Last week, I had the chance to show up to my first milking shift in almost exactly four years. As a college student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, I earned my Bachelor of Science in Dairy Science, both dairy husbandry and products manufacturing. I was a milker for two years, head milker for one, a cheese maker at the school creamery, and lived in Cal Poly’s dairy housing program.
When you look at how something is done through the same lens for years (commercial dairy farming on a large scale), you start to truly believe that it is the only way. I grew defensive of the dairy industry whenever it came up in conversation, and my belief that it does tend to get a bad rap in the press hasn’t changed.
However, last week I was given a look from a different angle. I spent six days at the Hare Krishna Farm and Eco Village just outside of Murwillumbah in New South Wales, Australia. I had done my research and knew a little bit about what I was getting into- a week of volunteer work in exchange for three meals per day, as well as a spot to camp and free classes like yoga and meditation. I knew that because it was a Hare Krishna complex, the food would be 100% vegetarian; I expected them to not keep any animals at all.
So imagine my surprise when, on the drive in, we passed a herd of cattle. It just so happens that in the Hindu and Hare Krishna faiths, cattle are sacred. They are seen as spiritual animals, and are treated with the greatest care. Imagine my further surprise when I found out that they milked the herd of cows daily, using a small milking shed and a “special” method.
They called it “ahimsa,” which essentially means “non-violent.” The cows are treated gently, they are called into the barn one at a time and by name, and they are never separated from their calves until they are ready. Dairies that practice ahimsa generally advertise themselves as no-kill dairies, since none of the cattle are ever sold for meat.
The way they talked it up, I knew I absolutely had to see the process for myself. One morning, I got up before 5 AM and made my way through the dark to the milking shed. Two milkers/devotees named Clare and Alex were setting up the barn for the day, and I proceeded to ask Clare dozens of questions about how they run their dairy. Here are the basics that she shared with me:
- The cows all have names, not numbers- various versions of Krishna’s name (Krishna is the equivalent of God, and he has thousands of names in Sanskrit).
- The herd is a strikingly beautiful and unique-looking mix of Gir (Brahma), Holsteins, and crosses.
- They are never sold- older and retired cattle get to hang out in one of the many pastures on the huge farm, and steers (or bullocks, as she calls them) are often trained to pull carts and ploughs. It’s an ancient tradition, and Clare is in charge of their training.
- None of the cattle are dehorned- this makes for an intimidating-looking herd with some potential dangers.
- The cows are milked once per day, and stay with their calves. They told me that milking once per day means they take only what they need, and the calf gets the rest.
- They are currently milking six cows, but the number changes often. They try to keep it below ten.
- The milk is occasionally used to make dishes for the large community meals, but they don’t produce enough to do that very often. Instead, it is most often bottled and sold to the devotee community for their own use (I was told there were roughly 60-70 people living there full-time).
I told Clare about my background, and after declaring I was “a pro!” she plopped me down on a milk crate beside a gorgeous Gir-Holstein cross named Shamalika (not confident on the spelling). She had been called into the barn by name, and quietly settled into the very open stall to allow Clare and I to milk her.
The cows are all milked by hand, into large buckets that are brought to the main temple at the end of the shift. The milk isn’t pasteurized, though it is strained before being used.
Overall, what struck me most about the process was how normal it seemed. There was no chanting, no special spiritual ceremony about it, just…milking cows by hand and not behaving aggressively.
Clare told me that even though most of the cows were very calm, there were a few that did need to have their feet tied while being milked. As I watched, she also needed to give Shamalika a few good swats on the rump as a last-ditch effort when she couldn’t get her to leave the barn. Anyone who has ever spent more than five minutes on a dairy can probably forgive a few rump swats. After two years of working with Jersey cattle I know I certainly can.
It was all starting to seem pretty average until the moment I looked out to the pasture that Shamalika had wandered into. Her pretty speckled calf had been waiting for her on the other side of the gate, and ran up to greet her.
I got to take a moment and just stand there watching the two of them together, mom and baby, in the early morning light. For me, it seemed like a bit of an “a-ha” moment. This is what the hype was about.
I will never believe that we need to completely do away with animal agriculture, but I also don’t fully support a lot of practices that the industries use. My hope is that we can find small ways to improve what we do, taking even the tiniest steps that improve the lives of the animals that provide our food.
I’m fully aware that ahimsa milking practices are not practical for most modern-day dairies in the United States (I haven’t been away from Cal Poly THAT long), but it was a treat to see the industry through such a different and rose-colored lens.