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House Cows, Golden Eggs, and the True Cost of Cheap Supermarket Food – Part 1

Why don’t super-high milk producers make good house cows? In Parts 1 and 2 of this Series I introduce Pixie, one of our house cows, and describe the health challenges she faces as a high-production dairy cow.

What happens when a cow or an ecosystem (the goose) is bred or developed with a focus on only one function (the golden egg), while all the other functions are neglected or killed off (as happens in a monoculture)? In Part 3 we’ll look at the cost, to cows, calves, farmers, and the environment, of specialization and industrialization.

What happens when food becomes an anonymous commodity? How can a food item from across the globe be cheaper than the locally produced alternative – and what’s its true cost? The 4thand final part of this Series will have a go at answering these questions.

Pixie’s story

If you’re going to go to all the effort of caring for a house cow, wouldn’t it be good to have lots and lots of milk? Maybe enough to raise an extra calf as well?

Well, yes and no. Once you’ve read this, you may feel that a more moderate milk producer would suit you​ better for home dairying.

The little house cow[I] herd in the picture is made up of Pixie, her bull calf, Tinaroo, and our foster heifer calf, Coco.

Pixie is a wonderful milk producer. She’s raising two calves AND giving all the milk we can use, with plenty spare to freeze for later.

This may seem like a home-dairying dream come true, but the truth is that Pixie’s specialization as a high-volume milk producer comes at a steep price.

Telling Pixie’s story is a bit like revealing the real story behind the affluent shelves of our supermarkets– the affluence is only an appearance, and behind it lies a complicated mess.

Modern dairy cows and industrial-scale milk production

Pixie is a modern dairy cow. A Holstein Friesian to be exact. (Actually, she’s a Holstein Friesian/Jersey cross, but as you’ll see, she seems to have inherited all of the high milk production traits of the Holstein Friesian, and none of the hybrid vigor that should come with a cross between two established breeds.)

Modern dairy cows are a result of hundreds of years of careful breeding to produce an amazing goose who can lay golden eggs day after day: prodigious amounts of milk.

Of all the modern dairy breeds, the one that’s synonymous with industrial scale milk production is the Holstein Friesian – the black and white cows you see in huge dairies and on milk bottles and the sides of milk trucks.

Photo: CAFNR

These cows are known for the highest volume of milk production of any dairy breed and are used in the most intensive (read: “unnatural”) dairy systems.

Pixie’s story that you are about to read illustrates that when an animal is bred to specialize this heavily in one desirable trait, or function, all other functions have to take a back seat. Way back.

The result is similar to when we take a piece of land and make it unable to grow anything other than a single crop: it becomes unable to perform the functions necessary to maintaining its own health, and then we have to prop it up with lots of unnatural inputs to keep it from collapsing.

Pixie’s first calf – and why super-high-production cows don’t suit home-dairying

When Pixie has a calf, the volume of milk she produces ​exceeds the size of the calf. It’s as if the calf is an afterthought. (I’m regretful that I’ve never taken a picture of Pixie ​with one of her ​calves right after calving, ​because its something you have to see to believe.)

After ​Pixie had her first calf, milking her was torturous because her udder was so distorted by the weight of the milk that her teats were difficult to grip.

Her calf could get the milk out, because Pixie’s let down reflex[ii] literally squirted it into the calf’s mouth, but there was no let down reflex for me, and her calf could only handle a small amount of the milk from one of the four quarters of her udder.

So, I spent countless hours squatting beside Pixie, hand milking in an effort to prevent mastitis[iii]. I also borrowed another calf from a dairy farmer friend, to help use some of the milk.

Pixie’s first calf, Pixlet, with the calf I borrowed to help use Pixie’s milk.

Pixie did get mastitis, but it was sub-clinical – meaning that it was mild and showed up in her milk quality but not in her overall health.

Eventually, Pixie’s calf got bigger and could handle more milk, her congested udder normalized somewhat, and I could hand milk her more easily. I returned the borrowed calf and life moved on.

The mastitis causing bacteria, meanwhile, stayed hiding in Pixie’s udder, incubating there, waiting for her next lactation[iv] and for a moment of weakness in her immune defences.

Milk fever and mastitis

I was foolish enough to put Pixie back to the bull after she weaned her first calf, and along came Pixie-offspring-number-two.

Right after this calf was born, Pixie got milk fever – a metabolic disorder in which the sudden, high demand for calcium associated with high milk production exceeds the cow’s ability to stabilize her blood calcium levels after the calf is born.

Milk fever can be fatal if it’s not diagnosed, but once you know what it is it’s relatively easy to treat with subcutaneous (under the skin) injections of calcium and phosphorous. Our dairy farmer friend came to the rescue again, with advice and the necessary injections, and Pixie recovered from the milk fever.

But during the time that she couldn’t get up, when the calf couldn’t nurse and I couldn’t milk her, Pixie developed acute, life-threatening mastitis.

In the dairy industry, mastitis is treated with antibiotics. (There are natural remedies for mastitis but, in these circumstances, I felt that trying to treat Pixie naturally had too low a chance of success, and I went with the antibiotics.)

Of course, the antibiotics meant that we could not use Pixie’s milk for a period of time. So there I was, stripping the milk out of the affected quarter[v] many times per day and discarding it. Pixie’s calf had to handle the antibiotics in the milk, Pixie didn’t like me because I was constantly annoying her, I had no time for other work, and nobody was happy.

When this calf, (his name was Pixer, and I wrote about him here) got bigger and could nurse more vigorously, I was able to direct his nursing to drain the affected quarter first, before he got too full, and after that we got along better.

Pixie’s second calf, Pixer, just after weaning. He was huge.

Pixer grew huge and very greedy, with such an abundant milk supply. And after the withholding period—the safe margin for the antibiotics to be out of Pixie’s milk—we had lots of milk too.

After this experience I hesitated to breed Pixie again. When I finally did, I tried to set it up to be more successful.

How did that go? You’ll find out in Part 2, coming soon.

And what does this story about a high-producing house cow have to do with cheap supermarket food? The answers to that question are coming up in Parts 3 and 4 of this Series.

[I] “House cow,”simply means, “cow who gives milk for the house.”

[ii] The “let down reflex” is a result of the mammalian “bonding hormone,” oxytocin, that triggers the milk to “eject” from the breast or udder for the baby.

[iii]Mastitis is a potentially fatal mammary gland infection, the most common disease in dairy cattle. It can result from the milk not being removed quickly enough from the udder. In large dairies, lack of cleanliness and stress are also contributing factors.

[iv]Lactating” is making milk. “Lactation” is the period of time for which a mother makes milk.

[v] Each of the four teats of a cow’s udder is attached to a “quarter” of the udder. You can empty one, and the others will still be full. And one or more quarters can be infected with mastitis, while the others are still healthy.




Kate Martignier

Kate writes at – an exploration into thinking differently and living a more natural, connected, and sustainable life.


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