What are the main differences between conventional milk and 100% grass-fed organic milk? Why does it matter what the cows eat?
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.
Cows by definition are ruminants. They have a four-chambered stomach called the rumen, which is designed to digest grasses and other plants. When grain and corn 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 other health issues. Grain-fed cows on large, conventional dairies are sometimes given routine preventative antibiotics for these reasons.
100% grass-fed dairy farming 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.
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.