I’ve had a great time lately with farm animals. At my friend Ana’s house in Dunedin, I got to help milk her three sheep. It was my first time milking anything, and it was fun! These old ladies have been in the family for quite a while, and still yield enough milk to make plenty of sheep’s cheeses and yogurt for the whole family. I got to watch Annie (Ana’s step-mum) make the cheese one day, and eating sheep’s feta, bleu cheese, and yogurt never tasted so good as they came from the ewe’s outside.
A few days later I was with another new friend, Jono, in a town called Pleasant Point. He has lots of sheep too, which I loved to watch from the yard. He also had 4 ‘pig dogs’, which his brother, the hunter, uses to catch and kill wild-boar. This little pack of dogs aren’t real pets, and are treated more like farm animals. They’re let out of their little kennels to run and play, and I’m sure they really enjoy exercising their skill, but like many other farm dogs I’ve seen, it made me sad.
Jono’s roommate Zoey works at the local Diary farm. I was very interested in this and she took me to work the next day! First, we jumped on a quad-bike and steered each of two herds towards the milking place. It takes some time to coordinate this move (among the cows), as they have a pecking order, which is amazing to watch. I learned (and forgot) about 100 cows’ names, and they don’t have name-tags, as I’ve seen on other farms. (Zoey loves her job :) I donned rubber clothes, and as the cows happily filed into the milking carousel, I attached four suction-tubes each to their udders, and the rest of the milking was automatic. The ladies were lovely, and really did seem to enjoy it; in fact, a few of them tried to get back into the carousel after they’re done! I probably ‘milked’ over 100 cows that afternoon, about 1/3 of those on the farm. Three people can run the whole operation, milking them twice a day. Pretty amazing.
I asked a million questions, and I got answers. It was all pretty straightforward but very interesting. Zoey was quite fond of her cows, and even has a calf of her own (6-mo. old Daisy), who thinks she’s a human and follows Zoey around everywhere. All of the dairy staff took great pride in cleanliness of their workplace, their economical use of water, and quality of the milk, produced without chemicals. The few cows who were on medicines were marked and kept separately, but they needed to be milked too, although it all went down the drain.
I got a lot of poo on me, which tested my limits. But I was really glad to have the experience, to know first-hand where my diary milk comes from. I had a similar interest in visiting the shrimp and oyster farm in Southern Thailand when I was eating seafood, to have a better sense of the full picture. When Zoey asked me if I’d be proud to drink NZ milk now, seeing how ‘good’ it is, I had a mixed response. While life on the dairy farm didn’t seem all that bad, some other out-of-sight aspects do bother me. Mainly, that the cows are impregnated every season, they bear calves which are weened off very young, which become veal. So supporting the milk industry supports the veal industry. Milk = Veal. Second, even these pretty cow ladies will be slaughtered eventually for meat, which sucks. So yeah, I’m drinking less milk.
I love animals, and I don’t want to contribute to their suffering. For the last 3+ years that I’ve been a “vegetarian” of varying degree, I’ve decided that I’m too addicted to the occasional cheese, ice cream, and NY pizza to go completely vegan and will it when it’s available, but the more I confront the truth of the dairy industry the less I like it. It’s not the diary farm itself that puts me off – it’s actually surprisingly nice here in New Zealand, just like the meat farms where practically all mammals in New Zealand roam free-range. It’s all the other connections… like how the babies are weaned and killed young, like how they will all eventually be herded like Schindlers List and meet an untimely death, that constitute a bottom line that can’t be ignored. At least I’m aware of it, as we should all be. Now how we use this information is up to us. Informed decisions, that’s what it’s all about.
Side note. Did you know that may cheeses, like most cheddar for example, contain animal rennin or rennet? They don’t print this on the ingredients labels in America, but here they do. Rennin is an enzyme secreted into the stomach of unweaned mammals, which is basically baby cow tummy, used for curdling the milk to make cheese. This means that most cheese is unsuitable for vegetarians, depending how strict you are. Since I learned this, I don’t eat cheese with rennet anymore, unless it’s specifically made with “vegetable rennet”, which comprises about 1/10 of all the cheeses in the supermarket. Now you know.
I’m not urging anyone to change their eating habits. But I do encourage you to know where your food comes from. I personally love eating cheese from the farm… until I asked what happens to all the lambs, whose existence are responsible for each sheep producing milk year after year. “Look in the freezer” was my answer. Doh!