From the title of this post you might have a clue about my feelings on this tourist stop. I went in with an open mind, but left on the verge of converting to Veganism. How different this place is from Trader's Point Creamery, which we visited earlier in the week!
Fair Oaks Farms "Adventure Center" is set up at the junction of I-65 and SR 14 in northwestern Indiana as a tourist attraction. Families, school and church groups, and tourists are drawn in and catered to.
We had planned in advance to stop here, and our timing meant we'd have lunch here. Although I had a cooler in the car full of the usual picnic fare (yogurt, fruit, cheese, bread, cut veggies, etc) we couldn't resist the hot soup and crispy grilled cheese sandwiches along with all the sweet tea we could drink. Given the constant stream of people passing through, we weren't alone in opening our wallets and turning over a giant chunk of change for lunch.
First we went through a giant building built to look like a barn from the outside, but was a hands-on education center inside. We watched a film touting the wonders of modern farming. We looked at displays, and above, the girls quizzed themselves on cow facts.
Modern farming means feeding animals waste product that is not intended as food. Corn is a major crop in the US, and what better way to dispose of all the stalks and cobs than grind it up and make cows eat it? Disregard the fact that cow guts are designed for digesting grass.
Corn Silage (ground up stalks and cobs) is not the only waste product modern cows are forced to eat. They are also fed kernel corn, soybean, and citrus! Have you ever seen a cow eat a grapefruit? Neither have I, but it is mixed into their "Cow Chow" and they have no choice when they are hungry and not a blade of grass is available to them.
Thousands of cows kept in close quarters and fed an unnatural diet of materials they can't easily digest generates a lot of poop. But guess what? Science has a use for all that poop! Anaerobic digesters convert the poop into biogas and fertilizer, so it's all good!
Now we are heading over to the "Birthing Barn," where cows in the late stage of labor are paraded out and people watch from stadium seating as the cows push their calves into the world. Between 80 and 100 calves are born each day, so there is always a show.
Mother cow greets her new baby, who will soon be taken from her. Cows are attentive, loving mothers who mourn the loss of their calves deeply, but all this is ignored in the interest of milk production.
The new calf never gets a chance to suckle on her mother. Bottle feeding is begun immediately, and this is how the calf will be fed until it is put onto "calf chow."
After an initial bottle feeding on stage the calf is picked up and carried to the "nursery." The exhuasted mother is led off stage and another laboring cow is brought out for the show. Note the tabby cat asleep in the straw with the calves.
Now it is time to board the "cow bus" and see how mother and calf live their separate lives.
Here are the baby girl calves, each in her own cell with plastic "house" and buckets of water and calf chow. At this age they should still be suckling on their mothers, frolicking and running, and cuddling up to mom's warm body at night. Mother cow would groom them with her tongue, but instead they are caked in their own excrement as their movement is restricted and they are fattened up for breeding. Male calves have been sold for veal slaughter.
Witnessing this sight, which is common across large American farms, made me want to throw up. My girls were visibly shaken by the cruelty. I suppose most of the other people on the bus tour with us looked and just saw "dumb animals," but I knew better.
From above we look down on the operation. Cows step on and as the carousel slowly turns they are emptied of milk before stepping off after making one revolution. A digital readout shows how many gallons have been collected, and when the appropriate number is reached, the suckers automatically drop off. If the cow kicked off the suckers (which is common, and you can see their discomfort as they twitch and rub their hind leg against their udder in an effort to remove them), then they are hooked up and sent around again.
The cows used to be milked twice a day, but then it was discovered they would produce more milk (always the goal!) if milked 3 times daily, so that is the new schedule.
It's supposed to be a clean operation, but it doesn't look so good to me. Thank goodness for pasteurization to kill all the fecal bacteria that is surely mixed in.
After the milking farm tour we returned to the Adventure Center in a foul mood. Instead of getting in the car and driving away, I encouraged the girls to run and clear their minds. They went through a "string cheese maze."
The girls jumped until they could barely breathe from laughing.
When we hit the road again we talked about what we had seen. How it compared to the grassfed farm we'd seen last week in Zionsville. Economy of scale is not always best. It is better to pay a little more to support a small farm which treats their cows humanely.
It was a very educational experience for us, but I bet the impressions it made on us, despite all the cheery displays and upbeat narration, wasn't quite what the farm had planned on.