A Tale of Two Dairy Farms


Barry Estabrook

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 and 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 bailers 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.

The cows stood, disinterestedly chewing their cud, as computers linked to transponders on their collars kept track of their milk output.

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.) Fair Oaks'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. Male calves, little more than byproducts, 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 will be female. Like the calf 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.