"Whoa Becky! That's a lot of milk you got there!" (her name really is Becky)
My Sundays are starting to become synonymous with farm tours. But today's tour was of a slightly different variety...a non-organic dairy. To understand the food movement, we have to look at all sides. Within organic practices there are many disparities and the same goes for non-organic. It drives home the point even more, "You have to know where your food comes from!"

It was a 380-cow dairy farm. They use no growth hormones (rBST) and only use antibiotics but once or twice a year for vaccinations. The cows still eat primarily a diet of silage (moistened corn and hay) but their environment and treatment is way better than most confined feeding operations. While not pasture-raised, they are put out to graze between daily milkings. One, 20-acre field is made available during summer and fall months which provides exercise and a natural, grass diet. The barns are very spacious and airy with screen-sided walls to the outside. Rubber floors make it nicer for the cows to stand. Alleyways are cleaned out twice a day and sandy beds get freshened up frequently with new sand. It may not be a day at the beach but the cows are clean and not stressed. The sand is used in place of straw because it doesn't harbor bacteria like straw. Hay is still used as seen in the picture above but usually for pregnant cows and young calves who need to stay warm.

Shiny new milking parlor
Today was open house for their new state-of-the-art milking parlor (see photo right). All the farmers in the area were streaming through - lots of wranglers and roper boots. You could tell the farm is customarily spic-n-span but the milking room was especially shiny. Keeping it clean is built into the design with grated floors to make it easy to hose down.

185 cows are in production at one time. The other 205 are either too young or too close to giving birth. They are kept in a separate barn with alternating access to the same pasture. Cows don't go into milk production until they are 2-years old and when they have their first calf and pregnant cows are pulled from production when they are 3-months from delivery in order to let them rest. With the new facility, they can milk all 185 cows in 2.5 hours including the time spent bringing them into the parlor. The room accommodates 24 stations. That's about 5-7 minutes per cow. Compared to the old parlor with only 14 stations, it took over 4 hours to do the same job. Keeping cows pregnant is a daily task, a veterinarian visits the farm every day to monitor the ladies' health and schedule the artificial inseminations.

Tucked out back was the manure pond. While contained in a concrete structure with no possibility of leakage, it was in stark contrast to the practices of an organic dairy. Yes, organic dairies have manure and save waste for compost. But most of the dung on pasture dairies is naturally spread by the cows as they rotate fields not collected in a lagoon. In this scenario, the nitrogen-rich water is later sprayed on the fields as fertilizer. Since it is straight manure, the soils have to be tested for other nutrient deficiencies and treated with artificial amendments versus using a compost tea which would carry all the nutrients necessary (see post 10/12/11). If pasture-raised, the farmer wouldn't have to grow as much feed leaving fields to develop mature, carbon-sequestering grasses upon which the cows would graze eating primarily a diet for which their digestive tract was intended.

The farm family was delightful and their farm a picture of Americana. It represented a lot of good things in our agricultural system and perhaps they are the lowest lying fruits to later transition to organic. In the meantime, their co-op only accepts milk from dairies who share the same husbandry practices. Only problem is, there is no label for this type of product. So unless you do some research to find out what's in your area, you won't know the story of the milk on the shelf. And by the time you do that research, you'll have discovered a local, organic dairy and probably decide to just go with them. In the case of this dairy, their milk gets trucked across state line to be bottled three hours away. So much for local.

My next stop is an organic dairy. I had hoped to do the visits in reverse and go to the organic dairy first but you take'em as they come. Stay tuned!

I weaved through gorgeous farm country this past weekend to go mountain biking just north of Columbus. Unlike the Amish country of last week, the landscape here was bordered by magnificent forests and ground that undulated with slopes and valleys. It had just rained so the green was exceptionally vibrant. Big corn country! Stakes stood proudly like soldiers at the end of rows to indicate where a different variety of GMO seed had been planted.I glanced from side to side. Fields alternated between corn and soy bean. From afar it looked beautiful, but the soil could tell a different story. Cruising along, I did a double take. Amidst all the GMO signs was one, lone, little sign that squeaked, "Don't Spray - Organic!" I slowed down on the way home to get a closer look. It was an organic dairy. Most of the acreage was pasture with other fields growing hay. Holstein cows speckled the green slope. Matching red barns and a white farm house sat on the hill. An oasis in a desert.

It got me thinking more about this whole pasture-raised vs grain-fed thing. It's not just about what's better for the cow and the environment. It's also about land management. A lot of land is used to raise cattle conventionally. Land that could be sequestering carbon while raising happier cows. On a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), livestock are designated to a dirt feedlot while their feed is grown on a different field perhaps a few hundred miles away. So big is that field that over 55% of the corn produced in the US is for animal feed. Not only are the animals concentrated but so is there waste which creates air and water pollution. And the field that grew their food is GMO and uses buckets of chemicals. The soil quality erodes so more chemicals are needed. In the case of nitrogen fertilizer, soil and plants can only absorb about 30%. The other 70% leeches into ground water. Season after season, these fields are tilled further reducing the soil's potential to sequester carbon.

In pasture-raised, the cows get a diet they were designed to digest, mixed grasses plus loads of room to roam. And barrels of oil didn't need to be used to truck in their feed. Instead, they grow their own food. Talk about "farm to table." The farmer rotates them between fields not letting them overgraze. In their path, they leave manure to fertilize the grass. Soil is kept in tact and never needs to be tilled allowing the soil to reach its full carbon storing potential. Pasture-raised is way less land intensive both in scale and impact. Cattle share the same land upon which their food was grown and it requires no chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. Keep it simple and manage the land wisely. We might just eat better and mitigate climate change in the process.

My Dad handed me a receipt the other day with the price of two milks circled...one was organic at $4.69/half-gallon and the other was a non-organic brand at $2.39/half-gallon. It demonstrated the dilemma consumers have every day...which do you buy? It's easy to guess that organic is better for you (and better tasting) but at twice the price, is it worth it?

One price wasn't listed, organic milk produced locally. It can be a little harder to source and costs a little extra but it is worth it. It's not Gucci-milk. And it shouldn't necessarily be cheaper because it is local. It's what milk should cost. Getting the lowest price may be okay for what fuels our cars but not what fuels our bodies. Whether it is milk or cookies, we need to be okay with spending a little more on our food. There is a lot of truth in the saying, "you are what you eat." and in the case of cheap food, "you get what you paid for."

Stapled to the receipt was an article my Dad had clipped from the Cleveland Plain Dealer about how conventional, dairy farmers where being impacted by the increase in feed costs, a.k.a. grains, like corn and soy. Higher feed costs drives up the price of milk and other food. If all dairy cows were pasture-raised, farmers wouldn't be as vulnerable to the fluctuations in feed prices. But more importantly, the cows would be eating a diet they were designed for...grass. Cows' digestive systems - with their five stomachs - weren't designed to eat corn and other grains but that's what they are fed because it's typically the cheapest option. Unfortunately, when corn prices go up, it's not as simple as just switching to grass. Farmers are tied to a corn-based system. Converting to a grass-based diet would mean a major capital investment in their operation. Conventional dairy farms don't have ample pasture-land like they use too where cows would graze in one field and be rotated to another to let the grass regenerate. What is ironic about the article is they provided their own solution. They talk about the olden-times when milk was supplied locally from small-scale producers. Hhmmm? Maybe it's time to repeat the past. Not only would local production be fresher but cows could be raised accordingly and the dairy market would support a regional, resilient economy.

Diet and living conditions all play a role in producing a better cup of milk. So it makes sense that grass-fed and pasture-raised cows would produce milk with healthier fat content and more nutrients than their conventionally raised cousins. After all, they have five stomachs for a reason. Studies show that grass-fed cows produce milk that is 60% higher in beneficial fatty acids than conventional milk - fatty acids like linoleic that help to reduce heart disease. And by munching on a diverse variety of field grasses, cows get a mouth-full of nutrients. Each grass is a like a vitamin providing a different nutrient. Strip that diet down to grain and you take away all those vital nutrients. If the cow doesn't get the nutrients, then our milk doesn't get them either. One of the reasons grass-fed cows don't need antibiotics is because they get the antibodies they need from a complex diet of different grasses. Dairy farmers are actually grass farmers first. Or at least they should be.

Here is where it gets tricky, however...it's not as simple as just looking for the organic label. As demand for organic milk has increased, larger, organic dairies have emerged. They are starting to resemble conventional operations where cows get little or no access to pasture which leads to diets supplemented with grain, but organic grain. Rest easy though, the cows are treated humanely and without the use of antibiotics or bovine growth hormones. Phew! Fortunately, the USDA has begun to tighten the guidelines and require that all organic, dairy cows receive a minimum of 120 pasture-days/year.

So while organic milk is better for you, you still need to ask the question, "where did my milk come from?" Advocating for small-scale food production that supplies a regional system will make it easier for farmers to use organic methods like rotational grazing and easier for consumers to have a closer relationship to their farmers. It makes both parties more accountable. Doing a little research does require that consumers take a more active role in their food purchases. We wouldn't buy a car without researching it first or shopping around to make sure we get the best price. Why should our food be any different.