From cow to carton: Lessons learned on an Iowa dairy
Have you ever seen a cow get a pedicure?
It was one of the highlights of our recent trip to Katherine Boelen’s family dairy farm in Poweshiek County.
We spent a good 10 minutes watching an expert team from Wisconsin trim hooves to keep the cows’ feet healthy. The cows stayed chill, like it was just another visit to the nail salon. And we even saw a calf being born. Seriously, it was better than anything streaming on YouTube.
Another highlight was obviously seeing the playful and curious calves who had access to fresh water and food.
As moms who depend on nutrient-dense dairy foods for our kids, it was also fun to see cows being milked and how that milk was piped to a refrigerated tanker truck headed to the Prairie Farms processing plant in Davenport.
While misinformation runs rampant about today’s dairy farms, we got a 360-degree view of what truly happens to get milk from cow to carton.
Here are some takeaways from our tour:
- Dairy cows are treated like professional sport athletes. They receive a highly specialized diet to make sure they get the nutrients they need to keep them healthy. A dairy nutritionist visits the farm once a week to review the cows’ dietary needs.
- All the ingredients that make up a cow’s diet are mixed inside a wagon that acts as a huge KitchenAid. Katherine said it’s necessary to make sure the rations are blended really well, and each ingredient is similar in size otherwise cows can be like toddlers and only eat the sweets!
- The cows wear digital trackers, similar to a Fitbit, on their ears to monitor their temperature, movement, rest time and more.
- Each cow gets a “report card,” or a record of stats on how much milk she produces each day, plus other important measurements. (Again, much like a pro baseball player.)
- It was 90 degrees, sunny and sweltering on the day we visited. However, the barns were cool, with huge fans on the ceilings that kept a nice breeze going through the open garage doors on either side of the barn. Sprinklers are turned on during extremely hot days to keep the cows comfortable.
- The family recently upgraded their equipment to speed-cool the milk – from about 100 degrees when it comes out of the cow to 35 degrees in a matter of seconds – to ensure the milk is super fresh when it arrives at the Prairie Farms bottling plant in Davenport. Not only that but from cow to carton, the milk is never touched by a human hand.
- Water helps speed-cool the milk down through cooling plates. This same water can be for the cows to drink or to clean equipment. The water used in cleaning can later be used in their manure pits. Manure collected from cows acts as a natural fertilizer and are applied according to DNR approval.
- The Boelens grow cover crops, like rye, to feed back to their cows. Cover crops also work to hold soil and nutrients in place when their corn crop isn’t growing.
- Milk is the original local food. It takes fewer than 48 hours to deliver milk from the cow to the grocery store.
- Every load of milk is tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to ensure its safety. The family gets the test results emailed back to them immediately that same day.
- The farm gets inspected—a lot—by third parties for food safety. For example, the USDA sends inspectors to the farm several times a year, which is standard practice in dairy farming. Milk is one of the most regulated foods in the U.S.
- If you’re looking to save money, the budget-brand milk comes from the same farms as does the brand-name milk, Katherine says. Each bottle of milk has a label number, which you can look up online to see where the milk comes from. (https://www.whereismymilkfrom.com/finding-my-code/) Katherine says she often buys the budget-brand chocolate milk, because her four kids will only drink chocolate milk.
- Katherine said that even though Starbucks likes to promote oat drinks and other alternatives to milk, Starbucks actually sells more real milk than it does coffee.
While there are many alternative drinks on the market, these two moms are sticking with the real deal, which is full of vitamins and nutrients to add in every stage of life. Because we know Katherine is one of many Iowa farmers who remain committed to sustainability, food safety and animal care. And we’re proud to support family farms like hers.
To learn more about how Iowa farmers work every day to produce high-quality meat and dairy, visit www.realfarmersrealfoodrealmeat.com.
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