A Different Approach to Dairying

The ewes know that milking time is coming up! Photo by Kara Berlage

Saturday was a busy day for curbside scooping of gelato at our Farmstead Creamery. Sometimes several vanloads of families or friends would arrive together, eager for a tasty frozen treat to escape the heat of the summer day.

Now in our tenth summer of having the creamery, a host of folks look forward to stopping by for this gourmet, Italian version of ice cream that is denser and less fatty, but I still have plenty of opportunities with new folks who don’t know what gelato is or what it’s made from. One of the vanloads of urban teenagers included the questions, “Is it dairy?”

At first it took me by surprise, but another Italian frozen dessert sorbetto is dairy free, so maybe she was trying to clarify. “Yes,” I offered, “and we make it with our sheep milk.”

She looked mournful, and one of her friends asked, “What, you can’t have dairy? Sheep milk is different.”

“No, she pouted, I’m vegan.”

I completely respect her choice to be vegan and offered no pressure to try the product. Choosing to have a plant-based diet can be spurred by medical or spiritual concerns, or it may come from keen desire to avoid animal suffering. If I didn’t have access to the clean foods we raise with healthy, happy animals on our farm and all I had at hand was animal proteins from livestock that was raised in terrifying confinement, I would likely be a vegetarian or vegan too!

However, not all livestock conditions are or need to be this way. On our farm, the plants and the animals work together in a symbiotic relationship to regenerate the land, increase biodiversity, and feed the community. This relationship wouldn’t happen if the animals were taken out of the equation. But far from living in abhorrent factory conditions, our animals rotationally graze on pasture, raise their young, and get to express their innate traits.

Instead of seeing livestock as a resource from which we extract as much end product as possible (meat, milk, eggs, fiber, etc.), we can see ourselves in a harmonious relationship with them. This may mean that we create less “yield” per animal, but the true yield of health, stewardship, and regeneration becomes the greater reward. Our farm’s method of dairying serves as a good example.

Mammals produce milk to feed their young. More than just nutrition, milk also offers the baby animal critical immune system support, and the mother-child bond fosters emotional stability and a sense of belonging within the group (not unlike the same processes for humans). Commercial methods of dairying devalue these needs, instead separating the mother from the baby at birth so that the mother immediately goes on the milk line and the baby is bottle raised. The belief is that this prevents the two from becoming attached and makes milking easier and more profitable. Perhaps this vision of forced family separation is what compelled the young lady to give up consuming dairy in order to not support this system.

But dairying can happen in ways that do not destroy the mother-child bond. As the baby animal grows, it requires less milk for its nutritional needs as it begins to transition to a solid food diet—learning from the mother what is good and what is not good to eat. The mother, however, continues producing milk beyond the actual needs of the baby. As the baby grows more, it can become too rough on the udder, creating a setup for sores or mastitis, which is a mammary infection. Eventually, weaning is essential to create independence for the now grown baby and the mother, who is ready for some recovery time and knows her child is off to a good start and doesn’t need her.

Abstaining from milking in the early phases of the baby animal’s life maintains that critical relationship and nutrition in the family unit. Instead, milking in the later phases of lactation actually helps the family unit make the transition to their next phase—first as a split-day method where the baby has the mother for part of the day and the mother is milked once during the separation part, then later at weaning.

Weaning can create complications for the mother if she is still actively making milk because there is no longer a baby to suckle, so dairying can offer a gentler, helpful way to relieve her fullness and keep her udder healthy as she dries off. In this way, dairying becomes an assistive way to help the animals stay healthy and comfortable. It is a stewardship view of dairying, rather than a commodity view of animals as resources.

That wasn’t the type of conversation I could have with the vegan teenager in the chaos of the bouncy crew of hungry gelato kids and weary parents, but I wish I could have shared that with her. With a heart of stewardship, we have many opportunities to rethink how we approach raising and growing our foods such that we can celebrate its creation as coming from compassion and awareness. Time to get ready to scoop some more gelato. See you down on the farm sometime.