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The Happy Cow Difference

by Rootstock Editor

May 19, 2021

by Rootstock Editor

There’s a good chance you’ve heard that Organic Valley milk comes from happy, healthy cows. If you have, you might be thirsty for more information. Like, what is a happy cow exactly? How can we tell how they’re feeling? Do cows smile? And what does that have to do with the quality of their milk? Well, sit back because we’re about to pour you a tall glass of animal welfare knowledge.

Happy cow "moos" on the pasture at the Baese Farm in Michigan.

Baese Farm, Michigan

How Can You Tell If A Cow Is Happy?

Organic Valley goes above and beyond to keep animals as happy as possible. Happy is a subjective term, however. We’d love to have our own Dr. Moolittle on staff who could talk to our cows about their feelings, but alas, we do not (though we do have several amazing veterinarians on staff). So, we’re doing the next best thing. We define happiness through objective, observable qualities that indicate a positive state of animal welfare. Let’s dig into this a little bit.

According to Dr. Meggan Hain, Organic Valley veterinarian and animal care specialist, Organic Valley uses the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare as one way to determine how our animals are feeling. They include freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from pain and disease, freedom from discomfort, freedom from distress and last, but not least, freedom to exhibit natural behaviors.Organic Valley has an animal care program which includes regular farm visits with observations and objective measures to make sure that all the animals have their five freedoms. If one of these freedoms is missing, actions are taken to correct the issue.

Another way we determine our animals' state of welfare is by monitoring them for signs of stress. A spike in distress hormone levels is one indicator that an animal is not happy. There are also certain behaviors that indicate stress, such as vocalization, increased heart rate, lameness, chickens pecking one another, pigs biting, and calves suckling objects, to name a few. If we happen to observe any of these behaviors, immediate actions are taken to correct the underlying issues and get the animal to a positive state.

Cow's nose says hello to the camera on the Webb Farm in Vermont.

Webb Farm, Vermont

How Does Organic Valley Keep Cows Happy?

According to Dr. Hain, organic dairies, like the small family farms at Organic Valley, are some of the few that pay attention to the freedom to exhibit natural behavior. In fact, this freedom is built right into the organic standards. While Organic Valley is dedicated to ensuring all five freedoms are exhibited by animals on the farm, one thing that sets our farms apart is our focus on natural behaviors. For our animals, that means lots of time outside where they can roam, graze, forage, scratch, wallow, and all the other instinctual animal things that animals like to do–that they were literally born to do. Because we believe an animal is happiest when they live how nature intended.

Now, when we say lots of time outside, we mean it. Organic Valley cows spend more time outdoors than the majority of dairy cows in the U.S., and 50% more time than organic standards require. That means they spend more of their lives in the fresh air and wide open pastures feasting on a natural diet of organic grass. And if you ask our farmers, that makes for some really happy cows. In fact, if you visit one of our farms when cows are let out on pasture in the springtime, you will literally see them jump for joy. You can also see it here. If you’re having a bad day, just watching this will fill you with udder joy (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun).

Cows graze happily on a green pasture at the Beard Farm in Iowa.

Beard Farm, Iowa

More pasture time is also beneficial to the health of cows. According to Organic Valley Agricultural Data Scientist Logan Peterman, “Pasture is nutritionally king. Among other things, it helps boost our cows’ immune systems so we don’t need antibiotic intervention. All of this leads to healthier animals and high-quality milk.”

Now, if you still have any doubt that cows really are happier outside, consider this. A cow takes more steps per day than the average human. So, if you think you’re going stir crazy from all the time spent locked up indoors during this pandemic, imagine how unhappy cows feel when confined inside most of their lives. They can’t even binge Netflix!

For those who prefer hard data on the matter, a study recently conducted by the University of British Columbia used a weighted gate to determine how motivated cows were to get outside to pasture and graze. The results: Cows are highly motivated to get out and roam in the wide open organic pastures that Organic Valley provides.

So, there you have it. Hopefully this quenched your thirst for happy cow knowledge. If you’d like more information on the topic, please take a look at the related articles below.