Dairy Sustainability Made Me Rethink Being Vegan
By Kayla Thomas – Utah State University Dietetics Student
My decision to become vegan was not taken lightly. It was after much soul searching and research that over two years ago I chose to vote with my fork for sustainable agriculture, health, and animal care. I am currently a dietetics student, finishing up school and preparing to take the dietetics exam. While I don’t preach veganism to my patients/clients, for the last two years, I have personally followed this lifestyle and made those choices.
But late last year, one of my internship rotations was with the Dairy Council of Utah/Nevada. While all of my rotations were wonderful, the Dairy Council was by far the most fun and creative. It was also the most influential to me personally. During my two-week stint, I had the opportunity to visit two dairy farms. Watching the process of milk production on a dairy farm was an eye-opening opportunity. I have seen many horror films depicting animal cruelty in ‘factory farms’ across the nation, and before my initial farm visit, I thought that the tour was set up well in advance in order to prepare the farmers to be on their best behavior and to sanitize the environment from their normal practices. When I left the farm that day, I was confused. This large dairy was a family run business, it didn’t seem like a “factory” at all. I was stunned by how easy-going the workers were and even more amazed as I watched the cows calmly go through their daily routine. This occasion of showing their livelihood to the public did not seem staged in the slightest. The second farm tour confirmed my suspicions. Dairy farming is a family affair.
Sustainable agriculture practices are deeply important to me and one of the primary reasons I chose a vegan lifestyle. In a lot of ways I wish we could go back to the days of small farms where the farm to fork principal works in everyone’s backyard, but in today’s world of 7 billion people (that is quickly growing!) we have a food security issue and need modern agriculture in order to produce enough food. Therefore, we must move forward with larger farms, and help fine-tune their processes to create a greener environment. I was under the impression that animal protein production was not very sustainable, but I had the opportunity to learn first-hand how the dairy industry is a leader in this area. Here are some of the things I learned:
- Milk is a local food. From the time the cows’ milk is stored in a cooling tank, it is typically just 48-72 hours before it is on a shelf at your LOCAL grocery store.
- Any type of energy waste is money lost on the farm and to the producers of dairy, every dollar counts to these families. Farming is a tough industry, one that is barely breaking even every year. Efficiency is essential and good business for dairy farmers. I witnessed farms using the natural heat from the milk to heat the milk parlor in order to create a warmer, comfortable environment for the cows during the cold winter months, and I heard about how water is recycled and used multiple times on the dairy for cleaning, cooling, irrigation…
- When people would ask me why I was vegan, I would sometimes say I would rather feed humans than animals. By not consuming animal products, I felt I was taking a stand on world hunger. I worried about a large portion of our grain crop going to feed animals instead of humans. But on my tour I had the chance to learn more about what cows actually eat. Much of what goes into a cow’s 100lb per day food ration are actually byproducts that humans cannot ingest. Cows, due to their powerful stomachs, are able to produce nutrient dense milk by eating crops that would otherwise be useless to humans. This realization was my tipping point…thoughts of milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream started flooding my mind.
Animal care was another important motive for my choice to be vegan. While attending different dairy farms in Utah I was impressed at the still, quietness of the cows and calves. Could they possibly be content or even happy with their lives? If not, I was fooled.
After my rotation with the Dairy Council, my mind was consumed with thoughts making a big lifestyle change for me and becoming vegetarian. At first, the thought of this transition frightened me. I do not view myself as an easily persuaded person nor one who makes rash decisions. Being vegan was a big part of my life. It ade me feel connected to nature, animals, and the Earth in a more personal way, but after viewing the amount of hard work and dedication that goes into dairy farming with clean, healthy practices and love for the animals, I had a new perspective that fundamentally challenged some of my core beliefs. No one likes to be told they were wrong, but by being open-minded I was able to learn and even change my dietary habits.
So about 3 weeks after my time with the Dairy Council and many hours of health related research on dairy, I bought my first yogurt in almost two years!
Happy Earth Day!