Dairy cows produce 61% more milk than 25 years ago

The footage posted recently showing the practices at Central Valley Meat Processing reminds me that something is significantly wrong with our dairy industry. It’s troubling to watch animals mishandled as they simply struggle to stand and walk.

Hallmark and Central Valley are not the types of plants where ranchers send animals destined for the retail meat case or the restaurant menu. Plants like Hallmark and Central Valley specialize in processing spent dairy cows; a term describing animals whose useful life in the milking parlor has expired.

Spent cows have always been a part of the dairy business. But there are spent cows; and there are totally worn-out, used-up, beaten-down cows.

The staggering, stumbling cows at Central Valley and Hallmark reflect the high price we are all paying for cheap milk.

Rise in milk production

Twenty five years ago, the average dairy cow produced 13,293 lbs of raw milk every year. Twice-a-day milking was the norm, and bovine growth hormones were an emerging topic of debate.

Today’s dairy cow now produces an average of 21,345 lbs of milk each year, a 61 percent increase over the past quarter century. That means that the average dairy cow weighing 1,400 lbs produces more than 4 percent of its body weight in milk each day.

Growth hormones and three-times-a day milking are major factors in the increase. So, too, are high-energy feed rations and genetic selection for animals with maximum milk output. 

These modern milk-producing marvels carry bags far larger—and much heavier—than Mother Nature ever intended to hang below the belly of a cow. The genetic selection, feed rations and growth hormones maximizing milk production have done little to provide the cow with stronger muscles and larger bones to carry around the extra 58 lbs of weight every day.

So, by the time a cow reaches age five, she’s not only spent, she is literally used up.

The slaughterhouse isn't the only problem

What has happened in the pens of Central Valley and Hallmark is shameful. But part of the shame occurs before the animals ever arrive.

It’s been about 35 years since I went to a Farmers Union picnic at a dairy farm north of Fort Collins, Colo. As the picnic broke, the host asked me to tag along while he handled his evening milking. As one cow came into the parlor, he gave her a pat on the rump and told me, “This ol’ gal’s been with me for nine years. She’s been good to me. I’m going to hate to see her go.”

He knew that his spent dairy cows would someday end up as ground beef.  But he also knew that, while they were under his care, they were more than just milk manufacturing machines.

Today’s dairy cows are good to us. Let’s be good to them as well.

What do you think about today's treatment of dairy cows? Share in the comments.

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