Milk has always stood for motherhood and for life. According to Greek mythology, the Milky Way was formed when Hera, the Greek goddess of marriage and womanhood, spilled milk while breast-feeding Heracles, known to the Romans as Hercules.
Milk myths didn’t stop with the Greeks, though. Ever since the first cow udders were yanked by human hands, the substance has invited inspection, suspicion, fear and desire. But these days, we milk drinkers are so disconnected from where our milk comes from that it could well originate in a vending machine. The typical dairy buyer lives in a city or a suburb, and likes to imagine that milk still comes from a small family farm with a red barn and cows grazing on a hill, where loving human hands squirt milk from the animals’ teats into a pail. This imagery is so historically pervasive that in 1935, a Los Angeles milk inspector initiated the Dairy Roadside Appearance Program, encouraging farmers to clean up their land, paint their barns and plant flowers to perpetuate this milking myth to urban milk buyers.
That vision, illusory even at the time, is now almost completely obsolete. Milk has become a global industry, produced at a scale that defies nature. While most American farms still have fewer than 100 cows, 86 percent of milk is produced on the 26 percent of farms that have more than 100 cows.
At one time, milk was one of the more natural processes in farming. A bull would impregnate a cow — an actual bull, before the age of artificial insemination . She was pregnant for nine months and then a baby cow was born.
From the calf’s birth to up to three months after it was weaned, the farmer would milk the excess dairy by hand, for drinking, butter and maybe cheese. That’s it. Until now.
Afterwards, from the calf’s birth to up to three months after it was weaned, the farmer would milk the excess dairy by hand, for drinking, butter and maybe cheese. That’s it.
With the rise of factory farming, milk is now a most unnatural operation. The modern dairy farm can have hundreds, even thousands of cows. Today’s average dairy cow produces six to seven times as much milk as she did a century ago. Cows spend their lives being constantly impregnated in order to produce milk. Bulls can be difficult, so the majority of dairy cows are now artificially inseminated. Sex is a thing of the past. Antibiotics cure infections. Hormones have been designed to increase milk production. The cows are pushed hard for this production, and, after roughly three or four years, their production slackens and they are sold off for hamburger meat. Today, the United States is the largest producer of milk in the world, followed by India and China.
The animals spend their lives being fed in an indoor stall or a crowded feedlot. Each cow produces milk for as much as 305 days a year. One of the largest dairy farms in the world is under construction in Vietnam and is slated to hold 32, 000 cows.