Milking Profits Out of Cows

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email

Milking Profits Out of Cows

by Unknown

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 7, No. 6, November 1975, p. 10–14 & 38

“We do not believe that action by farmers alone can implement our recommendations or eliminate the undesirable effects … “


This paper is addressed to people interested in agriculture and agricultural policy in relation to food production problems in the world today. In our opinion, many articles which attempt to discuss food production problems fall into two disjoint categories:

(1) Agricultural technology
(2) Economic and political organization 

We believe that an understanding of food production problems and their solution requires the integration of these categories. The kind of technology that is used affects the economic and political structure of a society; the economic and political organization of a society affects the kind of technology that is employed. In an article appearing previously [“Concentration of Power in the Food Business”, SftP, March, 1975, p.8], the general consequences of the ascendency of large, vertically integrated, corporate food businesses were described. We have focused on the dairy industry, in order to be more concrete and specific in our critique and recommendations. 

The Importance of Dairy Cattle 

Over the centuries, cows have been important to people because they can utilize feed supplies unfit for human consumption to produce large quantities of milk. Milk and its byproduct cheese are an important source of high quality protein, calcium and most of the vitamins people require including A, D, E, K and many of the B vitamins. Milk is also a source of phosphorus. 

The dairy cow, being a ruminant animal, has a decided advantage in digesting and utilizing those parts of plants and other compounds which are practically useless to animals with simple stomachs. Substances such as cellulose, a major constituent of plant tissue, and urea, a non protein nitrogen compound, are of limited use to humans. However, cows, through fermenting and synthesizing actions of microorganisms in their complex stomachs, can efficiently convert these substances into milk and meat. 

Cattle not only feed on plants useless for human consumption, but their feed can be grown on pasture land. Pasture land is marginal for growing crops such as cereals which are directly consumable by people. Forty seven percent of the U.S. agricultural land is grassland pasture and range. 

Economically, dairy cows have been a valuable asset to general farms in the U.S. Most general purpose farms have kept some cows because they need only shelter, grazing land and a daily milking to produce milk which can be made into butter and cheese. Cheese, which stores well, can help a family survive poor crop harvests. Part-time dairying has also benefited farmers because the monthly milk check provides important earnings during the slow months of the year. 

Gone Awry 

Because of economic factors many trends have developed in dairy production which defeat the very qualities which have made milk producing animals so important historically to people. 

(1) Farmers are increasingly dependent on grain as feed because of the high cost of land and other economic pressures to increase yield. 

The cost of land and of yearly taxes has made it difficult for farmers to maintain enough land to raise feed for cows and is one of the contributing factors forcing them to buy grain and grain based concentrates. Many farmers prefer grain because cows produce more on a grain diet. Grain is denser and therefore, when a cow eats to her bulk capacity, she has consumed more than twice the nutrients and energy than if she had eaten hay. If the cow is efficient in converting the feed into milk and not body fat, by having consumed more food value she produces more milk. Farmers get paid primarily for yield and the increased yield makes profits larger. 

There are two problems associated with grain feeding. First, grain is directly consumable by people. Because of the world food shortage people must now compete with livestock both for the grain and for the high quality farm land used to grow it. In the U.S. almost 50% of the acreage committed to grain production is used to produce feed rather than food. 

Second, a cow’s digestive system is designed to handle a diet of mostly roughage. The increased proportion of grain in the diet has caused health problems. Possibly fatal diseases such as rumen atony* are caused by a lack of sufficient roughage and/or excessive grain in the diet. 

(2) Breeding programs are breeding for the universal high producing cow. 

The Dairy Herd Improvement Associations are primarily concerned with increasing milk yields. The National Cooperative Dairy Herd Improvement Program (NCDHIP) rates bulls by comparing the performance of each of the hull’s daughters with her herdmates. A bull whose daughters perform well in many herds is rated highly because it shows that the hull’s superior genetic quality is the major contributor to their performance. The significance of specific environmental factors such as farm management, climate or a particular dam can then be discounted. 

In breeding for universality the NCDHIP deliberately selects against genetic adaptation to particular environmental differences. For instance, in a hot climate they would build a special air-cooled shelter, rather than use Jersey cows who are better adapted to the heat. 

In breeding for higher and higher production, we are evolving into a one-dairy breed nation of Holsteins even though other breeds produce more nutritional milk: In 1955, Holsteins represented 66% of the dairy population. Now they represent 80% of the cows. Holsteins are the highest yielding cows, but they produce a lower percentage of both protein and fat than either Guernseys or Jerseys. Other breeds cannot compete with the Holstein milk because the pricing mechanism pays primarily for quantity, not nutritional composition or flavor.

The nutritional value of a glass of milk is declining by selecting for high producers. There is an inverse correlation between increasing yield and the percentage of protein, fat, and other solids. As yield increases the protein and fat percentage declines. In addition, the lower fat in milk has caused a decrease in the fat soluble vitamins A,D,E and K. 

Because the quantity of nutrients consumed determines the upper limits of production, cows are bred for greater appetites. A cow efficient at converting feed into milk will produce more if she eats more. The breeding trend has resulted in cows who are dependent on grain because they cannot consume enough forage to meet their genetically increased energy requirements. These cows are much more susceptable to a serious metabolic disease, ketosis, which is characterized by hypoglycemia, ketonurea, rapid loss of weight and reduced milk production. 

*Rumen atony develops when the muscular pillars in the rumen fail to perform their contraction and relaxation functions.

(3) There is a trend towards large scale monoculture dairy farming, located away from population centers. 

Before the Civil War, most farms were general farms which were located near population centers and produced a variety of crops and livestock products. Even with the advent of the railroad, milk had to be produced in the immediate neighborhood of cities. When refrigeration techniques were devised, milk could be transported long distances. As industrial and residential needs inflated land prices, farmers with land could not afford to expand their landholdings and new farmers could not afford the capital investment to buy land near cities. Farmers began to move to more remote areas where land was less expensive. The dislocation of dairying in conjunction with large scale monoculture practices have become so severe that the milk produced by a region bears no relationship to its population’s dairy needs. 

Although the great majority of dairy farms are still small, the trend since World War I and especially since World War II has been towards greater size. By 1980, it is expected that farms with less than thirty cows will be almost non-existent. California farms, many with several thousand cows each, are becoming the model for future dairying. 

Management of these large farms requires computerization to determine when to breed, when to cull, how much to feed. A few people cannot keep track of the herd’s day-to-day requirements. Work on these enormous farms must be divided into specialized tasks—milking, feeding, etc. 

There are problems associated with large scale monoculture dairy farming. First, it creates jobs where people cannot participate in or understand the overall process or gain satisfaction from it. 

Second, the cost of transportation and refrigeration of the milk has become large. Transportation is a major user of energy, especially petroleum, and a major source of polution. 

Third, monoculture creates pollution problems because there are too many cows in too small an area. Most livestock feeding systems result in manure being stored for some time in an untreated or partially treated form. Stored manure frequently creates the problem of gas and odor. Probably the most serious pollution threat from animal wastes lies in the pollution of water from nitrates, phosphates and organic matter. Groundwater supplies in areas of heavy cattle feeding can receive sufficient quantities of nitrates from leaching to make their consumption dangerous for humans, particularly infants. Surface waters can be sufficiently enriched in nitrogen and phosphorus to cause excessive algae growth making it unpotable for humans and deadly for fish. These pollution effects are doubly unfortunate because manure when properly handled is valuable fertilizer. And finally, milk has become increasingly uniform to facilitate processing and transportation. 


In this section we make specific recommendations about the dairy industry in the U.S. 

(1) Dairying in the U.S. should attempt to reduce its reliance on grain-feeding of cows and other feeding practices that place cows in competition with people for food or high quality agricultural land. 

This action by itself will not guarantee that more grain is made available to those people in the world who need it. In fact, without other action in addition this would probably result in a decrease in the amount of grain produced by U.S. farmers. To have the desired effect other measures must be taken, including the adoption of some mechanism to encourage and permit farmers to increase grain production, coupled with an approach to food distribution that provides all people with an adequate basic diet. 

This recommendation is obviously based on the assumption that there is a worldwide shortage of grain for human consumption. However, it is not intended as a ‘solution’ to the world food shortage. Any solution to that problem must include the social and economic changes that are a prerequisite for adequate food production and distribution in the Third World. 

If there were no shortage of grain we would still have to ask whether the methods for grain production were viable in a long term sense: e.g. maintaining soil fertility, causing minimal environmental disruption, etc. We must know under what circumstances we can, as a society, afford to feed grain to cattle. 

It is possible to have a modem dairy industry based upon forage feeding. New Zealand is a significant exporter of dairy products and the production level of New Zealand cows is good (though lower than the U.S.). Almost no grain feeding is done there, facilitated by a favorable climate that reduces capital expenses in dairying (barns etc.) and by less real estate pressure on land values. In the U.S. it would be necessary to unequivocally recognize the value of a dairy industry based on forage feeding. 

(2) Breeding programs for dairy herd improvement must recognize the value of a cow’s ability to create high quality protein without competing with people for food or valuable agricultural land: genetic ‘development’ that results in cows dependent upon grain for milk production or health must be examined with a more critical eye.

 The electronic digital computer in conjunction with advanced techniques for plant propagation and the use of artificial insemination in the breeding of animals, has encouraged the rapid development of new genetic strains. Unfortunately this has sometimes led researchers to attempt to develop ‘ideal’ genetic strains which are then used universally. When such a strain is introduced to a new environment it is totally unadapted to it and usually requires extensive artificial assistance in order to survive and produce well. The high yielding varieties of wheat and rice that formed the basis of the ‘Green Revolution’ required significantly more inputs in the form of careful irrigation, extensive use of commercial fertilizers and pesticides in comparison with the traditional varieties and the locally improved strains based on them. 

Abandonment of local stains and environmental adaptation should be done only after careful consideration. It must be demonstrated that yields increase so much that they justify the dependency on the increased inputs and the reduction in the genetic diversity characteristic of successful ecosystems. This leads to our third recommendation: 

(3) The dairy herd improvement program (DCDHIP) should reexamine the national nature of its sire and cow evaluation methods, which predicate the existence of an ideal genetic strain for all regions and environments. The studies which claim to have demonstrated that there is little interaction between heredity and geographic environment in dairy cattle should be reviewed carefully. Sire evaluation should be done on a regional basis unless it can be proved that this leads to a significant impairment of the breed improvement program. Under this regional approach, outside bulls could be introduced into a region, but the evaluation of these sires would be on a regional basis, ie. within that region. There already exist regional dairy records processing centers so this change in scope of evaluation might even be less costly computationally. 

“The electronic digital computer in conjunction with advanced techniques…has encouraged the development of new genetic strains.”

Ignoring genetic-environmental effects and attempting to develop an ideal single strain for all environments leads to the need to alter the environments to make them identical. This approach results in the use of air-cooled aseptic housing and uniform feeding practices unrelated to the availability of local forage. Cost-price relationships at the current time might justify this practice in the short run, but as a long term strategy for genetic improvement, it raises serious questions. 

The drive to produce higher and higher yields, whether in terms of crop yields per acre or gallons of milk per cow, recognizes no natural limit to yield potential. In this drive, every technical idea that increases yield in the short run will be tried. Incomplete knowledge of the workings of biological systems makes us unable to distinguish between short term improvements and long term disasters. Economic forces coupled with an overinflated opinion of technical abilities has led to this one-dimensional approach to the problem of increased food production. Our next recommendation is: 

(4) Our society must recognize that increased technical knowledge and the consequent enhancement of our ability to alter natural processes, brings with it the danger of making alterations which have disastrous long term effects. 

In modern economics and its applications, there is a tendency to analyze and optimize systems according to a single criterion which is suitable to quantification. For instance, production efficiency may be formulated in terms of the unit cost per gallon of milk, without due consideration for quality differences in milk, some of which may be quantifiable in economic terms, and some not.  

The value of food cannot be determined simply by volume, or even by the volume of the nutritionally important constituents. Agricultural techniques that focus on increasing yield frequently result in decreasing percentages of important nutrients, as has happened with the protein and vitamin content of wheat in the midwestern U.S. Yield-oriented approaches also readily sacrifice qualities that cannot be easily quantified, such as flavor. Thus our fifth recommendation: 

(5) Breeding programs for dairy herd improvement must recognize the importance of other factors besides volume of production. 

Because of both the level of attained technology and the size of human population, the world today requires that people everywhere cooperate in an effort to achieve a health and satisfying life for all. At the same time, despite this interdependency, self-sufficiency on a local or regional level is a goal to be strived for, even though it can never be fully reached. The further we move from self-sufficiency toward complete dependence on a global mechanism of control for even the most basic necessities of life, e.g. food, the less choice we will have about everything. In addition, such global management is more subject to miscalculation or manipulation and consequent widespread disaster. Thus, local or regional self-sufficiency in food production should be pursued wherever possible. This leads to our next recommendation: 

(6) We must question the economic mechanisms that permit the real estate market coupled with publicly subsidized high speed freight transportation to force agriculture away from population centers. We must recognize the value of agricultural production in close proximity to cities. This would not only reduce the societal costs of transportation but also permit the utilization of human waste as fertilizer. 

Large corporations view dairying as an industry with no merit other than the profitability associated with it and show a willingness to abandon dairying at any time its rate of profitabiltiy is lower than some other potential investment. With this attitude short term economic considerations dominate all decisions. Long term effects are ignored. 

Increased scale of operation, labor specialization, and automation may contribute to efficiency of production, but they also tend to destroy the wholeness and satisfaction of work, by redefining all tasks as specialized labor with no sense of purpose or overview. If we place no value on the quality of work, then we may expect that economic forces will couple with ‘technological progress’ to make most work alienating, regardless of the larger economic milieu. We reject the view that work is necessarily alienating and note that historically automation has tended to change the nature of work by reducing human involvement in the production process to specialized highly mechanical acts that require no imagination or initiative and are satisfying only in the sense that the wage received for such labor can purchase some satisfaction. This is an inevitable consequence of an economic system that places too little value on work as a wholesome and fulfilling activity. Worker control of the production process would reverse these tendencies. This leads to our next recommendation: 

(7) The trend toward large scale corporate dairy farming should be stopped. Other organizational models for dairying should be explored. 


The direction of dairy farming in the U.S., is and has been dictated by relatively short term economic considerations. As a consequence, a number of current practices in dairying have undesirable long term effects. We have discussed these and made recommendations toward eliminating them. 

We do not believe that action by farmers alone can implement our recommendations or eliminate the undesirable effects. Farmers can resist short term economic pressures only to a limited degree. Beyond that their practice is determined by the cost of the inputs they need to farm and the price of the products they produce. These costs and prices and cost/price ratios are controlled by the government and by large corporations. They reflect a set of value judgments which have far reaching consequences all too often ignored. The negative trends we have discussed are examples of this. Their rectification requires reexamination of basic value judgments and the economics that follow from them. 

Food production and distribution affect everyone. The mode of production and distribution should be decided by society at large, not by the boards of directors of a small number of corporations who are interested in maximizing their profits. Many of the actual producers (e.g. farmworkers and small farmers) and the consumers have a common interest: production and distribution of adequate amounts of nutritious and tasty food in an ecologically sound and nonalienating way.

Farmworkers, consumers and progressive farmers must recognize their common interest and work together to bring about the necessary changes. Pressure from such a coalition could lead to changes in the existing milk pricing formulae that would reverse the trend toward less nutritious milk. Adjustment of the milk pricing formulae to include protein has had beneficial effect in several European nations. The conditions of agricultural work can be improved by joint pressure from consumers, farmers and farmworker organizations. The United Farm Workers’ successes are an example of this. 

But these changes will be limited in scope so long as agricultural economics is strictly profit oriented. Agribusiness corporations respond to increased labor costs by moving to an area of cheap labor, leaving many unemployed workers behind. 

A reduction in grain feeding, altering the trend toward large scale monoculture, abandonment of the ‘universal cow’ idea and a nonwasteful attitude toward our natural resources require major changes in our economic system. These can be brought about whenever enough of us understand the negative effects of the current system and jointly decide to do something about it. 

We would like to hear from people who are interested in or doing related research. 

>>  Back to Vol. 7, No. 6  <<


  1. Agribusiness Accountability Project (Hightower), Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times, Schenkman Publishing Co., 1973.
  2. American Breeders Service, Genetic Mating Service, 1974.
  3. American Breeders Service, Holstein Sires, Guernsey Sires, Jersey Sires, Ayrshire Sires and Broum Swiss Sires, 1974.
  4. The Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, Population, Resources and the Environment, U.S. G.P.O., 1972.
  5.  Everett, R.W. and Henderson, C.R., The Northeast A.I. Sire Comparison: Why? Animal Science Mimeograph Series No. 19, 1972.
  6. FAO, The State of Food and Agriculture, Fao Rome, 1973.
  7. FAO, Production Yearbook, 1973.
  8. Frank, A.H., Artificial Insemination in Livestock Breeding, USDA Circular #567, 1952.
  9.  Foley, R.C., Bath, D.L., Dickinson, F.N., Tucker, H.A., Dairy Cattle: Principles, Practices, Problems, Profits, Lea and Febiger, Philadelphia, 1972.
  10. Haraksingh, K., Bhagavan, M.R., Payne, R. and Smith, D., The Death of the Green Revolution, Haslemere Declaration Group, Third World First, Birmingham, U.K., 1973.
  11. Lush, J.L., Animal Breeding Plans, Iowa StatP University Press, 1945.
  12. NCDHIP, Plans for a National Dairy Records Program, 1974.
  13. Perry, J. and Bartlett, J.W., Artificial Insemination of Dairy Cows, Extension Bull. #200, 1939.
  14. U.S.D.A., The National Cooperative Dairy Herd Improvement Handbook. Agr. Handbook #248, 1973.
  15. U.S.D.A., 1973 Annual Summary, Massachusetts DHIA, 1973.
  16. U.S.D.A., Sire Evaluation Report: Production Comparison of Sires used in Artificial Breeding Studs Serving New England, Univ. of Mass. Cooperative Extension Program, 1973.
  17. U.S.D.A., 1971 ELFAC Dairy Farm Business Analysis, Northeastern States Cooperative Extension Service. NEC-68, 1972.
  18. U.S.D.A:, Dairy Situation, Economic Research Service, 1974-75.
  19. U.S.D.A., Feed Situation, Economic Research Service, 1974.
  20.  U.S.D.A., Livestock-Feed Relationships, Economic Research Service Stat. Bull. 530, 1974.
  21. U.S.D.A., Proceedings of Dairy Feed Meetings, Coop. Extension Service, Univ. of Mass., 1974.
  22.  U.S.D.A., Farm Income State Estimates 1949-73 ERS, 1974.
  23. U.S.D.A., Changes in Farm Production and Efficiency ERS Statistical Bull. #233, 1973.
  24. U.S.D.A., World Agricultural Situation ERS, 1974.
  25. U.S.D.A., Farm Cost Situation ERS, 1973.
  26. Walters, C., Jr., Holding Action, Halcyon House, 1968.
  27. 27. Wilcox, C.J., Gaunt, S.N., and Farthing, C.R., Genetic Interrelationships of Milk Composition and Yield, Southern Coop. Series Bull. #155, Univ. of Florida, 1971.