Benefits of dairy – Nutrition you can feel good about

As dietetic interns, we are constantly discussing the health benefits of dairy with clients and encouraging them to include their three daily servings. Dairy is a protein food that our body can easily, efficiently convert to energy to maintain our muscles. Unlike plant proteins, dairy products have an HBV protein that perfectly meets our protein needs. We never considered where our dairy products came from or how they were produced until our recent tour of Lenkaitis Holsteins dairy farm.

When we pulled up to the local farm, we imagined seeing a dairy farmer sitting on a three-legged stool gathering a cow’s milk in a tin can. Walking into the barn, however, we realized that dairy farms are as technologically advanced as our smartphones. The farmer was not sitting on a stool; rather, she was describing how cows are milked using an advanced technology.

Fitbits and Robotic Milkers

Each cow wears a “Fitbit”-like device that tracks its behaviors so the farmer is able to better detect if the cow is in distress or sick. The robotic cow milker is able to read the “Fitbit” to protect the safety of the cow and the milk product for the consumer. For example, the dairy farmer records which cow is on antibiotics in the cow’s “Fitbit” device. The robotic cow milker detects this information to assure that milk from a cow treated with antibiotics is disposed of, and the robotic milker cleans itself at least twice a day. Each cow is milked 2-4 times a day, and the machine will not allow a cow to be milked until enough time has passed since the last milking. During our tour, we laughed as Starbucks the cow repeatedly tried to enter the machine to get the snack that cows are able to eat while they are being milked, even though she had just been milked.

dairy milking technology

The cows seem very comfortable during the milking and excited for the treat they receive during milking. The machine stores data about each cow and uses a type of GPS to remember where each of the four teats are located on each cow. It was exciting to see how technology has made an impact on this dairy farm. As Sarah carried her adorable child on the farm tour, it appeared that the technology allowed her more time to be hands-on with her child, examine the data that may signal that a cow is getting sick, and focus on the sustainability and expansion of the farm for the future generation. As she talked about strict FDA regulations and policies that the farm followed, I felt assured that the safety of the cows and of the consumer were in good hands.

Cow Comfort

One of the most impressive aspects at Lenkaitis Holsteins was the emphasis placed on ensuring the cows were comfortable. The barn floors were entirely rubber, making a comfortable surface for cows to stand on in the barn. Temperature sensors create a consistent and comfortable environment by controlling ventilation and triggering fans to promote airflow. During daylight hours the cows enjoyed sunlight from the open-sided barn (weather permitting), while overhead lights provided illumination after dark. While popular documentaries and social media often promote an idea of dairy farms as uncomfortable, these cows weren’t crowded or surrounded by squalor – they lived in comfort!

Illinois dairy farm tour

Dairy Sustainability

Dairy farming often gets a bad rap for being environmentally irresponsible, but on our farm tour we discovered the ways in which dairy production can be self-sustaining. At Lenkaitis Holsteins, the manure is collected and pressed three times a week. Dehydrated solids are used to cushion the cows’ beds, while the liquids are used to fertilize the cornfields, which will later feed the cows. An automated robot tidies the silage to ensure cows can eat every last bite of their food.

Protein You Can Feel Good About

As our tour wrapped up, we began to think about how we could incorporate this information into our dietetics career. Nutritional benefits of dairy include protein, calcium and vitamin D. As dietetic interns, we encourage clients to include a glass of milk or snack on cheese and yogurt because dairy is what we call a “high biological value,” or HBV, protein. These HBV proteins provide all the essential acids in the perfect proportion for human consumption.

As we left the farm, savoring our cottage cheese produced from the farm’s milk, we were finally able to integrate our knowledge of dairy nutrition with an appreciation for how it is produced. Now, when we pick up a gallon of milk or explain the benefits of dairy to clients, we can share nutrition knowledge and insight into dairy production.

Haley Peterson and Georgia McArtney, Northern Illinois University Dietetic Interns