Among her many roles as an assistant professor at Oregon State University Extension, Jenifer Cruickshank serves as the “dairy person” on food-related tours organized by the Oregon Dairy and Nutrition Council.
She likes to use the bus ride to start fielding all the questions she knows are coming.
“It’s a really good time to get those questions answered for folks who interact with others about food and nutrition,” Cruickshank said. “There seems to be a lot of misconceptions about dairy production and a lot of accurate information is missing from the general social conversation.”
Cruickshank works to convey a broader, more balanced understanding of the dairy industry.
The subject of organic vs. conventional milk is frequently raised and, while Oregon soars above the national average in that 22% of its dairies are organic, research has shown no quality difference between the two.
“Some studies have found slight differences in fatty acid profiles, but whether or not those differences are meaningful to human health is an open question,” Cruickshank said. “I don’t think we understand enough yet about how humans digest different foods to be able to definitively answer that.”
Antibiotic use always comes up.
“There’s this misconception out there that milk might have antibiotics in it,” Cruickshank said. “All milk gets tested before it enters the processing plant. Very rarely does anyone make a mistake but if so it gets caught and that milk gets dumped. Dairy farmers don’t want to consume milk with antibiotics in it either.”
Attendees also want reassurance that farmers really care about their animals; occasionally someone asks about dehorning or disbudding calves.
“Everybody’s in agreement that dehorning is unpleasant; there’s not a nice way to do it,” Cruickshank said.
“I’m hopeful that gene editing to create polled animals will be approved by (the Food and Drug Administration),” she said. “Then it can be done in those sire families where we’ve also got great dairy genetics.”
“We can create a naturally polled population by the next generation.”
While DNA technologies are shaping dairy’s future, genetics have also played a large role in dairy cattle production for many decades.
“Through genetics and management improvements cows are just giving more milk,” Cruickshank said. “It’s really impressive; the carbon footprint of a gallon of milk now is 60% lower than it was in 1950. Dairies are fully integrated into the overall food system; I think a lot of that information gets lost.
“For one thing, a lot of dairies feed by-products of human food processing; around here that’s often brewer’s grain,” she said. “Dairy production is contributing to overall sustainability in our food systems by consuming byproducts from human food production. Some cow diets include meals left over from processing for oils like cottonseed or canola.”
Cow manure, whether from an organic or conventional herd, is considered organic fertilizer and is usually separated into liquids to be pumped on fields and solids that, when composted or dried, makes premium bedding material or can be sold for fertilizer.
“Even when a cow’s milk production lifespan is over, she’s going to become food,” Cruickshank said. “It’s a very efficient use of resources.”
On tours, she touches on milk prices, labor and automation, often visiting Abiqua Acres Dairy near Silverton, currently one of only three farms in the Willamette Valley with milking robots.