Last weekend I was invited, along with my family, to tour Bakerview EcoDairy. I am always interested in learning more about where my food comes from, so I jumped at the chance. And what I saw while I was there has left me thinking a lot about agriculture in general, and dairy farms in particular.
The EcoDairy is a demonstration farm, which means its purpose is to teach the public about dairy farming. You can visit 7 days a week, all year round. Because it is open to the public, you know that the animals and the facilities are well cared-for. They also lay out the operation in such a way that it’s highly visible. I learned a lot about cows and dairy production during my tour. For instance, did you know that the average dairy cow produces around 30L or 8 gallons of milk a day? That puts lactating humans to shame.
Exterior of the EcoDairy
Bill Vanderkooi, who created the EcoDairy, has a background in animal science, specializing in dairy cattle nutrition and physiology. He grew up on a dairy farm, which is currently run by his brother. When he graduated, he wanted to use his knowledge to develop innovative nutritional solutions for dairy farmers. In the process, he created Vitala milk, which contains DHA Omega-3 and higher levels of CLA.
To achieve the DHA and CLA levels in the milk, the cows are fed a special diet. They receive a specific mix of grasses, silage and grain, as well as flax seed and small quantities of tuna oil. Bill is committed to feeding the cows food from natural sources, so they don’t receive any supplements or artificial chemicals. When I saw the cows eating, it all looked pretty hay-like to me, but I admit to feeling a little bit squeamish about the tuna oil. It doesn’t sound like something that cows evolved to eat. Bill did tell me that it is locally sourced and tested free of mercury and other contaminants, and that feeding cows animal meal has a long history and many scientists consider it to be good for them.
The cows eating their special diet
The cows live in an ‘indoor pasture’. It is a large open space, with big windows, lots of light, rubber floors and special ‘cow mattresses’. The 40 or so animals that are currently there are free to roam around the space as they please. There are temperature and humidity controls, and the cows have access to an automatic brush and a robotic milker, so they set their own eating, sleeping, grooming and milking schedule. Each cow has a transponder so that they can track her milking, but Bill told me that most cows choose to be milked 2-3 times a day. We saw a line-up at the milker while we were there.
One of the cows uses the automatic brush
While cows are being milked, the machine monitors their output specifically, checking flow rate, volume, temperature and white cell levels. This lets them know if a cow is sick, in which case her milk is dumped and she’s attended to. It also lets them know when her milk production is starting to slow. And over the course of a milking, it lets them know when she’s done. The robotic machine actually detaches from each teat individually when it stops flowing. This means that instead of just milking a cow for a specific amount of time at specific hours, they can really follow an individual cow’s pattern. As a nursing mama myself, I can appreciate that individuals vary.
The cows greeting Hannah. A few seconds after this photo, the one on the right licked me.
In order to keep the quantity and quality of the milk consistent, the cows are kept inside while they are producing milk. While the barn was very clean and lovely, it kind of upended my traditional view of what a dairy farm looks like. I grew up in dairy country, and I am accustomed to seeing a lot of cows out roaming pastures, at least over the summer. This is probably the thing that I wrestled with the most. I have no doubts that the cows are well cared-for, and that they have far more self-determination than the average cow. But would they be happier if they were outside? And does thinking of ‘happiness’ in human terms even make sense for a cow?
A video of our visit
The barn that the cows spend their days in is built do be as comfortable as possible. It’s also built to be environmentally friendly, too. They used recycled tires in the rubber floor and low-energy environmental controls and lighting. They have a green roof on one of their buildings, and collect rainwater off another. They are almost finished building an anaerobic digester, which will convert the cows’ waste into energy for the dairy and high-nutrient fertilizer. And they used pine beetle timber in their building, which is effectively salvaged wood.
I really believe that a lot of thought has gone into the EcoDairy and it was very educational for me to see it. It left me thinking a lot about farming and my pre-conceptions. That’s a good thing, I think. Knowing where your food comes from, and how the animals who produce it are treated, is important. And now I’d like to hear your thoughts. What do you think makes for a good dairy farm, or a good farm in general? What makes for a good quality of life for a cow? I’d love to hear!
PS – As you may know, I have started including a link-up with my monthly reviews. The reviews are an informal listing of a few things I learned in the past month. My July review will go live at 6am Pacific on Monday, August 2. If you want to play along, write a post on or before August 2, come here, and link up!