The Climate Crusader recently visited an organic dairy.
I grew up in dairy country. While I never lived on a farm, cows were my neighbors and my neighbors had cows. When I was a child I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about the different kinds of dairy farms or how the cows were treated. As an adult with a love of local food and a desire to live more sustainably, however, I am very curious to know where all of my food comes from. So when I recently had the chance to visit a local organic dairy farm and yogurt factory, I couldn't pass it up.
Olympic Dairy is located in the Vancouver, Canada area where I live. The company got started in 1979 and is committed to delivering natural and organic yogurt and dairy products. Here in British Columbia, two thirds of all organic yogurt sold comes from their little factory. My own children are big fans - I occasionally suggest trying another brand and they both solidly refuse.
I have some concerns about yogurt. All those plastic containers are recyclable, but it's still less than ideal when it comes to the planet. Also, a lot of yogurt is high in sugar, which is hardly super-healthy. As a snack, though, I feel better about yogurt than a lot of other options, like granola bars that are more chocolate than grain, for example. And I do like buying organic where possible. I was excited to learn more.
I arrived at the Brandsema organic dairy farm at about 10:00am on a sunny morning and met the farm manager Ian. He toured our group around and answered our questions. The farm started in the late 1990s with 30 cows and today their herd has grown to 200 active milking cows and some number of younger cows. Their milk is used in Olympic Dairy's organic products.
As an organic dairy, their cows have access to outdoor pasture year-round and are fed organic feed. They also do not receive any hormones - although here in Canada no dairy cows receive hormones. They avoid antibiotics if at all possible, and in situations where they are required for the health of a cow, the milk is not used for 30 days to ensure that no residual medications end up in the milk. However, Ian emphasized that their priority is doing what they can to make sure cows remain healthy. For example, they receive regular pedicures to keep their hooves in top shape.
The farm grows its own hay to feed the cows, and purchases organic grain that the cows receive as well. Since grass grows eight months of the year here they also graze for most of the year, and then in the months that they can't have fresh grass they eat hay and silage. We saw the cows out grazing in the field, and we saw other cows enjoying the cool air in the barn where the fans were on for circulation.
One of my ethical concerns with dairy products is about the separation of mothers and babies. I have infants and I can't imagine having them removed from me forcibly after birth. On the Brandsema farm newborn calves spend two days with their mothers before they move into the nursery area. They remain there for several months until they are weaned, and then the females are moved until they are old enough to take up their part in the dairy. The males are sold off. Obviously, we didn't see the separation, so I can't comment on that. However, I did see that the farmers care very much about their cows and the babies, and are doing their best to care for them at all stages.
In Canada the main contrast between organic and non-organic dairies seems to boil down to time spent outside, feed and antibiotics. Non-organic dairy farms do not have to offer access to outdoor grazing, and many do not. Non-organic dairy farms do not offer organic feed, which could conceivably contain pesticide residues. And non-organic dairy farms typically only separate milk for three days (instead of 30) when cows are treated with antibiotics.
If you are going to consume dairy products, it makes sense to choose something that you can feel good about eating. After my day on the organic farm I feel better about my choice to consume organic dairy products where possible. I'm not at 100% organic by a long stretch, but I think that small steps can make a big difference, and I will continue to do my best to make them.