Cycling the Milky Way

We haven’t taken a psychedelic detour (despite being in California), I’m referring rather to the fact that cycling through south-west Oregon and northern California we’ve been passing through some serious dairy country. On the highways and byways of Humboldt County the ubiquitous logging trucks were soon surpassed in number by milk lorries, and the aroma of cedar wood replaced by  cow sh*t. A little unsavoury to be sure, but it certainly raises some interesting questions – what happens to all that sh*t for example?! Surely it is a big problem, and as we wound our way along the river towards the Victorian town of Ferndale (a town built on dairy farming, so much so that even the bins are cow shaped in homage!) I couldn’t help wondering what effect all those cows have on the waterways.

Most of the farms we saw seemed pretty small scale, part of larger dairy co-ops with the animals grazing outdoors. I haven’t seen anything on the industrial scale that a guy we met from Wisconsin was telling us about – he worked at a place where they had so many cows milking had to be done 22 hours a day! California fairly recently overtook Wisconsin to become the top dairy state (by total milk production) in the US. In fact, in 2008 California produced a record 41.2 billion pounds of milk – more than 20% of the nation’s total milk production! There are 1,750 dairies in California, and the average Californian dairy cow produced 22,000 pounds of milk in 2009. I’m no milking expert, but that sounds pretty unnaturally high to me.

Apart from the sh*t there are lots of other rather unsavoury aspects of dairy farming – removing calves from their mother at birth and dispatching the bulls as they are uneconomical to rear, for example. I imagine the energy use that goes into dairy farming is pretty high too. Farms like River Bend Jerseys in Coos County, Oregon seem to be doing it as sustainably as possible given these challenges. Pete and Kelly Mahaffy have a herd of 120 milkers, plus about the same number again of heifers and calves. They have 200 acres of land that has been in the family for generations, and are part of the Organic Valley co-op. They graze their animals in rotation and give all of them a name, rather than a number. Visiting the farm sparked a mini debate between Ned and I on what would be the ideal herd size for a dairy farm, sustainably speaking  – environmentally, economically and in terms of animal welfare. The farms that have to milk 22 hours a day are not really farms any more, they are more like factory production lines. I’m tempted to say that although these operations may be economically efficient, that may be their only achievement. If anyone has an insight on this I’d love to know.

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