Visiting the EcoDairy

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
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.

Look, milk!

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 at Bakerview EcoDairy
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 checks out the automatic brush
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.

Hannah says hello
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!

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  1. Hillary Boucher says:

    Came out great Amber! We really liked the video.

  2. Mariah Wallener says:

    When talking about "happiness" and animals, Joel Salatin refers to the "pigness of the pig" or the "cowness of the cow". In other words, animals are "happy" if allowed to exhibit those natural behaviours that they are driven to perform (rooting if you are a pig, grazing if you are a cow, pecking/scratching if you are a chicken, etc). I think it's a handy way to look at animal welfare without anthropomorphizing animals. And thanks for this article, btw. Never heard of the place. Looks like a nice life for the cows though I still think outdoor settings are optimal. Lovely, clean facility too!

  3. “As a nursing mama myself, I can appreciate that individuals vary.” Love this line–hilarious!

    This was such an interesting post. It makes me want to go visit!
    Amy’s last post … just ONE thingMy Profile

  4. I feel like it is deja vu…this post seems so familiar…oh right! It was posted on Miss604 🙂

    Getting famous, one blog at a time
    Carrie’s last post … July- In reviewMy Profile

  5. I love your video of your visit! How cool! It looks like a wonderful place to visit! I want to go!
    Old School/New School Mom’s last post … Easy Playdough RecipeMy Profile

  6. Looks like a very impressive place to visit and I’m still reeling from learning about robotic milkers – three times a day milking is the gold standard in maximising milk yield per cow and boosting farm income. I do hope, though, the the cows in question also have access to a real live herdsman who understands machine milking and dairy cow health.

    My husband’s comment was that it seems a very good example of modern industrialised mechanised agriculture and hopefully is a standard to which modern agriculture is indeed moving. The cows look healthy and inquisitive. My own comments, touching on the ‘should cows be outside?’ question would be to point out that foot/hoof health is paramount in the dairy industry, and the surface on which they are standing does indeed look like concrete, an easy to clean barn flooring. Moreover, the lip design on each cow cubicle (designed to ease dung removal) can also aggravate hoof problems in individual cows – personally I do prefer to see cows lounging around outside unconstrained. I’ve seen some free range barn set ups which allow the cows to do this but they are prob not suitable for the cleanliness required for automated dairy unit.

    There’s also nothing more satisfying than hearing the ‘rip, rip’ of a cow munching thru pasture grass. Which brings me on to my point about inclusion of animal protein in a the diet of a herbivore. One of the original arguments justifying this was that herbivores are indiscriminate feeders and will undoubtedly take in animal proteins in the form of carcass decaying in the sward (pasture). Animal protein is included to boost the protein content of artificial diets thus maximising milk output and therefore profit. Eventually this led to the nationwide epidemic known as BSE in the UK which sadly moved into the human population and is the reason why I can never donate blood here in Canada.

    Still, it does look like an impressive venture and is a farm I would love to visit. Friendly cows are a delight to see and they do look ‘happy’. I’m just suspicious of the Eco tag and think that a certain amount of greenwashing is being applied.
    pomomama aka ebbandflo’s last post … friday forte- so whats the real reasonMy Profile

    • There is a real live herdsman. Thanks to the transponders, he can tell how often each cow is being milked, and tracks their output and milk quality. If any cows go too long he takes them. Also, apparently some cows constantly walk into the milker for the grain, and the gate just opens for them to pass through, so they’re not getting milked too frequently.

      As for the flooring, in the centre it did seem to be concrete, but it was rubber where the cows were mostly walking and standing. But I am not really qualified to evaluate the quality myself.

      I really appreciate your comments – thanks so much for weighing in! You obviously, with your background in veterinary medicine, know much more than I do.

      • thanks Amber. it is a great informative blog post and will be going into my list of ‘things to do with the wee guy’ – i think he and i will be fascinated. thanks for adding the additional to my queries.
        as part of my veterinary training i did have to work in a milking parlour, just the old fashioned manual type but it did accomplish a lot of what the computerised method is set up for. the in-line milk quality monitoring is a wonderful add-on and the individual teat-detach (!) truly futuristic (otherwise all four quarters had to milked for the same lengths of time). I noticed the logo “laval” in one of your pics – obviously dairy research is advancing a lot; this company was the premier when i was milking too.
        i think the indoor requirement has much to do with the engineered nature of the cow’s diet as it does with the mechanised milking. a human milker would be on hand to wipe off crud before attaching the milking cluster. not sure if this would be the case with auto machines.
        i’m definitely going to have to pay this a visit 🙂
        pomomama aka ebbandflo’s last post … so that was JulyMy Profile

  7. I’m very old fashion when it comes to food, and I don’t buy food that has things added to it at any stage of production. I like salt with no iodine, water with no fluoride and milk that has no omega3. But I like good milk, and love marinated tuna and sardines:)
    Francesca’s last post … Fridays Flowers caper blossomsMy Profile

    • Just to clarify – the Omega 3s aren’t added to the milk. The cows are fed flax seed and tuna oil, which in turn causes their milk to contain Omega 3s. But I honestly eat a fair bit of seafood, too, and prefer to get my own Omega 3s that way.

  8. I think it is really interesting the concept of thinking of happiness in human terms when considering a cow. It would be helpful if they could tell us how they feel about their situation. Until then I guess in my opinion the best we can do is go as natural as possible.
    Wendy Irene’s last post … More Thoughts on ShreddingMy Profile

  9. wow, fascinating! i don’t normally find cows that cute but i loved seeing the automatic brusher, it was… cute!

    and it’s so interesting how the milker tracks the output and detaches from each teat and all that technical stuff. amazing.

    the only down side is that i wish more dairies could have such a clean nice process. clearly these cows are very well cared for.
    the Grumbles’s last post … what do to when youre not going to blogherMy Profile

  10. How interesting to read Pomomama’s comment.

    I watched a documentary some time ago about dairy farming in the US and they had farms set up with the automatic milking machines and brushes but the cows were still all outside roaming the fields. When they wanted to be milked then went into a little milking house where the automatic milker was. According to the farmer on that documentary his cows liked to be milked an average of 5 times a day. Interesting that these ones go for 2-3 times. I am not a cow expert but I find that an interesting difference.

    I admit to feeling disappointed that an Eco-farm has cows indoors all the time. Yes the room is bright, but then looking up an animal in a bright box for life is still a box.

    This is where my admitted hypocrisy comes in when it comes to animals and the food I eat. My ideal is that all animals would be free-range laughing and skipping and having a wonderful carefree life until I came along and ate them. I know it’s not necessarily possible but it is my ideal. And then of course, in truth, I would prefer that I was vegan and didn’t use any animal product in my daily food – but really, I’ve tried it, and I’m not strong enough for that.
    Marilyn’s last post … Blogging All InMy Profile

  11. I grew up near a university with a large agriculture department, and I have vague memories of visiting the dairy as a child. It definitely wasn’t as cool as what you saw – the combination of automation and customization is interesting.
    Lady M’s last post … Non Sequitur Theatre AgainMy Profile

  12. We have a cheese factory on the coast here (the Tillamook Cheese Factory) where you can see cheese being made and you get to see the cows, although it’s more video of the milking that you get to see. Either way, I feel like it being open to the public at all makes the company more accountable and it definitely reinforces my brand loyalty.

    Like a few of the comments before me, I too am kind of hypocritical because I think cows are adorable and want them treated great… but I also have no intention to stop eating meat.
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  13. Very cool! That would be an interesting tour to take! I love any opportunity to get out and see where and how our food becomes, well….food! I bet your kids enjoyed the cows! We were at a friends farm yesterday for a big BBQ. They has horse rides ect. Yet liz was a little disappointed there wasn’t a cow for her to milk! Lol!
    Laura’s last post … Whats shaking in the Veggie gardenMy Profile

  14. While I’m impressed that the cows seem to be treated humanely, I do have to point out one thing; female cows only produce milk if they are pregnant or have recently given birth. That means the babies were pulled from their mothers to be imprisoned in crates and later sold as veal. Sad, but true.

    But at least this mechanized farm treats the mother more humanely than most.

  15. Neato. I just observed a cow getting milked by machine and then by hand at our local farm, which is operated as it was during the 1920s to the 50s. The cow really seemed to enjoy getting milked and so I asked the farmers whether she did in fact like it. They told me that it was part of her routine and that when they run a few minutes late getting her milked that she cries for them. I commented to my girlfriend that I could relate; I remember feeling engorged and needing to nurse my baby girl just a few years ago, 🙂 Anyway, did you ask the farmers something similar? I’ve read different things about the conditions for cows (and other animals on farms); mostly, the impression I get is that factory farms do not monitor the animals as closely nor are the animals treated very well but that smaller farms do treat their animals well . . . I’m just curious about this topic because of animal rights concerns and being a vegetarian . . .

    • The cows here set their pace being milked, and I asked if they all really do go to get milked on their own. And apparently they do. I saw them doing it, in fact. I share your perspective as a nursing mama – you want the relief!

      I know that this farm is definitely treating their cows very well. They have 40-50 animals, and they’re all monitored through their transponders. However, they also have people touring 7 days a week, so I would expect them to hold themselves to a very high standard.

      I will add that in Canada milk we have a milk board that ensures the price of milk is kept stable. Most dairy farms, as I understand it, are fairly profitable as a result. And so they are more slow to make changes. For instance, bovine growth hormone has never been used here.

  16. I grew up around dairies but this looks like an interesting one to to visit. Hope to make it to the lower mainland next year and it seem this would be a good visit for my continuing education.

  17. susie ;) says:

    I also wanted to ask about the ‘kindness’ involved in keeping a cow pg and taking her baby to satisfy our thirst for milk… I can’t see how this can be done humanely, even with the bristles…

  18. Fascinating and inspiring.

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