From Farm To Fridge: A Day With The Dairy Cows

As a mom, I always worry about making sure what my kids eat is as fresh and healthy as possible. I want as few additives as possible in their foods, and I don’t want to worry that something they eat or drink may not be safe for them. Of course we don’t allow artificial dyes due to Cordy’s sensitivity to them, but even foods that are natural still get my scrutiny.

Milk and cheese are a large part of my family’s diet. Aside from water (which is the preferred drink for just thirst), milk is one of the best options when my kids want something to drink: it’s filling thanks to natural protein and fats, it has no additives other than Vitamin D, and it provides calcium and vitamins to help them grow. Compared to juice, soda (which our kids don’t drink), or milk-like and juice-like drinks (which are really mostly sugar), milk really is the nutritional winner.

(Unless you’re allergic to milk. Then by all means ignore my praise of milk for your own diet.)

But even something as simple as milk isn’t without controversy. Antibiotics, hormones, animal treatment, organic vs. regular, alternative milks such as soy or almond…there’s a lot to know about milk. I’ll admit I’m not as well informed as I could be about how milk gets from the cow to the table.

When I think of dairy cows, I generally think of the stories from my mom and my grandmother and the farm my mom grew up on.

photos of my grandfather (who died just before I was born) and his cows
They had a small herd of Jersey dairy cows and my mother remembers having to help milk the cows every day. Back then, it was milking by hand – very time and labor intensive. They had their milk directly from the source, without any time or handling between cow and table. They didn’t have indoor plumbing, either, but that’s a story for another day.

Milking cows has come a long way since the early 1950′s, and I dare say it’s much safer for all involved, too. (The farmer, the cow, and the consumer.) Last month I was part of a small group of bloggers who visited two north-eastern Ohio dairy farms – one smaller, one larger – to see just what’s involved in getting the milk we pour on our cereal each morning, and I was honestly surprised how much I did not know about dairy farming in Ohio.

The first stop was Richman Farms, a family-owned dairy farm that milks 80 cows twice a day. They have three different types of dairy cows: Holsteins (the most popular nowadays), Brown Swiss, and Jerseys. Jerseys produce milk with a higher fat content, but they’re smaller cows, producing less milk overall, and so aren’t as popular.

Who can resist that sweet face?

Even for the smaller farmers, milking by hand isn’t done anymore. It’s too time consuming and there’s too great a risk of contamination. Instead, the cows go into a milking room, where their udders are cleaned (for your safety and to help prevent mastitis in the cow), and then the milking equipment is applied to their udders. All milk is sent through a closed system to a storage unit, never once touched by human hands. This farm sends all of its milk to Smith’s, a local milk producer.

The milking room – cows up high, people down below.

The milking machine monitors the amount of milk coming through the tube, and when the amount slows to a certain point, the machine disengages. (No sore udders here!)

I tried milking by hand, too – not as easy as you’d think!

After milking, the cows wander back out to the barn to eat. Each cow eats between 80-90 pounds of grass, alfalfa and grain each day, and drinks about a bathtub’s worth of water. That’s a lot of food, but any nursing mother would tell you that you need plenty of food and water to produce milk.

Richman Farms was a great introduction, and the cows looked pretty spoiled there. When the weather is warmer they open the sides of the barn to let in plenty of fresh air, and if it gets too warm they turn on fans to keep them cool. In the winter they close the sides of the barn to keep the cows warm and comfortable.

I wondered if a larger farm would have different standards for their animals. After all, 80 cows are pretty easy to spoil – but what about 1500 cows?

To answer that question, we traveled to Andreas Dairy Farm and met with Dan and his son, Matt. They’re co-owners of this long-held family farm, with 1500 Holstein cows and a staff of 35 people. I had no doubt that things would be done on a larger scale here, and I was right. Richman Farms had a milking room that could milk about four to six cows at a time. Andreas Farm can handle 40 at a time, and milked their cows three times a day, around the clock. Wow!

The cows moved in & out from the milking stalls in unison. It was like a choreographed bovine ballet.

But even with the difference in scale, the cows at this farm had much the same experience as the smaller farm cows. They had unlimited access to their food and water, and a huge barn with clean bedding and individual beds to lay down and rest. And when I say beds, I mean beds – there’s a padded bed under the straw to keep them comfortable.

Dan explained that no one wants a stressed out cow – she won’t produce as much milk if she’s under stress. (Moms who have breastfed can understand that concept.) Happy cows really do mean better milk, and the farmer do their best to make sure these cows are living the good life. “We take care of them so they’ll take care of us,” Dan told us.

This is the maternity ward – all of these cows were due to give birth very soon and so were watched closely in case they needed any help.

The Andreas Dairy Farm also grows a large portion of the feed for their cows. Both farms work with vets and nutritionists to provide their cows with the best nutrition possible.

Since the Andreas farm is so large, they also have a LOT of calves around to keep the milk flowing. The part that’s easy to forget is you have to have a calf in order to have a cow making milk. So what happens to those calves?

When a calf is born, it’s shortly taken from its mother (I know, sad!). The colostrum from those first few milkings is saved for the calf and other calves, and is not used in milk production for people.The calves are then moved to their own pens for a short while. This keeps them safe, and they’re hand-fed during that time.

She’s simply adorable.

Dairy cows are amazingly calm around people because they’ve been hand raised by humans since day one. After they spend some time growing in the pens, the female calves are moved to their own herd to begin socializing and continue growing until they’re ready to have their first calves at around two years old.

What happens to the boys? Well, they’re usually sold. Some go on into breeding programs, but many will become meat cows when they’re older.

So then came the heavy questions. First: what happens to a sick cow? Any cow who is sick is kept separate from the herd, treated by a vet and given antibiotics if needed. Any cow who receives antibiotics still has to be milked (any breastfeeding mother understands this principle also), but her milk is kept separate and not used. Her milk cannot be used for milk production again until it tests negative for any trace of antibiotics.

I didn’t realize that all milk, organic or not, is not allowed to have any trace of antibiotics in it – it’s the law. Farms routinely test their milk to make sure it’s safe. When a tanker comes to collect milk (and often collects milk from several farms), a sample is taken from the milk it collects. The milk is again tested at the receiving facility. If any trace of antibiotics is found, the entire tanker must be dumped, and the farm that was responsible for the contamination ends up paying for the entire tanker of milk. Good reason to not cut corners, right?

One of the holding tanks where milk is cooled, tested and waits for transport.

Another big question we raised was the use of rBST (a bovine hormone supplement) in milk production. Contrary to belief, this isn’t an additive to the milk itself, but a hormone given to cows to increase milk production. Many of us (myself included) had concerns about the use of it and asked each farmer their opinion.

Both stated they firmly believe there is no danger in using it, as studies have shown no increase in the hormone levels in milk. (For the record, all milk naturally has hormones in it. Also for the record, I don’t believe in the use of supplemental hormones.) But both also said they didn’t use it with their cows. Dan said he tried it at one time, but found it didn’t increase the milk production enough to be worth the use and cost, and he discontinued it.

The one aspect of visiting these farms that surprised me the most was the dedication of those who do it. You really have to love these cows to be a dairy farmer. It’s hard work, in all types of weather and all hours of the day. These families don’t drive fancy cars or have grand homes – they’re not getting rich at this. The wives have additional jobs to help support the family.

It’s a beautiful part of Ohio, but I couldn’t live out here and give up my 3G cell phone coverage.

Both farms explained that the wholesale price of milk hasn’t changed much in over 30 years, despite the need for upgrades in equipment, increased costs for feed and new standards of care. When they send a tanker of milk out, they won’t know the price they’ll receive until the end of the month – milk is a commodity. They have no control over the price, and because milk has a set shelf life they can’t hold it and wait for a better price to come along.

But they love what they do, they love their cows and they help provide the milk and cheese that many of us eat each day. I was genuinely touched by the level of care for these animals, and feel a new appreciation for the glass of milk I pour for my kids each meal.

Sure, feeding a calf is fun once or twice. But bottle feeding 50+ of them multiple times a day & caring for animals 24/7, even on holidays? That would be exhausting.

There’s so much more I learned from the farms, but there’s no way it would fit in a single post. If you have any questions about the dairy farms that I didn’t cover, let me know and I’ll happily share what I saw and learned. If it was something we didn’t cover, I can put you in touch with the Ohio Dairy Farmers group so they can provide more information.

Also, watch for part two of this experience – we visited a cheese maker and learned how cheese was made. I can even give you some amazing wine and cheese pairings!

Disclosure: The American Dairy Association Mideast provided all meals, accommodations, transportation and access to farms during my Ohio Dairy Adventure. They also willingly handed me a bottle of warm milk to bottle feed a calf, and then reminded me that zoning restrictions would likely not allow a calf in my backyard. That part was kind of a downer.

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  1. Just a quick question: it sounded like at both farms, the cows are in the barn 24/7? No free roaming time in the fields? Maybe it’s just my antiquated idea of dairy farming.

  2. I think a little more detail is in order on the rbst. We use the same technology in human medicine to use human insulin for diabetics instead of the beef or pork insulin that we used to have to use all the time. We CELEBRATE the use of this technology. Its time to quit listening to fear mongers and understand it is a way to have more sustainable dairies as we can increse the milk while using fewer resources which is ultimately what sustainable has to be.

  3. Only a small percent of dairies use it because it is more labor intensive and so it can add cost and increase income. There is no difference in the milk.

  4. To the first response- I don’t know on these two farms if grazing is part of the operation. There are good reasons why cows may be kept in a barn. We can produce more milk while using less land which is a big cost in some areas. We also have some dairies in America so far north that being outside is a risk to their lives with cold and snow.And, the cows don’t seem to care if they are grazing from a hay manager, beed bunk or feed tub. (I am a registered nurse and a dairy farmer)

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