Modern pasture-based farming makes so much sense that once you begin to understand the benefits, you wonder why we have a food system that encourages anything else. Pasturing benefits the farmer, the animals, the consumers who drink the milk, and perhaps most of all, the land and environment on which it all depends.
Environment/Land: Grass-based feeding is an ecological and efficient method of farming. Instead of producing tons of grain for feed—which requires extensive land, fertilizer, pest management, and large equipment for cultivating, harvesting, drying, storage and feeding—pasture-based farming lets the cows do the work. They harvest, fertilize, and feed themselves, overseen by the farmer in a carefully-managed system. The net result is significantly less fuel consumption, less erosion, less air and water pollution and greater soil fertility. (1)
Cows on pasture deposit manure throughout their grazing area, fertilizing the soil and helping to support healthy pasture growth. Manure from cows in confinement is deposited in a concentrated area, where it is collected and hauled away, or stored in large manure pits. Often it is dumped nearby or spread in high concentration where it overloads the soil with concentrated nutrients and pollutes surface and ground water, as well as affecting the air quality. You may not see the cows in a confinement dairy when you pass by, but your nose will certainly know they are there. More info»
Consumer: Another reason to choose grass-fed dairy products: They're more nutritious. Milk from cows raised primarily on pasture has been repeatedly shown to be higher in many nutrients—including vitamin E, beta-carotene, and the healthy fats Omega-3 and CLA, conjugated linoleic acid—than milk from cows fed primarily grain. There is a growing body of research that points to health benefits associated with CLA, including a possible role in fighting certain cancers, diabetes, and obesity. (2, 3)
Concentrated waste from confinement feeding can contaminate soil and waterways, and there is growing concern that this may affect the safety of the food supply as well. More info»
Animals: Pasture-fed cows live longer and are healthier than cows fed in confinement. Cows are ruminants; their stomachs are designed to digest grass and other fibrous plants, not high-protein, high-starch grains. Grain helps them gain weight and produce more, but can also lead to digestive problems, discomfort, and disease. Confinement can also lead to respiratory and other health problems. For many farmers, plenty of pasture is part of ensuring their animals are well-treated and content. "If you work on concrete all day, your feet and back hurt; it's the same with cows," points out Organic Valley farmer Ernest Martin.
The cull rate—the number of cows that must be taken out of the milking herd each year—is 30-50% per year for confinement herds, about one-third to one-half of the herd. In pastured herds the cull rate is generally around 15%, meaning the animals have productive lives two to three times as long as their confined counterparts. More info»
Farmers: Dairy farmers who use management intensive grazing methods generally have lower costs and higher profits than confinement farms, according to research by the University of Wisconsin's Center for Dairy Productivity. Organic Valley farmer Teddy Yandow describes his own conversion to pasture-based farming as "riding downstream in the canoe. Before, it was like going upstream. I had to fight constantly and I was going nowhere."
Yandow farmed the conventional way for many years and was stubborn about changing—until near-bankruptcy forced him to realize he had to change or get out. "I lined up all of my machinery in front of the barn with a For-Sale sign and said 'I can't keep farming this way.' I quit fooling around with the big machinery and all that debt, and it saved my life," he says now. That was 21 years ago, and he has been pasture farming ever since. When his wife urges him to think about retiring, he tells her "Why would I? I'm finally enjoying the job I'm doing!" More info»