Dairies raise environmental, health questions—part one

This article is the first of a three-part series on modern-day dairies and their effect on health, both human and animal. The article, titled “The Dirt on Dairy,” by Monica Engebretson, is reprinted with permission from Animal Issues, Fall 2003, the publication of the Animal Protection Institute in Sacramento, Calif.

A dairy diary

The modern-day dairy cow suffers greatly during her unnaturally short life. Her home is most often an overcrowded dirt lot, where she may be forced to stand in fetid pools of mud, urine, and manure. Fed from a trough, she rarely,if ever, sees a pasture.

Each year she is forcefully inseminated so she will conceive and give birth—a prerequisite for lactation. Her calf will be taken from her within hours of delivery; for days, she may bellow frantically in search of her baby. During her 10-month lactation period, machines will drain her of 10 to 20 times the amount of milk her calf would suckle.

If her calf is male, he will probably be thrown in a truck and sent to auction soon after he is born. If he survives this ordeal, he is likely to be sold to a veal operation. For the duration of his short life, he will be confined to a tiny crate that prevents almost all movement. He will be fed a meager, iron-poor diet so that his flesh will remain pale, the way “fine diners” prefer. A female calf will not fare much better. In most cases, she will remain on the farm to replace her mother or some other worn-out milk producer.

A dairy cow might be injected with a variety of substances that then make their way into the human food supply. She may receive injections of synthetic hormones that increase her milk supply by an additional 30 percent. As a result, she will be chronically hungry and prone to mastitisa painful udder infection that afflicts up to 75 percent of dairy cows. She will probably also receive large doses of antibiotics before she is butchered.

A cow who becomes ill in modern dairy operations often suffers greatly before she is noticed and treated (or killed). According to Bill Bickert, an agricultural engineer at Michigan State University, “The large-scale dairy can result in a lack of attention to detail when it comes to procedures and individual cow care.” Dairy expert John Kirk, DVM, of the University of California at Davis, stated in a lecture last year that at least 20 to 25 percent of cows in dairy herds experience painful lameness.

After years of cycling through continuous pregnancies, births, and lactations, a cow’s milk production will begin an irreversible decline and she will be “culled” from the herd. In California today, the average productive life for a dairy cow is a mere 2.4 lactations (starting at age 2) before she is sent to slaughter, even though she has a potential lifespan of 20 or more years. Nearly 15 percent of all beef consumed in the U.S. consists of the bodies of slaughtered dairy cows.

Mega-dairies, mega-destruction

Not only are modern-day dairy practices inhumane to animals, they are dangerous to the planet. Large dairies containing many thousands of cows are increasingly common and are particularly hazardous to the environment.

“Mega-dairies” are becoming the norm in California, which leads the nation in dairy production. In 2000, the state’s 2,195 dairies churned out 32 billion gallons of milk, or about 18 percent of the U.S.’s supply. Because the cost of land in California is generally very high, most dairies located there keep the maximum number of cows in the minimum amount of space.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), between 1993 and 1998, the average number of cows per dairy in California nearly doubled; in 2000, the state had 1.5 million dairy cows. The environmental havoc mega-dairies have wreaked in California should serve as warning to other states not yet as severely impacted, since the growth of large operations there merely reflects a national trend toward more concentrated operations.

The EPA defines “large” dairies as those housing 700 or more cows, but many “mega-dairies” confine several thousand animals in a small area. These operations are a common point source of both water and air pollution, which fall unevenly across the region in which the dairies operate. The EPA’s 2002 Progress Report for the Pacific Southwest Region illustrates the damaging effects of the waste produced at large-scale dairy operations. According to the report, “each cow produces about 120 pounds of wet manure per day.” A 1,000-cow dairy will produce the same amount of waste as a city of 20,000 people with no sewage treatment.

These outsized quantities of manure can contaminate rivers and groundwater supplies, including sources of drinking water for humans. Water pollution from dairies occurs in a number of different ways, from slow continuous leaking of manure-laced runoff into groundwater, to untimely rain after the application of manure to a field, to breaks or overflows in “lagoons” built to hold vast amounts of waste. According to the EPA, dairy waste pollutes waters with “nutrients (e.g., nitrate, phosphorous), organic matter, sediments… heavy metals, hormones, antibiotics and ammonia” deadly to fish and aquatic ecosystems. The EPA also warns of “public health threats” caused by microorganisms in animal wastes, such as E. coli, salmonella, and cryptosporidium, which, when they enter the human drinking water supply, can cause serious illness or death. In 1998, the California Water Resources Control Board listed the water quality of nine rivers and 49 ground water basins in the state as impaired by waste from animal operations, particularly dairies.

To be continued…

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!