22 August 2012

Dairy farm blues

Mothers parted from newborns, orangutans losing their habitat, my children drinking cow hormones. These thoughts were going through my mind today as I was given a tour through a dairy farm with some Year 1 classes, one of which was Anna's.

The Year 1s are learning about milk through a programme that seems to be provided by Fonterra. The 5 and 6 year olds have made butter, yoghurt and junket, and learnt the basics about how cows make milk. Little cardboard cow ambassadors named Rosie have been duly folded, and the Rosie's World website frequently visited. The Fonterra farm we visited was as clean and lovely as a farm can be, and the farm workers very friendly and organised.

But day old calves were penned together, wobbling about on their long legs, having been taken from their mothers after their first feed so we could have their milk. There is something so fundamental about mothers caring for their babies that I hated to imagine how the calves and mothers felt.

And there was a heap of palm kernel, ground into a dark brown meal and looking a bit like ground coffee, which is mixed in with maize silage (mulched up maize leaves along with some kernels, by the look of it) and fed to the cows in long troughs at a stop-off before they go to be milked. Gone are the days when cows only ate grass, I learnt.

And you know where palm kernel comes from, don't you? It's what's left of the edible fruit of the oil palm tree after they have crushed out the oil. It's grown in South East Asia and vast quantities of it are shipped here to feed dairy cows.

The terrible, sad thing is that Orangutan forest habitats are being destroyed so oil palm plantations can be planted. Fonterra insists it's not contributing to the destruction because it only buys the waste product of the fruit, not the oil itself, which is the main point of growing the stuff. They defend themselves reasonably convincingly here. (Look out for cheap chocolate, most soaps, bought biscuits and crackers... your local supermarket and probably pantry is actually laden with the oil itself.)

And then there's the issue of cows these days (unlike in the past) being pregnant most of the time, in order to get maximum milk out of them. Like all pregnant mammals, their blood and therefore milk courses with oestrogen. It's not filtered out, and we drink it. I'm not sure if it's identical to human oestrogen, but because our oestrogen receptors are notoriously unfussy, they certainly don't care which species made it. They'll happily accept its instructions to go on and do sexually mature female things to anyone's body.
[Later note: apparently there are only trace amounts of oestrogen and progesterone in milk.]

However, I understand that our digestive system breaks a lot of it down before it can hit our bloodstream, thank goodness. But not all of it.

Then we drove home, crossing the murky Waikato River. And you know what they say about dairy farms and water quality...

Anna in the farm's biggest tractor.

All this, and our family still drinks milk, and eats yoghurt and cheese. And I still want that icecream maker.

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