Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ever wonder what a working dairy looks like?

On my vacation I drove from Washington state to Arizona, and I noticed something that I hadn't seen (or maybe hadn't noticed before:  The desert dairy. 

At first I thought that these operations were feedlots.  I'm going to qualify what I'm saying here.  I didn't talk to any of the farmers running these, and my commentary here is only my opinion, not neccesarily fact, or even true.  It's opinion.
The basic dairy is a permanently fenced lot, an acre or two in size, with several shade structures on it.  There's not a scrap of green on the ground; it appeared that the dirt was mostly cow manure, and that the yard was scraped down from time to time, generating piles of manure, that you can see at the top of the photo above. 
The cows appeared to be being fed grass and alfalfa hay.  I couldn't tell if they were getting some sort of prepared feed in addition.  This is a little different view than you'd get if you looked at the milk carton.  Usually they show a happy cow on grass, with a barn in the distance. 
Some of these dairies are small; 200-300 cows, some are very large.  Sometimes it appeared that the operation was very large (>1000 cows) but split into several units.  In these pictures you'll see a variety of dairy cow ages; some are currently being milked, some are replacement heifers.  I didn't see any steers; apparently they're elsewhere. 
There are green fields around the dairy; and the cows diet is at least partially forage. from my perspective, having a ruminant like a cow on a bare dirt for their entire life seems a little sad. 
General notes;  all of the animals seemed in very good condition.  The lot was dirt/manure, but the animals themselves were relatively clean.  The feed being offered appeared good quality.  Since they're feeding forage, I'd say that they can probably achieve a USDA organic label.   The farm itself appeared to be in good shape; things were neat and tidy. 

This particular operation was very big, and they'd arranged their hay bales so that it was hard to see over them.  I took most of these pictures from the shoulder of the interstate. 
in this picture you can see the next "unit" of dairy cows.  It was just as big as the one that was closer.  there was another one behind this one, and two more to the left and right.  I'd guess there were 3-4,000 cows total.  that's a lot of milk. 
There you have it.  Grass fed dairy cows.  I saw most of these farms in Utah and Nevada, with a couple in oregon and Arizona. 


Anonymous said...

Environmental rules have led to this.

Dairies and pig farms work better in arid climates. Rains washing manure where it shouldn't go isn't much of a problem when it rarely rains.

There used to be dairies in Florida, a lush place. Its a lot easier to keep the cows on something with some green in that environment. Yet the environmental rules have put most of them out of business, due to the expense of complying with new environmental regulations.

So blame the government, not the farmers who respond to economic incentives.

Dean Smith said...

On a recent trip home to Indiana, I visited Fair Oaks Farms, a CAFO dairy operation about 60 miles outside Chicago. Google it for more information. 19,000 acres, 28,000 cows. 10 separate dairy operations, all the same. They also have farm tours, a museum and a full service restaurant featuring dairy products. The cows are fed a ration consisting of about 40 percent fermented chopped corn along with other nutrients. They make no claim to being organic but they do claim to be antiobiotic-free. I took the tour (in a sealed bus to control people-borne diseases) and watched a calf being born. The cow gets to spend 1 hour with her calf before going back into milking.

The PR makes a big point about the cows being so happy, and the museum is in a red barn-shaped building. I've been around a lot of dairy cows in my life and I can tell you, "Those cows were not happy!"

At least the manure is collected and each 'farm' has an anaerobic digester producing electrical power for the farm. The farms are said to be 'family owned' by American families but I wondered whose family would treat their animals thusly. They barely have room to turn around.

Most of the cow food is produced locally and stored under tarps on a huge concrete pad next to the loafing sheds.

It seems to me that if we are taking something from an animal (in most cases, their life) we owe them something.

Anonymous said...

It's looks like a neat and tidy farm.

Anonymous said...

Reinforces my convictions that I would never want to operate a traditional or "normal" dairy. I wish I were a stronger person and could boycott all store bought dairy products. I think more folks should be aware that the line between organic and non-organic dairy products as well as produce and meat, doesn't say much for the quality of life the animals lived. Emily

Dean Smith said...

I read somewhere that the real cost of an egg produced from chickens raised the way my grandmother raised them would be $1.00. I wonder what a gallon of milk from a Jersey Cow raised the way my grandfather raised her would cost?

We've produced so many people on this Earth that we have to grow food industrially. Trouble is, the industrial way uses way more energy than is incident on the Earth. We won't have a steady state system on this planet until energy used equals energy input.

damae said...

Dean, with all due respect, I completely disagree with your statement that we have to grow food industrially. That's all propaganda to make us feel guilty. I have chickens that free range in my yard and there is no way it costs $12 per dozen eggs to feed them.
Take away govt regulation and restore true free enterprise and many folks would go back to farming and could even make a decent living at it.

Dean Smith said...

Dinkleberries, I'd agree with you except that we just don't have enough farmers to "go back." We need to increase the percentage of farmers several hundred-fold to do that. Where will those farmers come from and who will teach them? Not Monsanto or Archers Daniel Midland, I hope.