I was seriously considering going vegan after touring a 1500 head dairy last week. A subsequent visit to an 40 head organic dairy with an on site artisanal cheese factory made me feel a little better but I'm still questioning the place of dairy in my diet (sorry Mac).
It's tough to be a dairy farmer these days. Faced with rising input costs and stagnant milk prices, many dairy farmers think their only options are to "get big or get out".
Once you get big, there are a host of problems to deal with. On Thursday, I saw a possible solution to one of them - the methane digester is a waste management system that reduces neighbor complaints from the smell of massive manure lagoons that housing thousands of cows in a concentrated dairy generates, produces electricity (+$ in), cuts farm costs (-$ out), and may help a farm comply with environmental regulations. But I'm not really all excited about this yet.
For one, who pays for this? Constructing a methane digester is very expensive - more than $1 million for a digester that can handle the waste from 1500 cows (not even a mega-dairy really; those have 5 to 50 thousand cows). USDA; and the local power utility subsidized the one I saw. Additionally, electricity users in VT pay an extra $0.04 per kilowatt hour for the privilege of buying Cow Power
And two, does this technology just enable a milk production system that is suspect from a moral or health perspective? Confining frequently-medicated, grain-fed ruminants for their entire short lives to produce milk 3x per day? I learned enough about dairy cows last week to know that even the ones I saw, which were probably living as nicely as possible in close proximity of 1499 others, were not low stress cows.
Will methane digesters end up being a taxpayer-funded technology that just helps make mega-dairies profitable?
Alternatively, could we downsize the American dairy? Some producers have figured out that going organic or providing value-added products (cheese, yogurt) is far more profitable than producing a commodity food product. However, prices would be higher and production would be lower. Economic change is painful and that pain is never spread evenly. I have far more questions than answers, but this is what I am thinking about.