The Sadness of Dairy Farms Currently

When you reach for the milk to splash in your coffee, select a slice of cheese for your burger or pick your late-night ice cream treat, you’re presented with a lot of options from organic to grassfed. You’re also faced with many questions about how these products affect your health and what kind of a larger system they’re a part of. Maybe you’ve heard that family dairy farms are going out of business across the country and you want to support them. Or perhaps you’ve just read that article about the lakes of manure at factory farms. And wasn’t your friend just talking about the growth hormones in milk? Do you really want to eat that?

Just about any way you measure it, the US dairy system is in crisis. Most of our milk today does not come from family dairy farms with a few dozen cows grazing on grass, but instead from massive megadairies housing thousands of cows in miserable conditions. Their manure is stored in huge pits that smell terrible and are prone to leak and contaminate the water in surrounding areas. These operations produce so much milk that the price paid to farmers for milk has plummeted far below the cost of production — forcing many small family-run dairy farms out of business and even leading to an increase in the number of farmer suicides.

The system is working out well for the big dairy processing plants that largely control it. But it’s terrible for farmers, workers, dairy cows, the environment — and you, the consumer.

A different system is possible. Milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and the rest can be nutritious and delicious parts of our diet. Family-run dairy farms can be a healthy part of the rural economy and environment. Farmers can get a fair price for their milk, and workers can be paid and treated well on humane farms. Across the country, community residents, farmers and workers are advocating for tools like state policies that curb megadairies and a national supply management program to guarantee a fair price for all farmers. More and more farmers are transitioning to produce grassfed milk, and demand at the grocery story is skyrocketing.

The dairy industry is complicated, but that also means there are many ways in which it could be improved for farmers, workers, animals, the environment and the consumer. In this report we lay out the many problems with the current system (especially its catastrophically large foodprint), while charting a path for how it can be better.

What Dairy Cows Should Be

Dairy cows should live in conditions that give maximum consideration to their health and well-being, as well as to that of farmers, workers and the surrounding environment. They should spend most or all of their day grazing on pasture and should be:

  • housed at a density where their water use and waste is not a burden on the local environment.
  • raised by farmers who are guaranteed a price for their milk to cover their costs of production and by workers who are paid a living wage and treated well.

They should not be:

  • given artificial growth hormones.
  • pushed to produce at an unhealthy rate that shortens their lifespan.

Milk should:

  • Have meaningful and verifiable labels that consumers can easily understand.
  • Be nutritious and delicious.

The Basics of Milk

You put it in your coffee every morning, but how much do you know about where milk actually comes from and how it gets to your table?

What Does a Dairy Farm Look Like?

The dairy farm pictured on milk and yogurt cartons often features cows grazing on grass, with a red barn in the background. Some milk still comes from farms like this, with cows kept on pasture most of the time, coming indoors only to be milked or in bad weather. But the majority of milk today instead comes from huge megadairies housing tens of thousands of cows confined in a huge barn or on a dry lot, with no access to vegetation.

In between the all-pasture farm and the megadairies are many family-run farms with a few hundred cows, which generally house their cows in free-stall barns, where the animals can move around, feed and lie down as they like. Many of these also give their animals some access to pasture — most often to heifers or dry cows, since they do not need to be brought to the barn for milking. According to a 2014 survey, 60 percent of farms gave access to pasture to milking cows and more than 70 percent gave pasture access to dry cows, with smaller farms more likely to give pasture access.1 These mid-size farms generally grow some of their own feed, including hay, corn or soybeans. Silage — hay or corn stalks that have been partially fermented — is also a common winter feed.

Traditionally, dairy cows were milked twice a day, in the morning and evening. Today, with the imperative throughout agriculture to produce as much as possible, it is common for farms to milk three times a day, and some large dairies milk four times a day, with the average US cow producing nearly 23,000 pounds of milk annually.2 Milk production taxes the cow’s body, and pushing an animal to produce more shortens her life.

Dairy Animal Lifecycle

Like all mammals, cows produce milk after the birth of a baby. After a nine-month gestation and the birth of a calf, dairy cows are usually milked for about ten months, during which time they are impregnated again. They are then given a two-month rest before the birth of their next calf. A mature dairy cow produces a calf every 12 to 14 months.

Young cattle are called calves up to about five months. For their first two years, females are called heifers; once they give birth to a calf and begin milking, they are called cows. On average, farmers replace 25 to 40 percent of their cows every year, and many farms keep some or all female calves to raise as the next generation.

Cows Are Bred for Specific Purposes

While all cows produce milk, dairy cattle are breeds that have been bred for high milk production and quality. Holsteins and Jerseys are the most common dairy breeds. Beef cattle, like Angus and Hereford, are instead bred for rate of weight gain and yield. Beef cows produce milk for their calves, but do not produce enough for human consumption.


Dairy farms use some specialized terms for their animals. Here’s what you need to know to not stand out around the barn.

HeiferA young female bovine who hasn’t yet given birth to a calf and is therefore not producing milk.
CowA female bovine who has given birth to at least one calf and has entered the milking herd.
Dry CowA cow who is between lactation cycles and not being milked. Typically this is for the last two months of a pregnancy.
Megadairy / Factory FarmA dairy operation housing over 1000 cows in confinement. The technical term is Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, or CAFO.
Grassfed / Pastured DairyA dairy farm whose cows get some or all of their nutritional needs from grazing on pasture (or eating hay in winter).

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