August 2013 Issue

Down on the Organic Dairy Farm
By Sharon Palmer, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 15 No. 8 P. 40

Organic dairies are safer for the environment and the animals raised, and they yield products that are more healthful for consumers, too.

On a crisp fall morning at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, a clutch of black and white cows grazed in a verdant pasture. The cows didn’t seem to mind that a group of 50 eager dietitians—members of the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group (HENDPG)—were snapping pictures and observing their behavior as part of an organic farm tour planned by the HENDPG and sponsored by Organic Valley and Stonyfield Farm. We wanted to experience firsthand the practices of organic dairy farming.

“J. I. Rodale scratched on a chalkboard: healthy soil = healthy food = healthy people,” said Jeff Moyer, farm director at the Rodale Institute, as he led the tour. A pioneer in sustainable, organic farming, Rodale established this motto back in 1947, and it’s still alive today at the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit organization with a 333-acre research farm dedicated to advancing organic farming through research and outreach that goes back some 60 years. In fact, the placid cows we saw are part of an organic farm research project, conducted in partnership with the Rodale Institute, Organic Valley Dairy Farmers, and the farm of James and Ida Burkholder, whose farmland borders the Rodale Institute.

Read on to learn more about how an organic farming system operates and why it’s more healthful for the environment, the animals raised, and consumers.

Cows Become Part of the Farming System
Rodale provided the Burkholders, who were interested in moving their small dairy farm from conventional to organic, access to Rodale’s certified organic pastures, which allowed the Burkholders to produce organic milk much sooner. Converting to an organic dairy farm takes three years because the USDA organic standards require the soil be kept chemical free for two years and then the animals must feed on organic pastures for an additional year before the milk can be labeled organic. With access to certified organic pastureland, Organic Valley, the largest cooperative of organic farmers in the country, could accept the Burkholders as members. The first truckload of milk from the Burkholders’ dairy cows was delivered in April 2012.

The Rodale Institute, in turn, got something unique out of the bargain: It now can perform research at the Burkholders’ farm, studying the health of the cows, soil, and milk to see how organic production affects nutrient levels in the dairy products. They also got a research scenario made in heaven: They can compare a group of organically managed dairy cows to a group of conventionally managed cows on the same farm.

Moyer explained that the three organic fields the group of dietitians walked through are part of this study. One field is home to organically raised animals; the other one is planted with legumes such as clover, which grabs nitrogen from the air and puts it back into the soil; and the third field is planted with soybeans and corn.

The trick to producing a plentiful crop of organic produce is to rotate the fields each year through livestock, legumes, and crops so they produce the same yields as conventional farms. The Rodale Institute hopes to learn more about how this system of farming may be beneficial for the environment as well as for farmers.

It turns out that animals—even dairy cows—may be a big part of the success of sustainable, organic farming. After all, the presence of animals on small family farms was the norm for centuries. “By building up organic matter and microbial life in the soil, you can increase yield,” Moyer said. “There’s a huge movement to displace animals from agriculture, but once you displace the animals, it’s easy to mistreat them and put them in boxes.”

According to the Rodale Institute, a diversified farm is a healthy farm. By integrating forage crops for pastured livestock into standard grain and vegetable crop rotations, farmers can improve soil health and increase carbon sequestration as well as their economic returns. This farming system allows traditional crop farmers to add a seasonal pasture of dairy cows and other ruminants as a new “crop” in their rotations and gives dairy farmers greater flexibility in planning feed and pasture production.

Feeding Happy Cows on the Pasture
While animal livestock traditionally are raised on agricultural commodities such as corn and soy, organic dairy farms have specific requirements for pasture grazing, feed, health care, and living conditions. According to the US National Organic Program, standards for organic production are designed to promote good health and limit stress for farmed animals. The organic regulations include the following1,2:

Dairy animals must be fed organic feed. Growth promoters, hormones, antibiotics, plastic pellets for roughage, and mammalian slaughter by-products are prohibited.

Dairy animals must be managed organically for at least 12 months in order for milk or dairy products to be sold, labeled, or represented as organic.

Preventive management practices must be used to keep animals healthy.

Dairy cows must be out on pasture for the entire grazing season but not fewer than 120 days. They also must receive at least 30% of their feed from pasture.

Dairy cows must have access to the outdoors year-round; they may be only temporarily confined because of documented environmental or health considerations.

During the HENDPG farm tour, Brent Beidler, an organic dairy farmer from Vermont who sells his milk to Organic Valley, was available to answer questions. “Forage-raised cows have a very comfortable environment, which allows them to take part in their innate behavior of grazing,” Beidler told the group. “They graze for about three hours before they lie down and chew their cud. During eight hours of eating, the cows rechew 40 to 50 times. They swallow, stop eating, and it comes back up and they chew again. They’re rechewing almost as long as they eat.”

Indeed, animal scientists report that in their traditional environment, cows spend a large amount of time grazing—about eight to nine hours per day. The cows move slowly across the pasture, with their muzzles close to the ground, biting and tearing off grass, which is swallowed without much chewing. The cow ruminates (chews its cud by regurgitating previously consumed food) when resting, and they spend approximately 75% of their grazing time ruminating.3

Beidler explained that this unique method of obtaining nutrients is part of the cow’s prairie evolution; it relied on natural grasses for nutritional sustenance over the centuries. “The cows’ stomachs are like fermentation vats,” Beidler said. “They eat a large amount of food, and then they go back to a quiet place to chew. The food passes through the system, where nutrients are received through the work of microorganisms.”

In fact, the cow has an incredible digestive system that’s in perfect balance with its natural habitat of grasslands. Its stomach has four compartments4:

• The rumen, which can hold about 49 gallons, is dense with microbes that allow the cow to digest plant fibers through fermentation. Many nutrients are absorbed in the rumen wall.

• The reticulum, which holds about 4.25 gallons, is located in front of the rumen and is another dense microbial habitat.

• The omasum is the third stomach compartment, which holds about 2 gallons and absorbs water.

• The abomasum is the fourth stomach compartment, holding about 7 gallons, and functions similarly to a human stomach by using acids and enzymes to break down food before it passes into the small intestine.

As the cow ruminates, it mixes the food with saliva and decreases the particle size to increase the digestion rate.4 Unlike confined dairy operations and grain feeding, pasture grazing is in much closer harmony with the dairy cow’s unique digestive system.

The pasture allows for other benefits, too. “Conventional dairy cows get foot problems from standing on concrete all day,” Beidler said. In fact, he reported that during the first year when a dairy farm switches to organic practices, the veterinary costs decrease by 80%.

Organic farms can use antibiotics only in life-or-death situations—the treated animals must leave the herd for life—and many use herbal treatments and sometimes even acupuncture. A recent study from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture found that organic dairy herds in Minnesota had fewer veterinary costs ($72.57 per cow) than conventional herds.5

Beidler said conventional dairies may produce up to 100 lbs of milk per day per cow—the average production is 75 lbs, according to The Organic Center—thanks to a high-grain diet. Sometimes the cows are milked up to four times per day, and the babies have little time with their mothers, missing out on colostrum-rich milk at birth.

Organic farms average 60 lbs of milk per day per cow. The Burkholders’ goal for milk production is 55 lbs per day per cow. We observed calves being fed whole milk through a baby bottle at the Burkholder farm, where the standard practice is that calves aren’t weaned until they’re at least five weeks old.

Perhaps the ultimate proof of animal welfare is in the life span of an organic dairy cow. “A conventional farm will get 1 1/2 lactations—cycle of pregnancy followed by birth and milk production, lasting about 12 to 14 months—per cow; an organic farm will get six to eight,” Beidler said. In “A Dairy Farm’s Footprint,” a report by The Organic Center, organic dairy cows lived 1.5 to two years longer than cows on a conventional farm.

However, not all organic dairy farms are the same. “Organic dairy cows can be raised in a variety of ways, and consumers can make even better milk choices by knowing the source of their milk, yogurt, and cheese,” says Angie Tagtow, MS, RD, LD, senior fellow and endowed chair of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. “Unlike the images on milk carton labels, not all certified organic cows are raised on bucolic rolling hills eating bright-green grasses. Some dairies raise cows in open-air barns with limited access to pasture and a processed diet of grains and supplements. Likewise, not all certified organic cows are raised solely on pasture or only fed grass. Many cows are raised on seasonal mixes of grains, vitamins, and grasses. But some dairy producers go beyond the National Organic Standards Program and incorporate comprehensive sustainability practices on the farm. This may include on-farm diversity, rotational grazing, holistic herd management, grain production, water conservation practices, manure management, and on-farm energy production. The best way for consumers to know the source of their milk? Know the farmer.”

Organic Milk Nutrition
Much attention has been focused on the nutritional profile of organic milk. According to Stacia Clinton, RD, LDN, dietitian for Health Care Without Harm and past chair of the HENDPG, who organized the organic farm tour, “The nutritional value of organic milk is superior because of benefits gleaned from the pasture. The beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acids are at higher levels than in conventional milk.”

According to a two-year study of random samplings of Organic Valley whole milk vs. conventional milk, an 8-oz serving of Organic Valley milk was 38% higher in conjugated linoleic acids compared with conventional milk (58 vs. 42 mg); 128% higher in omega-3 fatty acids (47 vs. 20 mg); and had a reduced omega-6/omega-3 ratio (2.24:1 vs. 5.6:1).6

Ashley Colpaart, MS, RD, chair of the HENDPG, reports that recent studies also have shown that milk from pasture-raised organic cows has significantly higher levels of vitamin E, beta-carotene, and other antioxidants than milk from conventional cows raised in confinement.

Healthier Habitat
One of the main benefits of organic dairy farms is environmental. Dairy farms can have a large impact on the environment through manure management and disposal, greenhouse gas emissions, and the impact of feed crop production, such as pesticide and fertilizer use.

“The strict national organic standards for organic dairies prohibit the use of irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, dangerous pesticides, and genetically modified organisms in organic food and farming,” says Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD, a writer, speaker, and the host of Food Sleuth Radio. “Organic farming methods are based on building and improving the soil, promoting biodiversity, and protecting our natural resources. It stands to reason that healthier ecosystems, higher-quality soil, and clean water will produce healthier plants, which in turn support healthier animals and humans, not to mention a healthier planet.”

“Organic dairy farms support methods that are restorative of farm and natural resources and prevent the overuse of antibiotics,” Clinton says. “This supports a food system that doesn’t contribute to poor health or antibiotic resistance.”

“Organic doesn’t mean healthy in the traditional sense of the world, but if extended to a food system perspective, what organic does mean is health for the environment, for farmers and farm workers, for the animals raised organically, and ultimately for the consumer that lives in the system,” Colpaart says.

A safe environment also benefits farming families and communities. “We use no chemical fertilizers or pesticides,” Moyer said. “There are lots of health problems for farmers. It used to be the safest place for kids and now it’s the least safest place.” Beidler added, “With an organic farm, I’m able to take my daughter out into the pasture.”

Putting It Into Practice
Increasingly, clients are asking dietitians to weigh in on issues that go beyond mere nutrient food values. Clinton encourages dietitians to get to know how food is produced, adding that “the strength of organic is in the food-systems perspective. In food and nutrition, we’re used to looking at things from a segmented viewpoint, such as at nutritional values, macronutrients, and micronutrients. But when we look at the food system, it should support health, nourish people, protect farm workers, and avoid contaminating water systems.”

“Registered dietitians should fully understand all of the factors consumers must grapple with when making the choice to purchase organic foods as well as to support future research that will further clarify the differences and costs associated with organically vs. conventionally produced foods,” Colpaart says. “Current research indicates there can be initial and long-term positive impacts on the health of individuals and the environment from the adoption of organic farming and food consumption. Organic agriculture is important to the food security of poor farmers and peasants located in environmentally fragile or market-marginalized areas.”

To find the best organic dairies, Colpaart recommends consumers look for a smaller farm (fewer than 200 cows) in their local communities, which has grazed animals on pasture most of their lives. People can even schedule a farm tour to observe their practices for themselves.

“When you see a farm like the Burkholders’, where animals are taken care of, it’s very idealistic,” Clinton says. “Then if you see industrialized agriculture, where animals are not cared for properly, they’re enclosed in tight quarters, and there are contamination issues in terms of waste, it makes it become real regarding what our food system is doing. It’s a reality check for health professionals to have this awareness.”

— Sharon Palmer, RD, is a Los Angeles-based food and nutrition writer. She’s author of The Plant-Powered Diet, the editor of Environmental Nutrition, and a contributing editor to Today’s Dietitian.


• Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group (HENDPG) Organic Food Production Talking Points ( - public/HEN_Organic_Talking_Points_April_2007.pdf)

• HENDPG Perspective on the Benefits of Organic Foods ( - public/Hot-Topic-Perspective-Benefits-Organic-Foods-2009.pdf)

• The Organic Center (

• Organic Trade Association (

• Organic Valley Coop (


1. Organic production and handling standards. USDA Agricultural Marketing Service website. Updated October 2011. Accessed May 20, 2013.

2. Organic dairy production. Organic Trade Association website. 2006. Accessed on May 20, 2013.

3. Blackshaw JK. Notes on Some Topics in Applied Animal Behaviour. Queensland, Australia: University of Queensland School of Veterinary Science; 1986.

4. de Ondarza MB. The stomach of the dairy cow. website. Accessed May 20, 2013.

5. Heins B. Profitability of organic dairy farming. University of Minnesota Extension website. September 11, 2011. Accessed May 20, 2013.

6. All milk is not the same … and we can prove it. Organic Valley website. Accessed May 18, 2013.