My Trip to a Confinement Dairy

It really sounded innocent enough: A field trip to a local farm – family-owned, nonetheless – with my daughter’s preschool. “How wonderful!” I thought. And although I knew they probably wouldn’t sell any raw dairy items, I still figured I’d probably stock up on some yummy cheese or maybe some fresh butter.

Not on your life.

Joel Salatin often says he believes that slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants should have to have glass walls. If we all saw how meat and poultry arrived at the grocery store in those neat little packages, our food system would change dramatically. Well, ditto for our dairy farms, especially if we educated our friends and neighbors about how it should (and could) be.

This particular farm was stocked with Holstein cows. Holsteins are big milk producers, and so are often chosen for US dairy farms (picture your typical black and white cow). Holsteins also produce relatively low-butterfat milk, and US consumers erroneously assume that to be more healthy. Not only that, but milk from Holstein and Friesian cows (often bred together) typically contains A1 beta-casein (type of protein) which has been linked to many chronic health problems. Jersey cows – along with African and Asian cows – produce milk with beta-casein A2. (For more in-depth info on the beta-casein issue, see Dr. Thomas Cowan’s article here.) This A2 protein is preferable for human consumption, but of course cow breeds that produce less milk per cow are not preferable for the dairy industry. The problem, however, extends far beyond the breed of cow.

Healthy milk (or meat, for that matter) can only come from a healthy animal. Animals can only be healthy when they are able to eat, drink and do that which they were designed to eat, drink and do. Cows are ruminants, which basically mean that they chew cud. Ruminants were also designed to eat grass. Among many ways that doing what they are biologically meant to do is beneficial, eating grass enables them to produce saliva, which ensure the proper ph-level in their digestive track. When this is out of proportion, it leads to all manner of disease. Fortunately (dripping with sarcasm), this isn’t a problem for our dairy industry who is thrilled to fill our dairy and meat livestock full of antibiotics.

So, if they’re not eating grass, what are they eating? They are eating a largely grain diet, made up of corn solids (cobs, etc.), cheap, usually GMO soy, and other fillers. Fillers often include restaurant waste, expired or unfit processed junk food, animal blood or chicken manure.

The field of large dog-crates housing baby calves.

These are large issues, all of which I will write more about in the coming months. But back to this particular farm. Although they didn’t admit to including junk food (or chicken scratch) in their feed (some farmers are proud of this practice!), they did seem very proud of their supplement-laden, all-grain feed. They spoke unashamedly about how quickly (and often) they spot a sick cow, pull her out and drug her up, and get her back to the line as soon as possible. (No wonder this milk has to be pasteurized!) They spoke of how they whisk calves quickly from their mothers, feed even them pasteurized milk (If it weren’t so sad, wouldn’t that strike you as really funny?), and quickly wean them to an all-grain diet.

They also explained that there was purposefully no pasture or grassy areas. They need to control the cows diets, and “cows like grass too much.” Well, duh.

Yeah, this looks sanitary...

But the most upsetting part was this:

That is how all of the cows looked. About this, I couldn’t keep quiet. I asked the farmer why in the world they all looked so emaciated. She explained to me that that is the preferred way for Holsteins to look. She said they don’t want them carrying fat on their hips. Now, I am not a cow expert but I have researched this since getting home and can’t find a reference to any such thing. (If anyone has more info on this, please comment below.) In fact, every image I find of a Holstein is of a rounder, fuller cow (even the ones that did have a slight protruding hip bones).

Internet photo of a Holstein.

In fact, the only image I could find that looked anything like the farm cows we saw was a cow with Johne’s Disease!

After the trip, I asked my four year-old daughter how this farm was different from the farm from which we buy our meat and poultry. She said, “Well we got ice cream here.” 🙂 And that is true, after the tour they gave us a free ice-cream cup – which was purchased from a big-box store! On a DAIRY farm! But, anyway, moving on, I discussed with her the differences in how the two farms smelled, which one was prettier, whether the cows looked like they were doing what they wanted or whether they looked sad, and whether or not the cows looked healthy. I hope she left knowing that cows need grass and sun. I left knowing that I am making the right decision buying from a farmer who I know, with healthy, happy cows, who make clean, nutrient-dense real milk.

Further reading: An interview with a reformed confinement farmer!

Coming next week: A review of Kate Tietje’s e-book In the Kitchen: Real Food Basics, including a sneak peek at some of her recipes and a chance to win it for free! You don’t want to miss it!


7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Corrie on November 8, 2010 at 11:52 am

    you should send this post to that farm!


  2. Great read… interesting. I grew up on & around several farms… never saw this stuff going on; but then I was a child and wasn’t looking for it either. Great post.


    • Thanks, Matt! I think that farming – just like eating and cooking – has changed dramatically in the last two generations. The way we farm, eat and cook now looks almost nothing like how our grandparents did.


  3. Posted by Rachel on November 9, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    I think I would have been crying had I been there myself. (either that, or drawing large protest signs for the kids to carry…lol)


    • Maybe we should plan a kids’ protest field trip, lol. I think I will have to revisit with them the issue of the condition of the cows. I think that day I was just in shock, and trying to remember all the things they were saying without anything to write it down (excellent journalist, no?), and get my sly pictures, and make sure Abi was seeing it all, and marveling at how no one else was upset by any of it! (PS – I didn’t even touch on what they do with the manure (rather than the *crazy* idea of letting it fertilize the fields and let the chickens pick it for protein… Oh that’s right, this “farm” doesn’t want fields and their chickens are boxed up somewhere and don’t get any protein… Sigh…)


  4. Echoing what I feel about grass-fed beef. It’s SO important! Lucky for us, we have some actual GOOD beef providers here in Loudoun. It’s local, grass-fed, and hormone free. Poor cows, they would not need antibiotics all the time if they were fed what they are SUPPOSED to eat.


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