Our trip to the dairy farm, aka, I might have to give up drinking milk

When I heard our next field trip was scheduled for a dairy farm where we might see a cow giving birth, I could almost picture it. We would hike out to the big red barn in our overalls and farmer boots and find the mama cow lying in a bed of straw, surrounded by three farm hands ready to help her with her delivery.

Well, the red barn part was correct.

Actually, we pushed our strollers and coraled our kids into the big red barn, where we took seats with another 100 or so tourists on the concrete bleachers. Behind a curved glass wall, two big pregnant cows were lying in the straw in an elevated room.

The yellow light on a big stoplight outside the barn was shining — the sign a birth was about to take place. It actually was illuminating the word “hooves”. And hooves it was.

A pair of white hooves were sticking out of the black mama who had been struggling with the birth for a while. Giving birth is such a natural process that 94 percent of the cows are able to do it with no assistance. Out of the 90 calves born on this dairy farm each day, we had stumbled upon one of the 6 percent who was having trouble.

 “CAN WE GET AN EPIDURAL OVER HERE!” I wanted to shout. But a big sign under the maternity unit clearly informed us to be quiet.

“Shhhhh,” the signs said. “They can see you.”

From what I heard later, two farm hands pulled and tugged the baby calf’s legs to help with the delivery. The whole process was hitting a little too close to home for me and my newborn and we might have had to step out of the room. And this is coming from a woman who had four C-sections.

Even the soundproof wall wasn’t enough to muffle the moans of Bessie’s delivery pains, the kids informed me.

The new moms got to spend about an hour cleaning up their newborn calves. Then the 70-pound babies were taken to a calf nursery next door, where they were lovingly fed a specially-formulated mixture of colostrum produced by the animals on this 30,000-cow farm. Good-bye, mama. Hello, bottle.

The mother would be taken back to the recovery barn until she was well enough to join the other cows in their daily stroll to the milking parlor. This is the highlight of a cow’s day here on the dairy farm. They line up in long queues anxiously awaiting their turn on the rotating platform like a bunch of high school students lining up for The Demon at Great America.

Seventy-two cows can fit on the carousel at once. Farm hands attach big metal milkers to each cow after checking her for any signs of infection.

It’s clear they like the 8-minute ride and the milking process because they are chewing their cud, a sign of contentment, according to the tour guide. We also watched as many of the 1,200 pound beasts tried to sneak off the carousel and cut in line to get right back on when no one was looking. Cheaters.

During her three trips to the milking parlor each day, an average cow produces about 10 gallons of milk. The 24-hour-a-day operation produces enough milk to serve everyone in the Chicago area for a year.

The carousel had to be better than life back in the barn. Oh yeah, the tour guide told us the cows are perfectly content in their “free roam” barns where they get to choose their own sand bed and chew a mixture of scientifically-formulated corn and other grains grown on the farmland surrounding the dairy farm. The corn stalks are shredded into a powder, compacted into huge bales and then brought to the cows in their stalls. No need to worry about roaming around in the pasture here, ladies.

The workers also clean out their stalls several times a day, sucking up the sand in a giant vacuum and then separating the manure and liquids. The sand is cleaned and the manure goes into an enormous tank where it produces enough methane gas to provide power for operations on the farm.

I’m just not sure how pleasant any place can be when shared with thousands of other pregnant women. OK, not EVERYONE is pregnant. The cows do get three months of recovery time before they are artificially inseminated again. No boy cows here on the dairy farm. They are sold to the beef farms as calves.

After about seven or eight years of constant pregnancy and milking, the ladies are ready to retire. It’s not exactly the life outdoors they had been waiting for. Umm, let’s just say, hamburger, leather purses and lipstick are in their future… not the kind they will enjoy, but the ones they will become.

The mega dairy farm really was a neat place to visit. The kids in our homeschool group had a great time touring the exhibits and watching the babies being born. We also sampled some amazing fresh chocolate milk, ice cream and grilled-cheese sandwiches made on site at the cafe.

But, I will admit, this lactating mama snuggled up close with her new baby afterward. And I won’t look at a glass of milk the same way again.

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  1. Such a plethora of mixed emotions I'm feeling here. What kind of joy are these cows really finding in their life of pregnancy and lactation? Maybe that short hour of peace they feel after baby is born.

  2. fascinating. I wonder if people perceive this as cruel, or as a decent dairy because the cows are allowed a certain amount of "roam" area and their space is clean and well-maintained?

  3. I might have to give up milk AND beef now. Sounds like a nice operation, though. I'm glad that they recycle the manure for energy to power the farm.

  4. Great blog about this dairy. I'm a uni lecturer in the UK researching for a paper about "mega-dairies". So far all that I've read about Fair Oaks is lots and lots of praise, and so it was good to come across your blog which was much more ambivalent about the whole thing. Yes it is clean and well organised, but as you seem to ask, does that make it good, – and are the cows as contented as we'd like to think? You really identified what's missing with Fair Oaks – lots about the milk, the births, the food, the manure – but a total silence on what happens when Betsy stops giving up the goods!Thanks for your insights – most enjoyable to read 🙂

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