Maple Hill 100% Organic Grass-Fed dairy | FAQ Grass-Fed
Certified 100% Grass-Fed
100% grass-fed grass-fed cows graze on pasture in the spring and summer when the grasses and forage grow, and eat hay (stored dry grass) or baleage (stored, fermented grass) in the winter months—most times harvested from the same pastures they call home.
Unlike most dairy cows in the United States, 100% grass-fed cows aren’t fed corn, grain, soy, alfalfa pellets, corn silage, or manufacturing by-products—even as calves! Our calves are fed only milk until they begin to graze outdoors on their own. Grass-fed cows are not kept exclusively in barns or crowded feedlots that have little to no access to pasture, like many conventionally raised cows on huge CAFOs. We believe that 100% grass-fed dairy cows have a distinctly better quality of life and longer lifespan than most dairy cows. A very small percentage of the dairy cows in the US enjoy the 100% grass-fed lifestyle—estimated at less than one percent.
We often call our dairy farmers “grass farmers” because they essentially harvest grass—with their cows! Every single one of our farms practices “managed grazing,” which means that the farmer plans, times, and moves their cows through many paddocks to where grass is the lushest and most optimal for milk production.
The cows have lots of room to wander around, looking for the best plants to munch, and they always have a fluffy grass meadow bed to lay down on to chew their cud at midday, or to sleep on at night. Because they don’t stay long enough to eat the grass down to the dirt, the manure is always gone before they are back to that paddock. The grass farmer is acutely aware of the condition of his land and cows, and works in a holistic manner to keep both healthy.
Simply put, when dairy farmers choose to raise cows with managed grazing techniques, and when cows are fed the diet they evolved to eat, the end result is healthier animals, healthier farms, and healthier dairy products.
Let’s start with the cows, which are by definition ruminants. They have a four-chambered stomach called the rumen, which is designed to digest fibrous grasses and other plants. When grain and corn (quickly-digested carbohydrates with much less fiber) are fed to cows, it immediately changes the pH of the rumen, making it more acidic. This can result in higher risk for infections, systematic inflammation, bloat, decreased immunity, and a host of other health issues. Grain-fed cows on large, conventional dairies are sometimes given routine preventative antibiotics for these reasons.
Next is the farm operation itself. Managed grazing requires less fossil fuels, because feed is not continuously grown, processed, and shipped to the farm. The cows’ food is already present on the farm, growing, and being eaten by the cows in a rotation that keeps the pastures fertile, healthy and lush. Growing corn and grain specifically for cattle feed uses huge amounts of resources, and sometimes chemical fertilizers and pesticides. On a 100% grass-fed operation manure is spread over the pastures by roaming cows, replacing nutrients lost by the growing plants, rather than forming in feedlot pools and causing detrimental runoff. 100% grass-fed dairy farming works best with small herds, which supports both local economies and family farms, who in turn are able to claim the highest premium price for their milk.
Milk from grass-fed cows has a more favorable fatty acid profile than milk from conventionally-fed cows—it is higher in omega-3 fatty acids and lower in omega-6 fatty acids. Grass-fed cow’s milk has higher concentrations of the omega-3 fatty acids alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), ecosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA). In addition, grass-fed cow’s milk is higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). It also has about three times the amount of beta-carotene.
According to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN 2000; 7f1(1):179S-88S), the recommended ratio of n-6:n-3 fatty acids in the diet is 2.3:1. Because the cow’s diet influences the nutritional profile of its milk, there is a substantial difference in the n-6:n-3 fatty acid ratios of grass-fed and conventional milk. Milk from grass-fed cows has a n-6:n-3 ratio of approximately 2.3:1—the recommended optimal ratio—compared to a ratio of 5.8:1 for milk from conventionally-fed cows
In short, 100% grass-fed organically produced dairy is a viable solution to the industrial dairy system, focusing on holistic care of both the animals and land, rather than an end goal of highest production and maximizing the bottom line at the cost of animal welfare and environmental concerns.
Corn, grain, silage, and even manufacturing by-products are fed to cows for one reason only: the bottom line. It’s cheaper and easier to feed larger amounts of cows with grain-based feeding, rather than manage the animals on pasture. Some dairy farmers also believe that a grain-based diet increases milk production of the cows, but our cows do just fine on a diet of 100% grass.
The path to grain-based dairy farms in American agriculture didn’t start with a change in agricultural policy, but rather with war, specifically, WWII.
Prior to WWII, most US farms were small and diversified. Cattle were put out to pasture and supplemented with very little if any grain or corn, as their natural place in a diversified farm was to consume grass. When peacetime arrived, there were many products and technologies from the war effort “looking for a home.” The WWII munitions industry’s surplus of nitrogen—once used to create bombs—found its home in agriculture, setting off the first “green revolution”—that was not so green in the end. With cheap and available nitrogen (one of the three synthetic fertilizers part of the N-P-K triad we still see on lawn fertilizers today) farmers could grow grain and corn crops much more quickly, and the American farmer could now “feed the world”—as well as its cows. The focus and the race towards higher yield and ever increasing crop production began, and feeding cows this now inexpensive grain and corn did as well. A grain-based diet for dairy cows became the norm, and the prevailing opinion—for quite some time—has been that any dairy farmer who attempted to raise their dairy cows on grass only was crazy—it couldn’t be done, and that “you can’t make milk with just grass”.
Well, we may be a little nutty at Maple Hill, but this opinion couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re adding more 100% grass-fed New York State dairy farms every few months. Many of these farms were very recently neither 100% grass-fed or organic, but have converted to third-party certified organic and 100% grass-fed with transition assistance from Maple Hill. The more farms we convert means we can make more delicious whole milk dairy products, and continue to build a farming system that keeps long-term wellness of the cows, farmers, and land at the forefront.
During the winter, our 100% grass-fed cows eat hay (dried grass) and baleage, (fermented, high-moisture grass). Sometimes our farmers supplement with molasses or apple cider vinegar in the wintertime to maintain rumen health and provide extra minerals and nutrients for the cows. Our farms do not supplement our cows OR calves with grain, corn, soy, or other foods in the wintertime.
Until recently, there was no provision or certification system for grass-fed dairy labeling in the United States, and in early 2016, the USDA retracted its certification for 100% grass-fed beef. Dairy production lies under the auspices of the FDA, which has no guidelines for 100% grass-fed dairy (or any grass-fed label claims). As the popularity of what we call “grass-fed-ish” animal products grows, more and more dairy companies are listing “pastured” or “grass-fed” on their packaging, despite the lack of oversight or definition of what these terms actually mean. Simply put, a food producer can currently claim that their dairy products are “grass-fed” and/or “pastured”, even if the cows are fed a diet of 90% grain and getting some grass, hay, or silage.
However, Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO), a USDA-accredited organic certifying agency, has developed a 100% Grassfed certification for meat and dairy producers, as well as food manufacturers. Through third-party certification, the 100% Grassfed certification offers a PCO 100% Grassfed seal to be used on all qualifying products, consumer communications, and marketing materials. We are proud to be the first dairy brand to bear this stringent certification.
The certification program is open to currently certified organic producers and handlers who are utilizing 100% grass-fed management practices, as well as those interested in transitioning to 100% grass-fed management. PCO designed the certification program to include a comprehensive training and transition program to educate potential producers on the key components of successful managed grazing.
Why do we need this? We believe in label transparency. Consumers deserve to know what they are paying for. The PCO 100% Grassfed Certification provides validation of grass-fed package claims, keeping the integrity of 100% grass-fed cattle intact. It also prevents the general term “grass-fed” from becoming another unfounded packaging claim or marketing lingo.
Yes, every drop of milk used to make every single one of our products is from our third-party certified organic 100% grass-fed cows. We do not use any milk that is not part of our own 100% grass-fed Milkshed. Our farms pledge to keep their cows on pasture in the grazing season, and to feed only hay and some minerals in the winter.