March 23 2015 08:09 AM

My bout with an intestinal infection hardened my stance on raw milk.

I spent most of my Christmas break helping my boyfriend on his 40-cow dairy in northwestern Wisconsin. The first couple of weeks of 2015 saw a bumper crop of calves hitting the ground: 11 calves out of nine cows, in fact . . . and eight of those calves were heifers. When I wasn't sitting up until nearly midnight getting newborns to drink or holding down the fort while Sam made many mad dashes up the silo in the bitter cold to keep silo unloaders running, I was helping care for and feed the baby bovines.

Two weeks into January, two heifer calves got scours and died. I was especially heartbroken over the one, since her dam was my favorite cow. Not long after that, I got scours. I couldn't leave the bathroom for more than five minutes at a time. After three days, I knew that this was no ordinary bug. I went to the doctor so dehydrated and weak that I could barely stay upright more than 10 minutes. He called three days later saying that I tested positive for cryptosporidium.

Cryptosporidium is a protozoa commonly found in manure, and it is a leading cause of scours in calves. The doctor asked if I was a frequent drinker of raw milk, and I said no. I drank it on a couple of occasions in high school, but since I didn't grow up on a dairy farm, I didn't have regular access to it. He then went on to tell me that his own son had come down with crypto from drinking raw milk.

Just to clarify, I didn't get sick from drinking raw milk. I got sick from being overly cuddly with calves that were sick. However, while I was sick, I was also writing a research paper about raw milk in Wisconsin for a class I took over Christmas break. As I was writing the paper I got a pretty good feel for how divisive the issue is. Even among dairy farmers there is a major rift over whether raw milk should be legalized or not.

I know, and anyone who has spent lots of time around cows knows, that lots of things can and do go wrong on a dairy farm. You can keep your milking equipment clean as a whistle and your barn neat as a pin, but cows will be cows. They're like 1,500-pound 3-year-olds that get into places that aren't sterile. That being the case, pasteurization is the sterilizing equalizer for nature's most perfect food because milk filters can't catch everything.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that you won't catch me drinking raw milk, especially after getting so sick. A lot of dairy farmers don't drink raw milk for the same reason. If someone wants to drink raw milk and is well aware of the potential dangers that can come from it, I'm not going to stop them. After all, this is a free country. But for me, coming down with cryptosporidium or something else because I decided to get my milk straight out of the bulk tank is no longer worth the risk.
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The author is a junior at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, majoring in agricultural marketing communications. She will serve as the 27th Hoard's Dairyman editorial intern this summer.