When I was first thinking about this series, I remembered one of my college roommates (L) grew up on a small dairy farm in WI, and that her family had switched from conventional to organic. L graciously agreed to answer my questions for this article, and we recently had a lively discussion about organic dairy farming.
For L., the biggest difference between conventional and organic farming are the rules around pesticide, antibiotic, and hormone use. An organic farm cannot give antibiotics to a cow for an infection and then return to using her milk (even once the antibiotics are out of her system). Instead, the organic farmer focuses on preventing the animal from becoming ill in the first place through good nutrition practices, and treats them with natural approaches if they become ill. Standard vaccinations are allowed, though (1). Not surprisingly, the organic farmer is also not allowed to give the cows hormonal shots to induce milk let down (oxytocin) or to induce fertility for breeding (GnRH). Even pest control must be organic or natural, with rare exceptions (1). Finally, L. noted that the USDA’s “Pasture Rule” requires organic cattle 6 months and older to obtain a substantial portion of their nutrition from grazing (USDA’s pasture rule also requires cattle to graze on pastureland during the grazing season, or at least 120 days per year, and have year-round access to the outdoors (2)). Conventional farms are not bound by these rules, and may not necessarily pasture their animals.
The pasture rule mention segued into a discussion of the benefit of organic for animal health and welfare. L. thought “…the overall health of the cow is better being organic. Too many antibiotics and other hormones aren’t really good for anyone. Keeping their immune system up is beneficial. A happy cow is outdoors and grazing, getting plenty of exercise and sunshine. Being confined to concrete and never having access to pasture is typical of big conventional farms…. I don’t agree with that.” She also suggested that organic dairy cows live longer, citing a 12 year old cow on her farm who was still “going strong”, while conventional factory-farmed cows usually lived about half that long.
Finally, we turned to the benefits and drawbacks to the farmer. On the drawbacks side, L. noted that the extensive documentation of animal feed, crop plans, and inputs for the land becomes a bit overwhelming. For instance, in addition to the documentation L. mentioned, the Pasture Rule also requires having a “pasture management plan” in place and certifying that the animal bedding is organic (2)). The cost of feed for organic dairy farming is also higher, since the feed must also be certified organic. However, in compensation for this hassle, organic milk prices are much higher. L’s parents switched from conventional to organic farming about two decades ago. At that time, as L. recalled, 100 lbs (about 11.6 gallons) of milk yielded just $9 for the conventional dairy farmer, while the same amount of organic milk was worth upwards of $20. The premium for organic milk is still strong. In April 2017, the current conventional milk prices were less than half what organic farmers had received on average during the past year (4).
My conclusion? While there may or may not be benefits for the consumer from drinking organic milk, there are definite benefits for the farmer–and also for the cows.
(1) eCFR Code of Federal Regulations. §205.603 Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic livestock production. https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr&SID=9874504b6f1025eb0e6b67cadf9d3b40&rgn=div6&view=text&node=7:184.108.40.206.32.7&idno=7#se7.3.205_1603
(2) Pasture for Organic Ruminant Livestock: Understanding and Implementing the National Organic Program (NOP) Pasture Rule. 2011. https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/NOP-UnderstandingOrganicPastureRule.pdf
(3) Dairy Cattle Information. https://www.livestockexpo.org/images/Education/Dairy09.pdf
(4) CoBank Report: Organic dairy has room to grow. Western Farm Press. August 2017. http://www.westernfarmpress.com/dairy/cobank-report-organic-dairy-has-room-grow