Milk: A Picture Worth Over 1,000 Words

There’s a well-known saying: a picture is worth a thousand words. To prove how true that statement is, this post strives to be 1,000 words long to explain each part of the picture above. No more, no less.  

This is going to be a long one. 

Let’s begin with the obvious focus of the picture: a young dairy farmer stands just off-center, enjoying a bottle of real milk. A lot goes into keeping the milk this dairy farmer is drinking safe, including pasteurizing the milk to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. Raw milk can harbor dangerous bacteria that pose serious health risks to those who consume it, such as bacteria like listeria and salmonella. But a practice begun by Louis Pasteur in 1864 means that placing milk under extreme heat for a short period of time kills harmful bacteria and dramatically slows the growth of future bacterial risks, increasing the shelf life of milk without harming its nutritional value. Now, it’s a common safety measure. 

Another measure that guarantees a safe beverage during this farmer’s break is vigorous testing. Pasteurization kills bacteria, but consumers believe other dangers live in their milk. The short answer is your milk is completely safe. The longer answer is how it’s kept safe. Multiple testings at the dairy farm and dairy processing plant ensure that no milk containing antibiotics or illness makes its way into consumers’ groceries. (A sick cow is treated with antibiotics to fight infection. While the antibiotics are in her system, the milk is discarded.) If antibiotics are found through testing, all the milk is discarded. Testing also counts the white blood cells present in milk. A high cell count is a sign of illness and may mean the cow has an infection or antibiotics in her system. However, while a higher white blood cell count means milk must be disposed of, detecting a low presence of white blood cells is not bad. In fact, it is considered higher quality milk. 

Look at this man’s face. He’s proud of the work he has put into that sip. The most likely way real milk will hurt you is if you drop that fresh gallon on your foot while hauling it in from the car. Ouch. 

The dairy farmer enjoying his cold milk and free of a milk-stubbed toe stands in front of cows also enjoying their food, happily chewing on their carefully created meal. Dairy cows weigh about 1,000lbs depending on their breed, meaning cows can eat a lot—up to 100lbs a day! More goes into feeding a herd of cows than combining whatever is on hand. Cows have nutritional requirements that must be met to sustain healthy, happy cows, and it must consist of more than grass from grazing. To provide cows their nutritional requirements, dairy farmers feed cows living in barns a mix of feed they call Total Mixed Ration, or TMR. A TMR can consist of corn and its leaves, chopped alfalfa and its hay, grain and byproducts like soybeans, almond hulls, cottonseed and citrus pulp, and more. These Holsteins are munching on a feed designed specifically for them according to the herds’ weight, age, and other factors. Their special diet has been approved by their own nutritionist or veterinarian. Their milk may not be spoiled, but the same can’t be said for how these cows are treated. 

And it’s not just their feed. There’s the well-lit barn. Upon closer inspection, you see that the center aisle is open to the outdoors, with windows placed above, allowing natural light inside the barn and, in addition to fans and misters, keeping the space cool and well ventilated during the summer. In the colder months, the barn can stay a comfortable temperature thanks to the body heat cows generate, combining temporary insulation with a cow’s average body temperature of 101.5°F due to her thick skin and hair providing natural insulation. Rather than venturing outdoors, cows prefer to stay in their dry barns. Notice that though the cows are currently enjoying a meal, there is nothing attaching them to the ground. Though there are various types of barns, a popular design of barn to remember is called a free-stall barn. It includes stalls and bedding for each cow that are routinely cleaned, with access to clean water and feed 24 hours a day. They are free to roam or rest… or pose for the camera! 

The last thing we’ll point out is that these cows are wearing trackers and ear tags to personalize each cow’s treatment. Ear tags are standard practice, making it easy to quickly identify a cow. When the man in front of them hasn’t had his coffee kick in yet, he’s terrible with faces. This ensures a cow gets where she needs to go without a hitch. Electronic trackers, however, focus on using data to catch early signs of sickness or other problems regarding a cow. Her tracker, like a special Fitbit, can obtain data on numerous things, such as her steps, how often she chews her cud or even how much milk she makes. This information combined with other systems’ data helps monitor animal health. If she deviates from her average activity, a dairy farmer can check on her, using the cow’s individualized data in the early detection of changes in routine that may relate to health or comfort. 

But there’s one part of a cow’s day that’s not getting recorded–unless it’s going on social media. Behind the happy cows, you can see a red brush. There are likely more in the barn, placed so that cows can activate the automated brush and get a scratch behind the ears or a hard to reach area on their backs whenever they like. This herd does what it wants, when it wants. 

To keep this post from going over the promised 1,000-word limit, that’s as much detail as we can fit. To learn more about milk safety and cow care, visit The Dairy Alliance links above for more information.