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10 Ways Organic Dairy is Different from Conventional

Wolfe's Neck Farm

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.

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.


  • Kaylin @ Enticing Healthy Eating
    August 19, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    This is a very handy chart. I’m sharing this on my blog’s facebook page! Thank you for the insightful information.

  • Amelia Winslow
    August 19, 2015 at 2:58 pm

    Thanks, Kaylin, I’m happy you found it helpful!

  • Erin @ Her Heartland Soul
    August 19, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    First off, it was so amazing meeting you this past weekend! I loved hanging out! Secondly, thank you for this incredibly useful chart! I’m going to link back to this blog post in my Stonyfield recap because there is no way I could describe this as well as you!

  • Katie @ Mom to Mom Nutrition
    August 19, 2015 at 7:37 pm

    I know that conventional dairy [and all forms of ag production] are extremely regulated. Some operations even have USDA employees on their operations! I’m just thankful that there are choices for consumers [aka us] to choose from based on our family budget!

  • Sarah
    August 20, 2015 at 10:16 am

    Wow! Amelia, you’ve done such a great job of explaining this. I’m going to bookmark this post and reference it in the future.

  • Amelia Winslow
    August 20, 2015 at 3:00 pm

    Hi Katie,
    Thanks for reading and for your comment. I wanted to respond to a couple things:
    1) Budget does play a big role in the food families buy, and I would argue that most people do NOT actually have a choice, b/c organic dairy is prohibitively expensive or not available. Thus, I believe that we should improve dairy farm conditions and standards for conventional milk so that all families have access to milk that is produced without pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, prolonged animal confinement, and with access to the outdoors/pasture.
    2) You’re right that dairy as an industry is very regulated. I just don’t agree with much of what’s allowed, and believe ag chemicals & practices should be tested for safety before being widely used. I did change the wording about certification/regulation above to be clearer, so thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  • Katie @ Mom to Mom Nutrition
    August 20, 2015 at 7:29 pm

    Hi! Yes, the expense is a huge factor. I would say it’s becoming more readily available though… which is a good thing! And I guess I just think when antibiotics, hormones, pesticides are used, they are used judiciously. Wouldn’t it be great for a panel discussion on all of this?! Organic and conventional dairy farmers talking about their practices and why it’s done. I guess I’m biased because I’ve been with families from all kinds of operations… but yes, there are bad apples [literally] out there who are not keeping to guidelines and ruining it for others.

  • Amelia Winslow
    August 23, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    Every farmer I’ve met – whether organic or conventional – cares about his land/animals/consumers. So I’m certainly not trying to criticize conventional farmers. But the reality is, with so much variation in conventional farming practices, it’s hard for a consumer to know what they’re getting when they buy conventional milk. Your milk from Michigan might be from a farm where cows are allowed to roam and spend time outside, whereas my conventional milk from California is almost certainly from a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). Our milk will look identical when its for sale at the grocery store. We’d really have to know our farmer, or buy directly from the farm in order to know what we’re getting, which isn’t possible for most consumers. Buying Certified Organic is one way of knowing what you’re getting (even though there is some variation within organic too) since certain fundamental standards must be met – NO antibiotics, NO synthetic growth hormones, NO use of pesticides, NO GMO feed, and cows must spend the entire grazing season out on pasture.

  • Robin Follette
    August 25, 2015 at 5:59 pm

    I’m enjoying going from blog to blog to read all about the trip to Stonyfield. Organic food is a big part of my family’s lifestyle, and Stonyfield is always in our fridge. I Tweeted and Facebooked your link. I know friends and followers are going to find your chart helpful.

  • Amelia Winslow
    August 26, 2015 at 4:11 pm

    Hi Robin,
    Thanks so much! I’m loving all the posts too – it’s always interesting to see the different impressions a trip makes on people.

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