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.)


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