While the kids were on spring break this year, we headed out on a midweek road trip for a couple days. I like to get out, explore and make memories with the kids. Early Wednesday morning, the kids, my mother, my grandmother and I hit the road toward Indiana. We planned to spend a couple days with extended family while venturing out during the day with the kids and exploring the area.
Since my grandmother and grandfather moved to Michigan in the late 1940’s, they have traveled back to visit family in Indiana numerous times a year. They have had their regular travel routes, established long before GPS. Their routes have been adapted through the building of highways and other road updates, but they were established by maps as well as trail and error. We have never questioned the route, we followed grandma and grandpa’s routes as our directions. However, on this trip, since we were on an “adventure”, we decided to set aside the regular route and follow the GPS.
Had we not made that decision, we would have gotten off the expressway about 20 miles sooner to follow my grandparents’ regular route. As we traveled this new-to-us stretch of I-65, we began to see advertisements for a “Dairy Adventure”. It peaked my interest. I wasn’t sure exactly what it included, but dairy is one area of our diet that I have had some questions and concerns with but had yet to consciously address.
Turns out the “Dairy Adventure” was on the very exit that the GPS wanted us to take. Seemed like maybe it was meant to be. As we exited the expressway, we decided to turn in and check it out. It was a set of a few rather large, new, clean buildings right off the highway surrounded by miles of farm fields. When we learned of the not so small admission prices and that the tour lasted a couple hours, we nearly packed back up in the car to continue on to our destination. However, since it was only 10AM, we seemed to have time to spare and I felt in my heart it was something I just needed to see. So, we purchased our tickets and off we went on our “Dairy Adventure” at Fair Oaks Farms.
The tour started with a 4-D movie which I sat out of with our daughter who has an extreme fear of enclosed dark places. The rest of our group enjoyed learning facts about cows and milk while C and I explored the indoor play items.
After the movie was released, we killed a little more time in the building while waiting for our tour bus to depart to see the cows. Within this building was a series of display rooms talking about the feed crops. What I saw there, confirmed the concerns I have had buried in my subconscious, the ones I hadn’t yet addressed, the facts I didn’t want to be true, the facts that I feared I would find…the number one question that has been eating at me…What are these cows eating?
When I was breast feeding our children, I was particularly concerned with my own diet. I did not drink alcohol, drank little caffeine, ate rounded healthy meals. Why? Because what I was putting in my body would be present in the milk I was producing for my children of course. Once they were done breastfeeding, they were transitioned to vitamin D whole milk. And in all these years of giving this to my children, it never occurred to me to consider what the cows were eating. Why not? Because they are cows…they don’t drink alcohol, caffeine or anything else of concern to me…they eat grass, right? Right??
Well, actually in this day of age, they are eating a lot more than just grass like corn and other grains referred to in dairy farms as total mixed ration. As I work diligently to remove GMOs from our home, in the back of my mind, I had questioned it’s presence in our dairy products. The reality of this concern smacked me right upside the head as I see the following sign on the wall 10 minutes into our visit.
No need to ask the question. I had my answer right there.
If you are unfamiliar with the name, check out Monsanto’s Dirty Dozen courtesy of GMO Awareness of for a quick history lesson.
You may wonder why I am so obsessed with GMO’s…given the fact that the effects of GMOs have not been properly tested, aside from lab rats who experienced infertility and death among other things, and Monsanto’s history, to me it’s kind of like the the quote by Albert Camus “I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn’t, than live my life as if there isn’t and die to find out there is.” I rather live my life as if GMOs are not safe for human consumption and find out decades from now that they are, than to live my life as if they are safe and die to find out that they weren’t. That’s simply my take on it. I wish to protect myself and my children from the long term, unknown affects.
I tried to set that smack of information aside to take in the rest of the tour, although it continued to haunt me from that point forward.
Soon we boarded busses and traveled to one of the dairies of Fair Oaks Farms. Within this huge 10 dairy farm, they house 32,000 cows and 2,500 calfs on 20,000 acres.
We traveled by the feed piles where the cow’s total mixed ration components are stored, measured and mixed. We traveled by the manure piles that are transferred into power to help run the dairy. We traveled into one 1/4 mile long free stall barn where the milking cows reside. The cows are free to roam within the barn, they have continual access to food, water and sand bedding, but they do not leave the barn except for milking three times a day.
We then saw a row of calves housed outside in their own huts and fenced kennel space. We learned that from their time of birth until their completion of service to the dairy after 5-7 years, the cows are kept within the same herd. Shortly after they are born, the cows are sent off to to ranches across the country for just over 2 years until they reach maturity, they are artificially inceminated and then return to Fair Oaks when they are nearly complete with their first pregnancy. They did not say what happened to the male calves…I think we can imagine where they go since they are of little use to a dairy farm.
We then rode the bus into a garage like portion of another building where we unloaded and ascended a flight of stairs to a viewing platform of the milking turntable. This turntable holds 72 cows at a time for an 8 minute ride while approximately 25 lbs of milk is removed from them by the milking machines. The cows are trained to enter and exit the turntable unassisted. They simply line up and board the constantly moving platform just as people do waiting for a roller coaster ride. As they board, technicians prep the cow for milking in a swift 19 seconds. These turntables run around the clock except for a one hour downtime for a self cleaning operation. The milk is then piped from the cows to large holding tanks and cooled from the cow’s body temperature to 45 degrees. It is then held until it is transferred to a tanker that will take it to a processing plant of the customer.
We then reboarded the bus back to the visitor’s center where the adventure was topped off by witnessing of a calf being born. They have birthing shows available nearly hourly. With about 80 cows giving birth daily, I don’t imagine it’s difficult to keep cows on hand for the birthing barn.
There were also outdoor play items for the kids as well as a cheese shop and an ice cream shop (which we skipped).
I have to give Fair Oaks a lot of credit for opening their doors to the public. Whether I liked all that I saw or not, they were proud of their operations and happy to share it with the world. From an engineering perspective, the complex was quite impressive. They had their system and operations down to a science. They seemed clean and efficient and did what they needed to do to supply a mass production of milk to meet demands of $2-$3/gallon for the typical Kroger shopper (their largest customer). However, as a compassionate human, it’s hard to overlook the fact that these are living creatures who never venture outside of the barn after their first 2 years of life, except to board the milking turntable 3 times a day. As much as I don’t envy the life of these cows, it’s still the knowledge of what they are eating that had me deeply contemplating our choice of milk as I left our dairy adventure. Although I don’t suppose the milk we have been purchasing at Target, comes from this dairy, I suspect that what I found here is fairly representative of the large dairy farms across the country, as far as feed goes at least. As far as cleanliness, I presume their accountability of being open to the public keeps them on the higher end in regards to cleanliness. I worked in automotive plants for years and can attest to the difference between operations that are open for regular tours and those that are not. Of course I would like to purchase milk for $2-3/gallon, but is the low price worth the compromise to my family? Do I want GMO fed cows producing milk for my children? Does this mass production approach compromise the product? How much science and technology do I want involved in the food I choose for my family. Is this still “farming”? I can no longer suppress my subconcious concerns. I need to do my homework, I need to get more answers specific to our milk consumption. And so my search for alternatives begins…
To be continued…