Conventional Vs. Organic Dairy Farming

There is a huge debate going on throughout the United States: Organic or Conventional This debate does not stop in the dairy industry. In fact it’s alive and well. In this debate, many have questions like: What is the difference? What are the benefits of each? Is organic farming better for the animal? Is organic milk better for consumption?

Before I go any further, I want to stop and state that I respect anyone who has chosen dairy farming as a lifestyle. This is commendable work and is necessary in order to feed our ever-growing nation. Dairy farming is hard work. It is a job that requires 24/7 attention, regardless of whether the farm is organic or conventional.

With that said upfront, let’s take a look first at organic dairy farming.

What does it take to be an organic dairy farm? According to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), a dairy farm that produces and sells organic milk has the following requirements.

  • No Growth Hormones (for example rBST or rBGH) or antibiotics
  • Organic feed is defined as coming from land that has not been treated with prohibited fertilizers or pesticides, for at least 3 years.
  • The cow must eat a 100% organic diet

In contrast, what does it take to be a conventional dairy farm? Any dairy farm that does not meet the USDA standard for organic dairy farming is considered to be a conventional dairy farm. The definition is pretty vague and includes dairy farmers that fall all across a wide spectrum. The procedures and protocols vary for each conventional dairy farmer.

But just because procedures vary, that does NOT mean, as some people think, that conventional dairy farmers do not hate or mistreat their cows. Now I am sure there are dairy farmers organic and conventional alike that do not take care of their animals as they should, but the majority of dairy farmers do the work that they do because they love their animals.

I recently read a blog called Don’t Waste the Crumbs, written by who several years ago posted about this same topic, but with an organic lens. I found this to be interesting, because although I don’t agree with her in all areas, since I’m a conventional farmer; I very much respected her as a dairy farmer.

In her blog post, there was a section comparing the nutrition of organic milk with the nutrition of conventional milk. In this conversation, she compared conventional milk to that of, “a nursing mom (who) eats a diet of Doritos and soda and never for a moment leaves a chair to stretch her legs or exercise her lungs.” She, also, claimed that although it appears that organic and conventional milk have the same nutrients, conventional milk is actually, contaminated with hormones and antibiotics and who-knows-what-type-of-animal-parts.”

As I said, I can respect differing opinions, but it does no good to lie about the opposing side. So in the remainder of this post, I want to add a different perspective in regards to aspects of conventional nutrition: in particular I want to address the charge that conventional milk is “contaminated” with hormones, antibiotics, and animal parts.

Nutrition (for more information read this blog post): A cow’s diet is a vital part of every dairy farm, and a cow is given nutrients that best help her to function in whatever particular life stage she is in. Dairy farmers do not feed their cows the equivalent to junk food. A dairy cows health and nutrition is vital to the dairy functioning properly. There is no reason that a dairy farmer wouldn’t take this seriously and procure the best food possible for her herd.

Hormones: All milk has hormones in it. To say that Organic milk is special in this respect is misleading. It is not possible to have milk without any hormones. This is just part of the make-up of milk. 

Antibiotics: Most animals have to be treated when they are sick. This is true in the dairy industry, as well. It does not matter whether you are organic or conventional. We expect to be able to go to the doctor and get medicine when we are sick; this is the same when a cow gets sick. This means, in any dairy operation, that milk that has antibiotic residue is not saleable and therefore does not even enter the bulk tank. A cow’s health should not be compromised for the sake of an organic label.

It seems to me that often in the argument for organic farming there are misconceptions fostered about conventional dairy farming in order to argue a specific point. It is up to the specific individual what milk he or she chooses to drink, but in making your choice, and even in promoting your choice, do not misrepresent others in the dairy industry. Dairy farmers are constantly working to making life as comfortable as possible for their cows. It is their livelihood and the industry does not benefit from them harming their animals.

Purposely harming animals is not humane, and it’s not good business. Organic dairy farmers know this. And so do conventional dairy farmers.

Up Next: A day in the life of a cow

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