Surprised by dairy cow care

There are a lot of questions and concerns that we as consumers have surrounding how food is produced, the safety and quality of the product, and the environmental impact of our daily choices. Even as students who have been studying food and nutrition for five-plus years, there is a lot we still have yet to learn, especially when it comes to understanding food production. Having the opportunity to tour an actual dairy farm was such a valuable experience because we were able to not only speak to the farmer herself but also see how what we eat is produced!

Illinois dairy barn

Before going to the dairy farm we were concerned with dairy cow care, such as the manner in which the cows would be treated and how they handled taking the newborn calves from their mothers. Online you constantly hear how cows are mistreated, filled with antibiotics, and ripped away from their offspring. Of course, as a dietetic student, we understand the benefits of milk and dairy products. However, because of the negative information surrounding dairy cow care on farms, it has led us to be more cautious and limit or avoid dairy consumption in the past.

dairy farm milking parlor

Expecting to see a tightly packed barn filled with cows and workers attaching milking machines to the cows, we were surprised to see a machine that allowed the cows to set their own milking schedule. Free to roam about the barn, the cows were able to come and go as they pleased to get milked, all the while being tracked by a cow-sized activity tracker. The calves were also well taken care of and placed in a separate barn soon after birth. The farmer explained the importance of the calves having their mother’s milk the first few days after birth and how, through the use of their milking machines, they would keep the mother’s milk separate from the rest to provide to the calf. The farmer expressed with sincerity how important it was to keep their cows and calves safe and healthy, and it truly showed during the tour.

It was also incredible to see how advances in technology and engineering have been able to modernize and, in ways, make dairy farming more efficient and safer. Learning about the safety measures farmers have to take to ensure their milk meets the strict food safety standards gave me reassurance that the products that make their way to our tables are regulated and safe to consume. With all the questions surrounding the quality and safety of our food, especially when it comes to large-scale production, having the chance to see where food comes from answered many of our questions and concerns, which will inform conversations with future clients and patients.

Alexandra Sarkisian & Jessica Maturrano, Northern Illinois University Dietetic Interns