Of course our kids don’t really think this, but they might as well, considering how close they get to anything farm-like during the day. As far as they’re concerned, milk comes in gallon jugs that are either at the store or at our doorstep on delivery day, and there’s no cow involved in the process.
Hoping to get more in touch with where our milk comes from, we set out on a Real Food Summer road trip to Bellanave Dairy Farm, a 7,000-acre farm near Bakersfield, CA. Bellanave is run by George Borba, a third-generation dairy farmer who practically has milk in his veins. He grew up learning the ins and outs of dairy farming from his father and grandfather, and now he is continuing the tradition with his children at his cutting-edge dairy operation.
The scope of the operation is astonishing: 7,000 cows that produce 12 tanker trucks of milk each day, plus another 7,000 cows that are waiting in the wings to become milkers. The cows are kept to a tightly controlled schedule of when they eat, hang out, and get milked. “Cows are creatures of habit,” says Borba. “They want to get fed the same way and milked at the same time each day.” Each cow is labeled with a special tag, and a sophisticated computer system tracks each cow and its milk output.
Although we arrived on a morning when the temperature was already pushing 90 degrees, the cows seemed quite comfortable. They primarily hang out under large open-air coverings that have fans running at full force. They also get sprayed down at intervals, which is how they release heat (because cows don’t sweat). They are only “locked up” for one hour each day, which allows each cow to get checked by the vet or have other coding or recording done. “You want a milk cow to be either lying down, drinking water, or eating food,” says Borba. “The more comfortable you make them, the more they want to eat, and the more milk you get.”
For a milking operation, we were surprised at how much time Borba and his team spend on cultivating the crops that the cows consume. Each cow eats a mix of grains that is specially calibrated depending on how many calories it needs, whether is in a high-milk-production stage of its life or if it is slowing down. There’s a special art to growing and storing the right kinds of feed in the right quantities, and the farmer needs to get it exactly right so that the cows don’t get fat or unhealthy. (Incidentally, these cows are not treated with any hormones or antibiotics. If a cow is ill and needs antibiotics, it is removed from the milking rotation.)
What does a dairy cow’s life cycle look like? Calves are bred and born at the farm, and then they are raised at a special calf farm for 130 days. (We were fortunate to see this newly birthed, one-hour-old calf stand up on wobbly legs for the very first time.) When it is brought back to the dairy farm, it spends some time hanging out with other “teenagers” before it then begins its life as a dairy cow. The cows are milked for about 305 days per year, and they get a two-month “resting period” during their last two months of carrying a calf. They have a total milking lifespan of about four and one half years, and when they are finished, they are generally sold off for beef.
So how does the whole milking operation work? The cows walk in to the central milking “parlor,” where they are lined up and disinfected before then getting hooked up to the milking machine. It’s a fascinating kind of assembly line, where the cows stand patiently (more or less; we saw one or two cows kick off the milking machine) while the milk gets pumped through pipes and into a central holding chamber.
The milk is then cooled and stored in large tanks until it is picked up (still in raw form) by special tanker trucks. Bellanave is part of a milk cooperative that sells to other entities. Its raw milk is made into milk products like butter; it is also pasteurized and homogenized by large grocery chains that sell it under a store label.
After we watched the milking process, we were extremely curious about trying the raw milk, but Borba warned us against drinking it. While many people tout the health benefits of raw milk (and Borba himself has been drinking it his whole life), the bacteria in raw milk can make some people dangerously ill and he didn’t want us taking any chances. However, Bellanave produces some of the milk that goes into Challenge Butter (one of the butters we frequently see at our supermarket) so we’ll be able to say we tasted the milk each time we eat that butter.
Now for a sensitive question: Does the farm stink? Honestly, not any more than the usual farm smell. Bellanave was the first dairy farm in the country to do an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and the farm continues to be scrupulous about keeping conditions pristine and environmentally sensitive. Example: while the cows are away at the milking parlor, a special vacuum machine – curiously named the “Honey Vac” - regularly comes through the barns and vacuums up the manure, which will later be spread over the crops as fertilizer (“Rural recycling,” Borba calls it). Even on a blisteringly hot day, the only time we could smell anything even vaguely farm-like was when we were up close and personal with the cows. “Clean water, clean feed, clean beds…If I didn’t take good care of these cows, I’d be out of business,” says Borba.
It’s an interesting thing to see your food being produced up-close and personal. On the one hand, it’s great to feel the confidence in knowing that all of the animals at Bellanave Dairy are being treated humanely and the process is extremely clean. On the other hand, it makes us think twice about consuming the products from a larger mass-production facility that might carry out its business without as much care or attention to the animals. One thing is for sure: It will be hard for us to look at a gallon of milk again without thinking of the cows that produced it. And we’re going to be extremely selective from now on about asking where our milk comes from and how it was produced.