The Dairy Experience

Having grown up with milking cows and after visiting many dairy farms, I was curious to learn how a 2020 consumer focus group viewed dairy. I had this opportunity during “The Dairy Experience,” a virtual program held on July 15, 2020.

The Dairy Experience Forum was hosted by the American Dairy Association of the Midwest, a non-checkoff group funded by food vending operations at state fairs and other dairy-related venues.

What I gained from listening to the consumer panel was this. The particular interviewed group had more knowledge of dairy nutrition than I did. They understood how to use dairy after exercising, and what are some great ways to use dairy in children’s diets. What they knew less about was dairy husbandry and how dairy farmers take great care of their cows.

The panelists included consumers from all over the country, including Leah who lives in Rockville, Md., with her husband and two young kids; Nick from Des Moines, Iowa, who lives with his wife and three children; Alex, who lives in Seattle, Wash., with his wife and two daughters; Marieh, from Atlanta, Ga., who has a boyfriend; and Karen, from Des Plaines, Ill., who lives with her husband and toddler.

The panel all listed their favorite dairy product – for Leah it was sour cream; for Nick organic milk; for Alex hard parmesan cheese; and both Marieh and Karen liked cheese best.

Panel members indicated that a strong message growing up was to “drink milk for strong bones.”

Alex, who is a pediatrician, said his message today for his patient’s parents is breastfeeding or formula for the first year of life, whole cow’s milk for the second year, and then switching to lower milkfat for children and families.

“We start talking about milk being basically just a sugary beverage and really cutting down to more of a minimum,” Alex said. “I’m in favor of calcium, but through more green leafy vegetables rather than through a liquid mechanism.”

He added that he talks to parents about encouraging children to eat a variety of foods with vitamins and minerals. Rather than just drinking milk, he encourages yogurt and cheese, plus a variety of fruits and vegetables.

He liked the idea of eating yogurt with its live cultures and bacteria for good gut health. He also hoped schools could offer a choice of milk, cheese or yogurt instead of just milk in a carton.

“Again, just diversifying the dairy products that are available for kids that may come with other added health benefits,” he said.

For Nick, selecting organic foods for his family is important. He thinks dairy provides lots of nutrients.

“Dairy is extremely healthy for you,” Nick said. “I exercise a lot and go to the gym – not only to maintain my health but for stress relief and things like that. A lot of times after the gym, I’ll drink some milk just to help replenish and recover.”

He thinks that the sugars in dairy can help the body recover after a workout. He also thinks milk offers a good source of Vitamin D and provides calcium.

Leah added that dairy is a good source of nutrition and can suppress the appetite so there’s less of a propensity to indulge in treats.

“I drink protein shakes, you know, versus water because it’s just thicker and I feel like it does provide an added source of protein,” she said.

When it comes to dairy production, though, the panelists expressed a great deal of concern about the way they think cows are treated.

Nick said he appreciates the imagery of small farms with cows grazing on open pastures as opposed to “CAFOs” a concentrated animal feeding operation. He thinks of CAFOs as confining cows, and the cows receive “harsher treatment.”

“I try to stay away from the mass-produced giant dairy farms,” he said. “It’s kind of hard telling which producer is one of the kind of factory or industrial dairy farms. I think those farms can be detrimental to the environment.

“I think those cows may not be fed the best diet. You’re ingesting the same things that the cow is ingesting. Some of those chemicals are not healthy for us,” he added.

Nick continued by saying there are some specific companies that require farmers to not mistreat cows, so he wants to support those. He also thinks mass-produced milk is detrimental to the environment, and methane is an issue.

He added that a poor diet may contribute to gastrointestinal issues that may contribute to methane gas release.

“I think a lot of land is taken for the production of dairy cows and the meat industry,” he said. “That’s kind of also an issue. Short of not drinking milk or engaging in purchasing any dairy products, I think the next best thing I can do is be an informed consumer.”

The other panelists also expressed concerns about where food comes from. One of the families now has chickens in their backyard so they know what the hens have eaten to produce eggs.

Panelists expressed concern about the use of growth hormones.

When asked what they would like the dairy industry to share with the public, they suggested talking about the healthy aspect of dairy and sharing more of the story about how dairy is raised. They asked farmers to use cover crops in the winter to prevent erosion.

They wanted truthful and honest answers to consumers’ concerns.

“I think the health aspect is key – being truthful and honest,” Marieh said. “Just the environmental aspect and addressing people’s concerns.”