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.) 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.