November 28, 2009
On a rainy November morning I drove the 75 miles to Rickreall Dairy, 10 miles east of Salem. I was on assignment--for a class I'm taking in animal protection. Rickreall has been operating for 20 years and houses approximately 1,550 Holstein cows. I chose this dairy because it was the closest factory farm to Portland, as far as I know, and one phone call was all it took to schedule a private tour. My tour guide first showed me the milking area that is constantly operating, with mechanical tubes sucking milk from the udders of cows who are milked three times a day. Next we went to the area where the youngest calves are kept in pens not much larger than their bodies. There were three calves born that very day, already confined alone in these pens. Every cow is tagged with a number and her date of birth. They are fed colostrum for the first two days, followed by a liquid diet made from powdered milk. After several weeks, the calves start to eat solid food, a grain mix.
Next we drove to the "nursery" where the cows are placed when they are close to giving birth. This is a spacious area with generous amounts of hay, compared to the compost mixture that provides the "bedding" for all the other cows (the compost contains solid waste collected from the cows). Two calves had been born within the hour, and one "dam" (mother cow) was in the process of eating the placenta. She chewed on it and then thrashed it about, clenched in her mouth. I saw one baby stand for the first time on wobbly legs and approach the udder of her dam. The two calves would be removed after only a few hours with their mothers, and relocated to the solitary pens. I asked about male calves and was told they are routinely transported from Rickreall shortly after birth to be raised for meat. I probed to see if my guide knew whether they would end up in a veal operation, but he was not sure. I know this is often the case because male calves are of no use to a factory dairy farm.
We left the nursery and drove to an area where older cows were concentrated, hundreds in long pens, lined on one side with troughs and the other with pens just large enough for them to lie down. Several bulls, free to roam and mate, were among the scores of females; this increases the odds of pregnancies, coupled with the continual efforts of three workers to impregnate the cows artificially.
I thanked my tour guide and headed back to Portland. For the rest of the afternoon, I thought about the regimented lives of the gentle animals I saw on the tour. Factory dairy farms treat the cows like machines, and the only value to the business lies in their ability to produce milk for human consumption. There is no opportunity for dams and their calves to bond, and there is no effort made to preserve family groups. The arrangement of pens by age and fertility status is efficient for the operation but incongruous with bovine socialization.
One would like to think that things are done differently in Oregon, since we pride ourselves on being so progressive, but it is not much different here. The Dairy Farmers of Oregon does what it can to promote the myth that the cows live happily on an old-fashioned farm and that people of all ages need to drink milk every day: three or more glasses for children and four or more glasses for teenagers. A coloring book from this group is given to the busloads of kids who visit Rickreall every spring. Some children may wonder why the cows pictured in the book are outside a barn grazing on grass while the ones they just saw are all indoors eating from piles of grain.
My trip to the dairy was enlightening. When I see the precious dam/calf bond being broken so soon after birth so that humans can drink a glass of milk, or eat some yogurt, it only strengthens my commitment to a vegan diet. May we all get the opportunity to observe factory farms up close, look the animals in the eye, and with that awareness, make choices that protect, rather than exploit, these sentient beings.
Charley Korns, former president of Northwest VEG, is pursuing a master's degree in humane education.