5 Dirty Secrets of the Dairy Industry

The sobering truth about factory dairy farms—and three ways you can make cows happier.
These cows want you to know what's happening behind closed barn doors. (Photo: Keith Ringland/Getty Images)
Apr 12, 2012
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Anyone who's kept a finger on the pulse of the food movement has heard of factory farms. And for those who haven't, the term itself is pretty easy to grasp: Essentially, in the early-to-mid 20th century, farms began operating like factories, prizing the most efficient and highest-profit tactics to boost the bottom line.

Trouble is, farms aren't like a lot of other industries. They deal with animals, not products. Animals, to many factory farm owners, are simply commodities. Which means that whenever you buy milk from a corporate farming operation, you're supporting the status quo. And though many of us like to picture dairy farms as places where happy cows wander around bucolic landscapes, the truth is a bit more sobering.

Here are five things you might not know about dairy factory farms. But don't be discouraged! We've got three easy ways for you to change things for the better.

1. Factories are only inspected once every 10 years.

Strapped for cash and tasked with the responsibility of regulating nearly everything Americans eat except meat and poultry, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't have the dough or the bandwidth to do its job. In March, Dina ElBoghdady of The Washington Post reported that the FDA inspects the facilities it oversees about once every 10 years. Though Congress has ordered the FDA to up its game, enough funds haven't followed to foot the bill. Instead, the bulk of the FDA's focus (and money) goes to dealing with outbreaks after they occur.

2. Infection is rampant.

Milk's not the only byproduct of dairy farms; infection is too. In fact, nearly half of all dairy cows experience bacterial udder infections, known as mastitis, because of unsanitary living spaces and poor hygiene. The infection, which can be fatal, is hard on cows. It also reduces the milk's nutritional value; cows with mastitis produce milk that is lower in potassium, lactoferrin, and casein (the major protein in milk). 

3. Dairy cows have their horns removed.

One of the most crucial components of an efficient factory farm is maximizing space. For dairy cows, that means horns—which could injure the animals in confined spaces—have to go. The process, however, is not easy. If cows are young, a hot iron is used to cauterize emerging horns, while farmers use saws or large metal clipping tools to cut the horns off adults. Neither process typically involves anesthesia. Even though most of the beef industry has transitioned to breeding hornless cows, the dairy industry has yet to follow suit. According to a 2010 ABC News report, nine out of 10 farms practice dehorning.

4. Most milk comes from huge conglomerates.

Despite the green pastures that Big Ag likes to put on its packaging, the reality is quite different. According to Sustainable Table, two percent of livestock farms now raise 40 percent of all animals in the U.S. That makes it hard for small farm farmers to thrive, and makes it easy for Big Ag to have a monopoly—and the kind of power that makes it hard to take them down.

5. Conditions on dairy farms reduce cows' life expectancy by 75 percent.

Domestic cows have an average life cycle of 20 years. Cows used on dairy factory farms, however, become exhausted very quickly. The average dairy cow lives for about four to five years before its becomes useless to the dairy industry and is sent to slaughter.

So what can you do?

If you love milk and want to do right by the cows, there are simple ways to take action.

Buy Local: You can get your milk from a local farmer whose practices you support. Responsible farmers should be able to tell you what their cows eat, how they're treated, and whether they are subjected to dehorning. Or, use the Eat Well Guide to find sustainably sourced food near you.

Opt Out: One of the best ways to combat practices you don't support is to vote with your dollars. Opting out from dairy altogether is one option. You can switch to soy, almond, or rice milk instead of cow milk, and choose non-dairy alternatives for cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products.

Help Small Famers: As Food&Water Watch puts it, good food starts with a fair Farm Bill. Help small farm farmers get the support they need from the federal government. With a fair farm bill, we can break down Big Ag monopolies. Sign FWW's petition here

Do cows matter in your household? How do you get your milk mustache ethically? Tell us!

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