Posted by: Pierce | May 24, 2012

Pasture Raised False Notions, Fed by Producers

This is the image companies like Organic Valley want consumers to see when they think of the milk they are drinking. It looks good right? Cows peacefully grazing in the grass… what could be wrong? These are clearly pasture raised and fed cows. Well… kind of…

Let us look at Organic Valley’s Pasture Standards:

1. A lactating cow must be provided 120 days on pasture per each growing season.
2. A minimum average of 30% dry matter intake of the total lactating cow’s diet must come from grazed pasture during that region’s grazing season.
3. The stocking rate for pasture is a maximum of three (3) lactating cows per acre of pasture. (If you can demonstrate a higher stocking rate is sustainable on your farm, that will be acceptable.)
4. Dry cows spend a minimum of 120 days on pasture during the grazing season.
5. Youngstock must spend a minimum of 120 days on pasture, with a minimum of 30 percent of their dry matter intake coming from pasture after 6 months of age.

(These standards are identical to the standards adopted by the USDA in 2010.)

So when drinking that carton of milk, rather than thinking pasture raised and fed, think 33% pasture raised and 10% pasture fed. (33% * 30%) Also, each cow gets 33% of an acre for that 33% of the year. The dairy industry must really like repeating decimals.

The dairy industry has also really done their math. Not only does the idea of pasture raised and fed cows sound great to concerned consumers, it is also great for the dairy industries’ bottom line. For four months of the year, 30% of the cow’s food is on Mother Earth. During those four months, the farmers also do not have to worry about waste disposal or filling their dairy housing with bedding material. But don’t take my word for it. From OV’s site:

Dairy farm profitability benefits from grazing. A University of Wisconsin study showed conventional grazing herds had an annual net income per cow ($500) double the amount dairy farmers using conventional confinement methods of production earned ($250).

So that accounts for where the cows spend a third of the year, but what about the majority of their time or the other two thirds of the time? Excluding:

“conditions under which the health, safety, or well-being of the animal could be jeopardized, inclement weather, temporary conditions which pose a risk to soil and water quality, dairy stock under the age of 6 months and birthing”

Well luckily, although Organic Valley’s consumer site does not have the information, their site designed for potential coop members does. (Which an OV representative was kind enough to point me to.) Housing Standard:

Housing for cows must be properly sized, bedded with the best bedding for cow comfort and well-maintained for animal safety. Animals are not to be confined in tie stalls, free stalls or stanchions except for milking and during temporary confinement in accordance with organic practices.

Well that sounds reasonable. You can be sure that none of the cows laid down on second-best bedding when you choose Organic Valley and that their housing was all properly sized. First they chose bedding that was too hard, then they chose bedding that was too soft, then they chose bedding that was just right. You can also rest assured that they were not tied up except for the three times a day they are milked. I wonder how long it takes to tie the cow up, milk the cow, and then untie the cow… three times a day. Well that is all well and good, but for me, I need standards with a little more definition, let us check the Indoor Space Requirement:

Cows and calves will be provided with sufficient indoor space to be comfortable and perform natural behaviors when necessary.

Hmm… I was hoping for a little less vague language. Although the standard is open for interpretation, I will also post their “intent” which precedes each standard:

When cows require respite from outdoor weather conditions, they must have adequate comfortable space, which is dependent on the type of barn or shelter provided. When they must be sheltered indoors, cows and calves should be clean, dry, comfortable, and able to lie down, stand up, groom and express other natural behaviors.

So if we take Organic Valley at it’s word, rather than calling them pasture raised, pasture fed cows, it would be more apt to call them:

one-third of the year pasture raised, one-tenth pasture fed, two-thirds of the year enough space to stand up and lie down, nine-tenth grain-fed cows.

Hmmm… After looking over a few standards, the original claim of “pasture raised and pasture fed” does not quite ring true. I wonder what Organic Valley has to say about this…

Pasturing methods are a good fit with organic farming, but organic does not always mean pastured. USDA Organic standards require “access to pasture” as part of an organic livestock system. This minimum standard does not specify how often or how long cows are outdoors, nor does it require they be fed live grasses. The standards permit confinement “as needed” for weather and “stage of production,” leaving considerable leeway for cows to be kept indoors and fed grain most of the time.

Organic Valley

I really appreciate Organic Valley’s use of air quotes. I refrained from using them because I figured heck, why not take OV at their word? I would not expect them to use vague standards with more holes than their own Swiss Cheese to their advantage. I mean yeah, those organic standards are so lame. But wait! Haven’t I seen those standards before… Oh yeah! Organic Valley adopted the same exact standards!

So on one hand Organic Valley is saying “Hey, check out our great pasture raised and fed cows!” while at the same time they are saying “Hey, these standards aren’t actually meaningful at all!” So which one is it Organic Valley? As “the number one source of organic milk in the nation,” who would be in a better position to establish meaningful standards?

And on the note of standards, let us include one more. Culling Rate Standard:

Less than 20 percent of animals should be removed annually for slaughter. If the rate is high, an explanation should be provided.

So, to add one more modifier to what was originally called the “pasture raised and fed” cow, let us all endeavor to call them:

One-third of the year pasture raised, one-tenth pasture fed, two-thirds of the year enough space to stand up and lie down, nine-tenth grain-fed, one-fifth likely to be slaughtered this year, cows.

Now how are we going to incorporate all of that onto an illustrated milk carton?

If you take the interests of nonhuman animals seriously, the only thing you can do is go vegan. Because nonhuman animals are treated as property and economic commodities, they’ll only be treated as well as is economically advantageous. Even under the best circumstances, we still control every aspect of their life, which we end in a few years (or less) when they stop making us money. Go vegan. It’s good for your health, it’s good for the environment, and most importantly, it’s the only moral option.


(Also see links embedded in article.)

Posted by: Pierce | April 25, 2012

“Cows Have to be Milked”

I have come across this argument before, but not in several years. Today, two fellow students reminded me of this common argument: “Cows have to be milked.”

Searching the Internet, I came across conflicting information. Some sources claim that the cows may contract Mastitis, an inflammation of the mammary gland. I also came across several sources that state cows become agitated when not milked. Others still, claim that the teats will eventually just dry up. I have contacted the Holstein Association for more information. (Holsteins are the dominant breed of dairy cow in the United States.)

[Update 05/23/12] At the time I originally published this article, I did not have a response from the Holstein Association. Now I do:

“Hi Pierce,

While we are not a veterinary organization, which would be the best source, I have lived on a dairy farm my entire life and can hopefully help clarify it for you.

In general, if a milking animal is not milked for an extended period of time (more than 1 or 2 days for a cow giving a normal volume of milk – dairy cows are typically milked two or three times per day), they are likely to become ill and may develop mastitis, which is an inflammation and infection in the udder. There is no reason however that a normally functioning dairy farm would not milk their cattle on a regular schedule. At the end of their lactation (which typically lasts 305 days), when cows are giving a minimal amount of milk, dairymen cease milking them for their “dry period.” This is different from just not milking the cow, which may cause to be sick, because a cow is naturally giving less and less milk, and is “dried off” as sort of a vacation before she has her next calf and begins milking again. Dry periods typically last about 60 days.

If you have further questions, feel free to contact me.

Thank you!

Lindsey Worden
Communications Manager
Holstein Association USA & Holstein Foundation”

Firstly, I would like to thank Lindsey Worden for being kind enough to respond to my query. I am going to defer to her and her organization’s experience in caring for cows. So yes, if the cows are not milked, it is detrimental for them.

Physical ramifications aside however, this argument is problematic for several reasons. In essence, this argument is saying that if the cows are not milked, they will suffer detrimental effects. Animal use however, is inherently detrimental. Dairy cows in particular, typically only live five to six years before being slaughtered.

It is important to remember that dairy cows, like all nonhuman animals, are economic commodities. Outside of this system, the cows can live 12 to 15 years, but in the dairy industry, they are only economically viable for a fraction of that time. So if one is concerned with the welfare of dairy cows, then how can one support a system that systematically kills them when they are no longer profitable?

Furthermore, if dairy cows suffer detrimental effects from not being milked, it is equally important to remember that this is a problem we created on several levels.

Without our interference, the milk would normally be consumed by their calf. In the dairy industry however, this only happens for a few hours before the calf is separated from the mother. We are concerned with the welfare of the cow and so we justify milking them. At the same time, we fail to recognize that we created the original problem that requires their constant milking.

We not only created the problem, we created the cow. Between around 1925 and the present, cows have been selectively bred to produce four times as much milk, which now averages around 16,000 pounds a year per cow. If not being milked is painful, it is because we bred them to secrete more milk than they ever would have naturally. Through artificial insemination and other techniques, we currently keep around nine million cows a year. We created beings that by our design require our use. If we truly care about the welfare of the cow, the best way to alleviate their pain is not to milk them, but rather to not continue breeding them.

Furthermore, looking solely at the dairy producing cow fails to recognize the interconnectedness of the animal agriculture system. If one is buying milk with the belief that they need to be milked and this contributes to the cow’s welfare, one must also recognize that they are condemning a male calf to a beef, or more likely, veal farm. As previously stated, all animals in this system are economic commodities. When that cow stops producing milk, it is slaughtered. When the father of the calf stops producing sperm, it is slaughtered.  Their offspring will either end up in the beef, dairy, or veal farm. They all end up in the slaughterhouse. Buying milk creates these other lives, and the cycle never ends.

Lindsey Worden, Holstein Association USA & Holstein Foundation