MILKING OL’ BETSY (For All She’s Worth)

As a vegetarian (which includes dairy), I’ve heard disconcerting rumblings about the treatment of even the organic milking cow.

These answers may not be definitive, but I did an interview with a person from the Ministry of Agriculture, who generously gave me their take on the situation.

I would love feedback, so if you can add, clarify, question or even protest these details further, it would be warmly invited.

See Milking Ol’ Betsy (For All She’s Worth) for the interview.


12 Responses to “MILKING OL’ BETSY (For All She’s Worth)”

  1. Sue says:

    Hi Pete,

    I’ve also read/heard (I think it was in one of the more recent copies of the “Alive” magazine available at various health food/vitamin stores) that some organic dairies (and chicken farms, etc) are now beginning to take leaves out of the agribusiness manuals. It makes me wonder whether the owners of these so called organic operations are in their businesses because they support the underlying ethics one would attribute to an organic approach to farming or animal husbandry or for the purpose of making a profit by jumping on a bandwagon. The information from the Ministry of Agriculture was rather disconcerting. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to “buy” the idea that there is basically no difference between standard and organic dairies when it comes to the quality of life for ol’ Betsy the milk cow. My take on this is that perhaps we need information from a few more sources and then need to use discernment around identifying what is most likely truth in this issue.

    I know with eggs there are organic/free range eggs, but if you want to ensure that the eggs come from chickens raised in cruelty free conditions you also have to check that the farm is approved by the SPCA. I don’t know if there’s a similar approval system for dairy farming.

    Hope my two cents worth on the issue is helpful or inspires some additional research… ;-)

    Happy solstice!


  2. [...] Related to the organic/inorganic debate from Milkin’ Ol’ Betsy (For All She’s Worth), you might find this interview with Michael Pollan from The Herbivore’s Dilemma. [...]

  3. [...] Here’s an excerpt from the blog/interview I wrote a few months ago with an acquaintence from the Department of Agriculture, press here, called Milkin’ Ol’ Besty (For All She’s Worth): Pete: What is the life span of a dairy cow in the “organic? system? [...]

  4. Bob Shannon says:

    Pete, you are a Delightful reaD.(sorry, have lost my lower case D). I originally founD your site through another site after googling Noam Chomsky who is one of Hillary Clinton’s hero/guru’s. Then I founD Ol’ Betsy which I reaD with interest because I grew up working on a couple of Dairy farms in eastern Ohio in the 1940′s an 50′s. There was some Difference back then, but essentially these farms were inorganic. The mechanism for cleaning the manure out was my long lanky boDy an a manure fork. The big thrill was when my feet lost traction an I enDeD up face own in that stuff. To this Day when we pass a Dairy farm I get nostalgic. When we took off the milking machines we haD to “strip” the balance of the milk from the utter. So with heaD against the cow an butt on the milk stool it was nothing to get a manure soakeD tail catching your heaD. or if your heaD wasn’t against the cow, right in the ol’ kisser. Our cows graze everyDay, even During most of the winter. At milking time one leaD cow woulD come to the barn on her own followeD by the rest. Once in a while you haD to go get a lagger. Free time in the summer was baseball time, an the only open fielDs to play in where the cow pastures. Here is where we recycleD the manure also. DrieD pies became the bases. Or if we were a little boreD, the wet ones were ammunition on the enD of a stick an flickeD at an unsuspecting buDDy. In all the cows were treateD well an DiDn’t leaD that baD a life. After all, they were the farmer’s livelyhooD. To replace one was expensive. I’ll return to your site again an I will put a few other people on to you. All the best from Yankee lanD.

  5. Dear Bob,

    That’s got to be one of the greatest comments yet. And even though I can direct and edit films and I can make DVDs and I can write long rambling essays, I can’t figure out at all how one letter on a copmuter can not have a lower case D.

    I love those stories (which brings a whole new meaning to “That’s mud in my eye.” And the baseball bit is great. In Canada, when kids played shinny (hockey in the street or outdoors on ice), and they used to use frozen dung for a puck, they were called, for some reason, Road Apples.

    Boy, the family farm sure has taken a beat all over the world. Farmers feel like failures not realising they have no chance to compete against agribusiness with their massive subsidies, which by anybody’s estimation is a long way from free trade, fair trade or anything else.

    A friend of mine did a documentary on the great Indian journalist P Sainath. Sainath researched a phenomenon that showed wherever the grand conglomerate Monsanto had shoed up (across the world), farmer suicide rates also shot up—due, I am sure, to despair.

    Supposedly, suicde didn’t increase in the States, just the number of farmer deaths by accident that allowed for big insurance claims for their family.

    I can’t corroborate those findings with staistics, but they are interesting.

    And you said inorganic in the comment. I thought you might have meant organic (but maybe not). The milking procedure sounded highly organic!

    Anyway, thanks for the sweet letter from Yankee Land. Always appreciated. Lots of love to you and yours,


  6. Joy says:

    Hey, I’d like to recommend using coconut milk for chai tea.

    Thanks for all of the information!

  7. Amy says:

    I’m not sure how you’re calculating cow quality of life, but you hugely, vastly underestimate the importance of pasture to a cow’s nutrition, body condition, and happiness. One only need see a herd of cows turned out on pasture in the early days of spring to know what bovine joy looks like.

    I don’t know what farms informed your “observation,” but they weren’t like our farm in Central Vermont.

    A morning on a dairy farm where the cows are grazing begins with a walk to the pasture at, or before dawn. The cows are lying, chewing their cud, or up and ripping off mouthfuls of fresh grass. We call to them as we come close, “Coooooommmmme Booooooossssss.” The ones lying down get up and stretch and follow the others to the barn. They know the routine. We circle around the pasture and follow the last cow, usually Kristee or Tatiana, to the barn. The cows line up at the door to be milked and to get their small scoop of grain. After ten minutes in the milking parlor, they are heading back to a new pasture of fresh green grass. Twelve hours later, we all do it again. The time in between is their own to do what cows “naturally” do, hang out together in the herd, rest in the shade, and graze.

    In the winter, we feed our cows the grass and silage (and some years, corn) that we busted our asses all summer to put up for them. We live and work with these animals every single day, holidays, weekends, rain or shine, and to say that a farmer’s interest in keeping his herd healthy and comfortable is only economic completely misunderstands the gratitude and affection a farmer shares with his cows. We work for them and they work for us and together, if we’re lucky, we’ll keep this place a farm for another generation. If farmers were motivated by simple economics, they’d likely be doing something other than farming.

    Our farm is not alone. The Cornacopia Institute rates dairy farms by some pretty high standards–including pasture management–and there are 22 dairy processors in the highest ranking alone. Nationally, the Organic Valley cooperative has been very careful to protect the integrity of its label, refusing to pick up farms that are too big or don’t honor the true spirit of pasture.

    You are also not alone in thinking cows deserve a better deal than a slot in a factory farm. There are a great many people waking up in the dark on family farms every morning who agree with you.

  8. Dearest lovely Amy!

    Yes, yes, yes, and thank you. That was an interview I did with a person who works in the Ministy of Agriculture in British Columbia, Canada (Lower Mainland/Fraser Valley/Vancouver). Those were the responses of that person in the field, to the questions, reflecting certain truth to be sure, and then also a lack of subtlety, sometimes inherent in a person’s nature and/or schooling.

    As for you, I UDDERLY agree with you—more instinctively than in knowing because I’m not in your shoes—and I have no doubt whatsoever of what you say. I fight (write), yell (write) and scream (talk) for all those things you both walk and talk about:

    “…the importance of pasture to a cow’s nutrition, body condition, and happiness.”

    And the thought of those cows living a cow’s life makes me so happy. I bow to your perseverance and love and commitment and understanding of how things both should be and can be, and I hope somehow the world will “catch up” to your knowledge, awareness and kindness.

    I know with the smaller farms, the economics are more than challenging and the hours brutal, but what you do is, for me, heroic, literally—and also vital to the survival not only the planet, but to the understanding of the importance of commitment to cycles, feelings, love, compassion, care, wisdom and hands on work and affection four not only the animals that feed us, but for our “nutrition, body condition and happiness.”

    In short, I agree with you 10,000% and think what you do is truly heroic, and I definitely believe that cows treated as you treat them are leap years ahead (both in the quality of milk, and the miracle of love, kindness, compassion and hope for a more beautiful world).

    May your economics hold on, your body hold up, your ways hold out, at least in variations upon your theme and intention. I wish I lived near you because I would definitely buy your milk and write about you, applauding and promoting what you do, regularly. In solidarity and love, and hoping for the future,

    So big love and xoxoxoxox to you and yours,


  9. Jim Wagner says:

    I just hauled my first load of used up dairy cows to the packing house!
    Never again 8 out of the 40 head were so old and week they couldn’t make the trip on there hoofs
    After unloading at the packing house I was asked to take the 8 head to the dog food plant one cow was shot in the head 5 times a chain
    Wrapped around her hoof when they pulled her out they pulled the leg off after getting her out of the trailer they took a big knife and cut her jugler vain in her neck after all this she was still kicking and mooing.

    All of them suffered a lot it really made me mad at the dairy farm and the folks at the dog food plant for not having a quic and clean method to kill a cow totaly a sad way for a cow to come to a end. Took a lot of pictures of all this anyone wanting them to use in some way to get laws changed contact me

  10. Shelagh Stephen says:

    I live in the lower mainland (North Vancouver actually) and I’m looking for a dairy farm, maybe a family farm, where the cows are not separated from their calves and where they are treated humanely. I understand that such a farm would have to charge a high price for its dairy products.

    So far I have had no success, and my research has left me with a sobering understanding that an ovo-lacto vegetarian using dairy products is part of the system, supporting the veal industry and supporting conditions for the cows that look really bad to me.

    We get our eggs from a friend with no trouble. Lots of people have free-run chickens because they’re small. But cattle are another matter. If we could share in a small, humane farm with other people who didn’t want to give up dairy, that would be great.

    So far my search for ethical dairy products has turned up nothing. Hope you can help me.


  11. Dear Shelagh,

    Love your passion and concern, feel your frustrating. It is a difficult thing, to stay with dairy, when the cows are so mistreated. I don’t know of any truly humane farms in the Fraser Valley, though my search is not in any way exhaustive. I do know there has been a ton of difficulty and abuse of folks who believe in raw milk, as countless court cases have shown back East. If you find out more, please write again.

    Yours in spirit,


  12. Justine says:

    I too live in the lower mainland and am very torn around whether to cut dairy out of my diet altogether. We keep ten chickens on my in-laws llama farm so happy-chicken eggs are readily available, but the ethics and cruelty involved in milk production turn my stomach. I too would be very interested in investing in shares on a cruelty-free dairy if that would ever be feasible. I hope it is something we’ll see soon… I’d love to see answers from Avalon as they are the local organic option and there seems to be very little difference between organic and conventional. Thanks for your essay!

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