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Before going into attack and react mode, let’s break this down: open it up, poke at it, and see what this question means to me—and to you.
I’ve spent the past year or so examining some truths I was once so sure of. Everything from “I must eat regular meals or I’ll faint because I have low blood sugar.” That one was false. Turns out Intermittent Fasting is exactly what my body needed.
Then there was the firm belief that Calories In, Calories Out (CICO) was a ridiculous notion created by someone who was clueless about nutrition. Duh, 500 calories of broccoli will be processed differently than 500 calories of chocolate. Nope, I was (somewhat) wrong there too. Turns out it doesn’t matter as much as I thought it did. And once I started tracking calories and created a tiny 300 calorie deficit, I dropped 50 pounds.
So, the curious being I am, I decided to examine what other “truths” I was so certain about in life. Where did they come from, why do I think that’s true, what other information is there—and more importantly, who benefits from me thinking this way? The result had been a real eye-opener.
This particular new truth came about two-fold.
I’ve recently moved to a rural area with sustenance farmers all around. They grow or forage most of their food and spend all summer growing, canning, and drying food for the winter. It’s a blessing to learn all these old-world methods and see the value of self-dependence.
A few weeks ago a friend came out to visit. As we walked around, it was clear she had never really been out of the city or knew the basics of farming. She was curious and so I gave her the full tour and we talked about all the plants and trees and the animals in the fields. When we got to the dairy barn, I walked past and said, “we don’t talk about this.”
I’ve lived on farms before and even as a vegetarian (since the early 80s), I never really allowed myself to see this truth. I love cheese and yogurt and what’s the harm in enjoying those? It’s not like the animal was being slaughtered. This is how we selectively reason our way to what’s comfortable. When selective reasoning is a trauma response or necessary for our survival, that’s cool. But three plus decades later, every time I started to feel that little niggle of things not adding up while enjoying my yogurt, while also intentionally not thinking about the source, at some point I had to face facts.
When my friend was curious why I didn’t want to see or explain the dairy barn, I chalked it up to having a rough year and it was too hot that day, and I quickly changed the subject.
I walk past the dairy barn every morning and the door is always open. I had already made a habit of saying good morning to the cows inside as I hurry past, hurrying so I don’t have to see their reality. My “good morning” was usually followed by “I’m sorry.”
Their reality is that they are kept in stalls just wide enough not to touch the next one over. The stalls are like the metal bike racks you see at a train station in Europe. The cow is tied at the headend enough to be able to feed from the trough in front of her, but not long enough to sit or lay down. They stand there day in, day out, night in, night out. They are artificially inseminated in their bike rack too. The vet arrives and goes down the line poking and prodding. And if the owner is lucky, the cost of the vet coming all the way out here will be recouped quickly enough by way of milk, cheese, and yogurt.
When the cow is ready to give birth, they get to leave their bike rack home for a day or two. They are brought out into the street and they give birth with a few humans around to make sure all goes well. Then the mom and her newborn are allowed to be together in a small pen, with sunlight and fresh air for one night. The mom is able to sit down for the first time in months or years and the newborn is by her side.
And then she goes back into the bike rack. She gets the end rack closest to the door and her newborn is next to her, free to move around and feed for the first day. After that, the newborn calf is next to her but tied on a line. They can touch heads but the calf can’t reach her utters. The owners make sure the calf gets “enough” milk; every morning and night it is untied and allowed time to feed directly from mom. After the first week or so, the calf is taken behind the barn and tied up in a field with the other baby cows. There are currently six there as I write. It’s directly across from my home office and I can hear them calling out to their moms, and the moms calling right back. They are a mere 30 feet from one another but unable to connect physically now or ever again. In the morning and late day, the moms are milked with a small machine and the first bottle is filled for each baby cow. The bottle is about three liters (about a gallon) and the workers fill up all the baby bottles and go out and feed them while holding the bottle. Not necessarily from their own mom’s milk.
Dairy cows only produce milk after they’ve been pregnant and have given birth. I don’t know why many of us thought “dairy cows” were some special breed of cow that produced milk nonstop, but like humans, they only lactate after giving birth. So, to any dairy cow owner, said cow is only valuable when it’s making milk. Cows are expensive to keep: feed, labor, vet care. For a cow to be “earning its worth” it needs to become pregnant as often as possible. Naturally (but more unnaturally) capitalism has come to the cow owner’s aid and found all kinds of tricks and methods to get cows pregnant faster and more often. Here’s where consent and “cow rape” could be discussed.
If you haven’t seen documentaries on the dairy industry, it’s heartbreakingly disgusting. Truly. There’s absolutely nothing “humane” about the humans working in, or profiting from, that industry. I guess “or contributing to” should have been added to that sentence. Buying dairy products creates a demand.
I wish we were only talking about industrial-size dairy production. Even if you’re keeping a few lovely cows in your barn and they’re able to graze on open pastures and experience the fresh air and feel the sunshine on their faces…they are still separated (mostly) from their babies. It just doesn’t make sense if you’re keeping cows for their milk that you would allow the mother and calf to stay together. Baby cows are huge and drink a lot of milk (as they should!). In factories, they are separated immediately, and the fate of the calf is to either become veal, or if it’s female, to become a young teen cow mom ready to pump more milk into the mouths of greedy people.
Let’s talk about veal. Veal is considered a “tender” meat so the calf is kept completely still, standing up for its tragically short life. The last thing one would want is for the muscles to develop…that makes the meat tougher. So they’re given mother’s milk or formula for a few weeks (18-20 weeks on average) until they next appear on someone’s plate. And if the male cow is not used for veal, it is sent out to a lovely pasture to live. Given water and able to roam free until it’s time for butchering or they may try to save money and pair up the male and female cows to mate naturally. But that requires more work on their side, and the sale of beef is a lucrative industry.
Ok, so that’s the situation. For the first few weeks I focused on how nice those people are to the animals and they wash them and feed them the best grains and the vet comes out if anything is wrong. Compared to industrial dairy farming, these cows are being well cared for and not (directly) abused but is that good enough for them? Is it good enough for me to continue buying dairy products?
Then the second prompt landed like a grenade in my lap.
On a decidedly feminist page that I’m rather active on, someone made the comment, “You cannot be a feminist and eat dairy.” I had a knee-jerk reaction to that, along with many others attacking her for bringing up speciesism when we’re talking about women’s rights!
Then I remembered one of my goals is to not react to everything that triggers me. To wait until I’ve had time to process and understand before I respond. It’s a goal; I’m not perfect so I let those thoughts marinate. Ever since that day a few weeks ago, I haven’t been commenting and posting about Feminism as much. I have to ask myself honestly if I’m so quick to stand up for women’s rights, why not female cows too? If I believe (and I do) that all sentient beings should have domain over their own lives, including their reproductive systems, why am I okay with me eating cheese and yogurt if I’m actively choosing to contribute to their suffering?
You notice I said “with me eating…” because I’ve never been one to tell others what to do with their bodies. This is choice you have to make for yourself. But I also think that the choices we make should be based on knowledge, not knee-jerk reactions, or hiding from truths because it could be scary to learn what the reality is. Or we just don’t want to change because change is scary.
If you’re out there advocating for human rights, intersectionalism, body autonomy, consent, or feminism—or if you’re someone who angrily replies to “Black Lives Matter” comments with “No, All Lives Matter!” and you eat dairy products—what are you really saying? Do all lives really matter? Or just some lives?
For me, if I’m advocating for women’s rights to their entire body (including if, when, and how often they decide to get pregnant), it wouldn’t make sense to only include humans. It’s about time that I walk the talk.