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5 February 2010

How pastured organic cows produce a better glass of milk

Pour a tall, creamy glass of cold milk and picture a herd of peaceful cows, grazing happily in a grassy green pasture. Pour a second glass and imagine a long line of cows confined indoors, penned in a long line of cramped stalls with noisy fans blowing air in and out. Food—grain, mostly corn, laced with supplements and medication—is brought to a trough in front of them,; the remains of which they deposit into another trough behind them, where it runs into what's known as the manure pit.

If you're drinking milk from a family farm, your first picture is more likely to be true. But if your milk came from a large commercial dairy, it's almost certain the cows that gave your milk rarely see grass, much less the out-of-doors, and their living conditions look like the second image, or worse. More and more consumers are choosing the kind of farming represented by the first glass of milk. And that means more and more farmers can make the same choice.

Large-scale confinement farms dominate dairy production in the U.S. today. Only 10-15% of U.S. dairy farms are pasture-based, meaning cows are fed primarily outdoors on pasture, rather than indoors on grain. But a growing number of farmers—including Organic Valley farmers—are finding pasture-based farming can also mean healthier cows, more nutritious dairy products, profitable family farms and sustainable land stewardship. Like forward-thinking farmers in New Zealand, Ireland and elsewhere, they are turning to pasturing as the preferred way to farm.

Pasturing methods are a good fit with organic farming, but organic does not always mean pastured. USDA Organic standards require "access to pasture" as part of an organic livestock system. This minimum standard does not specify how often or how long cows are outdoors, nor does it require they be fed live grasses. The standards permit confinement "as needed" for weather and "stage of production," leaving considerable leeway for cows to be kept indoors and fed grain most of the time.

Some organic farmers would like to see the USDA standards made more strict, to mandate a higher percentage of pasture feeding. There is also a process underway to set USDA labeling standards for 100% grass-fed products. Even if all that happens, it will be difficult for consumers to differentiate certified organic from grass-fed certified organic, with its added benefits. The family farmers of Organic Valley are committed to pasturing as they continue to lead the organic dairy industry, and many of their practices go beyond the minimum standards for organic certification.

Once, nearly all dairy cattle were pasture-raised. That usually meant turning cows out to graze freely, often resulting in overgrazing, trampling and waste. Such practices, along with a surplus of cheap subsidized corn, encouraged the rise of confinement feeding. But it turns out all pasture-based dairy farming is not the same. Methods known as Management Intensive Rotational Grazing (MIRG) or Holistic Resource Management (HRM) offer significant benefits over both confinement and old-style grazing methods and can make pasturing both economical and ecological.

Managed grazing involves dividing a pasture into pens or paddocks, and shifting the cows from paddock to paddock as they graze. Cows are moved based on the condition of the grass—allowing the farmer to avoid overgrazing, giving cows access to pasture at the peak of nutrition and the right height for grazing, and letting the animals spread manure evenly over the entire pasture. Rotation also extends the grazing season, and often produces enough surplus grass during the summer months to provide silage for feed in winter.

After Organic Valley farmer Ernest Martin converted his Ohio farm to pasture, the shift to organic methods required few additional changes. He had already stopped growing corn for feed so he wasn't using synthetic chemicals anyway. He now buys some organic grain to supplement his cows' feed, and has found alternatives to antibiotics. He believes grazing methods are especially important in the organic world. "It's as close to nature as you will find," he says.

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