When you stop and look at the whole journey, it's a remarkable process to keep that reliable gallon of milk perched in your refrigerator. It takes cows, of course, tons of people, new technology, and impeccable timing.
Whether shoulder to shoulder in barns or leisurely grazing in a picturesque green pasture, thousands of cows continuously keep it flowing.
They're always on the job – always. And yet there's barely a ‘moo' from these animals.
Dairy farmer Guy Wayne Parrish says the silence is thanks to a simple truth in agriculture: a quiet cow is a happy cow.
"She's got it made pretty good as long as she has a good caregiver," said the proprietor of Southpoint Dairies. "We try to keep our girls very happy, very happy."
Parrish has 1,600 ‘girls.' And he says their life is strictly structured – since these 1,400 pound creatures of habit crave a routine. They eat upwards of 100 pounds of feed a day and are milked twice a day.
Each yields six to eight gallons of milk.
"We do everything we can to keep their life consistent, that's the way they like it," Parrish said. "Change, they don't do well with."
Cows enjoy the expertise of a nutritionist, Parrish said.
Nearby, an even larger dairy farm contributes even more to the Sunshine State's thirst for fresh milk.
"We have 52 hundred cows," said Alliance Dairies' Jan Henderson. "We are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week."
More interesting than the non-stop parade of cows is its remarkable supply chain. The dairy is surrounded by corn fields – corn that feeds the cows – corn that is fertilized by the cow's droppings.
In some cases, Florida cows are fed the byproducts of citrus -- the leftover orange peel from making juice. Otherwise, those nutrient rich bits would probably be left to rot in a landfill.
And soon Alliance will do even more with the herd's leftovers.
A gaping cement pond is under construction that will one day pool the cows' droppings and convert that pungent methane gas – yes, you know the smell – into electricity.
Power from poop.
"We'll replace 73 percent of our electric bill from cow manure," Henderson said.
For the moment, the focus remains on the unstoppable thirst for milk. Some of Henderson's cows are milked three times a day. And standing at the ready are six stainless steel tanker trucks eager to haul it all away for processing and delivery to cereal cowls statewide.
"That equates to about 35,000 gallons a day," she said.
Milk comes out of a cow around 100 degrees but is instantly cooled to 40. And while it moves down the highway, it remains chilled to 40 or cooler.
"Just think of this a thermos bottle," said truck driver Bob Lanctot.
Lanctot, who ferries thousands of gallons of milk between farms and processing facilities, spends most of his time on the road.
"I average three to four hundred miles a day – a day, yes," he said.
Tankers like Lanctot's don't stop until they reach a plant. And there is just a handful in Florida.
A FIRST LOOK
Publix Supermarkets operates a sprawling dairy facility in Lakeland. It opened in 1980, and yet this was the first time the grocer has ever let new cameras inside for a peek at the process.
Milk is homogenized, pasteurized, crated and shipped at a rate of 7,000 gallons an hour. But none of that work happens until tow critical people give the green light.
Just as soon as that sparkling silver tanker slides into the garage, Luke Satmary hops on top. He pops a hatch to reveal a sloshing pool of raw milk.
Within seconds, Satmary tests the temperature and ladles out a small bag of milk. He is the first line of defense.
"Quality's our No. 1," he said. "If it's not up to our standards, we don't pump it into the plant."
Satmary, a recent hire, concedes he had no idea how much went into an ordinary gallon of milk.
"I honestly didn't know what went behind the scenes until I started here six months ago," he said.
With the bubble of milk, Satmary races to an interior laboratory. And he hands off the sample to a scientist.
Caryn Lizarazo quickly begins looking for bacteria, antibiotics, even water – anything that would suggest this incoming load is anything but pure.
"It takes about two minutes," she said. "It's very serious."
The lab includes a microscope, chemicals, and a vent hood. But there are other tools that might be more familiar to the typical consumer: Caryn's senses.
"We smell it, make sure it smells right and we taste it," she said.
How much of a swig?
"Just a little bit, just a touch."
When a load is approved, it's pumped in, bottled up, and swiftly crated out – often with a day or two. Full crates are stacked so tall in the gaping warehouse that they stand nearly two stories tall and spread as far as the eye can see.
"Ends up being about a million gallons a week," Satmary said.
The plant has a huge void to fill. Milk processed here, smack in the middle of the state, is ferry as far north as Tallahassee and as far south as Naples. In all, Publix says the Lakeland plant supplies 381 insatiable stores with milk.
From start to finish, it is a fascinating, never-ending process for something familiar to most of us.
"The cows don't stop, so we don't," Lizarazo said.
And for those involved – from farm to fridge – they say they are grateful anytime their many customers can learn even just a little bit about the remarkably elaborate process it takes to put milk on the table.
"Especially the younger generation has no idea," Parrish said.
He's doing our bodies good, and "we take our job very, very seriously."
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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