Size matters

By Pearl Benjamin | Jul 04, 2019

Last month, an organization called Animal Recovery Mission released a video titled “The Biggest Undercover Dairy Investigation in History– Fair Oaks Farms and Coca Cola.” It included filmed clips of employees and animals at the largest dairy operation in the U.S., taken during a three month long investigation conducted by ARM. The video went viral almost as soon as it was released and its contents shook and horrified all those who saw it. Since then, we’ve heard many calls for responses ranging from product boycotts to an international movement to veganism. When dealing with a sensitive issue such as animal cruelty, we have to be careful to take the right approach without grouping honest farmers who take care of their animals in with big factory farms.

Fair Oaks Farms in Northwest Indiana supplies dairy to the corporation Fairlife, which is owned by Coca Cola. Fair Oaks has been so successful in past years that it has its very own tourist attraction: a smaller-scale farm in which families can explore the barns and learn where their food comes from. Kids can enter the “Dairy Adventure” building and learn about sustainability and then head over to “Mooville’s” outdoor play area for some fun. The Fair Oaks Farms website boasts that it is “a place where guests can make the connection between a farmer and the food on their tables.” However, as ARM’s investigation revealed, the farm’s message is deceptive. The footage taken on Fair Oaks Farms showed the world that many times, we really have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes of the dairy industry.

The video includes horrific footage of Fair Oaks employees abusing calves– beating them, shoving them, throwing them into trailers or onto the ground, bashing their skulls into the dirt, and more. It shows hundreds of calves living in tiny, isolated enclosures not much bigger than the animal itself which were clearly unclean, lacking proper ventilation, and in no way fit to house a living creature. There are numerous clips in which dead calves were shown lying inside the enclosures, on the ground, or stacked on the backs of trucks. The living calves in the video are emaciated and sometimes crippled, fly-bitten, and obviously ill. Richard “Kudo” Couto, the founder of Animal Recovery Mission, talks throughout the video, explaining the footage being shown. He explains that Fair Oaks sends most if not all of their male calves to slaughter for veal, even though the farm had previously released a statement claiming that their male calves were not sent to the veal market. He additionally points out that calves are left dehydrated in extreme heat, that adult cows lose their voices while calling for their calves and that the operation at the farm needs to be shut down immediately.

Dr. Mike McCloskey, the founder of Fair Oaks Farms, issued an apology statement and video addressing ARM’s footage. In his video, Dr. McCloskey makes five promises to the public that he claims will better the animal welfare situation on the farm. He says that the four employees shown in the video have already been fired and that security cameras will be installed. He says that he is contracting an animal welfare organization to conduct frequent and unannounced audits on the property and is hiring an animal welfare specialist to work at the farm. Lastly, he says that he is in the process of reviewing the video and prosecuting all animal abusers shown. He claims to be horrified by the footage and wants to take responsibility for the situation. But constant surveillance will not solve the problem of animal cruelty on Fair Oaks Farms. The issue at hand is a larger one that concerns the practices of large-scale factory farms supplying cheap products to grocery stores across America.

It’s important to first recognize that the abuse that took place at Fair Oaks Farm does not represent the treatment of dairy animals everywhere in the world. As a farmer who has worked with and owned cattle, I understand the practice of rearing these animals and I know many young dairy farmers who work tirelessly to ensure that their animals live full, healthy, and happy lives. I know that it is possible to have a functional dairy farm where every animal is in good health. But I also know how financially difficult that can be. To keep every one of their animals healthy and happy, farmers spend enormous sums every month on vet bills, feed, equipment and barn maintenance, hoof trimming, and more. Profit margins in the highly regulated dairy market are slim to begin with and an unexpected expense for small and mid-scale farmers can wipe them out in an instant. To be profitable in dairy, efficiency is everything. At large-scale farm corporations like Fair Oaks, efficiency and the resulting profits often come at the expense of animal well-being.

There is a harsh reality when it comes to the practices that keep dairy operations on their feet. Many dairy calves are separated from their mothers at birth so that the farmer can harvest the cow’s milk. Although this may seem tragic, it’s sometimes the only way farmers can produce enough milk from their animals to make a profit. When some of the product is going into the calf, revenue is depleted. However, farmers can still raise and feed their calves after separation in a humane way, unlike what was happening at Fair Oaks Farms.

Another harsh piece of reality regarding dairy cattle is that for many large-scale farmers, there isn’t much to do with bull calves other than send them to slaughter to be used in hotdogs, lunchmeat and sold as veal. Unlike beef cattle which are bred for muscle mass and meat output, commercial dairy cattle are bred for massive milk production at the expense of all else. For the same reason you can’t use a beef cow for milk, you can’t use dairy cattle for meat. Not only would a grown dairy steer provide poor quality meat, dairy bulls are also notoriously difficult to handle and extremely dangerous. In fact, most dairy cows today are bred through artificial insemination. If grown male cattle can’t be used for milking, breeding, or meat, keeping them around just doesn’t make sense.

There are humane and ethical ways to raise veal, practiced by an increasing number of small and mid-scale farms. But these are not the kinds of practices used by factory farms like Fair Oaks. There, bull calves are immediately separated from their mothers and kept in confinement for a few weeks until they go to market. By the end of their lives, the calves are severely crippled and malnourished (as seen in the video) because they aren’t allowed enough space to develop muscle.

So, how can these problems be solved? The answer is not a boycott of the dairy industry as a whole, as Couto suggests in ARM’s video. Cutting finances to smaller dairy farms does nothing but deplete farmers’ funds that go into medical care and feed for their animals. In other words, less money for dairy farmers means less care for their animals. Boycotting Fairlife products and demanding accountability makes sense and is reasonable, but boycotting all dairy products does nothing but make conditions worse for family farmers and their animals.

There is no excuse for consistent animal abuse and treating thousands of animals like pieces of equipment and we know that these things occur in factory farms everywhere. There’s also no excuse for the amount of methane factory farms produce. Thousands of cattle means tens of thousands of kilograms of methane being pumped into the atmosphere every year, adding to the greenhouse gas effect and escalating the climate crisis. We need to start supporting the humane and sustainable practices used by small and mid-scale farms and make it easier for them to survive and thrive. Smaller farms create an environment where animal abuse is not something an employee can get away with. They provide more space per animal and ensure better living conditions. Small, local dairy farming is a sustainable and necessary practice that promotes animal welfare and connects consumers with local businesses. It’s time to take a step back in order to move forward with our agricultural practices. It’s time to shut down exploitative operations like Fair Oaks Farms and make a statement that animal cruelty has no place in the dairy industry.


Pearl Benjamin is an 11th-grade student at the Watershed School.


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