Where milk comes from


Earlier this month I went on a fantastic trip to California with some other bloggers, hosted by the California Milk Advisory Board.  The CMAB represents California’s dairy farms, 99% of which are family owned (the rest are owned by institutions, such as prisons or universities).  Its job is to promote California milk products through education, research, commercials, and events like our blogging tour.  We got to visit a couple of dairy farms, talk to people in the industry and eat a lot of cheese.

Cheese Trays

So this is the part where I tell you how dumb I am.  Not long ago, Fiona was drinking some milk and asked me why it was OK for us to drink cow’s pee but not our own pee.  Once I was done laughing I explained to her that we were drinking cow’s milk, just like she drank my milk when she was a baby.  This led to a bunch of questions from her about how we get the cow milk, what the cows’ babies were drinking if we were drinking their milk, and why we don’t just keep drinking people milk.  I was only able to answer some of her questions, and vowed to find the other answers for her.  But of course, life got in the way (doesn’t it always?) and I never got around to it.  Her questions were filed away, and I was fortunate enough to have this great opportunity to get the answers, right from the experts.

We started the first evening at Galletto Ristorante in Modesto, with a fantastic cheese tasting and dinner led by Juliana Uruburu from the Cheese School of San Francisco.  This was a little nerve-wracking for me, because I’m a processed American/Mozzarella stick/packaged cheddar kind of person (or at least, I thought I was).  I sometimes refer to myself not as a vegetarian but as a cheesetarian, and I always have about seven or eight different cheeses in my fridge, but the most exotic it gets is a good Parmesan for shredding over pasta and sometimes a nice stinky blue cheese.  But I found several cheeses in our tasting that became instant favorites, including one I’d never heard of before, Burrata, which is a fresh mozzarella wrapped around cream.  I’m drooling thinking about it.

I think I may have caused a mini-scandal by passing up the sparkling wine and sparkling water and asking for a Diet Coke with our fancy, gourmet dinner.  Then, after dessert I was practically falling asleep on the table (remember, three hour time difference) so I left with a couple of other bloggers to go back to the hotel.  I said goodbye, I took my coat, I even waved on my way out.  But for some reason everyone thought that I had merely gone to the bathroom, and when a long time had passed and I couldn’t be found the group started to panic.  I was blissfully unaware of all of this, back in my room asleep.  I didn’t find out until the next morning.  Really, you can’t take me anywhere.

Dairy Farms

The next day started bright and early when we boarded a bus to the first of two dairy farms.  I’d like to think that I always go into learning experiences with my critical eye wide open, but I’m guessing that I was affected more than I’d like to admit by the recent “corn sugar” blogging tour brouhaha.  I knew that there were several hot-button issues to be raised: rBST, antibiotics, and living conditions for the cows.  And I also knew that I was not going to be visiting dairies with small herds grazing peacefully in fields of clover.  But I don’t buy organic milk (neither of the farms we visited were organic) and wanted to see how the kind of milk I’m likely to drink (or eat in cheese and other products) is produced.  I was proud of our group – we didn’t shy away from tough questions.  But it was also heartening to meet the people whose livelihoods depend on these animals and see for ourselves how much they care about them.  As we were reminded many times, if the cows aren’t happy and healthy, they don’t produce milk.

The first farm, the Charles Ahlem Dairy, is a large one with 2,800 Jersey cows (the pretty brown ones).  We were led on our tour by the owners of the farm, who showed us the very cool milking carousel, which held about fifty cows and rotated as the cows were milked.  The cows knew the routine, lining up and entering their milking stalls without help.  Then their udders were cleaned and the milking machines attached, and the cows stood still for about eight minutes as the carousel turned slowly.  At one point, one of the dairy’s workers popped the machine off of a cow so that I could give milking a try.  It was easier than I thought it would be, but then again her milk was already flowing.

At the second farm, the Durrer Dairy, we got to see newborn calves in their “cribs.”  This is a smaller farm, with less than 1,000 cows, almost all of them Holsteins (the more familiar black and white ones).  The calves get taken from their mothers immediately and are not allowed to be fed from their mothers at all, to avoid infecting the udders.  The colostrum is pumped and bottle fed to the calves instead.  The young calves are kept in small pens in the shade.  Cows can’t sweat, so at both farms a lot of resources and energy were put toward keeping the cows cool – shade is plentiful, and water misters come on automatically at certain temperatures.

Earning Their Keep

I won’t lie, it was a little sad seeing a newborn (less than a day old) calf in its little pen, all alone.  But these are not pets, they are work animals.  What I saw at both dairies was that the animals were cared for and treated very well, but everything is geared toward the production of milk.  Cows are inseminated about once a year, so that they will continue to produce milk (they get a break in the weeks before they give birth; other than that they are milked two or three times a day).  Great care is taken to make sure they don’t get sick.  If they do, and need antibiotics, they are immediately taken out of the general population and stay isolated from milk production until their milk is completely free of antibiotics.

A sample of the milk is taken before it is trucked away, and then before the milk can be unloaded at the milk processing plant all of the samples from the dairies on that particular truck are tested.  If any antibiotics are found, the dairy responsible has to pay all of the other dairies on the truck for their milk, and the processing plant can’t use that milk.  This gives dairies a huge incentive to make sure that their milk is completely antibiotic free.

Ahlem Dairy uses rBST on some of its cows at certain points in their milking/pregnancy cycle, to increase production.  Durrer Dairy does not.  According to the USDA, rBST is used on less than 20% of cows in the U.S.  Artificial growth hormones in milk are a pretty controversial issue, and honestly I have no idea if I’m buying milk containing rBST or not, since Monsanto (which produces the hormone) has done a pretty good job of making sure that companies are not even allowed in most states to state whether or not a product is rBST-free (the implication being that touting a lack of something means that that something is bad).  Frankly, I think that’s kind of disgusting – I don’t necessarily have a problem with rBST (my kids don’t eat much meat so I’m just not worried about the cumulative effects of artificial hormones), but I do have a problem with a giant corporation dictating how food products can be labeled.  I think when possible and practical, consumers should be given more information, not less, and be allowed to decide for themselves.

Farm Life

At both farms we visited as well as the other farms we learned about through personal stories and videos, we kept hearing over and over about second- third- and fourth-generation dairy farmers.  Toddlers accompanied the tours at both farms, and there were lots of other children around.  These are not just businesses, but lifestyles passed down from parents to children.

Besides the owners, we got to talk to veterinarians, nutritionists and caretakers, all of whom work together to make sure that the cows are healthy and productive.  Touring these farms made me feel good about the California dairy industry, and I’m going to seek out information on the dairies closer to me, where the majority of my milk is coming from.  But I’ve also been looking for some of the specific California cheeses I got to try – I’m lucky to be in New York City, with some great grocery and cheese stores.

Originally posted on Selfish Mom. All opinions expressed on this website come straight from Amy unless otherwise noted. This post has Compensation Levels of 1 & 7. Please visit Amy’s Full Disclosure page for more information. Amy also blogs at Filming In Brooklyn, Behind the Screen, Momtourage, and podcasts with The Blogging Angels.


  1. Tessa Young says

    Thank you so much for your article on where milk comes from. My husband and I own a small Jersey dairy farm in Idaho. It truly is a lifestyle and not just a business. Too often the story that makes the news and the internet is bad press. We take pride in producing good clean milk and taking care of our 200 pretty brown cows. Thank you so much for writing this post.

    • says

      @Tessa Young: You’re so welcome! It was a really great trip and I’m glad to know a little bit more about where my food comes from. Living in the city I just don’t think about it much, so this was fascinating.

  2. The Dairy Mom says

    Thank you for the great summary of your dairy visit! I’m a 3rd generation dairy producer in Ohio and write The Dairy Mom blog @ http://www.thedairymom.blogspot.com. I love to share the story of our farm and am proud to produce milk. I appreciate you taking the time to share your dairy experience.

    • says

      @The Dairy Mom: I just checked out your blog, I really like it. I especially liked the post about the labels on eggs. It’s so confusing, I usually just throw my hands up and ignore them. Except for cage free hens. I don’t even know if it has any truth to it, so maybe they’ve suckered me in on that one.

  3. says

    Nice recap! I’m just now writing about it in advance of Valentine’s Day, and working with Fairway Market to find some of those tasty cheeses :-)

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