Industrial vs Local Dairy Farms

by Catherine Haug

Encouraging the production and consumption of locally produced foods is considered an ‘essential’ by ESP. Not only will it become a necessity when grocery shelves are empty (because of dwindling fuel supplies and escalating prices), but it is also important now, to support our local producers and ensure food is available when that dire time arrives.

And milk is no exception. We are down to two dairy farms in the Flathead, and they need our support. (See the last section of this post titled ‘Support our Local Dairies’ for more on this topic, including an Organic dairy in Victor MT).

But there are also many other reasons to select local milk over commercial milk found in our grocery stores, and they have to do with how the milk is produced, and the downstream effects of that production.

What about Commercial, Industrial Dairy Farms?

When you stroll past the dairy section, do you stop to consider where or how it was produced, or how that production affects your fuel prices, the environment, or your health? I’m not talking about the fake dairy (coffee creamers, non-dairy half & half or sour cream, and butter substitutes). I’m talking about commercial milk, cream, sour cream, yogurt, cheese and butter, including commercial organic dairy products.

Most commercial dairies are truly industrial facilities. They keep their cows in huge feed barns or enclosures, as soon as they are old enough for milking. In the barns, each cow has a small, narrow pen with its head facing a feed trough and its tail facing a gutter. In the feedlot enclosures, the cows sleep in their own manure.

When it’s time for milking, they are moved to a milking barn where they are hooked up to automatic milking apparatus that transports the milk through pipes to a holding tank. Then back to the feed barn or enclosure.

These milkers are never given chance to roam in pasture. This is neither humane, nor productive of health-giving milk.

ABC News recently reported in Got Milk? Animal Rights v U.S. Dairy Industry that large commercial factory dairy practices can be cruel and inhumane, after undercover reporters from Mercy for Animals obtained video clips of such practices at a large dairy in upstate New York.

What about Commercial Organic Dairy?

It’s true that some Organic dairies let their cows roam in true organically-raised pasture, or at least feed them organic hay during their milking life.

But some Organic dairies are hardly better then their non-organic counterparts. True, they let the cows roam in pasture outside of milking season, but then move them to the feeding barn or enclosure where they remain throughout the milking season. And once there, they are fed organic grain, an unnatural food for cattle.

The Organic consumers scored a recent victory (Feb, 2010) when USDA’s Organic Dairy rules were updated to establish strong Organic Standards for Pasture and Livestock.

A past example: Vander Eyk Organic Dairy

The Vander Eyk Organic Dairy in California, a member of the Horizon brand and the largest industrial dairy in the country, is a prime example. It continued with it’s dubious practices for years until the Organic certification inspectors discovered what they were doing and removed their certification.

For more on the problems of Vander Eyk Dairy, see:

And the Manure?

One big problem with this system is the excrement. NPR featured a piece in December: New Mexico Dairy Pollution Sparks ‘Manure War’ (2). It states:

“A factory farm with 2,000 cows produces as much sewage as a small city, yet there’s no treatment plant. … Everyday, an average cow produces 6 to 7 gallons of milk and 18 gallons of manure. New Mexico has 300,000 milk cows. That totals 5.4 million gallons of manure in the state every day. It’s enough to fill up nine Olympic-size pools. Every single day.”

What is done with this manure?

In the milking barns: “Workers hose the muck off the concrete floor…, and it flows into a plastic- or clay-lined lagoon where the liquid evaporates.”

And in the feedlot enclosure: “waste… is collected [via the troughs] and used as fertilizer for grain crops.”

Health & polluted groundwater

These methods result in polluted groundwater (and wells), because of leaking lagoons, or manure applied too heavily on farmland. And this problem is exacerbated when the dairies cluster together in “Dairy Row,” which is a common practice.(2)

And polluted groundwater results in sick children and families.

The primary pollutant is nitrogen, which can cause excessive and harmful algae blooms. These can lead to “dead zones” which reduce levels of dissolved oxygen to the point where aquatic life can no longer survive. (5)  “Nitrogen accumulation reduces biodiversity, acidifies soil and water, degrades coastal environments, reduces forest productivity, contributes to the greenhouse effect, and depletes the ozone.”(6)

Confined, grain-fed cows also harbor harmful bacteria that are excreted in their manure. The most common and well-known of these is E. Coli. There are many strains of this coliform bacteria, most of which are not harmful — humans have E. coli in our intestines, where they help to break down our foods. But when cows are fed corn and soy, as they are in the feedlots, the acidity of their rumen changes, allowing a mutant strain of E. coli to flourish. And it is this mutant strain that has made the headlines with deaths from undercooked hamburger, or spinach that was watered with contaminated groundwater.

See Cattle-Manure Runoff Making Rural Families Sick (And Urban Ones Too?) for more.(3)

It doesn’t have to be like this

At one time, there were 25 small dairy farms scattered around the Flathead, who processed their own milk.(1) Theirs was the only milk sold in local stores, but could also be delivered to the home.

On these farms, the cows roamed in pasture, and were brought into the barn for milking, then returned to pasture where they spread their own waste over the entire pasture. No single herd was so large that they produced to much waste for their pasture. Only the barn waste accumulated in one place, and that was composted and used to fertilize the farm’s gardens.

For the most part, polluted groundwater was not an issue. The cows were truly ‘contented,’ and their milk was healthful.

When cattle, including dairy cows, are allowed to graze in pasture, their excrement composts in the field, to enrich the soil with valuable fixed nitrogen (as ammonia and ammonia compounds), which in turn promotes the growth of new pasture grasses. And if these are deep-rooted native grasses, they can sequester amazing amounts of carbon (see my post Organic Ag vs Global Climate Change for more).

Furthermore, small dairy farms, scattered around the community, produce less excrement in one place, than the large dairies in the current industrial model. And they provide more income for more families in the community.

Better Milk, Closer Communities

Besides better waste management, small and local dairies provide additional benefits:

  • Freshness
  • Better taste
  • Your money stays in the community
  • Ensures availability of dairy products
  • Builds community
  • Sequesters carbon in the roots of pasture grasses
  • Minimizes CO2 and other emissions by minimizing fuel consumption

And if those small dairies keep grain feed to a minimum, the animals are healthier, and their milk is more healthful.

See also Got (Good) Milk? Ask the Dairy Evangelist for more (4).

Support our Local Dairies

It’s time for a return to the ways of the not-too-distant past. Support our two remaining local dairies who sell their milk under the Country Classics brand (a coop in Bozeman), which can sometimes be found at Bigfork Harvest Foods. One of those dairies, Hedstrom, also processes and sells some of their milk as Kalispell Kreamery (see my post Struggling Local Commercial Dairies for more).

Lifeline is a semi-local dairy from the Victor MT. It is certified Organic and Bio-dynamic, and their cows are grass-fed. Their milk can be found at Witheys; their butter and cheese can be found at Bigfork Harvest Foods. According to Fran, the dairy person at Bigfork Harvest Foods indicates she will order some Lifeline milk soon, so be sure to watch for it. While it is pasteurized, they use the simpler method of vat pasteurization (lower temperature, longer time), so that much of the nutrient value is retained. Refer to Food Safety & Pasteurization (pdf file) to learn more about the different types of pasteurization.

Or consider raising goats for their milk; see our Gathering Summary Keeping a Family Goat for more. Or keep a dairy cow.


  1. The Flathead’s Last Dairy Farms:
  2. NPR: New Mexico Dairy Pollution Sparks ‘Manure War’:
  3. NPR: Cattle-Manure Runoff Making Rural Families Sick (And Urban Ones Too?:
  4. NPR: Got (Good) Milk? Ask the Dairy Evangelist:
  5. EPA:
  6. UC Santa Cruz Currrents:
  7. Rebuild from Depression blog; Milk Shenaigans series:
  8. San Francisco Chronicle:
  9. Organic Consumers Association:

You may also want to visit the following articles from NPR for an entertaining read:

Comments are closed.