New Israeli Pioneers Search for Humane Dairy Methods

Israel is a superpower when it comes to milk production, but some innovative farmers refuse to put profits first.

Harata (Hebrew for “regret”) plays a symbolic role in the Israeli dairy industry. And it’s not a small thing. It is huge. When I ask, I even get to see her. In 2011, Harata who lives in the cowshed of Kibbutz Sa’ad, opposite the Gaza Strip produced more milk than any other cow in Israel.

Her output was 18,208 liters, almost 7,000 liters more than the average Israeli cow. This statistic was proudly reported in trade magazines, and mass-media outlets were also delighted to inform their audiences that “Israeli cows are considered world-record holders in milk production.”

I saw Harata on my journey to meet the real animals behind the early-Zionist-style icons of the Israeli dairy industry. My aim was to capture the story behind the picturesque image of a cow grazing in the meadow. I wanted to learn more about the real life of these cows, which, during their short life five or six years at the most produce tens of thousands of liters of milk for the Israeli consumer, before being loaded onto trucks and transported to the slaughterhouse.

This is not a story for the queasy. Worse, it could play havoc with the reader’s ability to repress his or her knowledge of the food industry’s exploitation of animals. The story of the animals that feed the dairy industry is a brutal one. The mammals involved are sentient beings that possess feelings and emotions, and engage in sophisticated mental activities. Their lives are nasty, brutish and short; they are never put out to pasture; and they suffer cruelly from relentless exploitation.

But before unveiling this woeful tale, it is important to make one point clear: The dairy farmers who cooperated in this journalistic investigation are definitely not the bad guys in this story. The dairy farmers, who spoke to me frankly, are for the most part serious, sensitive and ethical people who cope daily with the dilemmas that derive from the cravings of Israeli consumers. From my perspective, the true problem lies with consumers: They want a constant supply of milk and milk products, and they allow themselves to imagine that the cow “gives” the milk of its own freewill. At the end of the journey, I discovered that the bad guys in this story are us.

My point of departure is the most commonplace carton of milk in the grocery store, bearing an abstract picture of a house on a green hill or images of contented cows. So it is that I arrive at the cowshed of Kibbutz Sa’ad for a meeting with Udi Shoham and Ofer Kroll, who is addressed as Dr. Kroll and holds a Ph.D in dairy farm management, specializing in “the nutrition interface.”

We are sitting in a small office, identical to every single office in the cowsheds and goat pens I will visit during the months of this investigation. On the walls are portraits of stud bulls, with the logo of the artificial insemination company Sion. Copies of the journal Cattle and Dairy Industry are piled on small tables; they do not look like they have been read. In the sink are unwashed cups with dregs of black coffee; above it a sign reads: “Please wash the dishes the servants quit.”
Next to the light switch is a copy of the daily schedule, which starts at 5 A.M., if not earlier. And standing on a narrow, crowded table is an archaic but practical computer that knows all there is to know about each of the “milk cows”: the number of steps each cow takes (an indication of its physical condition); estrus characteristics (referring to ovulation, which is monitored closely in order to inseminate the cow at the farm’s demand); and, of course, if it is producing enough milk to justify its existence like a bovine version of Scheherazade.

On average, a cow in Kibbutz Sa’ad gives birth for the first time at the age of 2. Until then, the cow enjoys a period of grace in which, Kroll says, “We raise the cow with the same level of attention with which you would raise your children.” This is not the last time I will hear this analogy between the way cows and humans are treated. It’s a potent comparison for a moment, but collapses when you recall that no woman becomes pregnant only so her milk will be used for an infant that is not hers. Meanwhile, her daughter is being raised in a separate cage in order to be inseminated at the first opportunity and her male offspring are taken away to be slaughtered.

In any event, in their breeding years the cows eat hay, silage and seeds. “There are no cows today that are put out to pasture,” I am told, “and there are no cows today that eat ‘green’ food.” For the first time in my life, I realize that the cows we see along the road on trips up north are those being bred directly for the meat industry. As will be explained to me time and again, milk cows (referring to cows that produce milk before being passed on to the meat industry) never get put out to pasture.

When a cow is ready to breed for the first time, it is inseminated artificially with semen chosen carefully from a Sion catalog. The process, known as “genetic improvement,” has the aim of producing cows that will yield as much milk as possible and can be easily bred. The pregnancy lasts about nine months.

In Kibbutz Sa’ad, the mother cow is allowed to lick its calf a little after the birth, “because that is part of nature.” “Licking activates the blood circulation,” Shoham explains. “It energizes the calf, which gets on its feet little by little, and we take it out only after it is stable. That takes something like 25 to 35 minutes.” Calf and mother are separated before the calf starts to suckle. “It’s not always good for it to suckle from the mother,” Shoham notes, explaining the logic of the standard dairy farm. “All kinds of contaminations are generated in the birthing process, because when the mother is ready to give birth, the nipple opens and all kinds of bacteria are liable to enter things that we want to keep the calf away from. We don’t want the calf to remain in the dirt, we want it to have a clean, hygienic place. We want it to receive the optimal conditions. Like the nursery of a hospital maternity ward: a clean place where the calf will get its milk on time.”

The newborn calf is taken to a cage within sight of its mother. The mother can no longer lick the calf, still less suckle it, but does have the dubious privilege of being able to see it. A few hours later, the mother is taken for milking, “because there is already tremendous pressure in the udder.”

In the meantime, during its first day of life the calf receives colostrum, a “first milk” rich in antibodies, which allows the calf to start developing its own immune system. For the first seven days of its life, the calf drinks cow’s milk and afterward is fed milk powder. By this stage, only female calves are left. The Kibbutz Sa’ad dairy farm, like the absolute majority of such enterprises, sells the male calves for slaughter within a week, “owing to lack of space.”

The female calves are moved to a kind of nursery. “We try to give the calf the best powdered milk suitable for it so it will grow optimally,” I am told in Sa’ad. “It’s like a human nursery, where the mother switches to a baby formula. It’s the same with us.”

After about a day and a half, the calves are freeze branded by means of extremely cold irons, preceded by the application of an anesthetic cream. Shoham and Kroll claim this procedure is not painful, and only changes the color of the hairs in the branded area without leaving a skin burn. I find this a bit hard to believe, but the argument leads nowhere and we move on.

In its first week of life, the calf undergoes another physical mutilation this time the application of an ointment that is supposed to prevent it from growing horns.

The explanation I am given is that “contrary to nature, where a cow has horns and has no problem with that because it will not run into anything, here we have the hatches and iron railings and all kinds of things like that. If a cow with horns should run into those things and it will happen a lot it will be quite seriously injured. So we ensure it will not have horns so as not to be hurt in the future.” I try to understand what kind of ointment is used. “The ointment affects the root of the horn,” says Shoham. “It does not enter the brain, because if it did get inside it would kill the calf, that’s clear.”

Sometimes the ointment doesn’t do the trick and recalcitrant horns emerge. These are removed at about 2 months. The “horn man” arrives, anesthetizes the area and shears off the horns. Kroll sums up: “In regard to getting rid of the horn at the age of up to a week, think of it as analogous to circumcision.”

After this induction into life, the calves enter the routine of the cowshed. They live for two months on powdered milk, before being put on dry food which is meticulously prepared in order to get them ready them for future insemination and to prevent them from getting overweight.

A cow has about four birthing cycles in her lifetime. “We try to keep the cow as long as possible,” Shoham explains. “That is both more economical and more humane. You know,” he emphasizes, “nowadays dairy farmers care very much about their cows. It’s not like the old days, when cows were picked up in the bucket of a bulldozer and dumped. Today, (a) that is forbidden; and (b) from my point of view, at least, even when it was allowed I didn’t do it, because it is not humane. I can’t bear to see a cow being picked up and dumped like that. In fact, if a cow has a problem and is lying down, people come here in the middle of the night to give it food and water. If it can’t get up we try to pick it up with special instruments, so it stands on its legs, because it’s not healthy for a cow to lie down.

“These things are very important for us,” he adds. “Even if we know that this cow might die, we will nurse it to its last day. We will not allow a cow to lie in the sun for no reason and be fried. Things like that do not happen here. We cannot let a cow die just like that, we just can’t stand to see that.” Clearly, what is known as “animal welfare” (I will be told by the Anonymous for Animal Rights group that the more accurate term is not “welfare” but “reducing the suffering of animals”) is a sensitive issue. The dairy farmers feel that animal rights activists are making unreasonable demands of them. Unreasonable, because they are not the ones responsible for Israelis’ craving for milk, which is blind to the suffering of the origin of the milk.

Kroll cuts into the conversation. “This is, nevertheless, a [business], and that is the bottom line. We maintain the cows the best way possible, but we are still an industry from which people have to make a living. You cannot produce as much milk as you want in Israel. The state imposes a milk quota in one way or another, and then you cannot keep an endless number of cows just because you want to take care of them until the day they die, and then open a cemetery next to the cowshed. There is a life cycle, and part of the life cycle is that the cow finishes its productive life and goes to slaughter. That’s how it is.”

According to Shoham and Kroll, the cows are not concerned by being transported to slaughter. “I don’t know what happens in the slaughterhouse,” Shoham says. “Luckily, I visited there only once ... But I know that when we load them onto the truck here, for the most part they get on without a problem.” The two men point out that cattle are herd animals. “If one cow gets onto the truck, all the others follow. They get onto the truck and set out for that thing.”

Despite this rather bland description, some employees cannot bring themselves to come to work on the day the cows they milked for years are taken to the slaughterhouse. “There was one cow here,” Shoham recalls. “Her name was Ferna. Everyone was attached to her, she was lovely. When the cowmen came into the shed, she would go over to them and take an interest in them, and they would pat her. You could hold her and everything. When it was her time to be sent away, the others told me, ‘We don’t want to be here.’”

I ask Shoham how he copes with that moment. “I have no choice,” he says. He is a sturdy man, with a practical yet reflective air to him, and adds that he has “developed an emotional immunity.” After thinking it over for a minute though, he corrects himself. “Actually, it’s not that I have developed an emotional immunity, it’s simply that I have no choice. It pains me, but if I don’t do it, no one will do it here. At the end of the day, I am the director and it is my job. So I give them the privilege not to be here. With that Ferna, who was my good friend as well, there was no choice. Her day came, she gave less milk, she did not become pregnant, very unfortunately, and in the end she had to get on the truck. It was unavoidable. Someone has to do it.”

Before leaving, I ask to see Harata. On the way, Shoham explains that she is quite a shy cow and doesn’t really like people. “To photograph her, you know, we tied a harness on her, like a horse but without the bridle, and slowly moved her outside, gently. We had to calm her down all the time, to take her picture outside, because the photographers wanted her against a background of flowers.”

Back in the grocery store, I start looking for alternatives. I know goat-milk products are made by a few large dairies and by boutique dairies. I pick some up. The packaging is alluring, but will I find a different attitude toward animals behind the packaging? Looking for the answer, I find myself driving up a steep road in the Upper Galilee on what turns out to be the hottest day of the year. All around is a soothing green landscape, which calms me as the Ford strains to climb the hills. After a bit of navigating I arrive at Kerem Ben Zimra, a cooperative farming community northwest of Safed. I’ve arranged to meet with Avi Ashkenazi, who operates the largest goat-breeding facility in Israel. He supplies milk to big dairies, including Zuriel Dairy Farms, as well as to more boutique ones, like Jacob’s Dairy. Pulling up on a tractor, Ashkenazi gestures that I follow him in the car.

I drive into what looks like an industrial area with mainly warehouses; at first I can’t figure out where the goat pen is. But the tour starts immediately and I realize that the huge sheds are home to some 2,000 milk goats. In fact, the whole of their short life is spent within these structures. “You have obviously been wandering around dairy farms for some time,” Ashkenazi says as he shows me around. “People usually hold their nose because of the smell here.”

After touring the big hangars, we go to Ashkenazi’s small office for a chat. The air-conditioning has little effect. Through the window comes the roar of huge ventilators, barely able to cool down the pen. Ashkenazi, an energetic, forthright fellow, makes black coffee for the two of us and tells the unromantic tale of the goats’ life.

The goats at the Rosenberg and Ashkenazi Goat Farm give birth four or five times in their life. After each birth, a goat has 40 days to “prove” that it can duplicate its peak milk production. If successful, it will undergo another round of breeding (Ashkenazi uses stud goats rather than artificial insemination). However, if the goat is “on its way down” after giving birth it might be sick, suffering from pregnancy poisoning, unable to match its previous top milk-production level or is simply, as Ashkenazi puts it, “not such a pretty goat any longer” it is sold to people seeking goat meat.

You don’t get a high price for a goat that has already given birth, but there is nevertheless some demand in the Druze community, Ashkenazi says. After birth, the kid is separated from its mother. Like calves, for the first day and a half of its life it is fed colostrum, before being put on powdered milk. According to protocol, I note. But just because Ashkenazi is an unsentimental industrial manager does not mean he denies what his eyes see. When I ask him how a mother goat reacts when her newborn kid is taken from her, he says, “She cries. She really cries.” Then he adds, “It’s hard.” I’m not sure at this point whether he is talking about the goats or about working with them.

The kids are taken to a special area, where they are taught how to suckle from artificial teats. “It’s not easy,” Ashkenazi says. “The worst is if you miss the window of opportunity. For example, if there is a birth at night and the kid gets hold of the mother’s teat, it is very hard to get it to switch to a dummy. You have to starve it a little. It feels the taste of the mother’s teat, so it doesn’t want anything else.”

Male and female kids are kept together for the first 10 days of life and then separated. The nanny goats are placed in pens to be raised; the billies go to other pens for fattening. Ashkenazi sells the billy goats when they attain a weight of 25 to 30 kilograms. The horns of the female goats are removed at the age of 10 days. Ashkenazi, too, does not mince his words. “We hold the female kids between the legs and take a serrated knife and a soldering iron. The kids have a kind of bump with horns. We remove the bump with the serrated knife and then burn for three full seconds with the soldering iron. Iodine is applied, and that’s it. They are in crisis for a half-hour or an hour, and that’s it.” I try to grasp what “crisis” means. “They don’t eat, they go off to one of the corners, you know,” Ashkenazi says. “And that’s it. Because there’s no way around it: It is very painful. But it’s the best way.”

I ask why the horns need to be removed. “Just imagine if I had a lot of horns here they would break one another,” Ashkenazi says. “Sometimes I have one very strong goat in a group, one with horns, and you see that she butts all the others, dominates the food. She will be fatter and stronger, she can break [the others]. Besides that, it’s also dangerous for us. She could raise her head and take out someone’s eye.” He holds out his two hands, the hands of a hard worker, and shows me a large scar on the right palm. “Look, you see, I was removing horns and the knife entered here and wrecked the two tendons. A week later they put me under general anesthetic and saved the hand. But I still have a bit of a twitch. That’s from the horns.”

The nanny goats enter the life cycle of the pen at the age of 9 or 10 months. It is a life with no pasturing out of economic considerations. And what about the underlying conflict entailed in working with animals that are condemned to death when their “usefulness” ends? “At first,” Ashkenazi says, “it was all very painful. If one of them died on me, I would come home irritable. But today, nothing. That’s how it is: When you deal with animals, there is mortality. I leave that part outside. It’s the way of the profession.”

But do you get attached to the animals when you work in such close quarters to them?

“If I didn’t like the animals I wouldn’t be in this line of work.”

The options in the grocery store’s dairy section are dwindling. The big dairies’ standard products represent an attitude toward animals that I do not want to support with my money, and it turns out that the goat’s milk products from the big dairies are no alternative. I decide to check out Harduf. True, the organic food products brand was acquired by the Tnuva food conglomerate, but the dairy farm continues to operate independently in Harduf, a highly distinctive Galilee kibbutz.
The Harduf milk carton bears a romantic drawing in black and white of a cow with horns, without a branded number and with udders that don’t reach the floor. I head north again, to see for myself.

After some serious courting I manage to make a date with Yoram Kalgrad, the director of Harduf’s agricultural association. He is extremely busy; the only time he can find for a meeting is midday on Friday. Even though Kalgrad warned that he would not have time for an interview, he shows me around patiently and offers up a passionate and full discourse on the philosophy that guides the Harduf dairy farm. It is soon apparent that, like the drawing on the milk carton, the Harduf cows really aren’t branded and really do have horns. The cowshed itself is clean and not overly hot. There are no flies and it doesn’t stink. My skepticism gradually melts away.

There are 210 cows on the Harduf dairy farm, and next year there will be 320. Harduf cows produce an average of 10,500 liters of milk a year, which is also the average for this part of the country. The calves are artificially inseminated at 14 months, like at the other dairy farms. Here, too, the “genetic improvement” process strives to create a multipara cow. But one difference is already apparent ahead of the cow’s first birth, in the so-called “dry” period the period during the cow’s pregnancy in which milking is halted and the animal is allowed to gather strength for the birth. On regular dairy farms this involves giving the cows antibiotics. But in Harduf, where organic regulations are adhered to, antibiotics are not used. The cows are exposed to the influence of fewer medicinal drugs, but this does not hold back the farm in any way.

At present, calves are separated from the mother immediately after birth. However, in the coming year the Harduf farm intends to leave some calves with their mothers for a certain period after birth. Kalgrad is not yet certain what the right amount of time is maybe two weeks, maybe less. The advantages to the cows will be both psychological and physical. Psychologically, the separation is traumatic. “You should see the cow following me as I lead the calf out,” Kalgrad says without embellishment. “Then I suddenly close the gate on her and she remains on the other side, stunned, without her calf.”

Leaving mother and calf together will allow the cow to suckle the calf, a sight not seen in any Israeli dairy farm today. This will represent a financial loss for the farm, as the milk will not be sold to consumers. The physiological advantage is that suckling shrinks the cow’s uterus the same process that occurs in women who breastfeed. If the cow’s uterus shrinks by natural means, there will be less need for artificial interventions to achieve the same effect. But there could be a downside: A separation after two weeks might turn out to be even harder for the animals. As I will be told by Ronen Bar from Anonymous for Animal Rights, as long as we are guided by the assumption that cows are fated to be born and die in order to supply us with food, the issue of the animals’ good is always questionable.

In Harduf, the calves initially receive colostrum after the separation. Then, however, in contrast to the standard farms, they are not put on powdered milk but continue to receive mother’s milk for 70 days. The technical reason is that there is no organic powdered milk in Israel, but what does the calf care? Afterward, the calves are fed on hay and silage, most of which is grown in the fields of Harduf. At maturity they enjoy the same organic food and organic medicines (no chemicals or hormones) as the other cows on the farm.

Conceptual innovation is also apparent at Harduf in regard to feeding. The most frequently-heard sound in a regular cowshed is the clicking of the steel hatches opening and closing as the cows push their head through them to eat food that is placed outside the shed. There is nothing like that clicking sound to bring home the fact that the cows are effectively in a prison. Harduf hopes to be rid of that monotonous and depressing noise soon. They are already experimenting with shuttling the food in large crates inside the cowshed, instead of scattering it on the other side of the fence. The existence of feeding centers inside the shed means that the cows, instead of crowding together, can feed in small groups, distant from one another. Kalgrad will soon be putting all his hatches up for sale. Of course, there is as yet no talk of putting the cows out to pasture, not even in Harduf. Kalgrad’s explanation: “There is no pasture in hot countries, but it is still important for organic agriculture to exist everywhere.”

Back to the cows’ life cycle: In Harduf, too, the males are sold for slaughter. The females that remain benefit from a slightly better life than cows in other farms. First, as previously mentioned, they are not branded. “Obviously, that is a painful process,” says Kalgrad burning numbers on cows was part of his job for years. “The truth is that I don’t really need it. A numbered tag on the ear is perfectly sufficient.” I notice a few cows that bear a number on their body. They were bought from other farms, Kalgrad explains.

Based on the same philosophy, cows’ horns at Harduf are allowed to grow. I ask whether the shearing done in other farms is painful. Kalgrad gives me a look that asks whether I thought for a second that it could be otherwise.
In addition, for those who believe that food consumption is a highly political act, the milk produced at Harduf offers another not-insignificant value. Employees in the cowshed and in the fields of Harduf are there as part of a rehabilitation process. Kalgrad notes that for some population groups, a cowshed can be a place of healing. Some prisons in the United States have a cowshed as part of prisoners’ rehabilitation programs.

It’s now Friday afternoon, and even the hardworking Kalgrad looks as though he is ready to take a break. Before leaving, I clear up one more detail. After the cows are no longer profitable for the farm, at the age of 5 or 6, do they end up as the organic meat we buy in natural food stores? Kalgrad confirms that they do.

Not all the dairy farmers are able to take the short, thankless life of cattle in their stride. I am at the buffalo farm in Moshav Bitzaron, east of Ashdod, to find out about the fate of cattle other than cows. As I talk with Hanoch Treister, the manager of the dairy farm, he suddenly starts to cry. “How can you not become attached to these animals?” he asks, referring both to the buffalo and cows he raises. “During the birth, or before the birth, when they are brought in, you can’t ... When you see the globe of her eye, when you see the way she looks at you, how can you hit her, or afterward slaughter her or send her to be slaughtered; put her on a truck?! Have you ever seen how they are loaded onto the trucks? Have you seen the trucks that transport them to the slaughterhouse?! Do you think they don’t know where they are going?! They are edgy, they don’t want to get on. Do you know that in Italy, they make sure everything is covered, so that there’s no view, even on the way to the slaughterhouse where the cattle or the pigs or the sheep are transported? It’s all covered. They lay down a mass of straw, and anyone who is caught transporting animals in conditions like the ones [in Israel] is put on trial. After a cow or a buffalo gave us so much milk, gave us a livelihood, are we going to load them on trucks? Sometimes we just can’t do it and we leave them here. Never mind the money.”

The emotional outburst takes me by surprise, but Hanoch’s sister, Netta, who comanages the family business with him, is used to it. The way Hanoch Treister lives the dilemmas of the profession demonstrates that it’s not the farmers in the dairy industry who are insensitive; it is our society. Treister’s tears are brought on by the clash between our willingness to enslave other animals in order to satisfy our desires, and our deep knowledge that these are animals with highly developed abilities to feel happiness and security, or pain and fear whichever we offer them.

In general, female buffalo have a somewhat better life than cows, and not only because they are raised by the compassionate Treister family. Branding is not effective on buffalo and does not blanch the hairs, so they get to walk around with only an “earring.” Their horns are left intact, because Treister does not want “to bruise their ego.” Buffalo nails do not grow in captivity, so there is no need to engage in hoof trimming. And because of their size (an adult animal can weigh up to a ton), it is impossible to urge them to go for milking or, for that matter, to do anything they don’t want to do. For still-unknown reasons, Treister says, attempts to manipulate the buffalo into giving more milk have been unsuccessful. Genetically speaking, then, this is more or less the same animal that nature created.

Still, their life cycle is similar to that of dairy farm cows. Buffalo live twice as long as cows, sometimes to the age of 13. But that also means numerous births, and each birth is hard for a buffalo; even harder than for cows. “They suffer terribly,” Treister says. “Really. Some females can lie there prostrate for three days afterward, and it’s very important to milk them immediately, because that shrinks the uterus. But they just won’t get up. Nothing helps. They open their mouth with that tongue and look at you with those big eyes: Have mercy on me, leave me be.” But after three days, he says, the buffalo usually get their act together and can be milked.

The calf is separated from the mother immediately, before it can even sniff her. “If they just smell the mother,” Treister explains, “they will not successfully acquire the ability to suckle from an artificial teat.” After three days on milk taken from its own mother, the calf is put on cattle milk or powdered milk for 60 days. Newborn male buffalo are sold within three days to “a really nice Jewish guy, a truly pure soul, from [Moshav] Nahalal.” I remark that he raises them for slaughter. Treister nods, and adds, “I never asked him where and how.”

“I have absolutely nothing against the dairy farmers,” says Ronen Bar, a former spokesman for Anonymous for Animal Rights and today a rank-and-file member of the organization. “You might find this odd, but as someone who deals a great deal with the business of agriculture from a different perspective I identify with them. I don’t think they bear greater responsibility than the consumers on the contrary. I think that most of them are far more aware of the serious problems, because they see them. Most people buy the package, drink the milk at home and don’t give a hoot. They pay someone else to do the dirty work for them. And the dairy farmers are the ones who do that work. Well, I think their responsibility is no greater than that of anyone else. I think that they themselves are in large measure a victim of this industry. They are the victims of an industry that is driven by economic needs and supported by consumers who, unfortunately, are interested only in where they can buy most cheaply.”

We are in Anonymous’ modest office on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv. Bar knows a great deal about the animals’ situation in the Israeli food industries. He is especially illuminating about the problems inherent in the practice of “genetic improvement.” What’s wrong, I try to understand, with a dairy farmer choosing to inseminate a cow that becomes pregnant easily and gives a lot of milk?

According to Bar, this is one of the hidden but most serious modes of cruelty. “Let’s say I wanted to create very fat human beings, because I have an economic interest in doing that,” he explains. “Let’s say I raise them in order to sell their breast meat. So I take two fat people a fat guy and a fat girl bring them together and they will produce a fat child ... But I will do the same thing to their son, and to his children, again and again, down the line. In the end, something very twisted will emerge. Imagine that at the end of a process of ‘genetic improvement,’ a 2-month-old baby will weigh 40 kilos. It will be clear to you why that baby will suffer from heart and kidney ailments, and that he will barely be able to move around.” I agree, and Bar concludes, “That is the situation of the cows that are ‘improved’ to produce more and more milk.”

This is not my first meeting with Bar. The purpose of our conversation this time is to consider whether there is any point in establishing a moral scale in connection with the dairy industry. Vegans who have opted to stop consuming animal-based products for political reasons tend to espouse one of two approaches to this question. One group maintains that any exploitation of an animal for food constitutes unnecessary cruelty. In this worldview, establishing a moral scale that rates types of food according to the amount of cruelty their production involves (eggs from certain farms; meat that is raised and slaughtered in one way and not in another; milk from one particular animal and not from another) does more harm than good. People must not be given the opportunity to feel good about consuming any animal-based product; that is not the way to achieve the overriding aim of the animal rights activists.

The second approach says that not only is every degree of cruelty not identical to every other, but that encouraging people to adopt a more moral consumption of animal-based food is a more practical way to reduce the suffering of animals that are exploited in the food industry than preaching total abstinence.

Here again, as with his attitude toward the dairy farmers, Bar’s approach surprises me. Contrary to my expectation, he does not advocate the extreme position. “My personal opinion is that it’s complex,” he says. “Let’s take the example of someone who is very disturbed by the abuse meted out to animals but does not want to stop consuming dairy products completely. From our point of view, it will be an intelligent move for him to reduce dairy consumption significantly, and from time to time to consume goat’s milk products from one of the more humane dairies. That seems to me a step in the right direction.”

Accordingly, though apprehensive about angering my vegan friends and harming the cause, I contact some very nice people in Kibbutz Neot Semadar, 70 kilometers north of Eilat. There I hope to find a humane goat pen whose products can be consumed with a slightly quieter conscience.

It’s 4:30 A.M. The wake-up call gets me out of bed. At 5:15 the members of Neot Semadar meet for what they call “Shaharit” the name of the morning prayers in Judaism and from which we get the Hebrew word for “dawn.” In Neot Semadar this involves sitting quietly outside the dining room, drinking tea and watching as the sky transmutes from night to day. After the shared silence, I join Isaac Gorani, who is in charge of the dairy branch in the kibbutz, to see how the goats live here.

In the milking center, goats are chewing on feed as two energetic girls attach milk pumps to their udders. One of the girls shouts at a slow-moving goat to hurry up, but the other says, “Don’t shout at her, there’s no need, she will get here in the end.” And so she does.

After this group of goats has been milked, they are sent to a large yard that separates them from the as-yet-unmilked goats. During the day, when the milking is done, the barrier between the yards will be raised and the goats will be able to roam about freely across the pleasant open space, which has trees and rocks.

The day has just begun. As it progresses, the 240 milk goats, 60 young females and 10 billy goats will enjoy even more space and freedom of movement. A small dirt path separates the pen and the fenced-in but spacious and open-air feeding areas into which the goats are herded in small groups. Each group receives food appropriate for its needs and developmental stage. But the true highlight of the day for Neot Semadar’s goats arrives later, when they are taken out to pasture: two hours of wandering in the fields around the kibbutz, after which, given the desert heat, they look quite ready to rest until the afternoon milking.

Pasturing uses up the goats’ energy. The result is that far less milk is extracted from them than in the intensive pens (the average here is 3.2 liters a day). But that “loss” is consistent with the fact that the treatment of the animals here is immeasurably better than anything I have encountered before. With the exception of a few boutique pens here and there, which are run much like at Neot Semadar (Rom Farm, near Carmiel, for example, or Yoel Bloomberg’s goat farm in Moshav Ofer, near Zichron Yaakov, where cheeses are made and the surplus milk is sold to Jacob’s Farm), no cowshed or industrial goat pen comes close to the high standards of Neot Semadar, where the animals get personal treatment. Neot Semadar is trying to find the proper balance between managing an economically profitable goat farm and reducing the harm done to the animals.

The goats at Neot Semadar have a comfortable life cycle. After birth, a nanny kid that has the good fortune to remain in the herd remains close to her mother for two months and suckles directly from her, instead of being fed powdered milk. Having visited quite a few other places, I understand how rare it is to find a farm that is willing to make such an “unprofitable” decision. The little goat follows her mother and the herd everywhere. It’s the continuum concept at work.
As the founders of the pen tell me, “We want to see a goat that bleats and her two kids come running to her. It’s important for us to have that sight remain part of the world.”

As I see for myself, the goats’ horns are not shorn off in Neot Semadar. “It looks natural to me, and I am not into aesthetic changes,” Gorani says. “They also need the horns for the battles between them, to protect themselves.”

The thoughtfulness and mindfulness that go into raising the animals in Neot Semadar almost make one forget that for the pen to go on being profitable, the kibbutz has to sell all the unprofitable animals to the meat buyers. To begin with, this includes all the goats, male and female, that a goat gives birth to the first two times. In later births, almost all the billy goats are sold, and 75 percent of the nanny goats. Only a quarter of the goats get to stay in the pen. Their final destination Neot Semadar keeps goats until the age of 8 or 9, when they can barely give milk is the local meat merchants.

Those in charge of the pen point out that the animals at no stage are sent to a slaughterhouse. They are sold to Arab or Bedouin families in the area and end their life as a local consumer product. “But there’s no point getting emotionally involved,” Gorani says. “That is needless, dumb even: the thought that the goat is now wretched. What’s this bleeding-heart stuff? There’s no logic to it. Does it help the goat? Does it help me? Either I do it or I don’t do it. And I have to do it. Otherwise it is impossible to manage a pen. Otherwise there would be millions of goats here.”

My journey is done. I set out to find the most moral cowshed or goat pen in Israel, and I discovered that there are indeed meaningful differences. Amid an industry that exploits animals for food, there are occasional pockets where the treatment the animals get is not terrible and where they live a life of minimal suffering.

But I also discovered a few equally important things: that there is no improvement in “genetic improvement”; that pasturing exists only in paintings, and that not one cow in any Israeli cowshed is put out to pasture; that a cow does not “give” milk it is taken from her; and that despite the pure white image we wish the dairy industry to sell us, there is no essential difference between it and the meat industry. The cowsheds and the goat pens are cogwheels that mesh with the meat farms and the slaughterhouses.

The cynics can say that talking about this subject makes them crave a steak, but that is a defensive posture that cannot undermine the following fact: The dairy industry is an extreme example of the way in which we, as a society, have woven a network of symbols that do not represent anything in the real world. A land of milk and honey; the shiny white of the dairy product festivities at Shavuot; “Our car is big and green,” as the iconic Hebrew children’s song about Tnuva goes. As a society, we have invented images, a language and beliefs that we use to repress the truth involved in the manufacture of food products to which we are so accustomed. It’s time to put an end to the white lie.
 

Ilya Melnikov