Noisy Water Review

McFarming: The McDonaldization of Dairies

Jan Wolfisberg

Imagine that you are hiking through a remote area of Colorado. The area is beautiful, a mostly dry grassland with mountains far off in the distance. You notice large swaths of green land to your right, all well-irrigated by ditches and pipelines. Nearing the watered area, the unmistakable smell of animal manure permeates your nostrils. As you crest a rise, five huge barns constructed of sheet metal, each a half mile long, lay before you. Outside in the sun, thousands of young cows live in dirt pens. Several tanker trucks, their sides emblazoned with the catchy phrase “Drink A Mug O’ Milk A Meal!” rumble back and forth to the main barn, and you realize this must be a dairy farm, yet on a size and scale you have never seen or even imagined before. This is definitely not the picturesque dairy with the big red barn and cows grazing on green pastures that you hold in your mind’s eye. This is a factory farm.

Since the 1950’s, many dairy farms have become bigger, more efficient, and more centered around technology. Cows have become machines for milk production, and farmhands have become part of this mechanized milk manufacturing line. I like to call this new method “McFarming,” a reference to George Ritzer’s book The McDonaldization of Society, in which the author describes the efficiency, calculability, and control through technology in industry today. Ritzer claims that this move towards speed in production was started by McDonalds’ and their production of fast food, and that many other businesses have begun using themselves. Many dairy farmers looked to the model of speed and mass production set by McDonald’s and have applied it to their own industry. It is my purpose in this essay to illustrate how farming has become massively “McDonaldized” creating many dairies with upwards of 5000 cows, and how these developments have negative effects on the animals, employees, and even the farmers themselves. However, I am not claiming that all dairies have become factories: on the contrary, many small farms still thrive throughout the United States.

My interest in dairy farming has developed through the years I have lived on an operating dairy of 160 cows. I have spent countless hours helping on the family farm, feeding calves, cleaning pens, and helping milk. Being involved in the 4-H program and showing cows several times a year at local fairs has taught me more about dairy cows than most football fans know about their favorite NFL team. I have toured a number of factory farms in Eastern Washington, Idaho, and Northern Oregon. Witnessing the massive scale of these dairies, with up to 10,000 cows, is an incredible experience for anyone, especially a farm kid who grew up on a dairy one fiftieth of that size. The magnitude of these factory farms is shocking, and even depressing.

From birth until death, the life of a dairy cow is incredibly controlled and ordered by the farmer, down to the smallest details, in order to achieve maximum efficiency. When a cow is in the last few days of her pregnancy, she kept in a special maternity “hospital” and monitored at all times. As soon as she goes into labor, a farmhand grabs the emerging feet of the calf and pulls the baby out of its mother as quickly as possible. The newborn is immediately washed and then checked for sex; the males will oftentimes be sold to a raising house where they are butchered after several months for veil, while the females are kept on the dairy. The calves are removed within minutes from their mothers, who are pushed out of the maternity area to join the rest of the herd in the main barns. The female calves, commonly referred to as “heifers,” are moved to a large indoor nursery, where they are raised with many other calves in groups and fed twice a day with milk. Those that get common diseases such as “scours” (diarrhea) or pneumonia are injected with large amounts of antibiotics and hormones in an attempt to keep them alive. Heifers that never totally get well are usually put down, as they will grow into skinny and unhealthy cows.

When the heifers reach the age of two months, they are switched from a milk diet to one based on hay and corn grain. They no longer live in nurseries, but outside in large “dry lots.” These lots are not pastures, but fenced in dirt areas several acres in size where a group of up to 20 young animals are kept. These dry lots are completely exposed to the elements. In the summer, the heifers roast in the sun; in winter they freeze in wind and snow, and in spring and fall, they must bear the rain and mud. It is not uncommon for factory farms to have several dozen young stock die each winter from the cold. These losses, however, do not come close to dealing the farm a major blow: losing 50 animals out of 2000 is not considered too bad. When the heifers reach a year old, they are bred, usually through artificial insemination, and at two years, they are ready to give birth to their own calves. Once the young cow has calved, she begins lactating and is placed with the rest of the adult herd. The cow’s life now revolves around eating, sleeping, and being milked.

Milking cows are fed a mixed diet of alfalfa, corn grain, grass hay, cotton seed, and silage (slightly fermented cut crops such as grass or corn). Modern cow barns are typically built around a central alley, through which a large tractor can drive. The tractor pulls a feeder wagon along, containing a mixture of silages, corn, and cotton seed. The mix is poured along either side of the alley, which is lined with “stanchions” through which the cows can reach their heads to eat. Cows no longer graze, as it is too inefficient to have the animals go gather their own food from the field. Tractors can chop and gather crops much faster. This food is always available to the animals, to ensure that they will consume enough energy and protein to keep milk production high. This intensive feeding is hard on cows; their bodies produce so much milk that they begin to encounter various health issues due to stress at only five or six years old. Since they spend their lives indoors on cement, cows also develop problems in their feet and legs, leaving some crippled and on their way to the slaughterhouse. This is a large contrast to cows on a small farm, where animals are usually allowed at least some time outside on pasture in the summer, and lead healthier, more natural lives, often living eight years or more.

The diet fed to modern cows on large dairies is mostly unnatural. Corn is a staple food, yet the animals’ stomachs were not designed for this plant. When a ruminant, such as dairy cow, is fed too much corn, their stomach PH levels can easily become unbalanced, causing bloating, intense stomachaches, and, if not treated properly, death. Most farmers, however, do not want to give the cows any less corn, as it is high in energy and nutrients. Their solution is to treat the cows with large amounts of antibiotics, sometimes even mixing it in with food. These antibiotics keep stomachs under control, but their aftereffects can cut years off a cow’s life.

Below, cows on a large dairy feed on corn silage.

The milking “parlor” design and operating procedures on factory farms are an excellent example of McDonaldization in farming. They are built to ensure massive numbers of cows can move through the building in the shortest amount of time. Gates funnel cows from the main barns into the milking parlor, and there is always a farmhand herding them in. The cows walk onto a moving carousel, which can hold up to 90 cows at one time. As a cow enters a slot in the rotating machine, a sensor is triggered and sprays her udder in iodine to kill bacteria. As she stands calmly on the machine, a farmhand wipes the disinfectant off her udder with a rag, and several seconds later another worker quickly puts on a vacuum milking machine. The carousel slowly moves around the circle as she lets down her milk, and when she reaches the end of the circle, the milking machine automatically removes itself. The cow’s udder is mostly empty of milk, and she is pushed off the structure by a third farmhand. This milk “assembly line” normally takes less than 8 minutes. Though the process is not painful for the cows, there are a variety of other negative effects that this efficient mechanized process causes.

Below, a carousel milking parlor on a factory farm in the Midwest.

For farm employees working in the parlor, the job is extremely menial and tedious. Shifts often last 10 hours, and involve the same procedures over and over again. In the same way that a worker on a car assembly line does one specific task, “milkers” always do the same job. One man wipes cows’ udders, another puts machines on, day in and day out, typically six days a week. The monotony of the job easily begins to wear on one’s mind. The mass production milking system requires that all cows be uniform, especially in udder shape and size. A cow that has a sagging udder or wide teats (a result of age or poor pedigree) is a major inconvenience, as it will cause the process to slow down as the milker takes the extra time to put on the machine. Also, cows that milk slowly are a nuisance, as they make the farmhands stop the rotating carousel and wait for their udders to empty out. On farms extremely obsessed with speed and efficiency in the milking process, cows that are misshaped or slow are simply sent to the slaughterhouse, despite the fact that they may be good producers.

Technology plays a large part in modern dairy operations. Some farmers are actually beginning to use robotic milking machines, which require absolutely no human labor and can milk hundreds of cows per hour. In order to spend less time driving around farms, farm managers have frequently installed surveillance cameras throughout barns to monitor cows straight from their offices. Driving tractors through barn alleys to clean manure is often considered too inefficient, as the waste from 10,000 cows can often amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds per day and could take a whole day to collect. Instead, fresh water is swept from one side of the alley to the other, washing away all the manure in its path, and taking only several minutes.

By no means have all dairy farms converted to this mechanized model set by McDonalds’. In fact, many small family farms still exist throughout the United States. From the rolling hills of Vermont to the wet coast of Washington state, it is not uncommon to see dairy cows grazing on green pastures. Most of these small 50 to 300 cow farms carry on the principles of love of the land, animals, and family that so many people associate with agriculture.

Some developments aiming for efficiency in dairy farming over the past 50 years have actually had positive effects. A century ago, an average Holstein cow milked around 40 pounds a day, around five gallons. Holsteins today easily produce two and a half times that amount, around 100 pounds, or 12.5 gallons a day. This is largely a result of successful pedigree development. Modern dairies breed their cows through artificial insemination, using semen from top bulls from around the world. These bulls pass on positive genetic traits to their female offspring: healthier, stronger bodies, better shaped udders, and higher milk production. These advancements in pedigrees have changed dairy cows, and they are bigger, stronger, and more robust than cows were a hundred years ago. In their drive towards increased efficiency, dairy farmers have created an admittedly more productive and economical dairy cow.

Large factory farms have also lowered labor costs. In dairy farming, labor is the second greatest expenditure besides feed for cows. The amount of labor needed for a fixed number of cows drops dramatically as the number of animals increases. For example, on a small farm of 200 cows, a farmer usually employs two workers, that is to say, one employee per 100 cows. 10,000 cow dairies frequently operate with only 50 farmhands, or roughly one employee per 200 cows. Proportionally, factory farms have only half as many hired hands as do smaller operations. When dairies are huge and so much is mechanized (milking parlors, feeding systems, etc.) fewer workers are needed to keep everything running. By creating massive dairies, farmers have sliced the amount they spend on labor in half and saved themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

However, are these dairies, which can each easily produce five million pounds of milk a day, worth the cost they inflict on the animals and their employees? Cows turn into machines. Farmhands do one specific, tedious job, as if they are working on an assembly line. Cows lead short lives, and workers labor in poor conditions that can subtract from their humanity. While owners of huge farms may rake in millions of dollars a year, does this monetary gain make the negative aspects alright? Many dairy farmers looked to the model of speed and mass production set by McDonald’s and have applied it to their own industry.

Works Cited

Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2004.

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