May 29, 2020

According to the Dairy Farmers of Ontario’s 2018-2019 annual report, there are 3,410 dairy farms in Ontario that produced almost three million litres of milk. Jesse Smith, 28, is one of those farmers.

He owns and runs a small dairy farm in Norfolk County that has approximately 30 cows and a few bulls. Smith got started in the industry as a teenager helping out his uncle and grandpa milk cows on their farm.

“I would come up and milk cows, help grandpa (with tasks around the farm) and that’s where I kind of got started, at least with dairy. Cattle have been in my blood for four or five generations,” he said.

One of the girls pokes her head through the fence. Photo by Kirsten Kitto

Despite milk’s popularity over the years, there has been an increase in the number of people turning to a vegan diet and choosing plant-based alternatives in place of dairy milk. These include almond, soy, oat, coconut, cashew, hemp, rice, hazelnut and pea milk. 

With these newer plant milks popping up, there have been numerous studies and articles published proclaiming dairy being good or bad for humans, leading more people to question which type of milk is best for them. 

To make an informed decision regarding whether dairy should be a part of your life, there are a lot of things you should consider. This includes the rules and regulations that the Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO) must follow, cows’ impact on the environment, how they are treated at dairy farms, benefits and drawbacks of plant milk alternatives and the ability to decide what information about the industry is true or false.

Rules, regulations and background information to take note of in regards to the Canadian dairy industry

Dairy farmers in Canada follow strict and specific guidelines so that their cows stay healthy and produce the proper quality of milk. 

“Every other year, you’ll have a validator come to your dairy and he’ll make sure your facilities are grade A,” said Smith. 

This inspection is extremely thorough. According to the DFO’s Raw Milk Quality Program Policies, areas of the farm inspection include: biosecurity, which is checking for any contaminants that may affect the cows and their milk; making sure all milk contact surfaces are clean and working correctly; insuring the milk is stored and cooled properly at a temperature of 10 C or cooler after one hour of milking and between 1 C and 4 C when stored afterward; the thermometer is working; all surfaces the cows’ udders could come in contact with are clean; the cows’ physical structures are intact and tidy; and that they are receiving proper care.

Each of those sectors is broken down into what exactly needs to be done and in detail what the inspector expects to see. These farm checks are conducted bi-annually, and Smith says the year in between you are supposed to self-evaluate your farm using the same rules. The entire farm is inspected from the milk house and farmyard to the area surrounding the farm. 

After the inspection is finished, the farm is graded out of four possible grades: 

  • Grade A farm – “Grade A farms have the majority of items scored as acceptable and items that need improvement do not adversely impact milk quality or animal welfare.”
  • Conditional Grade A – “The farm has a number of items that are not in compliance with regulations, but the items may not adversely impact milk quality or animal welfare. The producer is given a grace period to come into compliance.”
  • Non-Grade A – “The farm has an item or items that are not in compliance with regulations and which may adversely impact milk quality or animal welfare.” 
  • Unsanitary Non-Grade A – “If conditions are unsanitary or if animal welfare is generally compromised, the producer is immediately shut off from the milk market.” 

All farms must stay at a grade A level, so if they are graded as conditional grade A or non-grade A, a second inspection will be conducted within 15 days. If the condition of the farm hasn’t improved the farmer will be given a penalty. Inspections will continue every month that the farm is not at the grade A standard and penalties will be applied every visit until the fourth consecutive month when the farm will be shut down and the milk will be taken off the market until the farm standards improve. 

“When I started this, I thought, ‘Wow, I’m going to make so much money. I can do everything. I can do this. I’ll be good, no problem.’ And man, is it ever harder than it looks,” said Smith. 

He runs his dairy farm in Simcoe by himself and knows how challenging the upkeep and maintenance is. 

“Farming, it is a gamble. Sometimes I’m wondering to myself, like why, why do I do it?” he said. 

The cows hanging out in the barn. Photo by Kirsten Kitto

Other than the farm being kept clean and the cows taken care of, there are tons of specific rules to follow when it comes to the quality and storage of milk. A sample of milk is tested for quality every time it’s picked up from the farm.

The DFO’s website states, “Farmers deal with milk quality criteria every day to control somatic cell count (SCC), bacteria levels, freezing point and inhibitors.”

All of these factors are of extreme importance when it comes to producing quality, drinkable milk. The farmer risks a penalty every time a milk sample tests incorrectly, or something isn’t right in any of those categories.

According to the Bovine Mastitis Network, “Fundamentally, milk from a healthy mammary gland already contains a certain number of somatic cells. These cells act as watchdogs in case of an infection. When bacteria enter the mammary gland, SCC increases.”

Smith has an at-home method to test his milk to ensure that the SCC isn’t too low or high. He uses four, small circular disk containers and takes a sample of milk from different cows in each container and mixes them with a special liquid.

“You swirl it around a little bit, and if it gets almost like glue-ish, stringy, that means her somatic count is really high. So that’s where you can start if you’re getting really high numbers and a cow that you think has a problem.” 

This giant container stores the milk. Photo by Kirsten Kitto

When all these procedures are followed correctly, the sweet, natural, liquid white gold is ready to be taken for pasteurizing and then poured into your glass. Or coffee or tea. 

Explaining the science behind the myth “Is there actually pus in my milk?” 

The short answer is, no. According to the BC Dairy Association, “Pus is dead white blood cells, dead skin cells and bacteria, not the live somatic cells you’ll find in milk from healthy cows.” Dairy farmers frequently test their cow’s SCC, which is their white blood cell count, to ensure the cow is healthy and producing healthy milk. If the count is too high, it’s an indication that the cow may be fighting off an infection of some sort.

The DFC’s milk requirements states that “milk must contain less than 400,000 individual cells (IC) per mL. A milk sample with a test result greater than 399,000 IC/mL is in the penalty range.”

When the cell count is high, an infection doesn’t mean the cow’s milk is tainted with pus and the farmer will receive a penalty if it’s over the limit. It just means the cow has a higher SCC because it’s trying to fight off the infection. Often websites promoting veganism, or some sort of anti-dairy movement will use the claim that there is pus allowed in milk to sway the public. However, that is false, since a higher cell count doesn’t mean the cells are dead, and dead cells and bacteria are what pus is. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) even launched a “Got Pus?” campaign back in 2007. 

Is drinking dairy milk good or bad for me? 

A bit of both.

All the food we consume should be done in moderation because everything can be harmful if we eat or drink too much of it. This goes for milk as well. According to Canada’s Food Guide, drinking two cups of milk a day after the age of two into adulthood is recommended. 

“The old food guide had “milk and alternatives” as a food group, but the new one no longer does. The purpose of that food group was to ensure people are obtaining adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D as these tend to be low in Canadians. These nutrients are particularly important for bone growth and tooth growth in children and adolescents and maintaining bone integrity as we age,” said Lena Jenson, a dietitian at Madawaska Valley Family Health Team. 

She is no stranger to the wide variety of claims surrounding the question of if you should drink dairy milk or not.

“Professionally I explain the purpose of milk in the diet – it is a dense source of calcium, vitamin D, among other minerals, and has a considerable amount of protein when assessing nutritional quality for the amount of calories it has.” 

The fat content is the main difference between the varieties of milk on the shelf such as zero per cent or skim milk, one and two per cent, and 3.25 per cent or homogenized milk. The amount of vitamins and minerals are relatively close for the different milk types.

Some people can even drink unpasteurized milk and have no health issues whatsoever, which was the case for Colleen Tessaro, of Stoney Creek.

“Back in the day, I grew up on non-pasteurized milk. So we would just filter it through cheesecloth. It wasn’t pasteurized, we had our own cow and were all very healthy,” she said. 

However, Tessaro hasn’t had any dairy in over 20 years due to her rheumatoid arthritis. She believes the lactose in dairy milk, which is the sugar, is what made her joints begin to flare up and ache. After her daughter Carly, now 21, was born was when it got really bad. 

“Within three months, so she was three months old, I could not pick her up out of the crib. I had so much pain in my elbow, my wrists and my one knee.” 

Upon making this connection she decided to cut all dairy out of her life and the painful flareups reduced. The only thing she can eat is Ghee, which is butter still from a cow, but the lactose has been removed. 

Tessaro’s Ghee butter that she can eat containing no lactose. Photo by Kirsten Kitto

“At this point I don’t miss it anymore,” she said about consuming dairy.

Despite Tessaro drinking unpasteurized milk with no ill effects, it is not recommended.

Pasteurization is the process of heating the milk to kill any bacteria to make it safe for people to drink. According to the Ontario Ministry of Health, “Raw milk provides an ideal environment for bacteria to grow. Without pasteurization, harmful bacteria can grow in raw milk and it can potentially be a danger to anyone who drinks it.”

In Canada it’s illegal to sell unpasteurized milk, so if that’s not a concern, why else could milk be bad for us? 

“I try to expel myths such as dairy increasing mucus production and its protein/lactose being difficult to digest which is simply not true unless you have lactose intolerance,” said Jenson. 

If you don’t drink milk for several years and then just randomly decide to one day, it’s likely your gut will not be happy with you. This is because you haven’t had any lactose for so long, and your stomach doesn’t know what to do with it, so it doesn’t agree with you. Whereas people who grow up drinking milk all their lives have no issue drinking a full glass of milk because their gut is used to lactose. 

Aside from this, dairy is known to cause “high cholesterol and high blood pressure and studies have suggested that consuming it regularly puts people at a higher risk of developing cancer and diabetes,” according to a LiveKindly article.

One such study was recently conducted at Loma Linda University School of Public Health in Southern California. It concluded that one cup of dairy milk a day increased the risk of breast cancer in women by 50 per cent and two to three cups a day by 70 to 80 per cent. However, they don’t know the link between breast cancer and dairy milk, and multiple studies have since been published contradicting the information found.

Jenson also thinks the research is flawed.

“It produced a lot of fear-mongering in the public, unfortunately,” she said.

However, there are potential health risks to having dairy as a daily part of your diet, so research is key in figuring out what’s right for you.

Cows and the environment and what can be done to help

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), there are approximately 278 million dairy cows in the world. That is a lot of land being taken up by cows and farms, a lot of big mouths to feed, and a lot of manure and passed cow gas. 

Smith’s girls relaxing in the barn. By Kirsten Kitto

These cows’ “toots” are known as a greenhouse gas called methane, which when produced from “non-fossil sources such as food and green waste” actually benefits the environment and can replace the use of coal or gasoline. The problem is the methane gas coming out of a cow’s butt doesn’t get burned off before it is released into the air, causing it to be harmful to our environment and “because it is able to trap heat in the atmosphere, methane contributes to climate change,” according to SoCalGas, a gas and utility website. 

Cows also have to eat and drink heaps of food and water in order to stay alive. Not only does the farmer need water for the cows to drink, but “dairy operations can consume large volumes of water to grow feed, water cows, manage manure and process products,” according to WWF. 

Inside the barn alone, water is used as drinking water for the animals, to cool them off, to clean milking equipment and where the animals are kept, and to keep the milk cool. 

Worldwide, water used by dairy farmers makes up 19 per cent of the water used by all animal production, according to the research paper A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products done in 2012 by Mekonnen and Hoekstra.

And then there’s the amount of space that the cattle and farms can take up. According to Ingeniumcanada.org, “There are over 20,000 dairy farms in Canada with an average 54 cows per herd. That totals approximately 1.2 million dairy cows.” 

Smith’s dairy farm houses about 30 cows at the moment, so his dairy operation is on a much smaller scale compared to large farms in the United States, which has nine million dairy cows. 

“It’s kind of funny, because you see videos out there of these like gigantic farms, and they’re all from other countries, they’re not Canadian. I think the biggest in Ontario is maybe close to 1,000 cows, and I think the biggest in the United States is like, 15,000 or 20,000,” said Smith.

“Back in the day, there were so many farms, and now there’s 15 dairy farms left in Norfolk,” he added. 

Others concerns include cows overgrazing, and the fact that trees are often cut down in order to create a pasture for the animals. 

The most common food for cows in Canada is grass, but because Ontario has an abundance of farmland and the average herd is only 54 cows, overgrazing and taking up space doesn’t seem to be an alarming issue here. 

In addition to grass, the cattle are given minerals and vitamins to promote good health and productivity.

So, what’s next? 

Clearly the industry is taking a toll on the environment. So what are people doing about it? 

Well, WWF says, “Farmers can significantly reduce environmental impacts through the use of better management practices and technologies.” 

But what exactly does that mean? 

According to the Dairy farmers of Canada, “Canadian dairy farmers have participated in programs to mitigate the impact of dairy farming on the environment since the ‘90s.” Farmers have been practising and improving methods to help reduce the carbon footprint left by cows for decades, but has any of it actually made a difference? 

One major implementation that has been successful was the creation of “provincial environmental farm plans” 25 years ago, which help farmers learn what they can do to help with these negative impacts. 

“The Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) is an assessment voluntarily prepared by farm families to increase their environmental awareness in up to 23 different areas on their farm. Through the EFP process, farmers highlight their farm’s environmental strengths, identify areas of environmental concern, and set realistic action plans with timetables to improve environmental conditions.” 

The DFC says over this time span about 70 per cent of Canada’s farms have completed one of these plans. 

Other than learning practices from these programs, farmers have and are continuing to learn how to make their farms more efficient. 

Smith currently uses a composting method to deal with the poop but is hoping to install sand bed stalls in the near future to make it easier to clean up the cows’ waste. 

“With the compost pack, it gets the majority of it, and it’s a different way of spreading it too. The liquid gets stirred up, and then they either tank it onto the field or run a drag line. And they will basically pump it through a hose, and then you can broadcast it or inject it right into the ground.” 

Cow manure is a fantastic fertilizer because it contains lots of nutrients, helps aerate and break up clumps in the soil and hardly has any seeds because the cows digest their food so well, so no unknown weeds or plants sprout up anywhere.

As for water use, DFC conducted a study in 2018 which showed in the last five years there was a six per cent drop in water consumption. 

The main three cow milking systems also all use different amounts of water. Automated milking systems, which is where cows voluntarily walk up to a milking system without the farmer having to bring them in, used 75 litres per day per cow. Tie stall milking used 30 litres per day per cow, which is when a machine is used for milking directly in the barn. Free stall parlour milking uses 21 litres per cow per day; this was the most water efficient in DFC’s research and is when the cows are led into a milking parlour, and the milk goes straight from them into the bulk tank. 

Unfortunately, there isn’t much anyone can do about the cows’ farts, they have to eat and let it out.

The same study did show a seven per cent lower carbon footprint, however, it’s still a contributing factor in climate change and damaging the ozone layer. 

Environmental impact fact sheet from the Dairy Farmers of Canada.

The relationship between farmer and cow 

This relationship can be a special bond filled with care or just part of an average workday on the farm. 

It’s important to remember the life for dairy cows outside of Ontario and Canada is different. Every farm operates in its own way, and some locations on a larger scale have been caught mistreating and abusing their cows.  

Fair Oaks farm, located in Indiana, was one of these massive farms that was caught abusing its animals on video in 2019. A non-profit animal welfare group went undercover and filmed what occurred behind closed doors at this large farm.

“The group on June 4 released a four-minute video that the investigator shot showing some workers throwing calves off the back of trucks and into their pens, dragging them by the ear, hitting them in the face with plastic milk bottles, kicking them, stabbing them with steel rebar and burning them with branding irons,” according to a Chicago Tribune article.

Four employees who are clearly seen on video have since been fired and a fifth one was arrested on charges of animal abuse and torturing or mutilating an animal.

This has also happened at Canadian dairy farms, although it’s unclear how many. 

The National Post published an article in 2014 describing similar horrific abuse that took place at Chilliwack Cattle Sales in Vancouver, the largest dairy farm in Canada. There was video evidence in this case as well, of multiple teenagers hitting and beating the cows. Seven employees were eventually charged with animal cruelty in 2016. 

“Even I was kind of upset there,” Smith said. “I saw a video the other day and I made a bunch of comments on it, and it must have been about 5,000 calves on a farm, and I know it was down in the United States. But they were just slamming all these bottles in the calves’ (mouths), loading them on trailers, and then there was this other person saying ‘Oh they take great care of them and I’m sure they’re healthier than half the calves born on a small farm that are laying in shit.’

“I think that’s why people have a sour taste in their mouth about the industry. Even I don’t like that.” 

However, not every dairy farm and farmer are like this. 

“To some, like me, cows actually have faces and they have names,” said Smith. 

He names every single one of his cows. 

“I think I decided to name this one Yeehaw,” he said about a male calf that was born a few hours earlier.

“We’re gonna keep him,” he said, before a loud moo from the baby cut him off. “He’s like what, you’re not keeping me?!” said Smith, acting as the cow. 

Not only does he name each of his girls, every morning when he has a coffee and sits on his living room couch, he can turn around and see all his dairy queens through a massive window. Smith converted a section of the barn into a comfortable, cottage-like living space with a bedroom, bathroom and living room which is directly beside the area where the cows stay. He wasn’t fully on board at first though, seeing as his parents got the house that came with the property.

“Mom and dad got the new house, and I got to live in a barn,” he chuckled. 

Cow moos are really loud and proud, and when they pee it’s so loud it sounds like someone is running a bath, so he placed his bedroom on the farther side to avoid as much of this noise as possible. 

But after some adjusting and construction to make it feel like a home, he has grown to enjoy his wooden barn bungalow and seeing the cows all the time. 

“Another reason why I did the dairy is because I find it’s like a complete circle. You go harvest the crops, put the crop into the cow, the cow grows, you get the milk from the cow, you get the manure from the cow to put back on the field to get better crops. And then the cow, when it’s her time, goes and makes, name the product, anything,” said Smith. 

Why some people are choosing plant-based alternatives 

The list of plant-based milks that are available on the market these days is approaching the double digits. From different nut milks, to rice, hemp, coconut and even pea milk, you can find almost any alternative you are searching for at the local grocery store. 

Different types of plant-based milks. Photo from freepik.com

“I stopped drinking dairy milk around five years ago when I became vegan,” said Erika Heide Brown, a woman very passionate about not consuming animals or animal byproducts.

“It was definitely a choice to be healthier, choose a cruelty-free lifestyle and preserve our environment.”

Since Brown is vegan, milk by default was no longer an acceptable part of her diet. 

Although she doesn’t receive the nutrients and benefits from drinking dairy milk, Jenson says plant-based alternatives can still provide you with what you need.

“Dairy alternatives such as nut milks are, for the most part, fortified with calcium and vitamin D (fortified meaning these wouldn’t be naturally present in nuts, so they are added in) which is great as the point of this food group is to ensure people are getting these exact nutrients.”

Smith was still unclear as to why so many people are drinking alternatives now. 

“It is certainly making things challenging. In a way I’m kind of like, are you doing it for personal health reasons, or are you doing it because you don’t think we treat our animals right?” he said. 

“Or is it because they think it’s unethical. I find with (videos and news) being out on the internet, you never know what’s actually the truth. You have to see it to believe it.” 

The three main reasons why people seem to be heading towards plant milks are one, for health reasons. They might physically not be able to consume dairy whether that’s because of a lactose intolerance or other health reasons, or like Brown, cutting dairy out of their diet is a personal choice. The second reason some don’t support the dairy industry is because of the animal abuse that has occurred, and the third reason is because dairy farms hurt the environment.

“I never want to see anyone lose their job/source of income ever. However, the dairy industry is just not sustainable from an environmental standpoint, an ethics standpoint or a health standpoint,” Brown said. 

Tessaro said, “I think there’s going to be more and more people drinking plant-based milk, absolutely, but is it any better? Not for the environment, I don’t think.”

She drinks hemp milk because it’s an organic, renewable source that doesn’t hurt the environment. 

“I think it’s a lot less destructive than almond or coconut, and (I don’t drink) soy milk because it’s not organic and genetically modified,” she said. 

After receiving all this information, what milk should I drink? … 

After being bombarded with all of this information, you may be left wondering, what should I buy and drink now? 

Honestly, whatever kind you like. There is no right or wrong answer. 

You may be like Jenson, who says “I’ve drank (dairy) milk my whole life and can’t imagine not. I prefer its taste and nutrient profile as well as cost to non-dairy substitutes. Milk is cheaper, has more nutrition and just tastes right!” 

Or you might be like Brown, who weighs all the aspects of what went into getting her milk to her. “Look for the fair-trade certified symbol where possible. Consider oat milk or cashew milk instead of almond milk,” she said.

As for Smith, he plans to continue doing what he loves and eventually pass the farm on to future children or sell it. 

“This is kind of one of those things where it’s about the experience. They’re (the bulls) little kids. Even the cows, they act like children except they’re 1,400 pounds,” said Smith, who never grows tired of the animals’ antics. 

A silly cow sticks its tongue out at the camera. Photo by Kirsten Kitto

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