sold under the Avalon and Valley Pride labels.  Avalon is a certified organic processing plant.  On another page of the Saltspring Dairy site you will find the quote: "Rob's dairy herd freely roam his farm, eating organic grass, hay & grain."  Bradner Farms is also SPCA certified for its eggs and chicken.  Perhaps one day I will find the time to actually call Bradner Farms and get a little more detail but I think you get the general idea.

According to a Government of Canada Organic Standards document "livestock are provided with living conditions and space allowances appropriate to their behavioural requirements, and organically produced feed".  One of the requirements for maintaining certified organic status is regular inspections by an organic inspector.  Also, on the Certified Organic Associations of BC website I found some good news on the life expectancy issue: "Some certified organic milk cows have a life expectancy three or four times that of their commercial counterparts!".  

Since I live in Victoria, British Columbia my research is limited to that which would help me make a more responsible choice at my local grocery store.  However, some of the documents that I mention are applicable to BC and more broadly to Canada.  For more in-depth information about issues facing the dairy industry in the United States I would direct you to the dairy page of the Farm Sanctuary website, which is a start.  At this link you will find a summary of the issues and a link to a video which I am too cowardly to watch.  I am afraid that the video will be worse than what my imagination has already conjured up after reading Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds about Animals and Food.  There are many sources of information referenced in this post and I would encourage you to make use of them for additional information and locations of organic or SPCA certified farms in your area.  This post got way too long too fast and I could not possibly touch on every detail without boring everyone to tears.  Hopefully you made it this far!

Lastly, I wanted to say thanks to everyone who has read my Factory Farming: Chickens post, as it is my second most popular.  May this one prove equally useful.


  1. Thank you! As one who also lives in Victoria and worries about this, this was very helpful!

  2. You're welcome! Glad you found the info useful.

  3. This is a great post, thanks for the info!!!

  4. Although no hormones are given to the cows, pregnant and lactating cows have raised hormone levels which are in the milk! Cow's milk meant for calves just like dog's milk meant for puppies and human breast milk for our babies :)

  5. I am just plain sad that I have ignorantly participated in this.

  6. Hello, my friend and I are doing some research into the ethical treatment of dairy cows at Island Farms, and are having a hard time getting any information or hearing back from Island Farms and Agropur, etc. Your blog post has been very informative, and I was wondering if you would forward a copy of the email you received from BC Dairy Association to me as it seems it would be exactly the kind of information we are looking for. If you would do this I would be very appreciative!

  7. Hi Sara. Thanks for your comment. I did find the email in my archived mail so if you would like to email me at noviceecologist@gmail.com I can certainly send you the content of the reply. Thanks...Andrea

  8. Thank you for this. I was hoping there was an ethical source of dairy on Vancouver Island similar to this: http://food-ethics.com/2010/11/08/a-uniquely-ethical-dairy-farm/

    Does anyone know if goat's milk production is any different?

  9. I just emailed Avalon Farms to find out what happens to the male calves...no response yet...their milk and treatment of cows seems wonderful, but I need to know about the calves, and also the cows when they are no longer producing milk. Also, the question above regarding goat's milk, as that is what I am now using.

  10. Great questions and please post the answers!

  11. This is Dee. I posted about the Avalon dairy farm calves. I love how the cows are treated, but as I said, what happens to the calves, and the cows once done milking. No answer yet, so, I am enjoying my Soy very much. No more goat's milk either until I find out what happens to the kids.

  12. So you have ant more information re Avalon"

  13. Thank you for this detailed post! I was wondering how Island Farms treated their cows and what their process was with everything,so this has been very helpful.I am glad that their cows have the "free stall" advantage but the calf separation is very sad. It is awful that humans force cows to get pregnant and then take away their babies as soon as they have them just so they can have their milk. It is so wrong and I had no idea how bad it was in some places.Hopefully,animal production will get better in the future and we can all help stop the madness of the cruelest animal production.

  14. Thank you! This has been exceptionally helpful!