Do You Know Dairy? Separating Facts From Fiction

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dairy facts

Photo credit: Michael Conti

Picture this: Trim, healthy cows wearing leg warmers and Fitbits on farms across Tennessee. Okay, the leg warmers might be a bit of a stretch, but the Fitbit-type collars are real. “All of the information is wirelessly transmitted to software dairy farmers can access on their cell phone through an app any time of day, anywhere in the world,” says Rebecca Egsieker, director of communications and farmer relations for The Dairy Alliance. “They get notifications of where the cow is – if it’s out in the pasture, behind a tree, whether they’re sleeping, how long they’ve been standing. It’s really detailed.”

So what else might surprise you about dairy farming? Learn the answers to eight common questions:

How well do farmers care for their cows?

Very well, according to Jeffrey Turner, who grew up milking cows on his dad’s farm and now co-owns Turner Dairy and the newly opened Shop Springs Creamery in Lebanon. He and his staff oversee 300 cows and milk about 120 of them.

“Just about every dairy farmer I know of takes pride in caring for their animals,” he says. “We have to. They pay our bills, so it’s important to us that they’re cared for, and cared for well.”

Egsieker notes the widespread use of sand bedding, which is easy on the cows’ joints, misters to cool them in hot weather, massage brushes, adequate pasture time, even waterbeds. “Having happy, content cows is the most beneficial thing for a dairy farmer,” she says.

dairy facts

Families enjoy ice cream on the porch after touring the Mayfield Dairy Farms plant in Athens, Tennessee; Photo credit: Jeff Adkins

Do antibiotics end up in the milk we drink?

Milk is actually one of the most highly regulated and tested food products in the U.S. Multiple stringent tests – by the farmer, the inspectors and the haulers who pick up the milk, to name a few – make it impossible for drugs to end up in store milk. If a cow is sick and needs antibiotics, it is removed from the milking herd or its milk is discarded.

“We have to use antibiotics to treat animals,” Turner says, noting steep penalties for farms that let antibiotic-laced milk slip through to the first checkpoint. “But there are no antibiotics in your milk whatsoever.”

See more: Got Milk? Drink to June Dairy Month

Does milk contain hormones and are they harmful to humans?

“All mammals transfer (natural) hormones through their milk,” Turner says. “We do not use rBST (recombinant bovine somatotropin),” a growth hormone.

Over the last decade, other farmers have followed suit; artificial hormones have been nearly phased out even though the FDA and other agencies have deemed them safe. Many dairy farms that contract with larger distributors must sign a pledge not to use rBST, and the milk is tested to ensure it does not contain the growth hormone.

dairy facts

Jeffery and Elizabeth Turner serve farm-fresh ice cream at Shop Springs Creamery in Lebanon; Photo credit: Nathan Lambrecht

How are cows milked these days?

At farms of all sizes, most cows are no longer touched by human hands during the milking process. Sterile machines, and sometimes high-tech robots, milk them for about 10 minutes, twice a day. Each cow produces 7 or 8 gallons per milking.

See more: 5 Simple Summer Dairy Recipes

Is organic milk healthier?

“There actually isn’t any difference at all when it comes to the nutritional makeup of the milk, conventional versus organic,” Egsieker says. “It has the same 8 grams of protein per 8-ounce serving. It has the same calcium. It really all comes down to the farming practices. If an organic dairy cow gets sick, it usually has to leave the farm.”

The choice is a personal one, she adds. “Whatever you feel works best for you and your family, as long as it’s real dairy milk, I say go for it.”

Photo credit: Jeff Adkins

Does fresh milk stay cool on its way to the store?

As soon as it comes out of the cow, it is immediately cooled through a pipe system on its way to a temperature-safe, stainless steel bulk tank. The milk generally goes from the farm to the processor within 24 hours and is refrigerated there and on its way to the store.

See more: Celebrate June Dairy Month With Tasty Dairy Recipes

Should you avoid milk and other dairy foods if you have lactose issues?

“There are lots of options now with lactose-free milk,” Egsieker notes. “And hard cheeses like cheddar, colby and Swiss are excellent sources of nutrition but have a very low lactose level. Yogurts, especially Greek yogurt; people tend to be able to digest those. There’s lactose-free ice cream. It’s real dairy, but with the lactose taken out.”

Cows graze in the field at the Hatcher Family Dairy

Photo credit: Todd Bennet

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted dairy farmers?

You may have noticed your grocery store limiting how much milk you can purchase. Despite how it appears, there is not a shortage of dairy on the supply side. In the early stages of the pandemic response, stores dealt with panic buying by consumers. Shifting the focus from restaurants and wholesale to groceries in such an abrupt manner has been difficult. The instant shift literally left milk and cheese processed and packaged in large volumes with nowhere to go and processing facilities trying to reconfigure packaging for groceries. You may have also noticed an increase in the price you pay for milk. Unfortunately, the prices have gone in the opposite direction on farms – more than a 33% decrease in most cases.

How can you learn more about dairy?

Talk to your farmer! Small farms such as Shop Springs in Lebanon are happy to share their story and answer questions about how their milk is pasteurized and why it’s unhomogenized. Even larger dairies like Mayfield Dairy in Athens offer factory tours where visitors can see how they bottle their milk – and why they use yellow jugs. (As a bonus, the tour ends with a scoop of their famous ice cream.)

All in all, Egsieker says, milk is one of the safest and most economical foods you can buy. “You can really make those nickels and dimes go far with the nutritional makeup, and it’s natural. Whole milk is milk and vitamin D – and that’s it.”

Turner agrees. “Sometimes milk gets a bad rap,” he says. “It reduces childhood obesity, one of the biggest health crises in America. It’s the most wholesome food, I think, that you can consume.”

If You Go

Mayfield Dairy Farms

Educational tours and old-fashioned ice cream parlor

4 Mayfield Ln. in Athens

(423) 649-2653

Shop Springs Creamery

Local farm-fresh milk and ice cream

2816 Sparta Pike in Lebanon

(615) 812-3691


  1. Elizabeth

    June 12, 2020 at 7:28 pm

    Thanks for sharing information about dairy farms and the regulations they have to follow. Dairy products are a staple in our home. We will have to take a road trip and check out the dairy farm in Middle Tennessee and East Tennessee. My husband used to be a dairy farmer and now he is a grain, hay and beef cattle farmer.

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