I spent last weekend touring organic dairy farms in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. These farms were the type we all picture when we hear the words “family farm”: very green, scattered with cows grazing on pasture, uncrowded, and downright gorgeous for those of us accustomed to city life.
Unfortunately, dairy farms like these are unique. More often than not, dairy in the U.S. comes from crowded, commercial farms where the animals rarely, if ever, go outside. Over 50% of the milk produced comes from just 3% of farms. Most cows (80-90%) don’t graze on pasture; instead they eat grain feed made from corn, soy and cottonseed (which is nearly always genetically modified and laden with pesticides).
Organic dairy farming in the U.S. really is different from conventional, most of the time (of course there are exceptions). So I thought I’d highlight 10 of the most distinct differences between the two.
If there are other differences that drive you to buy one type of dairy over the other, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
|ORGANIC||CONVENTIONAL||WHY THIS MATTERS|
|Access to Pasture (grass)||Cows must graze on pasture at least 120 days/year.||No requirement. Only 10-15% of cows in the U.S. ever graze on pasture.||Grass is a cow’s natural diet, thus grass-fed cows produce more nutritious milk (source).|
|Certification Process, with strict standards||Cows, land and practices must meet a set of specific standards to be certified. At least one surprise inspection every year to ensure adherence.||Regulated by the USDA, but animal confinement, irradiation, sewage sludge, regular use of antibiotics (even when animals aren’t sick), growth hormones, and pesticide use are all allowed.||Specific standards mean consumers know what they’re getting when they buy organic. With conventional, there’s no way to know what kind of farm your milk came from, unless you know your farmer personally.|
|Cows live healthy, long lives||Yes. Organic cows tend to contract fewer infections and live 1.5-2 years longer than conventional cows (source).||Not necessarily. Cows living in CAFOs tend to acquire more mastitis and other diseases, partly due to living conditions, and the amount of milk they’re pushed to produce.||Less disease means fewer antibiotics given, and better environmental conditions (source).|
|Reduces our exposure to toxic pesticides and herbicides.||Yes||No||Many pesticides have been shown to be harmful to humans, especially to children (source). Eating organic reduces exposure. (source)|
|Farmers, their families and farm workers exposed to toxic chemicals||No||Yes||Consistent pesticide and herbicide exposure can negatively affect human health (source for farm workers; source for dairy farmers).|
|Use of synthetic growth hormones||Not allowed||Allowed; used on some farms to get cows to produce more milk than they would naturally.||Increased disease in cows; possible affect on human health (sources and more info).|
|Use of GMOs||Not allowed||Allowed. Nearly all conventional grain feed given to animals contains GMO corn, soy and cottonseed.||Little is known about GMOs’ effect on human health. More research needed.|
|Use of antibiotics||Not allowed||Allowed||Overuse of antibiotics creates resistance and makes disease treatment more difficult (more info & sources).|
|Less environmental pollution||Yes||Depends on the farm and their practices. Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) where many cows are raised, are huge contributors to water and atmospheric pollution.||Organic pasture-based dairy farms are less destructive to land and soil than large-scale conventional farms (source)|
|Farmers earn a fair price for the milk they sell.||Yes, usually, because the cost of organic milk is consistently higher than conventional.||It depends. Milk prices fluctuate frequently, and often don’t cover the farmer’s costs of production.||Increases in price can make a big difference in the survival of a dairy farm (source). Here’s a chart showing the pay prices over the last 25 years.|
This is NOT a sponsored post. Stonyfield brought me on the dairy farm trip, but all info provided in this post is backed up with research, and as always, thoughts and opinions expressed here are 100% my own.