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In my last blog, I wrote about why I choose raw milk and the history of why raw milk began to be pasteurized. This time I am going to go over the problems of the large scale dairy operations of today.
Most of the milk you see on the shelves at your local supermarket comes from cows raised in the large scale dairy operations, also called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) There are essentially cow warehousing facilities, crowding hundreds of cows together inside pens with little or no access to a pasture. There are two statistics I want you to keep in mind while reading this. First is that a cow's natural life expectancy is around 20 years or more but the average dairy cow in a CAFO only lives around 3-4 years. Another thing to note is that between 1950 and 2000 the number of dairy cows in the US has dropped by more than 50% yet the average annual milk yield has tripled. How has this been made possible?
The obvious thing about milk is that all mammals produce milk to provide for their young. This is no different in cows, for a cow to produce milk it must have recently given birth to a calf. Normally cows are pregnant for 9 months and then nurse their calves for around 7 months to a year. But since these cows are wanted to provide milk to the consumer instead of their young, their calves are taken away immediately after birth or the day after. Obviously, this causes the cows to be very upset and combined with the other problems inherent in the CAFO system leads to a very poor life for the dairy cow.
I think most people, at least here in my home state of Virginia have probably seen a cow pasture or two sometime in their lives. Cows left to pasture on a small family farm eat a diet of mostly grass. Cows have a very complex digestive system and that is what it is designed to eat. But since grass does not provide a very nutrient rich diet for the cow, it does not provide a high volume of milk. So in a CAFO cows are fed a diet of mostly corn or soy, which is very difficult for the cow to digest. Just look at the health of Americans, you'll easily see what happens when people eat food their body is not designed for so you can imagine what health problems this causes for the cows. Is it starting to make sense why dairy cows live only a quarter of their normal life expectancy?
Anyone who knows about the spread of disease is aware that a higher population density causes a higher risk for illness in humans. This is no different for cows. Some dairies house up 1,000 cows inside their "warehouses" or outside on a dry lot. Housing this many cows together into small spaces makes it very difficult to maintain sanitation. I don't think it's a secret that cows produce a large amount of excrement, and if you have 1,000 cows producing how ever many pound of poo that is a day, that is going to create a very large waste and sanitation problem.
Now, I want to go back to the question I asked at the beginning. How did milk yields triple when the number of cows declined? In 1994 the FDA (stay tuned, I'll be writing plenty about them in the future) approved the use of something called rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) to be used in the United States. In the normal nursing period of a cow it's milk production steadily increases until 70 days after the birth of the calf, and then it starts to decrease until it goes dry. The use of rBGH keeps the cow producing at peak levels after the 70 day drop off, which along with an unnatural diet is a factor in the average production of 100 pounds of milk per cow per day. A cow is designed to provide milk for it's calves, and 100 pounds of milk a day, is more than 10 times what a calf needs. Pushing the cows to produce so much milk causes them their bodies to become depleted of nutrients. Everyone knows milk is filled with calcium, well if a cow is producing 10 times more calcium rich milk than it is designed to produce, it would make sense that the cow's body is being depleted of calcium. This is why dairy cows' bones become frail and brittle causing them to fracture as they can no longer support the weight of the cow. Once a cow can no longer stand it is then worthless to the CAFOs and is slaughtered to make room for another cow.
Now, if you haven't started to wonder about whether or not it's healthy to drink milk from cows who are stuffed into unsanitary warehouses and filled with unnatural hormones, I don't know what more I can say. But I think I have at least made the case that the life of a dairy cow is a very sad and unhealthy life. I'm not asking you to start protesting or become an activist, although you are certainly welcome to do so. I am simply asking you to make a conscious decision about your food choices not just for your own health, but for the health of the animal producing it.