AT FIRST the calf’s front hooves appear, then disappear from view again, as the cow stoically pushes and the contractions get faster. The head follows and then the shoulders, the broadest part of the newborn and the most uncomfortable moment for its mother. Visitors can watch the birth, which usually takes an hour, in an amphitheatre through floor-to-ceiling glass. Outside the birthing barn a traffic light indicates an impending delivery (an orange light reads “hooves”).
Between 80 and 100 calves are born every day to around 36,000 cows on 11 farms covering 35,000 acres at Fair Oaks Farms, one of America’s biggest and most modern dairy operations. It is also the country’s only dairy theme park (though many other farms are open to the public). Its milking parlour attracts more than 400,000 visitors a year, who watch from a balcony as cows step onto a slow-motion merry-go-round to be milked three times a day. Afterwards spectators are whisked off in a bus painted like a black-and-white Holstein cow for a tour of the barns. Children can clamber up a “Calcium Climber” magnetic wall, ascend “udder heights” on a 25-foot milk bottle, milk a robotic cow and watch the making of 12 varieties of cheese and ice cream.
The bosses of Fair Oaks Farms, conveniently sited on the interstate highway between Chicago and Indianapolis, have big plans for the future. The farms recently teamed up with Coca-Cola in a venture called Fairlife, to make milk-derived drinks which, they claim, contain more calcium and protein than ordinary milk (as well as less sugar and no lactose). “And we intend to take manure to the next level,” says Mike McCloskey, co-owner of the mega-dairy.
Fair Oaks Farms reuses everything in sight. Three times a day the manure is vacuumed from the cows’ barns while they are being milked. It then sits for 21 days in a methane digester, while anaerobic bacteria get to work producing gas that is used to generate electricity or as fuel. The electricity powers all the farm buildings and machines and the excess is sold into the grid. Any unused gas is compressed and used to power the farms’ fleet of 42 lorries, which deliver their milk around the Midwest and as far as Tennessee. The use of compressed natural gas replaced the 2m gallons of diesel that farm trailers used every year.
Once the manure comes out of the digester it runs through sieves to capture the long fibres, which are used to fertilise the farms’ soil. Since the water that goes through the screens still contains lots of nourishing chemicals, it is sent through a nutrient-recovery system, which removes 80% of the phosphorous and 75% of the organic nitrogen, compressed into dry matter and reused on the farms. The water that comes out of the recovery system could be used for irrigation, says Mr McCloskey, who is now looking at what to do with this tea-coloured liquid. One idea is to try to make it drinkable by using duckweed to absorb the remaining nitrogen and phosphorous. The weed could be used as a feed high in protein for the cows.
American dairy farmers see labour shortages as their biggest challenge. “It’s so hard to find people willing to work on a dairy farm,” says Paul Rovey, who runs a family farm with 2,000 cows in Arizona. It’s hard physical work every day of the year, come rain or shine, in a pungent environment. “I am a bit racist, I don’t hire gringos,” jokes Mr McCloskey, who is fluent in Spanish thanks to his Puerto Rican mother. He hires only Hispanics to work on his farms.
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “From moo to you”