Inside the Milk Machine: How Modern Dairy Works

Photography by Ben Stechschulte

Milk has always stood for motherhood and for life. According to Greek mythology, the Milky Way was formed when Hera, the Greek goddess of marriage and womanhood, spilled milk while breast-feeding Heracles, known to the Romans as Hercules.

Milk myths didn’t stop with the Greeks, though. Ever since the first cow udders were yanked by human hands, the substance has invited inspection, suspicion, fear and desire. But these days, we milk drinkers are so disconnected from where our milk comes from that it could well originate in a vending machine. The typical dairy buyer lives in a city or a suburb, and likes to imagine that milk still comes from a small family farm with a red barn and cows grazing on a hill, where loving human hands squirt milk from the animals’ teats into a pail. This imagery is so historically pervasive that in 1935, a Los Angeles milk inspector initiated the Dairy Roadside Appearance Program, encouraging farmers to clean up their land, paint their barns and plant flowers to perpetuate this milking myth to urban milk buyers.

That vision, illusory even at the time, is now almost completely obsolete. Milk has become a global industry, produced at a scale that defies nature. While most American farms still have fewer than 100 cows, 86 percent of milk is produced on the 26 percent of farms that have more than 100 cows.

At one time, milk was one of the more natural processes in farming. 
A bull would impregnate a cow — an actual bull, before the age of artificial insemination . She was pregnant for 
nine months and then a baby cow 
was born.

From the calf’s birth to up to three months after it was weaned, the farmer would milk the excess dairy by hand, for drinking, butter and maybe cheese. That’s it. Until now.


Afterwards, from the calf’s birth to up to three months after it was weaned, the farmer would milk the excess dairy by hand, for drinking, butter and maybe cheese. That’s it.

Until now.

With the rise of factory farming, milk is now a most unnatural operation. The modern dairy farm can have hundreds, even thousands of cows. Today’s average dairy cow produces six to seven times as much milk as she did a century ago. Cows spend their lives being 
constantly impregnated in order to produce milk. Bulls can be difficult, so the majority of dairy cows are now artificially inseminated. Sex is a thing of the past. Antibiotics cure infections. Hormones have been designed to increase milk production. The cows 
are pushed hard for this production, and, after roughly three or four years, their production slackens and they are sold off for hamburger meat. Today, 
the United States is the largest producer of milk in the world, followed by India and China.

The animals spend their lives being fed in an indoor stall or a crowded feedlot. Each cow produces milk for as much as 305 days a year. One of the largest dairy farms in the world is under construction in Vietnam and is slated to hold 32,000 cows.

But does it have to be this way? As dairy farmers in the United States struggle to make a living, a new kind of operation has taken hold — one that puts animal welfare and small-scale operations at the heart of the business. It’s an experiment in progress, but during visits to a number of upstate New York operations, there were signs that this “new milk” could be a viable way forward. The lingering question is: Will consumers pay more to know where their milk comes from?

***

Milk has long been a source of controversy, both for its production and consumption. During the 1800s, poor sanitation in dairies led to outbreaks of milk-borne disease. French scientist Louis Pasteur demonstrated in 1862 that heating milk could eliminate the risk. Yet pasteurization was and, to some degree, is still controversial. Once milk is pasteurized it is considered no longer “a natural product” like raw milk. In the 1890s a doctor named Henry Coit established a board of physicians, called the Medical Milk Commission, to certify the safety of a farm’s milk. Certification brought a higher retail price that few customers were willing or able to pay.

And so in the mid-20th century dairy farming underwent a major change. The federal government fixed a minimum price for Grade A liquid milk, milk for drinking. The price dropped. Farmers had to produce more. To produce more, cows needed to eat more protein, which meant farmers bought high-protein grains, such as soy and grasses like alfalfa. Many dairy farmers were also grain farmers, but soon it became difficult to produce enough to sustain their cows, and they became grain purchasers. Unfortunately, the prices for grain and fuel went even higher, while milk was fixed at a low price. This made it harder, bordering on impossible, to make a profit on milk.

As industrial agriculture evolved, the dairy industry became dominated by the huge operations that provide milk for families all over the country. With the pressure to produce more milk came more selective breeding of livestock, and, by the 1980s, the dairy industry was dominated by corn-fed Holstein cows. The Holstein, a large, usually black-and-white Dutch cow, prospered on grain and produced tremendous quantities of milk. No longer using the time-consuming grazing process, grain-fed cows could be kept indoors. Scientists began reading the coding sequences in DNA and selecting the specific genes that farmers favored. Selective breeding led to cows with a particular shape of leg, a high udder, a high fertility rate and strong milk production.

Dan Osofsky prepares a cow’s udder for the milking device (in his hand). He is cleaning her teats with a solution containing iodine, a disinfectant.
Cows coming home after spending the morning outside.
Ronny and his son, Dan, stand outside the milking parlor with a particularly docile cow. Ronny, the farm’s namesake, still runs operations. Dan can usually be found closer to the ground, kneeling and milking the cows. Still, Ronny is no slouch: He spends his days roaming the grounds, supervising all the moving parts of the farm that he founded.
One of the farm’s workers loading milk bottles onto a truck. From dawn till dusk, the milk production and the shipping and receiving operations are working in parallel.

    Today’s Holstein cow is a product of human engineering, as people have altered its genome by 22 percent over the past 40 years.

    ***

    With milk prices artificially low, small farmers must either become large and industrial or produce a “special,” more expensive milk.

    The Ooms have 450 large Holstein cows on 1,500 acres in New York’s Hudson Valley. The farm is neither tidy nor picturesque but worked hard and profitably. Of the eight people working the farm full-time, five are family. Since the 16th century in Holland, the Ooms have been dairy farmers. They have few vacations, and usually see only one day off every three weeks. No one can say what the Oomses’ milk tastes like because it is sold at a fixed minimum price to a cooperative, where it is then mixed in large tanks with other milks — much of it used for Vermont’s famous Cabot cheese.

    Their cows only occasionally graze. They are fed the corn and alfalfa grown on the farm, which frees the farm 
from paying grain prices. The Ooms feel pressure to be big, which changes 
their operation. Eric Oom, a heavyset man with close-cropped strawberry-blond hair, whose father, Adrianus, began the farm, finds keeping track of nutrients a drag. “If you let cows graze, you are not sure how much they are eating. If you stall-feed them you know exactly,” he says. In the barns, cows have a place to eat and a place to sleep. Eric dreams of being more industrial. He would like to get an expensive robot that can milk 65 cows at once and is programmed to know the udder shape of each animal.

    ‘Maybe someday we will get into local bottling, cheesemaking and yogurt, but it won’t be me. Maybe our kids will do it.’

    But he also realizes that there is a movement toward more artisanal dairies. “Maybe someday we will get into local bottling, cheesemaking and yogurt, but it won’t be me. Maybe our kids will do it.”

    Not all farmers can make conventional farming work. In 1998, Cory Upson ran a conventional dairy in upstate New York, with 55 Holsteins producing Grade A milk at the low minimum price (which, at the time, dipped to under $10 per hundredweight, 11.6 gallons). He became an organic dairy farmer with a straightforward reason for switching from conventional to organic: “We didn’t make any money.” At the time, he had mostly Holsteins but noticed that his two Dutch Belted cows prospered without grains that the Holsteins seemed to need. So he gradually switched to a herd of 23 Dutch Belted cows, which are entirely fed on grass. Today, they graze on the hills of his Belted Rose Farm near Cooperstown, New York.

    “To make more money,” he explains, “you increase revenue or reduce expenses.” He radically reduced his operating costs by becoming an organic farmer. He no longer buys grain and is training horses to replace tractors, which will reduce equipment and fuel expenses. He now has less than half as many cows and his cows produce less than half as much milk. But organic milk is priced on the assumption that people will pay more for it — he sells his milk to Horizon, the largest-selling organic milk brand in America, for roughly $33 a hundredweight. “I’m not getting rich, but we can pay our bills now,” he says.

    To Upson and many of the “new” dairy farmers, the key is sustainability. It’s an old idea, but after a century of industrialization, it’s reemerging as a new concept: The farm must produce what it needs and not buy it from industry. One of the world’s leading sustainable farming proponents is Patrick Holden. His farm, Bwlchwernen Fawr, just celebrated its 40th anniversary, making it the longest-established organic dairy farm in Wales. “An industrial farm is like an airport,” he says, explaining that animals are processing anonymous foodstuffs from all over the planet — which then, of course, go right into human diets.

    Holden currently buys some oats and peas to supplement the grass, clover and grains he grows. This makes his farm about 70 percent sustainable, but he’s working toward a target of 
100 percent.

    In the milk business, popular perception is more important than science. Will consumers pay for organic milk? The answer seems to be yes.

    He maintains that the low price of industrial milk is an illusion. When the cost to the environment and health is factored in, he insists, cheap milk isn’t cheaper at all. Large industrial farms pollute the area with too much manure from too many cows. Something as simple as cows farting, when multiplied by thousands of cows, becomes a significant cause of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Holden believes that people — especially city people — are beginning to see what is wrong with large farms: “They sell the product cheap and try to make it look like a farm-fresh product,” he says. “Everybody has been sleeping the past 60 years. Now they are waking up.”

    Holden isn’t alone in his concern about the unsustainability of factory farming: Consumers now demand more options. Dairies came late to the organic food movement in America, but once organic milk hit the market, it sold faster than any other organic food. People wanted to know that their milk was produced with special care. In order for milk to get organic certification, the cows producing it could not be treated with hormones or antibiotics, nor could they be fed grains from genetically modified crops. Consumers also objected to the use of hormones, although farmers themselves curtailed their usage because promises of increased milk production turned out to be exaggerated.

    In the milk business, popular perception is more important than science. Will consumers pay for organic milk? The answer seems to be yes. In 1999, sales hit roughly $75 million in the U.S. Now, organic milk and cream bring in some $2.5 billion per year.

    But milk lovers might be surprised by exactly what “organic” dairy entails. Horizon — one of just a handful of companies that dominate the organic milk market — buys its milk from over 600 organic farms around the country, including Upson’s Belted Rose Farm. Horizon milk, originating at large and small farms, is mixed in tanks and packaged as Horizon. Large national companies may not be what enthusiasts of the organic food movement had in mind, considering that the organic movement is tied to the locavore movement and the belief that quality food comes from small local farms who know their customers.

    A driver checking out one of his drinkable yogurt orders. In the winter, when it’s cold, the drivers fulfill their orders themselves in the warehouse.
    Bottling drinkable yogurt. Ronnybrook’s products, which include milk, butter, yogurt, drinkable yogurt, crème fraîche and ice cream, are available in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey. No home delivery is available. For all products but ice cream, all the production and packaging is done at the farm — the milk parlor and the packaging fulfillment areas are only separated by a small road.
    Workers prepare the milk and yogurt culture solution for placement in a large incubator.
    A farmhand spends a moment with the calves after they have been cleaned and fed. The calves are quarantined in their own area and moved from various pens as they get older. The animals’ birthdays and mothers’ names are recorded on yellow ID tags, which are put on calves soon after birth and stay on their entire lives.

      For savvy food consumers, going “beyond organic” is the next step in understanding food sourcing, and animal rights are among the biggest issues. Most farmers respect cows as the source of their income and often feel affection for them. The problem is that harsh treatment has become an inherent part of dairy farming, but a cow should not be driven so hard that after three or four years she is only good for hamburger meat. Cows that aren’t allowed to graze outdoors are not being treated kindly. In fact, Sweden passed a law requiring farms to let cows graze.

      A newborn calf is separated from its mother within days, if not hours. It’s an uncomfortable fact that some cows are in visible emotional distress when separated from their calves so soon after birth. According to some farmers, the mothers moan with big, sad eyes, sometimes for days. (Although some dairy producers claim that not all cows are natural mothers. According to Ronny Osofsky of Ronnybrook Farm, one of the most sustainable milk and yogurt producers in upstate New York, some cows are maternal and some are not. “Some cows feel maternal to every calf they see,” he says.)
      The economic reality is that if a calf was free to suckle on her mother for a few months, as nature intended, the cow could well be happier and the calf healthier, but most farmers would lose what little profit there was from their farms. For the cow, a high percentage of milk production comes from this period.

      He doesn’t allow any artificial hormones, though he isn’t convinced that they are harmful. He’s also not convinced that they’re helpful. But the bottom line is that his customers don’t like them, so he doesn’t use them.

      Many farmers do what they can to treat their cows well. Some have experimented with playing their animals music; others name them. (A number of studies indicate that cows have a preference for classical music.) At Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent, New York, musicians are invited to sing Christmas carols to the cows every year, which is more of a Christmas celebration than a lot of working farmers get.

      ***

      Dan Gibson, a former New York City business executive, wanted to start a different kind of farm. In 2002, he bought a 450-acre dairy farm in the Hudson Valley. At first, he let the occupant continue his dairy. “I realized I hated the dairy business, kicking calves to the curb to get milk,” Gibson says. He knew that milk produced in a different way would have to be more expensive but believed people back in New York City would be willing to pay for a better, more humane product. He would have an “animal-friendly farm.”

      “People want this really badly,” he says. “I learned in marketing that to sell something you have to make it different, better and special,” he explains. “I produce pure Jersey, grass-fed, Animal Welfare Approved milk.”

      The AWA label, started in 2006 and now recognized by the USDA, is intended to assure consumers that meat and dairy products are produced on farms that are kind to animals. The animals must be grazed and grass-fed and have practices that minimize environmental impact. Not all AWA farms can be organic because one of the requirements is that sick animals receive antibiotics when needed, while organic rules prohibit antibiotic use. On Dan Gibson’s farm, newborn calves stay with their mothers for months. The emphasis is on quality: Ooms produces as much milk from two of his large Holsteins as Gibson can with his herd of 50 small brown Jersey cows (13 of which are being milked). Jerseys, an old English breed, are rich in butterfat, and one half-gallon glass bottle of Gibson’s milk sells for $7.

      Can this sustain a business? Gibson believes so, though he has only been producing milk for two years, making it too soon to know for certain.

      In between the extreme of Gibson’s animal-centered dairy and larger high-volume organics, Ronnybrook is a farm that has found a healthy compromise. Ronny Osofsky, who owns the farm with his brother, Rick, prides himself on being good to his animals. “I treat them gently,” Osofsky says. “Cows are like dogs. If you are nice to them, they are nice to you.” When not out grazing, his cows sleep in the barn, where they have rubber-covered foam mattresses. He feeds them mostly grass but some grain. They are Holsteins and seem to require only a little grain to be productive.

      He doesn’t allow any artificial hormones, though he isn’t convinced that they are harmful. He’s also not convinced that they’re helpful. But the bottom line is that his customers don’t like them, so he doesn’t use them.

      Osofsky believes that it would be extremely difficult to maintain his standards if the farm were to grow bigger, so instead he found farms in the area that would agree to work in the same ways and sell him their milk. This means that Ronnybrook might have customers who think they know exactly where their milk is coming from, but in actuality, might not.

      Still, they are paying for quality. “The truth about dairy prices,” he says, “is that if the price is low you have to sell a lot, and if the price is high you have to sell a lot while the price is high.” The trick is always to find a formula that works, and a customer who pays.

      Inside the Milk Machine: How Modern Dairy Works