Ask Eartha: Let cows be cows |

Back to: News

Ask Eartha: Let cows be cows

In this Nov. 27, 2010 photo, workers at the Bartelheimer Brothers Dairy in Snohomish, Wash. sort cows as they prepare for an upcoming auction. The Bartelheimer Brothers dairy of Snohomish is preparing this week to auction off 800 Holstein cows, plus tractors and other equipment. The disappearance of a fourth-generation dairy is the latest blow to a dwindling local industry hit hard by low milk prices, high feed prices and a tough time for borrowing money. (AP Photo/The Herald, Sarah Weiser)

I feel like I’m back in school. My homework – I’ve been spending quite a bit of time researching organic milk and dairy farms. You may have seen the response from Judy Barbe (“‘Regular’ milk is fine, too”) to my Dec. 2 article in support of organic milk. After reading Judy’s response, I decided to contact Organic Valley and organic dairy farmer, Tyler Webb, for some help. Not only did they provide great insight into why organic is better for the people and the environment, they turned me on to scientific evidence via The Organic Center and Charles Benbrook.

Benbrook serves as the chief scientist of The Organic Center. He worked in Washington, D.C., on agricultural policy, science and regulatory issues from 1979 through 1997. Benbrook served as agricultural staff expert on the Council for Environmental Quality; executive director of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Department Operations, Research and Foreign Agriculture; and executive director of the Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Organic Center (with the help of Benbrook) recently published a report called “A Dairy Farm’s Footprint: Evaluating the Impacts of Conventional and Organic Farming Systems.” You can read the summary or full report at the bottom of The Organic Center’s home page (

The Organic Center developed a SOG (Shades of Green) calculator that offers everyone from farmers to the consumer a way to evaluate the environmental footprint of the dairy sector. The document is packed with information and scientific support as to why organic dairy farms (and milk) are more beneficial for the environment and ultimately, milk drinkers.

There are two important points that I failed to mention in my last article: 1) The type and size of dairy farm we’re talking about and 2) Whole systems – looking at the farm beyond the cow.

The Organic Center’s report focused on four different farms: Intensive Conventional Management with rBST Treatment (aka bovine growth hormone) and Holstein Cows; Conventional Management with Holsteins; Intensive Organic Management with Holsteins; and Pasture-based Organic Farming with Jersey Cows.

When you think about the scale and management techniques on these four types of dairy farms, you begin to see how each one impacts the earth and the cow differently. The Organic Center scientists and researchers determined significant differences between conventional and organic farms.

The Organic Center found that “the dominant trends in the conventional dairy sector are toward larger farms, higher production, virtually no access to pasture, heavier reliance on performance enhancing drugs and antibiotics, and substantially greater and more concentrated environmental impacts, especially methane emissions and nitrogen losses from anaerobic lagoon-based manure management systems.”

Holistically looking at how the farm operates from every angle of dairy production draws the line between organic and conventional farming. Organic farmers often mimic natural systems to minimize the impact on the soil, water, and air. By focusing on both healthy and happy, organic farmers (as Farmer Webb put it) “let cows be cows.”

The Organic Center found dairy cows allowed to graze and forage in the pasture daily produce more nutrient-dense milk in comparison to farms where cows are “pushed to produce beyond their genetic potential.” One of the major differences between high-production conventional dairy farms and organic farms is “declining animal health and incrementally more serious reproductive problems on farms that strive to maximize production via a regime of hormone and other drug use, coupled with high energy, grain-based diets.”

The Organic Center also pointed out that due to certified organic regulations that outlaw the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides generally used in growing feed for conventional dairy animals, “the environment and public health are spared any adverse impact from these production inputs.”

You may remember methane is a greenhouse gas 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Beyond food waste in the landfill, dairy farms are large emitters of methane because of the uncontrollable belching and flatulence of the cows. Scientists have found that most high-production conventional farms rely on a liquid-based system to flush manure out of the animals’ holding pens and barns. According to The Organic Center, this liquid slurry allows for 40 times more methane loss than organic farms.

One final note from The Organic Center, the report stated: “Milk nutritional quality can be improved through management. Steps taken to improve milk quality tend to enhance animal health and longevity and lighten the environmental footprint of dairy farming. System changes that are good for cows are also beneficial to people drinking their milk, and good for the land and the atmosphere.”

Now that you have information from both sides of the story, it’s up to you, as the consumer to decide. In my opinion, it comes down to knowing your manufacturer or dairy farmer. We should all do our homework and determine where our milk comes from, what kind of farming techniques are used, and overall environmental impacts.

Eartha Steward is written by Jennifer Santry and Erin Makowsky, consultants on all things eco and chic at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at