HOLT: Dairy farming is incredibly complicated

April 25, 2013 

I have been very appreciative of all of the field trips organized by my agriculture instructors for their classes. It has been eye-opening to learn what I did not know.

These field trips ranged from vegetable farms to fruit orchards to beef ranches to pig farms to processing and packaging plants. The scope of machines, products, pieces and parts just to produce and package food is staggering. It's not just as simple as a cow producing milk. The cow needs to be housed and fed daily. The barns need to be cleaned regularly. Bedding needs to be removed and replaced. Clean drinking water needs to be provided.

Cow food is not as simple as a field of grass. We may wish grass could be the only source of nutrition for a milking cow, but it the soil here in the Central Valley does not contain all the needed minerals and nutrients for optimum cow health, hence the various ingredients mixed into cow feed.

Cow feed alone has a dozen pieces and parts. We had to take a test on identifying animal feeds. I had hoped it would be just hay. Nope. There are several different kinds of hay, such as high and low total digestible nutrient alfalfa hay, timothy hay, orchard grass, and winter forage hay containing a mix of rye, wheat and oat grass.

Plain straw is used only for animal bedding and is rarely eaten. Then there are ingredients such as almond hulls, rolled and cracked corn for energy, whole cottonseed, soy beans, and canola for fats and protein, rolled oats for carbohydrates and fiber, and corn silage for carbohydrates and flavor.

Walking through a dairy feed barn smells like breakfast cereal being cooked. I have gotten hungry from the sweet smells from the ingredients in the feed barn.

Most dairies we visited grow their own feed, such as corn for silage and winter forage for hay. This means the dairy operator has to also manage the fields growing crops. This is a whole separate class at my college. This requires tractors and mowers, balers and trucks as necessary farm equipment, the need for seeds, fertilizers, irrigation equipment, and labor for operating all this equipment and driving the trucks. The farm manager needs to plan when to prepare the soil, which means having equipment to turn over the soil, grind it up so it breaks up the heavy clay clods and is loose enough for roots to push through, and prepare the rows for planting and irrigation. The manager has to plan when to plant the seeds, when to irrigate, when to fertilize and when to harvest. I thought I knew a lot about gardening. My simple garden plot is nothing compared to 20-plus acres.

Once the cow is fed, watered and rested, the milking process is almost a whole separate operation. Milking is no longer a stool and a bucket. Milk machines are very efficient and full of pieces and parts that need to be manufactured somewhere. Tubes, storage tanks, valves and on-off buttons. Oh, my!

A guest speaker told us that every dairy directly employs 20 people and generates 100 jobs and industries to support the dairy. There are companies that manufacture the metal for the barns, stalls, pipes, and tanks. There are companies that make the trucks and tractors. There are companies that make the milk machines, and companies that make the machines at the processing plants, and companies that make the bottles to put the milk in.

Seeing all this in person makes me ashamed of and embarrassed for the people who criticize the dairy industry. I am grateful to the dairy owners and workers (and cows) who work so hard to put milk on our tables.

Holt is a landscape horticulture graduate of Merced College who divides her time between Merced and Mariposa. Send comments or questions to columns@modbee.com.

Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service