Culture dairy cows

Published on January 30th, 2013 | by Elizabeth Blessing

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Milk and Dairy – Grass-Fed Dairy, Part 2

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(This is the second part of a three part series on milk and dairy written by Elizabeth Blessing)

Grass-fed Dairy: A healthy product comes from a healthy animal raised on healthy land.

Before industrialization, dairying was done on farms in a pasture, allowing the animals to eat their natural diet of grasses. The dairying animals were milked twice a day and their milk was worked to churn butter or make cheese. After industrialization, machines pushed the dairying off the farms and into confined animal feedlots or factories that increased production and supply of milk. Once the dairying animals were removed from their natural habitat, their diet changed and so did the quality of milk.

Buying milk and dairy from animals that are 100 percent grass-fed provides a healthy product from a healthy animal that was raised on healthy land. Grass-fed dairy animals graze on pasture and eat their natural diet. Ruminant animals have the ability to take high-quality grasses and convert them into essential nutrients that are readily available through their milk. Grazing at pasture provides space and exercise for the animals, which keeps them healthy and happy. Grazing also allows the animals to naturally fertilize the pastures with high-quality organic fertilizer. This keeps the soil healthy, which in turn, produces high-quality grasses for the animals to enjoy.

Today, most dairying operations are large businesses with nothing of the traditional farm left about them. There are dangers involved when taking animals off pasture and changing their diets. Different degrees of harm can occur, affecting the animals, environment and quality of milk. Here are examples of different approaches to dairying and their affects:

Changing their diet: A very common practice is switching the diet from grasses to a feed that is mainly corn and soybeans. Some farmers allow their animals on pasture, but also supplement the diet with corn and soybean feed. Others keep the diet strictly to corn and soybeans. The worst feeding practice is giving the animals feed that contains “by-products feed-stuff” that includes municipal garbage, candy, bakery waste, potato waste, fats from restaurant fryers, newspapers and cardboard, and even dead animals, such as cats, dogs and cattle (this is how mad cow disease occurs). If the milk or dairy isn’t from an organic farm, the corn and soybeans are most likely genetically modified.

An unnatural diet leads to a condition called acidosis. Ruminant animals will get acid indigestion from eating corn and soybean feed, which eventually causes inflammation and ulcers. This condition is treated with routine administration of antibiotics. Antibiotic residues are found in milk and dairy products and, when consumed, lead to antibiotic resistance—a dangerous public health problem.

The nutrient content of grass-fed dairy is superior to its corn-fed counterparts. The unnatural diet of corn, soybeans and by-product feed-stuff doesn’t contain the same (or any) nutrients as high-quality grasses. If their feed is lacking in nutrients, the milk won’t have the same nutrients. One important grass-fed nutrient that we have discussed in past blogs is vitamin K2. Ruminant animals have the ability to take vitamin K1 from the green grasses and convert it to vitamin K2, which is found in their milk. Vitamin K2 is essential for heart and bone health. Corn-fed dairy animals do not contain vitamin K2.

Removing animals from pasture: When a large number of animals live in a confined area it leads to negative impacts on the environment. One of the biggest problems confined animal feedlots cause comes from the build-up of excrement where it pollutes the air and releases ammonia into the ecosystem. The excrement is shipped off to nearby fields where it overloads the land with nutrients (specifically, nitrogen and phosphorus) that run off into ground water and pollute streams, rivers and lakes. This high level of nitrogen in the water threatens the fish population by increasing plant growth in the water and suffocating the fish.

Animals that are crowded into small spaces without access to roam tend to be sicker and have a shorter lifespan. Routine administration of antibiotics and other drugs is a norm. The typical lifespan of a confined dairying animal is 2 years and the lifespan of a pasture dairying animal is 12-14 years.

There are different degrees of dairying practices when it comes to removing/limiting animals from pasture. Some farmers will limit the amount of time allowed on pasture while others keep the animals completely confined. Confined animal feedlot dairying practices are the worst and are harmful to the animal and environment and produce low-quality, nutritionally inferior milk than grass-fed dairying.

Administration of hormones: Some farmers will administer hormones to the dairying animals that will cause an increase in milk production. This is why Monsanto’s rBGH hormone was developed. This synthetic hormone increased production by 6 gallons per day per cow. When an animal is given hormones to increase milk supply, it causes their udders to grow and swell. This can become so bad that it causes foot problems, makes it difficult for them to stand, increases udder infections and increases the risk of contracting mastitis. Again, with the increased risk of infections, more antibiotics are given to treat the animals. Hormone residues are also found in the milk, which is being linked to problems in women, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, and causes young girls to mature too soon.

When it comes to dairying there are many different practices that can take place to produce milk. It is important to educate yourself on the different practices and know where your milk and dairy come from. If you get your milk and dairy from a farmer, how are they raising their animals? Does is match your beliefs and what you want for your family in order for them to be healthy?

(photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin)

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About the Author

Elizabeth Blessing is co-founder and chief nutritionist of Green BEAN Delivery. Originally from Noblesville, Ind., Elizabeth has a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Indiana University and a Master of Science in Nutrition from Bastyr University. After graduating from Bastyr, she worked as a nutrition educator for Washington State University King County Extension’s Food $ense Program. While at Food $ense, she co-authored nutrition education curriculum. Now Elizabeth is the on-site Nutritionist and a Food Service instructor at The Chef’s Academy, the Indiana Business College’s culinary school. Get her nutrition tips and recipes each week on the Healthy Times blog.


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