Commentary: Dairy sustainability made me rethink being vegan

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Editor's Note: The following article was written by Kayla Thomas, a Utah State University Dietetics Student, and posted on The Cow Locale, a blog defined to connect readers with local farmers and "offers a glimpse into what life is like on a Utah or Nevada dairy farm." Learn more.

My decision to become vegan was not taken lightly. It was after much soul searching and research that over two years ago I chose to vote with my fork for sustainable agriculture, health, and animal care. I am currently a dietetics student, finishing up school and preparing to take the dietetics exam. While I don’t preach veganism to my patients/clients, for the last two years, I have personally followed this lifestyle and made those choices.

But late last year, one of my internship rotations was with the Dairy Council of Utah/Nevada. While all of my rotations were wonderful, the Dairy Council was by far the most fun and creative. It was also the most influential to me personally. During my two-week stint, I had the opportunity to visit two dairy farms. Watching the process of milk production on a dairy farm was an eye-opening opportunity. I have seen many horror films depicting animal cruelty in ‘factory farms’ across the nation, and before my initial farm visit, I thought that the tour was set up well in advance in order to prepare the farmers to be on their best behavior and to sanitize the environment from their normal practices. When I left the farm that day, I was confused. This large dairy was a family run business, it didn’t seem like a “factory” at all. I was stunned by how easy-going the workers were and even more amazed as I watched the cows calmly go through their daily routine. This occasion of showing their livelihood to the public did not seem staged in the slightest. The second farm tour confirmed my suspicions. Dairy farming is a family affair.

I visited Bateman’s Mosida Farms, a 7,000 cow dairy in Utah owned and operated by 4 brothers and their father

Sustainable agriculture practices are deeply important to me and one of the primary reasons I chose a vegan lifestyle. In a lot of ways I wish we could go back to the days of small farms where the farm to fork principal works in everyone’s backyard, but in today’s world of 7 billion people (that is quickly growing!) we have a food security issue and need modern agriculture in order to produce enough food. Therefore, we must move forward with larger farms, and help fine-tune their processes to create a greener environment. I was under the impression that animal protein production was not very sustainable, but I had the opportunity to learn first-hand how the dairy industry is a leader in this area. Here are some of the things I learned:

  • Milk is a local food. From the time the cows’ milk is stored in a cooling tank, it is typically just 48-72 hours before it is on a shelf at your LOCAL grocery store.
  • Any type of energy waste is money lost on the farm and to the producers of dairy, every dollar counts to these families. Farming is a tough industry, one that is barely breaking even every year. Efficiency is essential and good business for dairy farmers. I witnessed farms using the natural heat from the milk to heat the milk parlor in order to create a warmer, comfortable environment for the cows during the cold winter months, and I heard about how water is recycled and used multiple times on the dairy for cleaning, cooling, irrigation…
  • When people would ask me why I was vegan, I would sometimes say I would rather feed humans than animals. By not consuming animal products, I felt I was taking a stand on world hunger. I worried about a large portion of our grain crop going to feed animals instead of humans. But on my tour I had the chance to learn more about what cows actually eat. Much of what goes into a cow’s 100lb per day food ration are actually byproducts that humans cannot ingest. Cows, due to their powerful stomachs, are able to produce nutrient dense milk by eating crops that would otherwise be useless to humans. This realization was my tipping point…thoughts of milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream started flooding my mind.

Animal care was another important motive for my choice to be vegan. While attending different dairy farms in Utah I was impressed at the still, quietness of the cows and calves. Could they possibly be content or even happy with their lives? If not, I was fooled.

After my rotation with the Dairy Council, my mind was consumed with thoughts making a big lifestyle change for me and becoming vegetarian.  At first, the thought of this transition frightened me. I do not view myself as an easily persuaded person nor one who makes rash decisions. Being vegan was a big part of my life. It ade me feel connected to nature, animals, and the Earth in a more personal way, but after viewing the amount of hard work and dedication that goes into dairy farming with clean, healthy practices and love for the animals, I had a new perspective that fundamentally challenged some of my core beliefs. No one likes to be told they were wrong, but by being open-minded I was able to learn and even change my dietary habits.

So about 3 weeks after my time with the Dairy Council and many hours of health related research on dairy, I bought my first yogurt in almost two years!

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WI  |  April, 23, 2014 at 10:56 PM

Kayla, if you're concerned about animal welfare, did you inquire what happens to the bull calves produced on this dairy farm? In almost all cases I've ever heard of, male calves are sold as meat, and female calves (assuming the herd is not at maximum capacity for the facility) are kept perpetually pregnant for milk, only to have their male calves and extra females calves sold as meat. Beyond that, the vast majority of dairy does not come from relatively sustainable family farms in the US. It comes from factory farms that often do mistreat animals and workers and exploit the environment. If you're concerned about the environment and did your research, you know the environmental damage from farming animal feed is still massive compared to what would be needed to feed humans. Even if animals eat a lot of agricultural waste, they also eat a lot of grain and hay grown specifically for them on land cleared for farming or on grass for land cleared for grazing. Either this is a propaganda piece, you knowledge was overridden by a single, pleasant real-world experience, or you haven't done any research besides visiting a dairy farm for two weeks in some time. Regardless, I wish you the best in your decision, and hope you continue to try to be aware and as sustainable and humane as you can be in your actions.

OH  |  April, 24, 2014 at 09:25 AM

Mel, either you are lying or you are grossly misinformed. I think it is both. Cows have a calf once a year. It is normal. If cows were loose in the wild they would have a calf once a year. Wild animals like horses, sheep, deer, etc have babies once a year of their own free will. There is no such thing as extra female calves being sold for meat. All females are needed. You say that farms "often" mistreat the animals. That is just not true. The more comfortable the cows are the more milk they make and more income is made for the owner. I don't understand why vegans need to lie to further their agenda. It just makes them look foolish and damages the possibility of getting anybody to listen to them.

montreal  |  April, 24, 2014 at 07:05 AM

Have you been paid by the dairy industry?

WI  |  April, 24, 2014 at 10:36 AM

Thanks ROn for the nice response to Mel. I completely agree with what Ron says. I have worked with Dairy Farms from all over the country of all sizes and management styles. No matter what size they are 10 cows or 10,000, cow comfort is a main priority. It is expensive to replace a cow so the best practice is to keep them healthy and fit and in production for as many years as you can. There is no incentive to abuse their animals. Yes there are always bad apples in any bushel, but we hope they are found and prosecuted as they give a bad name to all of the dairyman working hard every day to product safe and healthy dairy products to the market.

MO  |  April, 24, 2014 at 10:49 AM

Personally I don't care what anyone eats. If it makes you feel better (emotionally or physically) to be a vegan, then be a vegan. My only request of all people is that they educate themselves prior to speaking about a topic. A few months ago I had a meeting in a town that I am rarely in. I arrived a few minutes early so I stopped at a convenience store that I had never been into before to use the restrooms. I noticed that the floors were filthy, the place was clearly understaffed and the cashier was on the phone. My thoughts were as follows: What a horribly run business, this store will be closed in no time and I won’t be back. During my meeting I mentioned my experience at the store. That person was shocked. He said he knows the owner personally and could not believe what I was telling him. We had our meeting and I drove back home. A few days later I received a call from a man who introduced himself as the owner of the store that I had visited. He told me that he was sorry for the experience that I had and offered me a free coffee or fountain drink if I would come back again. I explained that I was rarely in that town but he was insistent. He made no excuses. He just told me to tell the cashier my name and my item would be free. I said thanks and we hung up. Curiosity finally got the best of me so the next time I was close I drove over and stopped in. The floors were clean, I was greeted by a young man who was mopping, there was plenty of staff and the cashier said hello to me (she was not on the phone). I took my fountain drink to the counter and mentioned my name. Within two seconds a man came out of the back office and I recognized him as the cashier that was on the phone the last time I was there. tbc...

MO  |  April, 24, 2014 at 10:51 AM

He introduced himself as the owner. We visited for a few minutes and he explained that he had a new staff. His manager of several years had conspired with the employees to steal from the store. The day I walked in was about three days after he had fired all of them and he was on the phone with technical support learning how to run the register. I thought I had learned a lesson. Since then, one early morning one of my favorite pet cows died of old age. We had spent way too much time and money on her trying to make her comfortable but her time had come. I carefully picked her up with the loader and was moving her from the barn when a car pulled up. It was one of my non-farming neighbors that rarely comes by. She just stopped by to tell us that there was a tree on the fence up the road. I didn’t explain what I was doing. I simply thanked her for stopping and got back to work. I wonder what she thinks of dairy farming. I may have learned a lesson at the store but I certainly did not apply what I had learned. There is so much information out there that is based on a lack of knowing the whole story. I do agree that there are and always will be people who are anti-ag. They are not the problem. People are constantly making decisions based on limited and/or false information. I often ask myself why on earth anyone would believe the notion that we want to mistreat our animals. Doesn’t common sense completely eliminate that as an option? But if that is the only information they are getting, after they hear it enough times and see enough pictures??? We as farmers have to start telling our story. We are often our own problem. It is very hard for me to talk to neighbors about the nuts and bolts of our business. tbs...

MO  |  April, 24, 2014 at 10:53 AM

I figure they don’t really care and I’m busy. But if we can put facts in their minds, maybe when they hear that crazy accusation they will have second thoughts before believing it.

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