Exclusive: undercover inside the US dairy industry
With planning permission for Britain's biggest dairy at Nocton about to be re-submitted, The Ecologist travels to California to examine intensive milk production - and finds factory farms, conflict, intimidation, pesticides, pollution and small-scale farmers driven out of business...
‘You better get out of here or your gonna get your ass kicked or worse,’ the leathery-faced farmer slurred, picking his words carefully as we pulled up outside his milking parlour. It was coming to the end of our first day in the US, and despite our best efforts to persuade the farmers otherwise, it was clear that journalists are not welcome in this part of the world.
Far from the glittering lights and well trodden-tourist paths that people normally associate with California, the vast udders of America’s dairy industry run through the Central Valley, a rarely-visited arid plain that stretches down the state, wedged in between the Sierra foothills and the Californian coast.
This is the breadbasket of the USA, where almond farms, grapes and corn are carved out of the scrubby desert and grown on eye-wateringly large scales. It is also home to the largest dairies on the planet, a concentration of several hundred milk farms so vast, that in Tulare county alone, there are over 900,000 cows, producing in excess of a billion dollars worth of milk each year.
But as an Ecologist investigation carried out in conjunction with the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) has discovered, the Central Valley has also become a battleground for an unreported conflict, pitting community activists and family farmers against the might of mega dairy farms that have taken root here.
Factory or farm?
For a first-time visitor, the sight and scale of a mega dairy is overwhelming; enormous open-air sheds, mountains of feed, million-gallon pools of slurry and thousands upon thousands of listless cows. Granted access by disgruntled dairy employees, we were able to observe a mega dairy in operation. More akin to a factory production line than a farm long lines of cows could be seen stumbling over outstretched udders as they were driven back and forth to the robotic-like, rotary-milking parlours.
It is a continual daily cycle that stops only when the milk output begins to tail off, and the animals are either re-impregnated or sent off to slaughter; burnt out and discarded after only a few years of life on the factory floor. Animals in American mega dairies will never see a patch of grass in their life, and the only respite comes from shade in the dusty open-air lots where they wait between milking. Even here the animals will not get a chance to really rest; high-milk yielding cows suffer from chronic ‘negative energy balance’, where the cow uses more energy in making milk that she can physically take in by eating, losing body condition as a result.
The Holstein is the favoured breed of choice for most mega dairies, their towering bony frames contrasting wildly with bulging vein-filled udders swinging underneath them. Milk produced by them is of a lower quality with a higher pus content in the milk than that produced by other cow breeds, but what these freakishly-bred animals lack in quality, they make up for in quantity: milked three times a day and propped up with growth hormones to boost milk production, and antibiotics to stave off frequent infections, milk output in the Holstein has doubled in the last 40 years alone.
It’s not just the animals that suffer. Tom Frantz is a retired schoolteacher and grew up in Shafter, a small town in Tulare County. ‘Until 1996, there weren't any dairies near me, then we got the first mega dairy situated close to here, followed by several others. Within a couple of years at the local school we had two big problems that have never existed before… the school was invaded by hoards of flies, nasty biting flies, clogging the water coolers and forcing the teachers to hang fly strips in the middle of each classroom. It changed things, changed the atmosphere of the school. Then nitrates in the water showed up. The school had always used water from its own well in the past, but suddenly the nitrate level doubled, then tripled, making it unsafe to drink,’ he told The Ecologist.
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2 tablespoons grated horseradish
¼ cup finely chopped garlic
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