A vegan and a dairy veterinarian walk into a barn

Readers, I am very excited to be bringing you this collaborative post. To give you some background, it has become more important to me lately to address my biases in dialogues surrounding food and try to be open to multiple perspectives. It occurred to me that I have been writing and preaching about what agricultural practices are better for the environment—namely, limiting animal agriculture—without ever having grown or raised anything myself, which didn’t sit well with me. And, like most of us, I tend to seek out food media with which I already agree, consciously or subconsciously. I wanted to consult someone with a different point of view, and I knew just the right person. A friend of mine from college is an aspiring dairy veterinarian, now in her first year of vet school. She’s grown up in agriculture her whole life, and worked for a long time on a dairy farm before college. She is concerned about animal welfare as much or more than any vegan I know; I was just telling her that I would never dare deny how much she cares about her cows. I had never before talked to her about my views on animal agriculture, but when I hesitantly approached her about interviewing her for my blog, I was happy to find that she was eager to share her side of the story to an unconventional audience, and she enlisted her friend, a dairy nutritionist, to bring even more expertise to the task. Their study and careers are as much based on scientific evidence as mine, which can be much more controversial than you would hope. But I am coming to believe more and more that progress in the food system will only happen if we all start listening to each other, particularly farmers and health/sustainability advocates. The answers my friend and her colleague gave to my questions were incredibly thorough, so I warn you that this post is quite a bit longer than usual. They gave me a run for my money, especially during the remarkably level-headed conversation I had with my friend afterward, which I think I will have to write a follow-up post about. I don’t think that I’ll be returning to yogurt anytime soon, but I definitely have a lot to think about, and I hope you will too.

I think many people have a perception that cows in so-called factory farms (would you call them CAFOs?) live in an overcrowded, “unnatural” living situation. In your experience, what is the usual living arrangement, so to speak, for cows on industrial dairy farms? What practices are different between grain-fed vs. grass-fed cattle? Do you think the typical set-up and diet generally promotes the health of the animals?

First, CAFO stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. This just means that there are a specific number of animals on that particular site. For dairy cattle, anything with under 200 head is defined as an AFO. From 200 to 500 is a medium CAFO and above 500 is a large CAFO. These designations simply define the operation and there are slightly different regulations for each one. The regulations are in place to ensure good animal practices and proper steps taken towards being stewards for the environment. They are extensive and farmers are inspected at least yearly to ensure that they are up to code. While a consumer may think a dairy farm smells, the farmer is guaranteed to be taking care of his farm and property. Anyone who ships milk (exception here would be some Amish and Mennonite farms) are compliant with the regulations.

The typical living arrangement for most dairy farms is a large pen or dirt lot, depending on location, where the cows are free to move around, sleep, eat, drink, and socialize. Typically, two or three times a day the lactating cows are moved the milking parlor where they are milk. There is extensive research and there are very good practices in place to ensure cow comfort and promote health and production. The farmer is not alone in ensuring this. The veterinarian and nutritionist for the farm are often there to offer advice and expertise.

The difference between a grain-fed vs. grass-fed depends on the operations. Conventional dairy farms are typically fed a diet that is 50-70% forage, meaning corn silage, hay, haylage, or whatever forages are grown in the area. In California you will see more sorghum and dry hay, in Wisconsin you will see more corn silage and haylage. A grass-fed herd means the cows are free to graze in a pasture. To be labeled as organic, the cow’s diet must be 70% grazing. Grass-fed does not have a set level of grazing. Some herds may let the cows out to pasture at night in the summer to take advantage of the cooler temperatures and some may be out to pasture all day. There are advantages and disadvantages to both grain-fed and grass-fed. Most larger operations are grain-fed because the farmer is better able to control the cows’ environment to keep them all dry and comfortable. They are also able to collect the cows’ excrement better in a barn and dispose of it in a more environmentally safe method. Both set ups are safe for the cattle and promote good health. It mostly depends on location, size, climate, and management to determine the best method for each operation. Typically, contained and grain-fed leads to the best environmental stewardship and the cows are able to spend more time lying and sleeping rather than foraging for their food.

One of the reasons the industry has moved to these styles of stewardship is welfare. We have a greater ability to ensure all the animals basic needs are being met, and we have the resources to make changes as we learn more and more about the animals we love.

There is a growing movement of people concerned about the sustainability of animal agriculture, beef and dairy in particular. Do you have any concerns about sustainability in dairy and/or beef production and how do you think they can be addressed? 

Cows are the ultimate recycler. While they do drink more water and their food sources take up land and water as well, they are using grains that are not usable by humans. They can also take non-protein nitrogen and turn it into protein that we can then use. It’s pretty remarkable. They also take a lot of our byproducts and turn them into milk and beef, items we can use. In California a lot of dairies feed byproducts from almonds, carrots, citrus, soybeans and many more from all the different industries there. The waste that humans can’t use from the foods we grow can be fed to cows and they in turn give milk and meat. Cows’ milk is also the most nutrient dense liquid and compared to other nutritious drinks like soy drink, orange juice, or even wine, it has a much smaller environmental foot print. There is still ongoing research on what more farmers can do to be even more environmentally friendly. For example, some farms are recycling the cow’s manure into a dried bedding that they can use for the cows again. There is actually a lot of really cool technology and research that is in operation daily on these farms!

Could you describe what scenario or reasons would prompt a livestock vet to prescribe antibiotics? From your perspective, does the extent of antibiotic use in animal agriculture present any dangers to humans? 

In regards to antibiotics, think about when a physician prescribes you antibiotics. A pathogenic microbe has flourished in one of your body systems, to the point where you are ill. While we can do a lot to help our bodies fight off these ‘bugs’ (drink those fluids!), these illnesses can become very serious and potentially fatal, and we don’t want it to get to this point. So, once you finally feel yucky enough to go to the physician and they run their diagnostics, they prescribe you an antibiotic that’s going to kill off that bug before the illness gets serious, and so you’re not suffering for too much longer. The same principle applies to animals, and since most of my experience is with dairy cattle, I’ll put it in cow terms. Cows are prey animals, which means they are going to hide any illness or injury for as long as possible to not appear weak to observing predators. So by the time she’s showing clinical signs, she’s really feeling bad (like you finally deciding you feel crappy enough to go to a physician). This is the point where I start worrying about animal suffering. And as herd animals, cows are housed together. When you get sick, all the sudden your whole family is sick. And all the students at a school or university all manage to be sick at the same time, because we all give our bugs to each other. The same thing can happen in any barn, no matter the size. So we’re also concerned about the health and happiness of the rest of the herd. Therefore the usual course of action is to try and figure out what it is , and give our sick cow antibiotics to help her immune system fight whats making her sick and keep it from spreading. One thing to remember is that antibiotics are expensive; we just can’t afford to use them without real purpose. Not giving an animal antibiotics when she needs them is against animal welfare. Too much talk about antibiotics is occurring without thought to the impact on the animal.

There are a lot of numbers thrown around when we talk about antibiotics and antibiotic resistance. There are a few things we have to think about when we looks at these numbers.

1)         They are extrapolations. These numbers are based off of the amount of antibiotics sold. Even in human hospitals, antibiotic use is not well documented. We cannot know whats being used, human or animal, unless we’re tracking it (which is a challenge).

2)        There are WAY more animals than humans. So theres going to be more sick animals. And some of these sick animals are pretty big. Like, 1500lbs big. So that animal (your average Holstein cow) is going to need a larger dose than a 150lbs human. When you factor in the 10x difference in weight and apply it to the almost 90 million cows currently in the US, that’s a lot of animal. And that’s only cattle! This has an effect on that number of antibiotics sold.

3)         We also need to think about density. Theres a reason why hospitals are the biggest producers of antibiotic resistant bacteria; there are a lot of sick people who need antibiotics all in one place.

Antibiotic resistance will be a concern as long as antibiotics are being used ANYWHERE; that’s just how it works. Do we need to be conscientious? Absolutely. Producers are already using less antibiotics (particularly the ones that people often call ‘growth enhancing’) because of better management of our animals through agricultural research. But I don’t consider antibiotic use in animal agriculture the biggest threat to humans by way of resistance by far, despite the scary and misleading, questionably accurate numbers.

Antibiotics in animal products, I’ll cut to the chase; they aren’t there. The products of animals given antibiotics (meat, milk) cannot enter the consumer market within a certain time frame, until the antibiotics have been processed and broken down. There’s a lot that goes into these ‘withdrawal times’, so your steak does not come with a side of penicillin.(we could do a whole blog about antibiotics alone, this is me trying to condense, ha)

In your experience, how do dairy farmers dispose of the cows’ waste? Do you believe there is any room for improvement in this area? 

The excrement in collected typically. In a tie-stall it is in gutter that run out to a pit that is emptied and used as fertilizer at least once a year. In free-stalls there are a couple different ways for it to be collected but it is usually used the same way. Some farms recycle it into bedding solids. Most is used as fertilizer, recycling the nutrients back into the soil to be used by crops.

Are there any common misconceptions that you want to address that you haven’t already?

That animal agriculture is inherently cruel. One of the things we have to remember is that a suffering animal does not produce, whether its milk, meat, you name it. Therefore it is not only emotionally and ethically desirable for us to care for our animals to the best of our abilities, but economically desirable. So it isn’t profitable to be cruel, which I think is the general assumption. Happy cows means happy people means happy business which then in turn leads to the cash flow to keep those cows happy. It’s all circular.

I worry that there is a divide between health/sustainability advocates and farmers. I would think that if/when there are problems in our food system, the best solutions would come from cooperation between all stakeholders. Do you have any ideas about how we can bridge this gap? What do you think is the best way for the public to get accurate information about where their food comes from? 

Farmers are huge proponents of sustainability and health. What they are producing goes on their own dinner table.. I think one of our divides is assuming farmers aren’t concerned. We have to stop pointing fingers and spreading false information on the media. It’s almost daily that I see false information about agriculture spread on facebook. That scares me. I don’t think people outside the industry see all the work that is actively happening to improve sustainability and public health. And I don’t know how to fix it, and I think this is your million dollar question.