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House cows, golden eggs, and the true cost of cheap supermarket food part 3

 

In Parts 1and 2 of this Series, I introduced Pixie and described the challenges that came along with her very high levels of milk production.

Here in Part 3 we’ll take a look how the types of challenges Pixie faces impact on the hundreds of cows and calves in industrial dairy herds. 

Would I breed Pixie again?

Tinaroo, Pixie’s third calf, did recover from the dangerous diarrhea that he developed as a result of my having to use antibiotics for Pixie’s mastitis. And to my surprise and relief Coco, the foster calf, did not develop the diarrhea at all. (If you missed it, read their story here.)

Pixie made a full recovery from the mastitis and is now in quite good health (she has some ongoing lameness issues, but nothing that we can’t accommodate in our small-scale operation where she is the only lactating cow we have to care for). 

So here we are now with healthy, abundant milk, a daily milking routine that works like clockwork since the calves are bigger and Pixie’s milk production has leveled out, and TWO healthy calves. 

Tinaroo (who has darkened to almost black) and Coco finish off after the morning milking

A peaceful retirement for Pixie

I’ve learned a lot in the experience of milking Pixie over the three lactations that she has had. Maybe I could get it right next time. Maybe I could get her through those difficult first weeks without a mastitis occurrence, and of course it’s tempting to consider trying it. 

She can raise two calves, AND provide all the milk we need, with spare to freeze for when there is no house cow in milk. 

But, no. I’m not willing to go there again. Pixie’s high milk production comes at too steep a price. 

The price is measured in time invested trying to prop up natural functions that should be able to occur by themselves, money spent on vet bills, compromised longer-term health and sustainability for everyone involved every time we have to use antibiotics, and in sickness and misery for Pixie and her calves when it all goes wrong. 

After Tinaroo is weaned, Pixie will be spayed (de-sexed) so that she can go back out into the big paddocks (where there is a bull) and enjoy a peaceful retirement without getting in calf again.

What happens when an entire industry goes for highly-specialized, but non-functional, geese?

What about the cows and calves in the big diaries that produce the milk you buy at the supermarket? Do they suffer the same problems as Pixie? 

Yes, they do. 

The cheap milk in the supermarket is easy on the wallet at the check-out counter, but that’s because the true price of supermarket milk is not measured in dollars.

It’s measured in the suffering of cows and calves[i]; in the damage to ecosystems caused by intensive animal farming practices; and in the sleepless nights of dairy farmers struggling to cope with crippling levels of debt and interest payments, and with large supermarket chains that control the market, set the prices, and sell milk sometimes for less than the price of bottled water. 

Dairying, in and of itself, is not evil. None of the foods typically produced in monocultures are evil. 

Where it all goes wrong is in the drive for more and bigger. 

In the casting aside of other functions as industrial scale food producers try for more and more of one specific function, one kind of golden eggs, at the expense of the goose itself. 

And in a food supply system that is itself a bit like a giant monoculture, choking out small, diverse farmers and highly functional geese that don’t lay enough of the same type of egg, in its insatiable appetite for economic growth at any cost. (More on this in Part 4.)

Image by Kdsphotosfrom Pixabay

The cost of specialization

The more cows you squeeze together in a small space, the harder it is to keep their living conditions natural. It becomes necessary to do unnatural things to keep them fed and housed, to deal with their manure, and to keep the pathogens that build up in crowded, unnatural conditions out of the milk. 

Like any other monoculture, modern dairying calls for trying to kill off every living thing besides the one species you are specializing in. 

But life is meant to be teeming and thriving, jostling and mingling, diverse and interconnected. When we kill off all but one kind of life, hordes of other kinds come crowding in, mutating to handle our assaults on them faster than we can modify the means of assault. 

The price of such high-volume specialization in one specific kind of golden egg is that now, without a functioning ecosystem full of beneficial and complimentary species to support the goose, the goose must be supported with expensive, high tech interventions and inputs that continue to move it further and further away from being capable of sustaining its own health. 

The cost (to the cows) of more milk

We’ve talked about the effect that excessively high milk production has on the health of an individual cow. To imagine the reality for cows in industrial dairies, just extrapolate Pixie’s story out over hundreds of cows in one dairy, or hundreds of thousands of them across the industry.

In home dairying, there is typically one person looking after one, or at the most, a few cows. In industrial dairying, there are a handful of people trying to look after hundreds of cows and calves.

There is no careful, one-on-one attention like Pixie receives. It’s a production line of cows who have no names, just numbers, on a revolving platform of high tech management, spitting through the slaughter house door as soon as their health breaks down irreparably. 

The cost (to the calves) of more calves

A school teacher once brought a group of school kids to tour a dairy where I was working. She asked, “How do you get the cows to start producing milk?” 

Now. Before I go off on a long rant about how our culture got so far removed from nature that that that question would need to be asked, let me quickly bring myself to the point about calves in the dairy industry. 

The point is that to make milk, a mammal has to conceive and give birth to a baby. 

Pixie and her calf, Tinaroo, when Tinaroo was about 3 weeks old

A mammal can continue to lactate for extended periods of time. Mothers of various species can lactate for years after just one birth, beautifully adjusting their milk production in response to the stimulus of their baby’s needs. 

But this is not possible if the mother in question is milked by a machine and makes so much milk that her body literally strips the flesh from her bones to keep up the production. 

So, dairy cows in modern dairies must be “dried off” each year to allow them to regain enough body weight to be able to do it all again next year. 

It’s not hard to see where this is going. Many—well over half—of the calves born in the dairy industry are superfluous – an unwanted afterthought[ii].

Coming up next 

Here in Part 3 we’ve zoomed out from home dairying to industrial dairying. In the next installment we’ll zoom out further, from industrial dairying to the global food supply system and the true price of cheap food at the supermarket.

Byline

“Kate’s writing at ARealGreenLife.comexposes the dysfunctional thinking in modern culture and proposes more natural, connected, and sustainable ways of living. Download a free copy of her eGuide, Ditching the Supermarket.”

 


[i]The animal welfare atrocitiesin the dairy industry are well documented and its outside the scope of this article to repeat all that here. If you want to know more, a quick internet search will yield plenty of information. It may also spoil your dinner and turn you off ​commercial dairy products for life.

[ii]In some areas, bull calves born in the dairy industry are required by law to be kept alive until a certain age, before being slaughtered for their meat. But given the conditions in which these calves are kept and transported for slaughter, in my opinion the lucky bull calves are those born on farms that kill them immediately or soon after birth. 

And heifers (female calves)? Well, not all of the heifers born in commercial dairy herds are needed as replacements. That, unfortunately for the calves, allows for the high death rate in calves raised by the lowest paid staff, on one or two feedings per day (calves left with their mothers nurse far more often than this), on concrete, often in small individual hutches that allow the calf just room to turn around, keeping them isolated in what amounts to a jail cell to contain the spread of disease. 

 

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Kate Martignier

Kate writes at ARealGreenLife.com – an exploration into thinking differently and living a more natural, connected, and sustainable life.

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