“The cow is queen.”
I don’t know how many times I heard that sentence the day I visited the Werkhoven family dairy farm in Monroe. As six women who write food websites walked through the farm — brought there on a sponsored press trip by Washington State Dairy — we saw cows just after birth, adult cows placidly eating, and cows being milked. Everywhere, it was clear: the comfort of those cows was top priority of this farm.
I’ve drunk milk and eaten butter all my life. My friend Cheryl Sternman Rule has written a book about yogurt (Yogurt Culture: A Global Look at How to Make, Bake, Sip, and Chill the World’s Creamiest, Healthiest Food), which I’m eagerly anticipating. I’m still a fan of cottage cheese, which puts me in the minority in this country. Luckily, I’m one of those people with celiac for whom dairy is not a problem. I celebrate that with cheese.
And yet, I had never been to a large dairy farm to see where my milk comes from before last week.
I’m so glad I went.
This is truly a family-owned and run farm. Andy Werkhoven, on the left, and his brother took over the farm from his father. (Theirs is one of 500 farms that makes up the Darigold co-operative, the 4th-largest farmer cooperative in the United States.) Now, he’s starting to pass it onto his son and his daughter — who might have the cutest pink-cheeked baby ever — along with her husband. They have all grown up around cows. They’re also all fiercely intelligent, college-educated, and constantly seeking out new knowledge of how best to run their farm. This family is not merely trying to make as much money as they can. As Andy told us, “Dairy farming is a low-margin business.” They’re trying to create a sustainable system that benefits the environment and feeds their family.
And of course, treat their cows well.
This is one of dozens of calves recently born on the farm. (There are 1 to 10 cows born a day on the farm.) After calves are born, they are immediately taken here to receive close attention. Andy Werkhoven’s daughter, Rachel, said that she was amazed to hear from her nurses in the hospital that her newborn daughter would only need a bit of colostrum to receive immunities. After all, she is used to cows, who need a full gallon of colostrum in the first 24 hours after they are born. Studies have shown that cows who receive a full gallon of colostrum in the first day of their lives are not only healthier cows, but when they become mothers, they give more milk than the cows who received only half a gallon of colostrum at birth.
Keeping the calves in these hutches ensures that they receive the direct attention and feeding they need. In fact, Rachel estimates that she has hand fed and raised at least 5000 calves this way on the farm since she was a child. When the calves are 8 weeks old, they are sent to group pens to learn how to live in a group. (Apparently, even cows have their alpha cows and followers.) They’re then sent to a larger farm in eastern Washington to live and grown until they are 2. And then they come back to the Werkhoven farm to live out their lives and give milk three times a day.
It’s interesting. When we were on the trip, several of us there posted photos of the calves in the hutches. My friend Aran posted a close-up of one of the calves on Instagram. Immediately, many folks protested, worried that the calves were penned in, the tags in their ears hurt, and there must be mistreatment here. Nothing could be further from the truth. These little calves were being fed and tended to by people who care about them, who have thought out every step of their lives for the best milk production.
The cow is queen, after all.
“The more comfortable cows are, the more milk they make. There is no drug in the world that will produce more milk if it’s not a healthy or comfortable cow.”
These cows were living in a large, airy barn, full of light. They put their heads through this fencing to get to their feed — and apparently they’re expert in picking out corn kernels and the part of the food they enjoy the most — but when they’re not eating, they’re wandering around in a wide pen. The only thing freaking them out was us with our cameras.
When this part of the herd is led to another area to be milked, three times a day, the area they had been standing in is washed out, including their manure. It goes down a big drainpipe and taken away to a place a mile and a half away. (I’ll share more about this later.) The stalls are scrubbed and gleaming by the time the cows come back from milking.
It was pretty impressive to see.
Ben Werkhoven told us about the cows’ feed. “This is Total Mixed Ration. It’s like a big tossed salad for cows.” They have nutritionists checking the cows’ diet every 2 weeks, making sure they get the feed they need.
“Feed them right. Keep them clean.” That’s what cows need.
This is the milking parlor, where all 1000 cows parade slowly through, three times a day. The farm has one crew or another running the milking parlor 22 hours a day. (The other 2 hours a day, the milking parlor is scrubbed down.) The cows were calm, orderly, and clearly happy to be milked. In fact, again, the only thing that freaked them out was these crazy strangers with cameras.
I asked Ben about the woman talking in low tones to the cows, patting them on the legs, assiduously cleaning, constantly. “That’s Maria,” he told me. “She has been with us since I was little enough that I would have only come up to your knee. I have never met anyone who works harder.” He clearly had an enormous respect for her.
And then I said to Ben what a shame it is that people who have so many false conceptions of immigrants in this country. In my experience, and certainly in Danny’s decades of restaurant experience, immigrants from Mexico and Latin American countries work harder than most people whose families have been here for generations. “Oh, don’t get me started on that one,” Ben said, contained. “All I can say is that if all immigrant labor in the food industry in this country stopped, all the grocery stores would be incapable of functioning within 5 days.”
I smiled at Maria, who continued to work as we talked. I’m sure she worked there for hours and hours today.
There were quite a few impressive features of this large dairy farm. But the most impressive might have been this bland expanse of white surface.
This is the digester for the Werkhoven dairy farm. Remember I shared that the manure is washed down a pipe with water? This is where it goes. The manure — plus other food wastes like used cooking oil, fish waste, and expired soda and alcohol — go into one corner of the digester. Over the course of 18 days, the slow-moving mass moves down one end of the digester, across, and up the other. By the time it comes out of the digester, which is modeled on the ruminant stomach of the dairy cow, the manure has been pasteurized. It is divided into solids, which become great compost for farming and gardening. The liquid parts are put onto the crops at the Werkhoven farm, since they grow rye grass and corn to feed their cows. It’s an incredible cycle.
Plus, the idea for this digester came from a member of the Tulalip Indian tribe, who was concerned about the effect of manure on the air and the rivers nearby. The Tulalip and the Werkhovens formed Qualco, a non-profit energy company, to make this happen. The methane gas in the cow’s manure — a contributing factor in climate change — is not released into the environment with this system. Instead, it is burned off from the digester. The burning of those methane gases, with the help of an engine the size of an enormous room, produces enough electricity to keep all the homes in the surrounding area going. It’s really quite an amazing system.
At the end of the day, I asked the Werkhovens what they would want you to know. This young man, John, said, “We could have more cows, make more profit. But then we’d have more manure. We’d have to hire more labor. We’d have to worry about more methane and feed and create more anxiety. All we really want to do is make great milk, take care of our environment and our cows, and feed our families.”
Rachel said this: “Just learn where your food comes from.”
Every time I hand my son a cup of Darigold milk now, I think of these farmers.
My visit and this post was paid for by Washington State Dairy as part of a sponsorship with this site. The photos, words, and opinions are my own.