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Choosing Life

Posted on Apr 19, 2015

By Chris Hedges

AP / Carrie Antlfinger

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MINISINK, N.Y.—The affable, soft-spoken dairy farmer stood outside his 70-stall milking barn on his 230-acre family farm. When his father started farming there in 1950 were about 800 dairy farms in New York state’s Orange County. Only 39 survive. Small, traditional farms have been driven out of business by rising real estate prices, genetic manipulation of cows, industrial-scale hormone use that greatly increases milk production, wildly fluctuating milk prices and competition from huge operations that have herds numbering in the thousands.

For a look at conditions in large-scale dairy farming, click here, scroll down to a picture of an array of meats under a heading that begins “Watch undercover videos ...” and activate the video above the words “Milk Cow.”

I grew up in the dairy farm town of Schoharie in upstate New York. The farmers would let me pick through the rocks in their stone walls as I searched for fossils of Crinoid stems, Trilobites, Eurypterids and Brachiopods. I was in numerous cow barns and pastures as a boy. I have a deep respect for the hard life of small dairy farmers. They are up at 5 or 6 in the morning for the first milking, work all day and milk the cows again in the late afternoon. This goes on seven days a week. They rarely take vacations. And their finances are precarious.

When I was in Minisink recently it was the first time I had been on a dairy farm as a vegan. I do not eat meat. I do not eat eggs. I do not consume dairy products. I no longer accept that cows must be repeatedly impregnated to give us milk, must be separated immediately from their newborns and ultimately must be slaughtered long before the end of their natural lives to produce low-grade hamburger, leather, glue, gelatin and pet food. I can no longer accept calves being raised in horrific conditions before they are killed for the veal industry, developed to profit from the many “useless” males born because dairy farms regularly impregnate cows to ensure continuous milk production.

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Once the right of the powerful to exploit the powerless—whether that exploitation is of animals by humans, other nations by an imperial power, other races by the white race, or women by men—once that right is removed from our belief system, blinders are lifted. On my visit to rural New York state I saw dairy farming in a new way—as a business that depends on the enslavement of the female reproductive systems of animals, animals that feel pain, suffer and love their young.

“As long as they keep breeding back they [the cows] can stay here,” the farmer said to me as he stood in mud-splattered rubber boots. “That is three to four lactations. We get a few that get up to eight or nine lactations. They don’t calve until they are 2-year-olds. You add about four lactations to that and it is about seven years. We try to breed for better production. The biggest reason for cows leaving the herd is not breeding back. Then we send them to a livestock market and they are sold for beef.”

The normal life span of a cow is 20 to 25 years. The life span of a cow on a dairy farm, one whose reproductive system is often speeded up through administering hormones such as estrogen and prostaglandin, is five to seven years. At points during the final four or five years of their lives, ovulating cows are restrained in a “rape rack” and inseminated with a sperm gun that is thrust deep into their vaginas. Once their milk productivity decreases, usually after a few pregnancies, they are killed.

As I talked with the farmer he lifted a bag of powdered milk inside the barn. He explained that if a cow gives birth while other cows are in the milking stalls the mother is separated immediately from the baby and is milked. If a cow gives birth at night it is milked the following morning.

“When you separate the calf from the mother, isn’t it difficult for the mother?” I asked.

“The animal rights people think so,” the farmer said. “I don’t really notice.”

He conceded that the calves cry when they are taken from their mothers but said it was “because they are hungry.”

Removing the calf “is the way it has to be done,” he said. “If the cow gets dirty and the calf suckles the cow, it can ingest manure and mud. There are different types of diseases it can get. There is one, Johne’s disease, that is really bad.”

I have been on enough dairy farms to know that at least some mothers bellow, cry, refuse to eat and exhibit anxiety when their newborns are taken away. And I know that newborn calves cry when they are separated from their mothers. I can’t blame the farmer for not acknowledging this suffering. I myself did not acknowledge it before I became a vegan. I too witnessed, but overlooked, the suffering of cows on dairy farms. I reasoned it “had to be done.”


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