Growing Up Vegan in the Dairy State


Dairy Day 1989. That's me in the jaunty red bandana.

As a child growing up in Wisconsin, I was taught from a very young age to believe that cow’s milk and the dairy industry were wonderful, wholesome, and one of the best parts of our state. Each year, my elementary school hosted “Dairy Day”—a day-long food fest in which all the fourth-grade students gorged themselves on various types of cheese, cow’s milk, and ice cream. We also learned how vital the dairy industry is to the Wisconsin economy, and how it is part of the Wisconsin “tradition” and what makes our state “great.”

The most memorable feature of “Dairy Day” was meeting a real live dairy cow in the school’s parking lot. While I grew up in a rural area, none of us were farm kids, and everyone was afraid of her. We had never interacted with a cow before! I was the only child willing to step forward to try milking the cow. I was surprised by how warm she was, how soft she felt, and how hard I had to squeeze to get the milk out. It never occurred to me that the milk was intended for her baby (whom she probably barely met).

Until I was 19-years-old, I thought cows just had a lot of milk for some reason—that they were born with big udders full of milk—and that if we didn’t milk them, they’d be in pain. This is what we were taught. No one ever told me that they had to be pregnant. No one ever told me that the milk was for their babies. No one ever told me that the dairy industry tears families apart. No one ever told me that most hamburgers are the bodies of spent dairy cows.

When my girls’ preschool announced that they’d be taking a field trip to a local dairy farm, I briefly considered going on the field trip and perhaps having a custom t-shirt reading, “What Happens to the Calves?” printed for the occasion. Instead, I suggested that we go to Heartland Farm Sanctuary which is a local nonprofit that rescues farm animals. The preschool agreed to take the afternoon class to Heartland while the morning class went to the dairy farm.

At Heartland, my girls and several of their classmates were able to interact with and pet chickens, pigs, goats, sheep, donkeys, and cows. When two goats followed us out of the gate and back to the barn, two children were allowed to hold the leash and lead one of them back to the pasture. The kids all gathered enthusiastically around the cow pasture’s fence and fed long blades of grass to Daisy, one of two calves rescued last year from a cattle auction. We interacted with roosters and hens rescued last year from a large cockfighting ring in Western Wisconsin. One of my daughters held a chicken for the first time, and several of her classmates did, too.


Abby makes a new friend named Dott.

We talked about how turkeys, chickens, and pigs are bred to grow so large, so quickly that they have knee problems, joint pain, and chronic foot issues. I don’t know what effect these experiences had on the primarily meat-eating crowd, if any, but it was powerful for me to see children getting to know the animals in a natural environment where they aren’t being used. A place where nothing is expected of them, and where they don’t have to do anything for us in order to be allowed to live.

I contrast this with the experience of the other vegan family at our preschool who decided to join the dairy farm field trip as an educational experience. At the dairy farm, they learned that the baby calves are removed from their mothers immediately following birth. All the animals are kept in small pens as babies and the females are moved to concrete-floored milking pens when they are older. They aren’t allowed to graze, spend time on a pasture, or do anything else that is natural to them. The farmer deflected a question about what happens to the male calves by saying “the neighbors take them.” I feel comfortable assuming that their neighbors don’t run a sanctuary exclusively for male calves.

It’s especially tragic when you consider that this dairy farm is probably one of the better facilities in Wisconsin. It’s clean, houses only 600 cows, and the animals are provided with basic veterinary care. The farmer clearly feels that these animals are treated like royalty; in her mind, a concrete-floored existence and never being allowed to interact with your children is the best life a dairy cow could ask for; they should be grateful for the chance to live for 3-5 years (even though a cow’s life span is 20-25) while everyone they love is systematically taken away from them.  

June is “Dairy Month,” and Wisconsin will be awash in special events celebrating cow’s milk. This weekend, my home city of Madison will pack live cows onto our Capital Square so kids can “learn” about the dairy industry. Will anyone tell them about how mother cows cry for their children for days after they’re stolen away? Will anyone recount stories of mother cows breaking down fences and swimming across rivers to reach their babies?  Will someone reflect on the cow at sanctuary who hid her baby because she feared that this one would be taken, too? Most likely, the children will learn the same things that I was taught; they will walk away with the same understanding of cows as magical, milk-filled machines who need to (or even want to) be milked.

In my house, the message about cow’s milk is very clear: cow’s milk is for baby cows. We talk about how cow moms want to stay with their babies, how sad we’d all feel if we weren’t allowed to live together, and how cow’s milk is yucky and not meant to be used as human food. Put simply, we don’t consume products with cow’s milk because it’s not nice, and that’s a message even a 4-year-old can easily understand.

I hope these ideas and experiences will help my children navigate a world that will try to convince them of the benefits of dairy products as they grow: large banners and posters in the school cafeteria extolling the virtues of cow’s milk; pro-dairy events and activities sponsored by the local school system; and friends who will have been told the same half-truths that I was as a child. The dairy industry is powerful, wealthy, and has used every marketing trick in the book to get us to accept as wholesome a system that is actually rotten at its core. But compassion is powerful, too, and my girls are already very emphatic in their desire not to hurt animals. I won’t lie to them, and I hope that the truth will empower them to be strong in their choices as they grow—to be kind, to consider the feelings of others, and to eat in a way that reflects their values.

Posted in Family Life

Reannon is the founder of Generation Veggie. She has been an animal advocate since 2000 and a fan of “The X-Files” since 1995. Reannon is a cake enthusiast who lives with her husband and 5-year-old twin girls in Madison, Wisconsin.