From Field to Plate: The Dairy Farm

Monday, November 18, 2013

organic cows

When I was a little girl, I remember visiting relatives in Israel who owned a small dairy farm. It’s where my love for dairy began. I’ve always been curious to how a US-based milk farm operates and last month I was given the opportunity to visit two NY-based dairy farms in Rochester.

The Food
I had the pleasure of visiting two farms: one conventional (El-Vi Farms) and one organic (Har-Go Farms). Interestingly, both farms employ cow dietitians! On the organic farm, the cow must be on pasture at least 120 days of the year. The cows will graze until the last moment possible (it gets cold in NY!)—then the nutritionist puts together a perfectly balanced feed for them. What they receive in their feed depends on their stage in life. For example, a pregnant or milking cow will receive more calories than a non-pregnant one.  Each feed is perfectly formulated so every cow gets the exact amount of nutrients they need.

Organic Feed

Organic Feed

The Milk
The milk parlor is where it all happens. The milking area and the cow’s teats are all sanitized before and after milking. The number of cows being milked at once depends on the size of the farm. But one thing is certain; a lactating cow needs to be milked regularly (just like a human!). The milk is pumped through stainless steel pipe from the cow to bulk tanks where it is cooled to 35 degrees. Each batch of milk is tested on site for traces of antibiotics and then a second time once several batches of milk are combined.  If there are any traces of antibiotics, the batch is dumped and farm is severely fined.

Milking Parlor

Milking Parlor

About Illness
The farms I visited both had very strict guidelines when it comes to administering antibiotics. On the conventional farm, antibiotics are administered when the animal is ill. A veterinarian decides if a cow needs antibiotics.  If antibiotics are administered, the cow is taken off the “line” – that means, the cow’s milk is dumped for a specific number of days after the cow has completed treatment.

On the organic farm, any illness is initially treated without antibiotics. If a cow is extremely sick and antibiotics are the only answer, then they will be administered. Once a cow is given antibiotics, they can no longer provide organic milk. That cow will then be sold, usually to a conventional farm.

From Farm to Table
The milk farms I visited in Rochester, NY supply the biggest supermarket in the area, Wegmans. If you like supermarkets or are a foodie like me, you MUST visit a Wegmans. I was in food heaven!

Group shot at El Vi Farms

Group shot at El Vi Farms

My Take: It was a real treat to see the flow of the milk from the cow to the supermarket. Many farms have days open to the public, where you can visit them and ask questions about their farming practices. If you have never seen a milk farm, I highly recommend you visit one. Many people are concerned about where their food comes from—and it’s a legitimate concern. But seeing it with your own eyes really helps you understand the entire complicated process. Dairy farmers work very long hours, 365 days a year to make sure we have ample milk on our tables every day.

Disclaimer: My trip to Rochester, NY was sponsored by the American Dairy Association


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