Understanding Dairy Misconceptions

Recently an activist video was posted to the MJDOA group page on Facebook asking for guidance to dispel common misinformation surrounding the dairy industry. The primary concerns raised in the video are the same ones raised by a majority of the public at state fairs. This interaction at the fairgrounds is typically their first and only interaction with the industry.

Here are the key points that are raised:

Down cows are tortured to get into a trailer: A down cow refers to a female cattle that cannot stand on her own, typically this occurs after calving. Most of the cause for down cows at a dairy is due to insufficient calcium levels because calcium is depleted both during the calving/contraction process as well as in producing milk for lactation immediately following calving. If low calcium levels are not caught early enough by a dairyman or their staff who can deliver a calcium and electrolyte supplement, then it becomes an emergency situation. In an emergency, such as a down cow, it is important to get them to a veterinarian who has a float tank. Float tanks are giant bath tubs in which the cow can be supported upright surrounded by water. These alleviate the body weight of a 1500+ pound cow from laying that body mass on 2 of her 4 legs for hours or days which could be more detrimental to her healing process, ligaments, muscles, and more. Sometimes to get a 1500+ pound animal from where she calved to a doctor, it requires some unsightly methods of moving them. The cow’s safety is taken into consideration during this process, as the action is being taken to get her the help she needs. Contrary to some misinformation, down cows cannot be slaughtered for meat. I think Dairy Carrie does an excellent job of explaining down cows here: http://dairycarrie.com/2013/12/09/cowabuse/

mastitisMastitis: Mastitis is a bacterial infection in the udder and was estimated by Dr. Ruegg and Dr. Reinemann at the University of Wisconsin, Madison to cost producers $1 billion annually. Despite some arguments that allowing the calf to nurse would minimize mastitis the argument does not take into account the functionality of a dairy cow’s body versus that of a beef cow, who are typically seen with their calf at their side. Holsteins, the black and white cows, can produce approximately 100 pounds of milk from 4 teats per day. With one calf, which is the typical number born to a cow, needing only about 20 pounds a day and usually preferring one or two teats over the others, mastitis1that leaves a lot of old milk sitting behind. Likewise, when a calf suckles it opens the teat cistern, an opening to the outside world that allows milk to flow out and bacteria to flow in. In a natural environment, this leaves the teat and internal environment of the udder open to external bacteria for the 20 minutes it takes the cow to naturally make a new plug. This is why dairymen utilize an iodine teat dip before the cows exit the parlor, it acts as an artificial plug until she can make hers naturally and keeps the internal environment safe.

In contrast, beef cows typically have their calf alongside them. They are bred for meat production so they produce substantially less milk to care for their young. Their udder is also held a lot closer to the body cavity. On Holsteins, and other dairy breeds, their milk production is so high they have a giant milk vein (shown in the black and white photo) that runs along their underbelly to their udder. This supplies a massive amount of blood to the udder, but also means that if a dairy cow gets an infection, such as mastitis, there is more opportunity of it going septic, spreading throughout the body and hurting other vital organs. In addition, mastitis if left untreated in any animal, or human, can harden that quadrant of the udder and remove it from production for the life of the cow. For all of these reasons cows are monitored and treated when they need it. Mastitis is not left untreated and a consumer will not drink “pus milk.”

beef cow
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But what about the somatic cell count isn’t that “pus”: “Somatic Cells are composed of white blood cells (WBC) and sloughed epithelial [skin] cells…in normal bovine milk from uninfected glands… the Somatic Cell Count is less than 200,000 cells/ml and many cows are less than 100,000 cells/ml…in infected glands an SCC is greater than 200,000 cell/ml…” (Ruegg, 2002) This means that in all milk samples there is a presence of somatic cells, not just with infection. While Dr. Ruegg suggested sampling each quarter for SCC to increase the accuracy of early signs of infection, the bulk testing is accurate enough for consumer safety and milk quality testing. Furthermore, there are natural rises and declines in SCC around the 100,000 cells/ml average throughout the bell curve of lactation. There are increases in SCC after calving while colostrum is being produced and towards the end of lactation. There can also be variance between dairies due to season or management.

Cows could live to 25+ without our intervention: Most cows are 10-13 years old when they pass and well taken care of throughout their productive life. Productive life tends to average around 7 years. It is hard on joints and bones to carry around 1500 pounds of body mass for 25 years. Similar to humans and menopause, productive life isn’t equal to our life span. While there have been many changes in the body type and function of cattle over the past century the likelihood of a cow living to 25 even in an open pasture is unlikely as terrain can be hard on feet and legs as well.

You can see their ribs, they must be underfed: Having less visible back fat is appropriate to dairy cows. Returning to discussion on their function and how their bodies are designed for high quantity milk production, they convert their feed energy into milk instead of storing it as back fat. Dairy cows are fed well balanced diets and plenty of it throughout the day. An example of how cattle adapt can be seen in a Holstein in the Midwest versus those in California. The Midwest dairy cows are in colder climates and tend to have a bit more back fat if they’re exposed to the weather. Additionally, if cows were underfed their body would retain energy from feed to protect the function of their vital organs and milk production would drastically decrease.

Artificial Insemination and Palpation: During artificial insemination the operator uses one hand palpated in the anus to “shake hands with the cervix.” When the operator can feel and hold the cervix in place they can more confidently place the straw for insemination through the vulva. Bulls on-site can create their own number of safety and containment issues for staff and cows including supporting the weight of a 1500+ pound bull during mounting annually, destruction of fences to get to cows or heifers in heat, and staff safety during breeding seasons. Artificial insemination allows less weight pressure on the body of cows, less concern for staff safety, and for dairymen to more accurately match a bull’s size and calving ease statistics to the cow or heifer. It also allows more access to higher quality genetics and stronger breeding plans throughout operation.

Only soy is fed to cows: Cows are fed a lot of byproducts including almond hulls, orange peels, some cookie byproducts, cotton seed, and much more. But let’s also not forget the roughages since they are ruminants, meaning they have 4 compartments to 1 stomach which allows them to digest plant materials. They get grass, alfalfa, and other greens to keep their rumen and internal bacteria going healthy and strong. Water use by cattle is usually grossly misrepresented as it usually is estimated over their lifetime (they live longer than a lot of other food animals), what they drink, and all the water used to make their feed. For example, if we look at the life cycle of a plant and multiply that throughout the life of a cow the water usage would look much larger.

Cattle eat grass, hay and other foods that people can't to make milk and beef.

Cattle eat grass, hay and other foods that people can’t to make milk and beef.

calfCalves are torn from their mothers at birth: It is easier and safer to separate cows and calves at birth. For the reasons I outlined above to keep mom and baby safe and disease free but also for the safety of workers. Cows bond by cleaning their young. If a calf is taken before that bond is created there is less stress to both. The calves are still given colostrum either from their own mom or other cows who had extra that was frozen. This is given for the first 24 hours while their gut is receptive to receiving the antibodies of colostrum. After that they are put on a milk
supplement until they are ready for solid foods. Like most babies they can’t just be born and eat solid foods. So they need milk to grow strong and healthy until they can. Most boys or Free Martin girls, female calves that are sterile because they were in utero with a twin boy calf, actually go to feedlots like beef calves do and are fed until they are about 1 ½ to 2 years old.

Related Articles:

  1. “Bovine Milk In Human Nutrition” by Haug, et al. http://lipidworld.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1476-511X-6-25
  2. “Milk Drug Residue Sampling Survey” by the FDA http://www.fda.gov/downloads/AnimalVeterinary/GuidanceComplianceEnforcement/ComplianceEnforcement/UCM435759.pdf
    Of over 1,900 milk samples taken from farms that had previously failed for antibiotic residue in the tissue of cattle slaughtered for meat only 15 confirmed samples were positive for antibiotics in the milk sample taken (0.78%). Personal Note: Not only are the FDA and dairies, that accept milk for processing and distribution, testing milk as it is delivered to bulk tanks, but the FDA is taking extra measures to ensure that farmer’s with issues in the past are increasing their methods for tracking withdrawal and eliminating antibiotic residue in consumer products.
  3. “Milk Quality and Mastitis Tests” by Dr. Ruegg and Dr. Reinemann http://milkquality.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/milk-quality-and-mastitis-diagnostic-tests.pdf
    This document not only reviews the various tests for somatic cell count and milk quality but also addresses testing for antibiotic residues in milk samples.
Alicia BosenkoAlicia Bosenko is a UC Davis Animal Science Alumni (2010) and a Master’s Candidate in Agribusiness at Cal Poly, SLO. Alicia grew up in a ranching family raising primarily sheep in Northern California and now resides in the Midwest. She was a member of the 2010 UC Davis Livestock Judging Team, organized the UC Davis Bovine Artificial Insemination Clinics, and was an employee of the UC Davis Livestock Nursery at the California State Fair for over 6 years. Additionally, Alicia has been a member of Young Cattlemen’s, Minnesota Agri-women’s, and the Cal Poly Agri-fair organizations in the past and continues to diversify her understanding of the agriculture industry.