Milk cartons and dairy co-op websites feature drawings or photographs of lovely cows standing in lush green pastures and shots of farmers, smiling, standing with an arm around a cow. They’d like you to think that Mom or Pop gets up in the early morning to milk the few cows they own. But the chances that the milk you buy comes from that kind of farm are pretty slim. Well, actually closer to nonexistent.

Mom and Pop may still own the dairy, but it's likely an operation with hundreds and, especially in New Mexico, often thousands of cows that never stand in a pasture. And they're not usually milked by family members but by workers laboring under harsh conditions.

Joseph Sorrentino
Joseph Sorrentino | Joseph Sorrentino

Dairies here might technically be "family farms," as dairy lobbyists declare, but in practice they follow the rest of the nation's model for what are known as concentrated animal feeding operations or factory farms. What happens on them is very different from what the industry likes to portray.

Proponents point to efficiency and the cheap milk they produce as major benefits, but it comes at a fairly steep price for animals, workers and nearby communities.

The overwhelming majority of milk sold in the US comes from these high-density agri-businesses. In the early 1970s, US Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz told farmers to, "Get big or get out." New Mexico's dairies have taken that advice to heart.

Today, they're mainly located in two regions: the southeast produces the most milk with Curry, Roosevelt and Chaves counties accounting for two-thirds of all of the state's milk, and the south-central region, where Doña Ana County produces the most and is home to Dairy Row, a stretch southeast of Las Cruces where about a dozen dairies line a strip paralleling I-10.

New Mexico's 148 dairies have around 320,000 cows, giving the state, with just under 2,200 cows per dairy, the largest average herd size in the country, according to statistics collected by New Mexico State University's agriculture extension. We're ninth in the nation in milk production and fifth in cheese production, and with Southwest Cheese in Clovis, we have one of the world's largest cheese factories.

Naturally, that means the dairy industry has a huge economic impact in the state. The value of annual milk commodity sales exceeds $1.2 billion, making dairy—above chile and pecans—the state's top-selling agricultural product, according to the USDA. Labor statistics indicate the industry provides jobs for more than 4,000 workers at the dairies and just over 17,000 if you count related jobs.

Life on a Factory Farm

The beginning of life on factory farms happens when a female is impregnated by artificial insemination. Within hours after birth calves are removed from their mothers. Moms are returned to the milking rotation while young females begin a waiting game. Males sent to cattle ranches where they'll be raised for beef.

Calves are placed in small hutches that are just big enough for them to stand in and have an enclosed area in front with a couple of feet of dirt. They're never let out of the hutch and, according to Scott Rasband, owner of Rasband Dairy in Belen, and other dairy owners, this is done for safety. "We don't want them wandering off," he says. "If you don't pen them up, they'll wander off and be in the street and get run over."

After two to three months, a calf is moved to a corral. She's impregnated at the two-year mark and every year after that to insure she'll keep lactating.

When it's time to be milked, which is two or three times a day, cows are moved from the corral to the milking barn by corraleros who stand behind them, waving their arms. The cows reach the milking barn and line up, waiting for the gate to open. When it does, they lumber in.

It's in the milking barn that it becomes apparent how "factory" came to be attached to "farm," for it resembles nothing so much as a conveyor belt.

New Mexico’s 148 dairies
have around 320,000 cows, giving the state, with just under 2,200 cows per dairy, the largest average herd size in the country

Most milking barns have two raised platforms on which cows stand and an aisle between them. Two workers hurry down the aisle, cleaning the cows' teats with an iodine solution. A suction device—a several-inches long metal tube with a rubber end—is attached to each of the four teats. These are connected to plastic tubing that carries milk into containers. Milking takes less than five minutes—about eight hours for a herd of 2,000—and when it's done and the suction machines are removed, side gates open, the cows that are milked move out and the next group is hurried in. Workers frequently hose down the barns but the smell, a mix of mud and manure, can still be so strong that it stays in your mouth for hours.

Milk is collected in large vats, cooled and eventually trucked to one of the state's 14 processing plants where it's pasteurized and bottled or made into other dairy products.

Standing in the Muck

In contrast to photographs on dairy websites, cows raised on factory farms don't spend any time in pasture. Instead, they live in corrals, standing or lying in dirt or mud that's mostly a mashed mess of urine and manure. A cow naturally eats grass but on factory farms, it is fed a mix of corn fodder, hay and grains, a diet many feel adversely affects its health.

Although a Holstein could live 15 or more years, "A [factory farm] cow probably lives about one and a half years after milking begins," says Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, an organization that researches agricultural issues. "So it's probably slaughtered at about 3, 3 1/2 years old."

A video released this summer by Mercy For Animals at Winchester Dairy, in Chaves County, is one of the most damning examples of what can happen on a factory farm. It shows cows being beaten, stabbed and dragged by tractors (mercyforanimalsmedia.com/video/winchesterdairy).

Cows that live in Dairy Row’s factory farms in southern New Mexico lay and stand in muddy manure.
Cows that live in Dairy Row’s factory farms in southern New Mexico lay and stand in muddy manure. | Joseph Sorrentino

"We believe this type of cruelty runs rampant in the industry," says Vandhana Bala, general counsel for the advocacy group. "We've conducted six investigations across the country. The dairies were selected at random and every one had issues of abuse."

The New Mexico Livestock Board is charged with detecting animal abuse on dairies but, says Ray Baca, its director, "We knew nothing about the abuse until the video surfaced."

When it did, the board conducted an investigation and turned the case over to the Chaves County District Attorney. "The case is being reviewed," says Mike Murphy, Chaves County's chief deputy DA, "and we can't say which charges, if any, will be brought."

A Day’s Work

Conditions for the humans at factory farm dairies aren't much better than that of the cows. Workers are overwhelmingy Latino immigrants. "I have seen one gringo in the 15 years I have worked here," says Carlos, who works in a dairy near Dexter. "He lasted maybe four months." That's because the work's dirty, the hours are long and it can be dangerous.

Steve and Colleen Warshawer have a more personal touch at their Santa Fe-area Mesa Top Farm.
Steve and Colleen Warshawer have a more personal touch at their Santa Fe-area Mesa Top Farm. | Joseph Sorrentino

Riccardo worked as a corralero, driving the cows out of the corral at a dairy outside of Las Cruces. "It's actually very dangerous when it rains because of the waste," he says. "A lot of times people sink into the waste, get stuck." The inside of a dairy barn's no easy place to work, either. "It's nasty [work]," says Marcos, a short, strongly built 59-year-old milker. "We have aprons, [but they get] completely covered in manure and urine." Many workers say they get no breaks during their shifts and have to eat while they work, even as cows frequently defecate on their food.

A survey by conducted in 2012 by New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty attorney Tess Wilkes found that more than half of the 70 workers surveyed had been injured on the job, one-third of them more than once. Dairy workers are not covered by workers' comp, although that rule is being challenged and may change this year [News, April 9, 2013, "All Work, No Pay"].

Although wages in New Mexico's dairies are higher than in other agricultural jobs—ranging from the mid-$20,000s to as high as $35,000—the hours are extremely long.

Alfredo, a 56-year-old worker with short white hair, a well-trimmed moustache and a very proper manner, has worked on dairies for six years. He drives a large tractor, bringing feed to the cows. He says it's not hard work, but "I work six days a week, 12 hours a day and one day to rest." That's 72 hours a week. Other workers are putting in 48 or 54 hours, depending on their position. By law, none are required to get paid overtime.

Impact on the Environment and Local Communities

Even if consumers can stomach the labor conditions that pervade every aspect of the nation's food chain, there's a negative impact on the environment and surrounding communities to consider. Currently, more than half of New Mexico's dairies are under pollution abatement plans because they've been cited by the New Mexico Environment Department for contaminating groundwater. The department passed tighter regulations to prevent and detect pollution in 2009 but shortly after passage, the new regulations were opposed by the dairy industry [News, June 24, "Moo Rules"]. Technical hearings on a second set of regulations, passed in 2011, are supposed to take place soon. On Dec. 15, the State Supreme Court ruled that the department can hold hearings in Roswell after several environmental groups argued that they should take place in Santa Fe.

Factory farms produce odors and enormous numbers of flies, eliciting complaints from nearby communities. Residents of Mesquite have brought a nuisance lawsuit against seven dairies along Dairy Row claiming that flies and odors from them make it impossible to be outside [News, Oct. 20 “Udder Distress”].

"The odor is terrible, especially in the summer," says Edna Orona, who has lived in Mesquite all of her 75 years. "You get that odor in the house. The flies, when it's really bad, all my doors and my porch are covered. We can't even go outside." Dairy owners claim that they're not responsible for the flies, citing "other sources" like horses.

Joseph Sorrentino
Joseph Sorrentino | Joseph Sorrentino

Based on what this reporter saw at a number of large dairies this summer and fall, much of the criticism leveled at them appears justified. Flies covered the animals and the hutches where the calves are housed, attracted by mounds of manure piled up around the dairy. And when driving south of Las Cruces on I-10, the smell of dairies reaches the nose before they come into view

But Steve Warshawer, who along with his wife Colleen runs the tiny Mesa Top Dairy outside of Santa Fe (more about them later), thinks factory farms aren't solely to blame.

"Everybody wants more and cheaper food," he says, "but how can we implement systems to protect the environment and still produce cheap food? If people want $3-a-gallon milk, how's that going to happen? If you want $6-a-gallon milk, who can afford it? We're telling CAFOs to produce milk at this price and asking them to do more and more—give us cheap food—without increasing the cost."

Whether organic milk will ever be as cheap as conventional isn't clear, but a lot of that will be decided by those of us buying milk. "Consumers respond by buying or not buying," says La Montañita Co-op's Michelle Franklin. "They vote with their dollars."

Choices, choices

A user's guide to milk:

Stand in front of a dairy case in almost any supermarket and you’re faced with a variety of milk options—conventional, all natural, local, organic, even raw. Want to get away from products of factory farms and move toward happier cows? Get ready to pay. Interested in how far the milk traveled to get to you? Learn up on what’s “local.” Organic certifications call on dairy operators to not only skip hormones, but also allow cows time to graze. Yet that milk costs about 50 percent more than conventional milk and, in spite of increased interest, still makes up only a tiny percentage of milk sales. Still not sure which to choose? We can help.

Local
Cows actually get pasture time at De Smet Dairy in Bosque Farms, one of the state’s small-scale dairies.
Cows actually get pasture time at De Smet Dairy in Bosque Farms, one of the state’s small-scale dairies. | Joseph Sorrentino

Once upon a time, New Mexicans considered Creamland their local dairy. The production facility on Albuquerque's Second Street got that name in 1937 when, its website explains, local farmers and investors bought the plant formerly owned by the Albuquerque Dairy Association.

But since the 1960s the business has been a corporate asset, passed around to bigger and bigger companies. It's now owned by Dean Foods, which claims to be the largest distributor of milk in the country.

Jamaison Schuler, Dean's senior director of corporate communications, tells SFR that producers all sign affidavits swearing that they have not used the hormone rBST on cows and that milk packaged at the Albuquerque facility today comes from "approximately three farms within a 50-mile radius of the plant." That means New Mexico's best-known "local" dairy processor is using milk produced on factory farms.

Ask around and you'll hear the line that Rasband, a dairy located in Belen, is the "last good commercial local dairy" in the state. Rasband sells milk that isn't organic but is "all natural," which means, says owner Scott Rasband, "no growth hormones, no antibiotics fed to cows."

Rasband refused offers for a site visit with SFR, however, and would only say that his dairy had "a couple hundred cows" when asked to talk about its size and practices. The milk's available at La Montañita Co-op and Whole Foods.

"Local trumps organic as long as it's held to certain standards," says Aaron Diehl, La Montañita's dairy team leader in Nob Hill. "For milk, that means no growth hormones, no antibiotics. Rasband is [our] biggest-selling milk because it's local and it's the least expensive."

Local and Organic

Just four of the state's 148 dairies are certified to label their milk as organic under guidelines from the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.

This calf at Native Pastures Dairy is just a few hours old.
This calf at Native Pastures Dairy is just a few hours old. | Joseph Sorrentino

Joanie Quinn, the organic commodities adviser for the state program, helps producers obtain and maintain certification. Two inspectors check farms yearly to insure they're complying with regulations. All feed must be organic and, adds Quinn, "An organic dairy cow has to be on pasture at least 120 days a year. During that time, they must take in at least 30 percent of their food by biting it off themselves."

One such dairy is Native Pastures Dairy, a 250-acre operation in Clovis owned by Art Schaap and managed by Andy Bollema. They milk 400 cows three times a day, shipping their milk to Organic Valley Co-op, which stocks in stores such La Montañita, Whole Foods and Sprouts.

"Most of the milk produced in New Mexico is sold in New Mexico," says Schaap, who also owns two conventional dairies that sell to Dean Foods. He says he was initially skeptical about switching to organic. "I didn't think it would work," he says, "but we heard organic was more sustainable."

Although cows are still milked three times a day, they're giving less milk than those on a conventional dairy. "Organic cows aren't pushed for production," Schaap continued. "They're healthier, they're living longer...typically six to eight years here." He said his milk is bottled in Colorado and "returned to New Mexico. The milk produced here stays in the region."

Jamie Kulesa is the general manager and one of the owners of Nature's Way, a 5,000-acre dairy outside Portales that sells milk to Horizon Organics (also owned by Dean Foods). The herd of about 2,500 cows is a large number for an organic dairy. "I feel organic is size neutral," says Kulesa, a 52-year-old dairyman with a Paul Bunyan physique. "It's how you take care of the cows. We milk as much as a conventional dairy but see less disease. We do more prevention, more management. I used a lot of antibiotics for a long time [on a conventional dairy], but you don't have to."

Joseph Sorrentino
Joseph Sorrentino | Joseph Sorrentino

The pace at both dairies was much slower than on conventional dairies and workers in the milking barn appeared much more at ease. At Nature's Way, one worker was leaning against a railing, waiting for the cows to come in, something rarely, if ever, seen on a factory farm. Kulesa says his farm is strict about animal treatment. "We work hard to tell people to treat cows humanely. Here, if there's any abuse, you're fired on the spot."

Local and Raw

A trip to De Smet Dairy in Bosque Farms or Mesa Top Farm outside of Santa Fe is a trip back to a time before dairies became industrialized. For them, the adage that "smaller is better" goes a long way.

Michael De Smet and his wife Erica milk about 38 cows on their 125 acres. Cows and their calves, which stay with the mother for one to four weeks, really do stand in lush pastures. When it’s milking time, De Smet himself or Hannah Mitchell, the dairy’s one employee, walk out and usher the cows—that have names—into the milking barn where the cows contently chew their cud as they’re being milked. De Smet’s is the only NMED Grade A-inspected dairy that’s selling raw milk (pasteurized milk is heated to 1610 for 15 seconds to kill any bacteria present). They’re currently not certified organic, but say they follow organic regulations and plan to try for certification soon.

The FDA and other government websites carry severe warnings that consuming raw milk can cause illness and, in fact, there are times where it has. But De Smet and his wife believe their milk is safe and their two young boys have been drinking it since they were a year old. He says conditions for cows are a big factor in whether milk needs the extra security of the pasteurizing process.

"If cows are in confinement, they're sleeping in manure," says Michael, a powerfully built, ponytailed and voluble 37-year-old. "Here, they're in pasture. We take them in the barn...we completely sanitize the udders way more than is necessary." The test for him is, "If I'm not willing to put that teat in my mouth, then it's not clean enough." Their milk, cream-colored with a rich flavor, is available at the farmers market and a couple of stores in Santa Fe. It can't be sold in Albuquerque, but it can be ordered online and picked up at a designated spot in the city.

Mesa Top Farm, run by Collen and Steve Warshawer, is part of Beneficial Farms Community Supported Agriculture.

"I'm fascinated with ways to create good food with low tech," says Steve. And their farm is decidedly low-tech. Their 50 cows graze on 1,000 rolling acres, but only six cows are milked and that's done in a two-cow, outdoor stall.

Even so, not all the mechanical help is eschewed.

"I don't milk by hand," says Colleen almost apologetically as she attaches the suction cups to a cow. Their cows, like De Smet's, have names. "Here there's a personal touch," Steve says as he spreads feed on the ground in front of the cows being milked. "A connection." The farm also fosters a connection between a calf and its mother, who stay together for six to eight months.

Their milk is raw but isn't sold. Instead, it's used to make Jack cheese, which has an incredible, earthy flavor. Bite into it and you can almost taste the grass. Sadly, it's only available to CSA members. They do sell some produce and their eggs, under the Beneficial Farm label, at La Montañita and Whole Foods.

A De Smet cow photobombs this shot of the milking operation as Hannah de Smet gets ready to start the job.
A De Smet cow photobombs this shot of the milking operation as Hannah de Smet gets ready to start the job. | Joseph Sorrentino

This report was partially supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.