I’ve previously mentioned on my blog that I once lived down the road from a lovely (now defunct) small family-owned dairy with very happy-looking cows. I enjoyed gazing out at them as they grazed on grass. Sometimes when they were close to the fence by the road I would talk to them. (No one else was around.) This image of dairy cows stuck with me and was a model of everything that industrial factory farming is not. However, it wasn’t until a local news story came out about Peace Ridge Sanctuary that provides a forever home and care for formerly abused and neglected farm animals that I learned that veal production is the “byproduct” of dairy farming. Cows give birth to both bull calves and heifers, but only the female calves will go on to produce milk. So what happens to the baby bull calves, and does buying organic or from a small farm make a difference in their fate?
The standard practice is for the babies to be separated from their mothers within the first twenty-four hours of birth. Most will then be imprisoned in highly constricting “veal crates” until they are slaughtered for veal. Veal crates are legal in all but nine states (Maine is one of the states that banned the practice), but there are no laws against separating the calves from their mothers within twenty-four hours of birth.
My first reaction to learning this was to run to my refrigerator and take out the carton of organic milk from Whole Foods. Since it’s their own brand I assumed that it had an animal welfare standard rating just like their meat and egg products. I scanned the carton on all sides. There was no rating. I actually had only recently begun to purchase their milk after years of using a different local brand figuring it was even better since it was organic. I dug a little deeper online and found out that Whole Foods 365 Organic milk has only three out of five “cows” according to the rating standards of the Cornucopia Institute, a watchdog group of alternative and organic agriculture. Whole Foods did not provide information about the time of separation of calves, nor did they provide the source for the milk. There are other unanswered questions in the link above. I will not be buying their milk.
Next, I purchased organic milk by a national brand that uses a Maine organic dairy. I contacted that dairy and was told that they separate the calves within 12-24 hours. They did not respond to what happens to them afterward.
I thought deeply about going dairy-free because I’m rocking the homemade nut milk production in the Magic Bullet I bought a couple of months ago, but that doesn’t address calcium. Oh, no biggie, I can just buy some calcium carbonate powder and fortify it that way, right? Not really a great idea. There are studies showing that calcium supplements can damage the heart, cause acid rebound, and insufficient evidence to show that supplements can prevent bone fractures in older men and women. Also, since I’m 51 years old my calcium needs are higher than younger women. The same for men, too.
Next I looked into food sources for calcium by reading numerous vegan websites with “starter” kits and tutorials. I kept seeing “fortified soy milk” and other fortified foods highlighted along with plant-based sources. In my assessment, it would not be possible for me to get all the calcium I needed unless I ate ridiculous amounts of spinach (which contains high levels of oxylate, something I don’t want in excess) and collard greens every day.
OK, so then I acknowledged to myself that there is no perfect solution, so I would reduce my dairy consumption just like I’ve reduced my meat consumption once I began eating retro. (If you think “they” ate more meat in the 1950s then you haven’t read my book!) I learned that almonds are relatively high in calcium as are sardines (bone in), something I’ve never eaten before. So is broccoli, something we often eat.
But from which dairy would I buy milk and cheese? I looked online again and found it! There’s an organic farm in Maine, Misty Brook Farm, that produces 100% grass-fed milk and according to their website does NOT separate the bull calves from their mothers until months later. From the website:
The calves are all raised on their mothers or nurse moms. They are rotationally grazed with their moms and have plenty of sunshine. With all this great food and attention, our Jersey bull calves make superb rose veal. The veal is delicate in taste compared to beef and takes seasoning well.
If you eat dairy the responsible thing to do is eat some veal too. Every year a cow has a calf in order to keep the milk flowing. About half of these calves are bull calves. On most farms bull calves are shipped off at a few days old. On our farm we raise all the calves and give them the best life possible. The extra bull calves become delicious rose veal.
I googled “rose veal” and learned that this is mostly a British veal and not as common here in America.
Intentionally reducing dairy consumption, increasing calcium-rich vegetable and fish intake (by the way, sardines are lower in mercury than other fish) and supporting a farm that, given the realities of the dairy industry, practices a more humane approach, I believe is the most sustainable and healthy option for us right now.
As you can see, Misty Brook Farm sells raw milk. I’m not excited about gambling with bacteria so I’m going to pasteurize it myself. In addition to the extra handling time it does cost twice as much as other milks but it’s a price we are willing to pay!
I understand that not everyone will agree with my choices. Some will suggest I should be a vegan, others might say I’m a foe of agriculture. I believe in making informed choices and admittedly I was in the dark about dairy. If you are concerned about the welfare of calves and live in a state that permits veal crates, consider contacting lawmakers in your area. Also, ask questions about the milk you buy. Do a little digging and reach out to the dairies and then decide what you can live with so that the cows can also have a better life before their ultimate sacrifice. It seems like the right thing to do! (There is a “no slaughter” dairy in PA run by Hare Krishnas!)
Update! I have wonderful news! I heard back from the local dairy I have supported for years, Smiling Hill Farm, that also uses old-fashioned returnable milk bottles. I was granted permission to post their response here. From the owner, Warren Knight:
Thank you for your query.
Smiling Hill Farm does not use biosolids or pesticides or herbicides or artificial fertilizer on our fields. We fertilize the fields annually with composted manure, leaves, grass clippings and sediment from the settling tanks of the grey water from our small creamery.
People do want to know about our calves. Most people are concerned about the veal industry. The calves at risk are bull calves that represent on average 50% of the calves born. We covet our female calves as they can be raised on the farm and join the milking herd. As a small farm in the shadow of an urban area, Smiling Hill Farm is fortunate to be able to place our bull calves without relying upon the veal industry. Once weaned, some of our bull calves are adopted for 4H projects, others are raised as beef cows by hobby farms and some (if the coloring matches well) are purchased as potential steers for paired oxen. Smiling Hill Farm does not have a set time that weaning of calves takes place. Each animal is different and some calves benefit from additional time before weaning. Other calves grow rapidly and can stress a more mature cow if allowed to nurse for an extended period of time. We attempt to consider the overall health and well being of both the calf and cow in determining when to wean.
We are a grazing farm. Most of our cows are Holstien-Freisen but we also have some Jersey, and Brown Swiss bloodlines. Our dairy cows eat primarily green grass in the summer months. In the winter months the cows eat hay and silage bales that we harvest. The silage is baled and stored in the white-plastic wrapped “marshmallow” looking round-bales that you can see at the farm. We also put-up dry hay bales (both round and square). Smiling Hill Farm does not grow or feed corn silage. We will supplement with grain particularly during the winter months if the stored forage does not have sufficient nutrients to ensure a healthy herd. We also use spent grain from local breweries.
Smiling Hill Farm does NOT use BGH (aka: rBGH, rBST) or any artificial hormones.
It’s Smiling Hill Farm for the win!! (Plus, it’s pasteurized!)
Update #2: In lieu of home pasteurization I decided to use the Misty Brook raw milk for cooking. I made creamed organic corn pasta shells and it was the best I’ve ever made! The raw milk has a nice rich flavor and creamy consistency.