A Tale of Two Dairy Farms (One of Which Milks 30,000 Cows)

Circular logic.

Circular logic.

I have visited two dairy farms in the last couple of weeks. One belongs to Henry, my neighbor here in Vermont. I stopped by his place to pick up a dozen bales of mulch hay to spread on my garden, and he invited me into the barn to meet Ernie, a three-week-old bull calf he seemed particularly proud of. Ernie came trotting up to us with the rambunctious glee of an oversized Labrador pup. It was almost as if the calf knew his privileged destiny was a life of grazing on green, hilly pastures occasionally performing the duties required of a ladies’ man.

With part-time help from his wife and a hired hand, Henry milks about 65 cows, black and white Holsteins and fawn-colored Jerseys, along with mottled crossbreeds of the two. With milk prices low, Henry has been barely scraping by for the last few years. As we say in New England, he survives not so much on how much money he makes, but on how much he doesn’t spend. Henry’s weathered, gray barns are decades past needing a coat of stain, and his rusting collection of tractors, wagons, mowers, and balers is fast approaching antique status, kept functional only because in a previous life, Henry was a farm equipment mechanic. Despite such disadvantages (or maybe because of them), Henry’s milk is consistently rated as top-quality, and he gets a premium price for it.

The other dairy I visited is called Fair Oaks Farms. Owned by nine families, it is located near an interstate highway that bisects flat corn, alfalfa, and soybean fields in Indiana. Fair Oaks is one of the largest dairy farms in the United States. It houses 30,000 cows and produces enough milk to slake the thirst of the entire city of Chicago, which is located 75 miles to the north.

Until the 1970s, America’s milk products were supplied by several hundred thousand Henrys scattered across the country. But if current trends continue, the future of milk production in the country will look a lot like Fair Oaks—huge operations with enough financial clout to deal on equal footing with dairy processing giants like Dean Foods and supermarket chains like Kroger. In 1970, there were 658,000 dairy farms in the U. S. By 2006, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, that number had fallen to 75,000, a drop of an astounding 88 percent. And the plunge continues. But in the same period, the number of mega-farms with more than 2,000 cows rose by 104 percent.

Unlike Henry’s farm, Fair Oaks is “bio-secure,” meaning it’s off-limits to visitors and there’s no scratching behind the ears of calves. But it does offer guided bus tours, so I paid the $10 entry fee, received a hot-pink wrist bracelet, and joined a group of senior citizens aboard a gleaming white bus. “As one of the largest dairy farms in the United States, Fair Oaks wanted to give the public the chance to see 21st-century agriculture up close,” said Tony Wiedman, the company’s marketing manager.

As we cruised at a walking pace, a recorded voice reeled off statistics that were mind boggling. Fair Oaks owns 19,000 acres of land—enough to accommodate 56,000 football fields. Its cows live in 10 barns (imagine airplane hangars), 3,000 per facility. Tended by a workforce of 400, they produce 250,000 gallons of milk per day—even without the stimulation of artificial hormones, which Fair Oaks eschews. Waste from the cows is processed in a state-of-the-art digester, producing enough methane to generate all the electricity the vast farm requires.

Milking time at Fair Oaks never ends. Each cow is milked three times per day (At Henry’s, as at most traditional dairies, cows are milked twice a day.) Live Oak’s 10 milking parlors operate 24/7 and 365 days a year. For one hour out of eight, milking stops just long enough for equipment to be automatically cleaned.

We were allowed to get off our bus to climb a set of steps to a glassed-off viewing area above the room where the cows were being milked 72 at a time in what looked like a large, slow-motion, bovine merry-go-round. Cows are the ultimate creatures of habit, and these beasts dutifully knew the routine, walking on their own into empty stanchions and standing placidly while attendants wiped their teats down with disinfectant and attached the suction cups of the mechanical milking machines. It took a leisurely eight and a half minutes for the device to make a full rotation. The cows stood, disinterestedly chewing their cud, as computers linked to transponders on their collars kept track of their milk output, automatically shutting off the suction when udders were empty. Once the rotation was complete, the cows backed out of the stanchions on their own, and others took their places. It takes about an hour to milk 500 cows.

Like any mammal, in order to produce milk, cows must have offspring, so the birthing barn at Fair Oaks is a busy place. Between 80 and 100 calves are born there each day. While our group stood gaping (again through a glass partition), a worker tied a strap around two little hooves protruding from the hind end of a Holstein. After a couple of mighty heaves, the worker hauled a wet, bloody calf into the world. It lay in the straw, still, and from all appearances lifeless. The mother stayed in place so long that I began to wonder whether the Fair Oaks marketing folks were going to have a little PR issue on their hands. But she suddenly stood, turned around, and began to lick the calf vigorously. It responded by raising its head and moving its hoofs as if contemplating standing.

That calf turned out to be a female, as are about half the calves born at Fair Oaks. Little more than wasteful byproducts, male calves are sold for slaughter. But by next May, Fair Oaks will have overcome that little biological problem by using “sex select” insemination, a process that promises that 80 percent of calves born there will be female. Like the calf that I saw being born, they will travel south to farms in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri—states with land better suited to pasture than the valuable black loam around Fair Oaks. After residing there for two and a half years, they will be artificially inseminated and returned to Fair Oaks when they are seven months pregnant. Two months later, they will have their first calves and then, for the next five to seven years, assume their spots in the constantly rotating milking parlor.

They will never again step outside a barn.

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21 comments

  1. Barry, did the folks at Fair Oaks Farm explain why the cows aren’t allowed to graze? You mention black loam around the cow buildings being less suited for pasture than some other reasons, but I’d love to understand that better. Thanks.

  2. Barry says:

    It is much more “efficient” to use all the land around the barns to grow high-nutrient corn and other crops and then feed those to the enclosed cows. You get a lot more calories from an acre of corn than you get from an acre of pasture. Also, the logistics of letting the 3,000 cows in each barn go out into fields to graze and then somehow come back inside to be milked three times a day would be impossible.

  3. Hi Barry, I am visiting from the link on the lovely Food News Journal. Congratulations for being chosen for the Best of the Blogs section. As a real food blogger issues like these always amaze me when I come across them. My milk comes from a family run Amish farm that I can visit and I can pet the cows and watch them being milked and see them grazing out in the pasture. They have lives while the cows in an industrial milking facility do not. I would love to share your article on my Thoughts on Friday real food info and news post at my blog~ Thanks for sharing this with us! Alex@amoderatelife

  4. Corey says:

    Barry,
    I love you posts. I read the one about Green Mountain Dairy. Is the system at Fair Oaks similiar to Green Mountains digester? How do you feel about cows not able to be pastured? What is your stance on feeding dairy cows a corn diet?

  5. Wow. What a fascinating account. The amazing thing is Fair Oaks is at least showing the public which makes you wonder what others that don’t are doing. Thanks for a great article.

  6. Jan says:

    Nice comparison of large farm and small farm and why they do what they do. I do wish more supported small farms but by action volume and cost is more important. I persist on from one corner of the world but food choices like farming choices are for a reason. Too often it’s misunderstood, and misrepresented in that misunderstanding. Good overview and here’s to food choices!

  7. Jamie says:

    Barry,

    Fair Oaks must have been very impressive. I have gotten to tour a few dairies but non would come close to comparing to that. While the larger dairies may be more economically efficient you have to love the charm of the small family owned opperations.

  8. Krysten says:

    Barry I enjoyed reading your blog, I believe your opinion here is much like the majority of the United States opinion. Although you do not come right out and say it, I am under the impression that you believe all cattle should have the chance to live in wide open green pastures, and spend the rest of their days munching on grass. I agree, if it was economically feasible and environmentally safe I too would want for this to be how cattle are raised. On the other, hand it is neither entirely economically feasible or environmentally safe. Dairy farmers have taken large strides through out the years to further educate themselves on keeping their cows happy, their workers and consumers safe, and their money in their pockets. There have been numerous studies showing that happy cows produce more milk and even better quality milk. As you stated in your article that the cattle gliding along the merry-go-round milking parlor the cows stood, disinterestedly chewing their cud. As a matter of fact, cattle who chew their cud are actually in their most comfortable and happy-like state. Refer to this short video for more information, “Ohio Dairy Farmers Care For Their Cows,” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpnAWwyG_ls). Commercial Dairy Farmers give their cows a mattress of fresh bedding, quality food, filtered water, a sheltered home, and a friendly environment. Another issue dairy farmers would face would be allowing your cattle to graze increases the risk of pollution to state waters (which includes anything from ditches to lakes). As you may or not know that every farmer is required to abide by clean water laws, refer to indianadairycouncil.org Dairy Farms & the Environment Fact Sheet for more information. I encourage to read these articles and watch these movies I have suggested to you as well as doing more research on small versus large dairy farms, I believe that you will be surprised with the information you find!

  9. Dana says:

    Krysten, that sort of rhetoric works on city people who have never in their lives set foot on a farm with cattle present. I, on the other hand, while these days being a city person, have in the past spent my summers on such a farm. And I can say with great authority that you are full of it when it comes to “environmental risk” and cow manure. Manure in a lagoon is indeed dangerous to the watershed. Manure dropped on the ground and left to decay is a whole different animal. It settles into the ground as it decays, and grass grows through and from it. I saw lots and lots of those clumps of grass on the pasture when I visited my grandparents. Took a while to figure out where they came from. And, no stench at all.

  10. J. McClellan says:

    I find it amazing how advanced agriculture is today. Although Fair Oaks has a less personal relationship with each of their cows, their is no doubt they are happy and healthy. On a smaller scale there is much more personal attention. I applaud Henry for striving to keep his more moderately sized dairy up and running almost on his own. It’s not easy to run a small dairy and have a high quality product to sell. The start up costs for a dairy are enormous… even a small one.

    Fair Oaks is so advanced technologically that they are able to track milk and make sure they are getting the maximum amount of milk for their input. This large scale dairy is extremely efficient… as I see all dairies becoming in the future. They can afford to stay in business, and I fear small dairies will have to give way to them.

  11. raw milk says:

    Kraysten, you are a blind fool for holding the view that sanitized, industrial ag is “better” tht susatinable, organic agriculture. . Without the cattle out in pasture, the land itself suffers and is degraded.

    Today, Fair Oaks practices killed a motorist on Interstate 65.

  12. raw milk says:

    Mcclellan – profit does not equal value – happy cows?? by what criteria? Go lock yourself in yor bathroom, have someone slip you optimized nutrition under the door and see how “happy” you are.

  13. raw milk says:

    Thank you, dana – that manure is what creates soil fertility, if you want to see some great explanations of how a REAL farmer -not the F**k Oaks exploiters think and work, see Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm videos. Or educate yourself by reading Michael Pollen’ s Omnivore’s Dilemma.

  14. James Hunter says:

    No kidding! When I was studying Animal Husbandry at Utah State in tthe late 70’s, we visited a dairy farm in Calif. where they were miliking 3,000 cows three times a day. That place was state of the art with automatic take-off units, computer record keeping, on farm housing for milkers and their families and scheduled vacations for all employees. A flat bed trailer truck pulled in loaded to the top of the tractor with baled green hay, which may have been, what, two day’s supply? The place was huge and well managed.

    Now we have a 30,000 cow farm owned by nine families! Isn’t that amazing? Back in the day, you couldn’t get two farmers to agree on anything … they’re so bloody independent. Fair Oaks is the future … farmers banding together and achieving economies of scale and, surprise, a little wedge of power. When you produce that much product, employ that many people and spend that much money to make it all happen, the community and the industry pays attention.

    Farmers, traditionally, have been powerless.The farmers, because of their independence, can’t contol the market and they are at the mercy of the weather. The only power they have comes from the federal government because the federal government knows that a well and inexpensively fed population is less likely to take up arms against them. So, a reliable food supply is one of the corner stones of democracy, if not the keystone.

    To be a successful farmer today, first off you have to be a businessman. Can I make more money doing this than I can with any other investment? You can say what you may about satisfaction and contentment, but at the end of the day, black ink must be on the ledger; revenues must exceed expenses.

    You know, we have all these parades and ceremonies for veterans because of their sacrifices and glory and heroism, and don’t get me wrong, they earned every bit of that. But I’ll tell you what, the American farmer not only puts every meal of your day on the table for you, he also feeds every soldier, sailor and airman on the line all around the world. And he does it for not a lot of money. So, tonight, when you’re drifting off to la la land when your belly’s full and your blood sugar’s up, you may want to offer a salute to the American Farmer, because he’s doing a job that most of us couldn’t and he is heroic, and he gets no glory and by God, he makes sacrifices.

    Warmest regards to every farmer in the country.

  15. Ed Jarvis says:

    I was at Fair Oaks yesterday. A couple of extra comments about the facility. The barns are open for the cows to move around at will, no stalls. There are cooling water misters and fans to cool the cows on hot summer days. About the manure treatment. The manure is collected through a vacuum system and goes into tanks, no holding ponds. It then goes into digesters where methane is created, enough to power the farm and sell surplus back to the utility. The solids are then heated and sanitized before being spread as fertilizer. It is definitly a facility worth visiting.

  16. Judy says:

    James – You got it right in more ways than one ! Until you get some kind of quota system like they have in Canada I.e. a supply management deal that is what is going to continue- mor consolidation with bigger and fewer farms.

    Here in New York with Chobani out my back door wanting more milk; I’m making less money If I’m making any at all. Time for meaningful change and the few – less than 50,000 farmers to unite. We deserve better.

  17. Jeff Carroll says:

    These families ( Dejong, Tevelde, and Bos ) have numinous dairies in Calif and other regions of the United States . They are great dairymen
    The fact that they get along as good as they do is a surprise ,but I think they are related through marriage
    Fair oaks is a very well managed operation and provides the general public the chance to see that large operations are consumer friendly and can provide a great service the everyone

  18. Joey says:

    First thing, the 19,000 acres that they farm has to be used for production of corn… With just a grazing diet the cows would not produce milk. And not to mention you can graze 30,000 cows but cows are “creatures of habit” and they like to congregate and that will turn that field into a mud hole fast. I’ve been to fair oaks too and i don’t disagree with the free stall barns, we milk about 100 to 150 cows twice a day and it takes about four hours and our cows don’t leave the concert either,,,

  19. Lucy says:

    Actually, there are production dairy cattle that do very well producing milk on a mostly grass diet with a relatively small amount of grain. There are even strains that do well on a grass-only diet. The milk and the cows tend to be healthier. It takes good cow genetics and good grazier skills to do it. But it would be very difficult to do on that scale with those logistics.

    Again, it comes down to scale. If our priority is healthy, ecologically integrated dairy, we would have Henry-sized dairies and pay more for milk. If our priority is cheap milk? Well . . .

  20. Hot Willy says:

    With what the dairy industry has become, it is nearly-impossible to provide a livelihood off of cows that graze in pasture all day. Maybe 50 years ago that would be a viable way of life for a small family farm, but cows produce SO much more milk now with the introduction of stall-feeding and cows are allowed to eat all day long. They eat more, produce more milk, and give the farmer a better milk check. If you choose to let your cows out to pasture and bring them in for milking you will be making significantly less money than those who keep their cows in the barn.

    Fair Oaks certainly seem to have a pretty sustainable system going and it is exactly this type of efficient system which makes it harder for small-scale farmers to make a living. I’m not saying that it’s bad, but it’s certainly true and if people wonder why small farms are struggling this is one of the reasons.

  21. Josh says:

    I live 30 miles from Fair Oaks and have family near there. It has a good local reputation and produces award-winning cheese, but I’ve never been interested in visiting, because as efficient as it is, there are drawbacks as well. Those cattle need water, which is normally abundant in Indiana, but when there is a drought, Fair Oaks sucks up the entire water table for miles around, leaving empty wells at all the neighbors’. To management’s credit, the last time this happened they cut back their own water use until the drought broke and they paid for their neighbors to drill deeper wells.

    The families which own it, and others like it, are absentee investors – Dutch-born millionaires whose government prohibits Confined Animal Feeding Operations due to years of environmental catastrophes. The CAFO industry has improved its environmental practices through technology (and Fair Oaks may be among the best of them), but machines do break down eventually, and suddenly you’ve got millions of gallons of manure to cope with. If there’s a spill, the area and its waterways will be contaminated for years.

    The idea that “farmers are independent, so it’s amazing that these families have banded together” is laughable. They’re distant shareholders in a corporation; their farms are staffed by Mexican immigrants, many of whom are illegal. Native Hoosiers have no interest in working for a manure factory, which is what Fair Oaks is.

    CAFOs like Fair Oaks exist because of politics; note the Dutch ban, and contrast that with rural politicians in Republican farm states who welcome the investment and the jobs (for Mexicans), and see to it that environmental regulations are minimal. Under its last governor Indiana had an official policy welcoming CAFOs and promising to greenlight every proposal. On the Federal level, as other commenters have said, farm and food policies are written to keep prices low and consumers happy, with the side effect of greatly distorting the market, rewarding the rich and penalizing small farmers. Every American subsidizes Fair Oaks Farm – and every other big producer. What we don’t pay at the grocery store we do pay in hidden taxes. Thus the rich get cheap food as well as the poor.

    As for these Dutch families, they’re not stupid; they built Fair Oaks near Chicago to make big money, take advantage of the American food production and distribution system and subsidies. Lobbyists in state capitals and Washington, D.C. are a minor cost of doing business, just like campaign contributions. They’re raking in millions; why wouldn’t “nine families cooperate?”

    As for me, I don’t care to spend ten bucks to ride a bus around a factory while listening to recorded propaganda; I’m not one of their cows that they can just herd around. Meanwhile my Unca Deed, a hands-on farmer like Henry in this article, can’t afford to keep cattle anymore, there’s no money in it. So he raises commodity corn and beans, and tries to time the market so he can make a profit. Agro-tourism? I’d much rather hang out with him. He doesn’t suck all the water out of the land or otherwise endanger his neighbors, and the few animals he keeps live as nature intended, out in the sunshine, chewing on grass. Cattle don’t naturally eat corn, you have to force them – then give them antibiotics when the corn makes them sick.

    We are lucky in this county that Fair Oaks is a state-of-the-art facility. That’s because those nine families have a history of costly disasters, until their own nation finally shut them down. So they moved to America, where thanks to politicians, they’ve struck it rich. The next time you buy a gallon of milk, you might wonder how much those Mexicans are making – but you probably won’t.

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