With only a year left of veterinary school, I plan to become a dairy veterinarian after graduation. Throughout undergrad I got into dairy farming and that changed my career path. Since then I have worked on many different types of dairy farms and learned much about the industry. While many people don’t think about where the milk they drink comes from, there are many misconceptions about how cows are treated on dairy farms.
Let’s start of with one of the most common gripes. Yes dairy calves are taken away from their mothers shortly after birth. There are many good reasons for this. While most probably won’t believe it, the mortality rate in the first 24 hours of life is much higher for calves allowed to stay with their dams. What possible explanations are there for this? The calves could drink from fecal-contaminated teats, increasing the risk of infection. One major concern is the spread of Johne’s disease, a wasting disease that is spread through ingestion of fecal material from infected animals. Calves are most susceptible, and it takes at least a couple years for signs to appear, so the best prevention is to keep young animals separated from older ones. Additionally, farmers can ensure adequate intake of colostrum (first milk) if they bottle feed the newborn calves. If left unattended, there is no way to be sure that the calf gets enough or if mom even lets the newborn drink and this can lead to a weakened immune system. Mothers or possibly other cows can also step on or injure their offspring.
Many people also think that antibiotic-free milk means that cows have infected udders and aren’t getting any treatments. While there are some farms that are better than others, there are regulations in place to prevent contaminated milk from making it off the farm. Cows produce somatic cells and deposit them in the milk. Small numbers of cells are normal, but higher counts indicate infections. Farmers can identify these cows by a variety of tests and other signs. It is important for them to do so because it is illegal to ship milk over a certain somatic cell count level and many cooperatives offer a higher price for milk with lower levels.
The milk or meat that consumers purchase doesn’t contain antibiotics. All products coming from a dairy farm are required to be antibiotic free. Each batch of milk from each farm is tested for antibiotics and rejected if the batch comes up positive. Meat is also inspected in a similar manner. When a sick cow is treated with antibiotics, each drug has milk and meat withdrawal periods when the drug may still be in the milk. Dairy farmers can test a cow’s milk to determine when her daily production can go back into the tank, thus ensuring that the milk being sold doesn’t contain residues.
My future career lies with the dairy industry, so I just want to make people more aware of what happens on these farms.