• Conventional Versus Organic

    June 29, 2010

    If you’ve been reading along with my barnstorming adventures, you probably know quite a bit about organic dairy farming by now. Well, it’s time to tell you a little bit about conventional dairy farms. In addition to visiting four organic dairy farms in Vermont, we also visited one conventional farm.

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    Parent Family Farm is a non-organic, two-generation family farm in Highgate, Vermont. The 600-cow dairy farm supports three families. The farmers were very nice and more than willing to show us around and answer our questions.

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    Let me start off by saying that this post is not intended to bash conventional farming. It’s a different way of looking at food and my goal is to show you a contrast between organic and non-organic dairy farming. (Although, I’m sure you know where I stand on the issue! ;-))

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    The cows at the Parent Farm live in a free-stall barn, so they’re not tied up and can freely move around the space. The Parent farmers want to make their cows as comfortable as possible, so they use old tires, covered in sand, as bedding for their cows. The cows seemed to like this and a bunch of them were laying down on it.

    Typically, conventional dairy farmers want to minimize the amount of activity that their cows get so they have plenty of energy to produce tons of milk. Basically, they want the cows to eat and make milk. Grazing in a pasture uses lots of energy, so it’s not ideal for conventional farming.

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    Another major difference between organic and conventional farming is how they treat their sick animals. Conventional cows are treated with antibiotics and returned to the herd. Antibiotics are not permitted in organic farming, so if a cow is treated with antibiotics, it must be removed from the farm permanently. Obviously, losing a cow is a major financial loss for the farmer, which is (one reason) why they take such good care of their animals. Jonathan Gates of Howmars Farm told us that in 13 years of organic farming, he’s only had one sick cow that needed to be removed from the herd.

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    Conventional dairy cows eat corn silage (chopped fermented corn), which is sometimes mixed with haylage and grain. (The grain is usually made with corn and soy.) The Parent farmers use a nutritionist to figure out the exact amount of each to feed their cows.

    At the Parent Farm, the haylage was pushed up against the inner wall of the free-stall, so the cows could just stick their heads out and eat as they pleased. The food is refreshed as needed.

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    The cows at Parent Family Farm are milked three times per day. (Organic cows are typically milked twice per day.)

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    The milking at Parent Farm pretty much never stops. The farm has 600 cows, it takes 5 – 6 minutes to milk each one, and the milking room holds 14 cows at a time, so the milking process continues day and night.

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    The cows at Parent Farm produce up to 110 pounds of milk per day. (Organic cows produce about 50 pounds.)

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    One thing that really upset me was seeing “docked” tails on a number of cows at the Parent Farm. In conventional dairy farming, the practice of tail docking is used to improve hygiene in the milking room. Cows sometimes poop while being milked, so a long tail basically makes a mess and a shortened tail is less likely to hit farmers in the face. It was very sad to see. :-(

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    The Parents have three tanks on their farm that hold a total of 6,000 gallons of milk. If you remember my previous post about the milk truck at the Beidler Family Farm, you might remember that it holds the exact same amount, but for 13 different dairy farms and picks up the milk every other day. This single conventional farm fills the 6,000 gallon tank every single day! Big difference, right?!

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    We asked the Parent family if they would ever consider organic farming, but they had no interest. Their main reason was land. They don’t have enough space for their 600 cows to graze and meet the USDA standards.

    Visiting this conventional dairy farm was definitely eye-opening. It made me realize just how beneficial organic dairy farming is for the animals and the product that they produce. All I know is that I will be buying organic from now on!

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    { 114 comments… read them below or add one }

    Laurie June 30, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    I don’t understand the argument about we are not “meant” to drink cow’s milk. Says who? I like milk, so I drink it and eat lots of other foods made from milk. Milk gives me lots of calcium and other nutrients I can’t get in other foods. Maybe we aren’t “meant” to eat roots, so we shouldn’t be eating carrots and potatoes???

    Reply

    Emily June 30, 2010 at 10:21 pm

    Tina, I have to agree with a few other commenters who bring up your confusing distinction concerning the “major difference” between how organic and conventional farmers treat their sick animals. You say that “conventional cows are treated with antibiotics and returned to the herd”.

    Unfortunately, you make it sound as though these conventional cows will be providing milk while on antibiotics, which is simply not the case (thank goodness – I would discourage anyone from buying non-organic milk if it were!). Organic farming has its benefits, but you do not successfully enlighten us as to how the lack of antibiotics is one of them.

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    Daniela June 30, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    It’s great to read about your visit to a conventional farm. As a dairy farmer, I’m so happy to know that people want to learn about where their milk comes from. I have a conventional dairy farm in central PA and would like to clarify a few things mentioned. There are various types of housing and animal care practices that farmers use across the U.S. and not all conventional or organic farms are the same. On my farm, we choose to graze our 55 milk ows on pasture and we milk them twice a day. I’ve seen dairy farms in PA with as many as 400 cows who let their cows out to graze. Dairy farms with freestalls as mentioned in the blog can also be a great way to house cows. Many farms provide mattresses for their cows, rubber mats for the cows to stand on and even fans and sprinklers to keep their animals cool during the summer. The milking 2 vs 3 times a day is just a dairy producers management decision. It’s not a matter of organic vs contentional. Did you know some dairy farms have robots that milk the cows? On these types of farms, some cows choose to get milked 2 times a day, others choose to get milked 3 times a day. Regarding the tail docking, it is NOT a common practice in the dairy industry and we don’t dock tails on my farm. I’d encourage you to visit a few more conventional farms to learn about how other dariy farm families raise their animals and produce quality milk.

    Reply

    Carmen June 30, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    @Laurie:
    Says science?
    Who told you that milk was so good? The media that sells us so much crap on an every day basis? The USDA food Pyramid that has been proved wrong time and time again?
    That whole calcium and nutrition arguement is what you’ve been sold over the years.There’s better sources of calcium and nutrients than milk. Im just giving facts here.
    Oh and we can eat SOME roots. Not everything in nature is good for us. Just because we learned to acquire certain things and use them to our convenience doesnt make them good for us.
    Why do people have to be so closed up to the facts? Milk is just not necessary and it shouldnt be abused as it may have deleterious effects.
    All in moderation which is what we dont have by the looks of it. If we did, these dairy farms wouldnt produce so much milk to satisfy demand and we wouldnt have to worry about what they do with the milk and how they treat the cows to get it.
    Dairy should be consumed sparignly if at all.
    I dont get this mentality. There’s lots of things we are told we should not eat in excess and we accept that theyre bad. We like them but we try to live by the restrictions because it’s healthy. Why is it so hard to believe that milk has things that are just not good for you?

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    Lauren July 1, 2010 at 9:55 am

    I think a lot of these posts have great points however its about knowing where your food comes from. There are organic farms out there that provide low quality products just like some conventional farms do. No company is perfect and I think researching where food is coming from and getting both organic and conventional farms to maintain a high standard of quality is what counts. I agree with a previous post its about eating the best you can for your budget. Maybe you don’t have the money to buy organic milk but don’t go buy McDonalds for dinner either when you can make a healthy meal at home that will most likely produce leftovers.

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    Jeremy July 1, 2010 at 10:18 am

    I realize that the author, Tina, has a pro-organic bias, but several of her statements about conventional production are incorrect. I have no issue with supporting organic producers, but I believe that there is room in agriculture for all of us organic and convention, and it serves our industry no benefit by taking jabs at other sectors of the industry. In terms of food safety there has been no evidence that demonstrates differences between organic and conventional produced milk. You spoke about how conventional farms use antibiotics to treat their sick cows, but what you failed to mention is the withdrawal period associated with these antibiotics. Your statements about tail docking insinuate that this is a practice that is commonly used in the dairy industry; however the truth is quite the contrary. Tail docking is very, very rarely used. You go one to mention how the cows at this particular farm are milked three times a day and organic cows are milked twice a day; However most conventional dairy farms only milk their cows twice a day; the same amount as, you claim, most organic farms do. You mentioned how conventional cows produce 110 pounds of milk per day compared to organic cows that produce 50 pounds a day; personally I think this is great that the cow’s productivity can be maximized. I had the biggest issue with the statement you made about how you believe organic production is much more beneficial for the cows. I grew up on a convention beef cattle farm, and have numerous friends and contacts that operate conventional dairy farms, and I can attest that in conventional production systems the livestock are very well cared for and enjoy a great quality of life. I am in no means “knocking” organic production, I believe it is great and I applaud those producers who want to take advantage of the monetary incentives associated with organics, but I do not feel that one system is superior to the other. Agriculture has room for both types of production, and we should stand together not fight against each other. I have posted an entry on my blog, the farmer’s perspective, about conventional vs. organic. To learn more check it out here: http://bit.ly/d1nWAy

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    Emma July 1, 2010 at 10:57 am

    @Lauren:

    I agree! To take it even further, this conversation just shows how difficult it is to correctly judge such a large spanning industry. For me, this debate is less about organic vs. conventional dairy practices and more about the fact that we need to be more proactive about understanding the work that goes behind the production of our food, whether that includes doing your research about the industry or going to a local farm and learning how they run their business. It may even come down to learning about the properties of our favorite foods despite the efforts of major industries or companies to push positive advertising. All in all, great discussion!

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    Michelle @ Turning Over a New Leaf July 1, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    In short: know where your milk comes from, whether conventional or organic.

    I think so much of the issue is that organic sets higher standards that these farms must reach. With conventional, the farm could be just as good as the organic, or much worse. You never know. And everyone has their own opinion on what is acceptable and healthy practice in dairy farming. I’d support local farms if there were any dairy farms remotely near me. I’d buy organic if I could afford it, and sometimes I do when I have more elbow room in my budget. I like the taste better.

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    Samantha Cernock July 2, 2010 at 5:26 am

    @The Wife of a Dairyman:
    Thanks so much for clarifying

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    The Farm Vet July 2, 2010 at 10:43 am

    I’m glad Tina is taking the time to visit dairy farms. Just would like to clarify a few things. Most of the dairies that do not have their cows on pasture cannot afford to. And the other reason is the climate does not allow for it. The rainfall is very limited where we live so it is not feasible to have all of the cows graze on pasture. As a doctor and a professional that works with bovines every day, there is no nutritional detriment to not having them on pasture. My wife’s family has a dairy farm in CA, and the farms I work with are very diligent in giving their cows a balanced and healthy diet, whether organic or not.
    As for milking cows two versus three times per day. That has absolutely nothing to do with being organic or not as well. I have many clients that do one or the other or may change.
    Medicine is something I believe in and use in my profession. Antibiotics are a part of technology that has helped us improve the health of animals and humans. When an animal is sick and a safe method is available to treat that animal and improve it’s quality of life, use it. Tina mentioned that organic dairies get rid of sick cows if they need to be treated with antibiotics. This is just amazing to me….where then does that animal go??? I know there is no significant difference in the instance of sickness on an organic farm versus non-organic. It COMPLETELY depends on the management of that farm. And that is what I would like everyone to remember.
    Lastly, I agree that tail docking is not necessary.

    Reply

    Laurie July 4, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    @The Farm Vet, great comments! Thanks.
    One other point I would like to make is that organic milk often must travel further, which means at this point in time, much of it is Ultra High Temperature pasteurized so that it has a longer shelf life. This is most likely the reason why people “like” the taste of it better. It actually causes it to taste slightly carmelized.

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    Joey July 5, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    My husband and I run a conventional dairy in CA. He has been actively involved in the dairy for over 40 years. I really appreciate that you are willing to look at both organic and conventional dairying. Milk is such a healthy part of our diet. We like using antibiotics when necessary for the sake of the animal, if your sick you want to feel better! There are very careful controls to make sure that the animal is not milked into the tank, so antibiotics will not get into the food supply. Also, every tank of milk is tested for antibiotics as a follow up precaution. I also really appreciated “The Farm Vet”‘s comments. One of the greatest parts of this country is the abundance of safe and healthy food available to the public.

    Reply

    Crazy Moos July 12, 2010 at 12:35 am

    I am a 3rd generation dairyman in California. I agree with the Farm Vet. The statement about how conventional cows are treated with antibiotics then returned to the herd is false. All dairies are prohibited from selling milk with antibiotics.

    Dairies that ship milk to their creamery with antibiotics can lose their licence to produce milk after 3 violations. Milk that is contaminated with antibiotics MUST be dumped! Go to my blog to read more about antibiotics and how we use them at our dairy. http://crazymoos.wordpress.com/2010/07/09/antibiotics-in-my-milk/

    Reply

    sibusiso dlamini July 10, 2011 at 5:07 am

    Hi, im in Africa Swaziland between South Africa and Mozambique and i would love to be a dairy farmer, could you share the drawings that would house my cows during feeding and milking

    Reply

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