Organic vs Conventional Milk – What’s the Difference?

 A version of this post was originally published on our sister blog site – dairyutnv.blogspot.com

A scientific paper published late last year comparing the fatty acid profile of organic and conventional whole milk raised some questions. Here are some thoughts about the paper and what it means for you…

The difference between organic and conventional dairy foods is rooted in on-farm practices. To become a certified organic dairy farm, farmers must meet the additional requirements of USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), which, in addition to other standards, stipulates that organic farmers must use only organic fertilizers and pesticides; they are also not allowed to give their cows antibiotics or supplemental hormones, nor are they able to graze or feed their animals with GMO crops.

Wangsgard Willow Farm

The Wangsgard Willow Dairy in Northern Utah

All milk and dairy foods, whether they are produced conventionally or organically, deliver a powerhouse of nutrients including calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and protein, and adding milk to your diet is a excellent way to boost overall nutrition and maintain health. As dairy customers, you always have a choice and can purchase whatever type of milk best fits with your lifestyle, but all milk offers excellent nutrition.

A recent study, published in late 2013 by researchers at Washington State University, took a look at the fatty acid profile of organic vs. conventional whole milk over 18 months. They found a small, yet statistically significant, difference in the amount of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids between the two types of milk with organic milk having a higher percentage of omega-3 fats.

What are Omega-3 & Omega-6 fatty acids?

Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are considered essential fats, meaning that we must get them from food sources (our bodies cannot make them), and each of these fats play an important role in our body’s metabolism. Omega-3 fats are considered anti-inflammatory, and health professionals encourage us to get more of these healthy fats from foods like fish, nuts and seeds. Omega-6 fatty acids are considered pro-inflammatory and found primarily in vegetable oils. We still need them and they are essential for a healthy body, but it’s the ratio that’s important. The typical American diet has too many omega-6 fats and too few omega-3′s, so health professionals encourage more more omega-3 containing foods and less omega-6 rich foods in order to improve this ratio.

Where does dairy fit into the equation?

Dairy foods don’t play a big role in this ratio. Milk is neither a primary source of omega-3 nor omega-6 fatty acids, and it is unlikely that a shift in milk choice from conventional to organic would impact the overall dietary ratio of these fatty acids.  Instead, if your goal is to increase omega-3 fatty acids, the dietary focus should be on oily fish like salmon and sardines and to a lesser extent nuts and seeds.

O5DR_CH_Dairy-5843

Also note that this study looked only at whole milk products since low-fat and fat-free milk have had the fat removed. While there is new and exciting research emerging about the health benefits of full-fat dairy foods, including whole milk in the diet will raise overall calories, which would necessitate a shift in other dietary choices to maintain caloric balance. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans and most health professionals continue to recommend low-fat and fat-free dairy foods as a way to help reduce overall caloric intake and curb the obesity epidemic.

In this study’s analysis, the focus was on comparing the amount and types of fat between organically and conventionally produced whole milk. The authors did not examine or compare the amounts of other vitamins and minerals, which is primary the reason many people choose dairy products.

So the bottom line is that both organic and conventional dairy foods are an excellent source of high quality nutrient-rich calories. To boost omega-3 fatty acids, look to other sources like fatty fish, nuts and seeds. When it comes to organic or conventional, choose the type of dairy that is right for your lifestyle.

More information about the fatty acid profile comparison from PhD, Greg Miller can be found on The Dairy Report.

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The Modern Dairy Farmer

In many cases, dairy farming today looks different than it used to: barns are more efficient, cows’ diets are now formulated by a dairy nutritionist to match the exact needs of the herd, cows are monitored more closely than ever before for health, movement, and milk production, safety has improved, genetics play a big role in herd health… Yet, the people behind farming are the same.

I heard it summed up well by a farmer recently:

While the proverbial red barn might not be today’s norm,  those red barn values are still the core of what drives dairy farmers.

What are red barn values? hard work, commitment, family, animal care, and environmental stewardship (just to name a few). But who are today’s dairy farmers? Here’s a quick snapshot.

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Dairy Sustainability Made Me Rethink Being Vegan

By Kayla Thomas – Utah State University Dietetics Student

My decision to become vegan was not taken lightly. It was after much soul searching and research that over two years ago I chose to vote with my fork for sustainable agriculture, health, and animal care. I am currently a dietetics student, finishing up school and preparing to take the dietetics exam. While I don’t preach veganism to my patients/clients, for the last two years, I have personally followed this lifestyle and made those choices.

But late last year, one of my internship rotations was with the Dairy Council of Utah/Nevada. While all of my rotations were wonderful, the Dairy Council was by far the most fun and creative. It was also the most influential to me personally. During my two-week stint, I had the opportunity to visit two dairy farms. Watching the process of milk production on a dairy farm was an eye-opening opportunity. I have seen many horror films depicting animal cruelty in ‘factory farms’ across the nation, and before my initial farm visit, I thought that the tour was set up well in advance in order to prepare the farmers to be on their best behavior and to sanitize the environment from their normal practices. When I left the farm that day, I was confused. This large dairy was a family run business, it didn’t seem like a “factory” at all. I was stunned by how easy-going the workers were and even more amazed as I watched the cows calmly go through their daily routine. This occasion of showing their livelihood to the public did not seem staged in the slightest. The second farm tour confirmed my suspicions. Dairy farming is a family affair.

Bateman Brothers

I visited Bateman’s Mosida Farms, a 7,000 cow dairy in Utah owned and operated by 4 brothers and their father

Sustainable agriculture practices are deeply important to me and one of the primary reasons I chose a vegan lifestyle. In a lot of ways I wish we could go back to the days of small farms where the farm to fork principal works in everyone’s backyard, but in today’s world of 7 billion people (that is quickly growing!) we have a food security issue and need modern agriculture in order to produce enough food. Therefore, we must move forward with larger farms, and help fine-tune their processes to create a greener environment. I was under the impression that animal protein production was not very sustainable, but I had the opportunity to learn first-hand how the dairy industry is a leader in this area. Here are some of the things I learned:

  • Milk is a local food. From the time the cows’ milk is stored in a cooling tank, it is typically just 48-72 hours before it is on a shelf at your LOCAL grocery store.
  • Any type of energy waste is money lost on the farm and to the producers of dairy, every dollar counts to these families. Farming is a tough industry, one that is barely breaking even every year. Efficiency is essential and good business for dairy farmers. I witnessed farms using the natural heat from the milk to heat the milk parlor in order to create a warmer, comfortable environment for the cows during the cold winter months, and I heard about how water is recycled and used multiple times on the dairy for cleaning, cooling, irrigation…
  • When people would ask me why I was vegan, I would sometimes say I would rather feed humans than animals. By not consuming animal products, I felt I was taking a stand on world hunger. I worried about a large portion of our grain crop going to feed animals instead of humans. But on my tour I had the chance to learn more about what cows actually eat. Much of what goes into a cow’s 100lb per day food ration are actually byproducts that humans cannot ingest. Cows, due to their powerful stomachs, are able to produce nutrient dense milk by eating crops that would otherwise be useless to humans. This realization was my tipping point…thoughts of milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream started flooding my mind.

Honor the Harvest

Animal care was another important motive for my choice to be vegan. While attending different dairy farms in Utah I was impressed at the still, quietness of the cows and calves. Could they possibly be content or even happy with their lives? If not, I was fooled.

After my rotation with the Dairy Council, my mind was consumed with thoughts making a big lifestyle change for me and becoming vegetarian.  At first, the thought of this transition frightened me. I do not view myself as an easily persuaded person nor one who makes rash decisions. Being vegan was a big part of my life. It ade me feel connected to nature, animals, and the Earth in a more personal way, but after viewing the amount of hard work and dedication that goes into dairy farming with clean, healthy practices and love for the animals, I had a new perspective that fundamentally challenged some of my core beliefs. No one likes to be told they were wrong, but by being open-minded I was able to learn and even change my dietary habits.

So about 3 weeks after my time with the Dairy Council and many hours of health related research on dairy, I bought my first yogurt in almost two years!

Happy Earth Day!

Sustainable Dairy Portrait

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How Do Farmers Treat Their Animals?

A couple weeks ago, I decided to go home for the weekend.  After a long four-hour drive, I waltzed into my farm’s office, happy to see my parents and siblings.  As I was giving my mom a bear hug, I looked down on the desk and saw a pink eartag.  Number 777. Otherwise known as DD, this was the tag to one of my favorite cows – a good milk producer, a beautiful cow, and mother to several of my herd.  I broke down crying.  You see, an eartag on the office desk means that that cow has died.  It’s more often that I see a yellow tag – the color of my parents’ herd; However, as my herd has aged, this is becoming more common for me too.

DD's Eartag

DD’s Eartag

Tears streaming down my 22-year-old face, I asked my mom what had happened to DD.  Looking just as sad I felt, my mom said that she thought it was probably bloody gut.  This is the kind of ailment that sneaks up on a cow and takes her down really quickly, no matter how closely you watch your herd.  Not knowing that DD was even sick, she hadn’t been put into our hospital pen for treatment.  She didn’t show any symptoms, and then it was too late.

I share this story because recently, I’ve heard several accounts claiming that farmers don’t care about their animals.  This not only saddens me, but quite frankly I also find myself offended when someone claims to know how my family treats and cares about the animals on our farm.

Because this is how much our animals mean to us:

I well up with tears and feel a deep sense of loss every time one of my cows dies.  My dad can’t stand to put cows down, so he has to call someone else every time we have a cow who can’t be cured of what ails her.  This isn’t because he can’t physically do it, but because the cows under his care mean so much to him that ending one’s life, even if it is the humane thing to do, is more than he can bear.  My mother has spent countless hours on her stomach, in the cold and muck, helping a cow who is having difficulty giving birth to ensure that both mother and baby come through safely.  One time my brothers lost it when they saw a couple truck drivers mistreating our cows as they got onto a truck to be beefed.  Yes, the cows milking years were over and they were leaving our care, but it didn’t matter…our cows, from their first breath to their last, are treated with dignity and kindness.  Anyone who acts otherwise is immediately fired, or, if not in my family’s employ, but on our farm (such as those truck drivers) are told politely not ever to come back.

These cows are our livelihood, and if not cared for properly, my family’s business will suffer.  But for us, and for many of our agricultural friends, we care for animals not because we have to but because we love them – it’s our chosen lifestyle.  From our first steps in the barn, we’ve known…animal husbandry is in our blood.  We want to ensure that the animals in our care have the best, because in turn these animals take care of our customers…you.  We want the best for you too.  So please, next time that you hear someone say we farmers don’t care, send them my way.   It’s possible they’ll encounter me giving my cow one last hug before it’s time to put her down because she has served my family well, but now it’s time for her to go.  As they watch my tears, perhaps they’ll reconsider.

My cows - Skye and DD

My cows – Skye and DD

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The Great American Milk Drive

Hunger in America – What’s it Look Like?

1 in 6 Americans, including more than 12 million families, face hunger, and many rely on food banks for nutrition assistance. While Americans are generous with food donations and national feeding programs serve 37 million people, food bank clients aren’t always getting what they need. Food bank directors say milk is one of the products their clients request most often, but they cannot always meet demand because milk is perishable and difficult to donate.

Hunger in America

What Can We Do About Hunger?

Today, April 2, 2014, America’s dairy industry is coming together to help solve this problem and get milk to those who need it most.  Dairy farmers (through the National Dairy Council) and milk companies (through the Milk Processors Education Program – MilkPEP) are partnering with Feeding America to launch The Great American Milk Drive. 

You can be part of the action. Tune in today MilkLife.com/Give at 9:45am MT to watch the campaign’s live launch.

Stay tuned for more about what’s going on locally in Utah and Nevada as we form partnerships with our local Feeding America food banks to bring the Great American Milk Drive to our local market.

Donate Now

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A ‘Lax’ Story About Chocolate Milk

Guest Post by, Beth Coffey-Curle

If you would have told me that cartoons of chocolate milk could bond a team, create a cheer, and put a positive spin on a lost game, I would probably have smiled and moved on. It did, it does, and the energy created by the efforts on behalf of our local lacrosse high school teams by the Northern Nevada Dairymen, the Nevada Dairy Council and Model Dairy is amazing.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to see first hand how the Northern Nevada Dairymen invest in our local community, especially if the activity was centered around children. I approached them during the winter to see if there was any willingness to associate with my children’s high school lacrosse teams. Lacrosse is the fastest growing sport across the country, and it is taking off in leaps and bounds here locally in Northern NV. Still recognized as a club activity and not a varsity sport, the parents raise finances to fund all of the high school club’s expenses including field rental, uniforms, game referees, and game balls. The Northern Nevada Dairymen responded to our request with an offer to provide post-game chocolate milk for the athletes. My initial reaction was “what a nice treat,” but a bit of education later, I learned that chocolate milk is the new “recovery” drink. Put down the sugary energy drinks, welcome back milk!

Chocolate Milk Recovery

Recovering with Chocolate Milk post Lacrosse

If picking up 350 cartoons of milk to cover the first four home games – all played over three days time – was comical, finding refrigeration space for it all was down right hilarious. Some went into coolers with ice, others shared space in my husband’s beer frige and still more was stacked on top of kegs in the beer cooler. (My husband is a zymologist!) I headed to the first game with 150 cartoons of TruMoo split between two rolling ice chests. The head boys’ coach knew what was stashed in the coolers but nothing was said to the boys. When I was asked if I had enough milk to cover both teams, I replied “I have milk for Africa. Model Dairy has me covered!”

In a very physical game, the Galena Boys team beat the North Tahoe Boys team 12-2. At the end of the game, I opened each cooler that was positioned behind the team’s bench and offered the boys a drink. Their faces lit up, and I got out of the way. The boys were grabbing and tossing cartoons to each other like baseballs. The smiles on their faces were perfect. One older boy, who I recognized as the goalie from last season walked up to me. He had graduated and was home from college on spring break. He asked very politely, almost shyly, if there was milk available for a team alumni. I smiled and said I was pretty sure there was milk for returning players.

I walked over the North Tahoe bench and all the boys all came over to thank me. Before they left the field, I offered one of the straggling players another cartoon. He said he’d already had had 5 them. I said “Well, it’s a long drive home, let’s make it six,” his smile would have lit a room. On their way off the field, one young Truckee player walked over to me and said “We lost today and that was bad but the chocolate milk made it all right again.”  These kids are  teenagers – each one feels the pressure to have the coolest clothes, listen to the hottest music, and have seen the latest instagram post but push all of that aside, they’re still just our kids and a simple gesture like chocolate milk can turn their day around fast.

By the third game, the boys’ head coach said, “You know Beth, there’s something to this post-game chocolate milk. They’re too young to have a beer together after the game but to watch them post-game bond over cartoons of milk is something to see.” I knew the Northern Nevada Dairymen and Model Dairy had hit one out of the park when in a post game team huddle, the team chant was led off with “TruMoo! TruMoo! TruMoo!”

Blog post author Beth Coffey-Curle is a mom in Northern Nevada, she says, “there is a new success story for every game!”

For the past 3 years, The Northern Nevada Dairymen have partnered with the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association to name chocolate milk the official beverage of high school sports.

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Celebrate National Nutrition Month for Cows!

March is National Nutrition Month – a time when we traditionally think about healthy eating for humans and recognize registered dietitian nutritionists – Happy RDN Day – March 12, 2014! But what about animals? The study of animal nutrition has evolved considerably, and when it comes to dairy cows, their diet has a significant impact on the animal’s health and the quality of her milk. Matt Leak is a dairy nutritionist in northern Utah who works with dairymen across the country to formulate a balanced nutrition ration for their dairy herds.

It’s not something we think about everyday – a cow needs a nutritionist!? But dairy cows have the important job of producing high quality milk on a daily basis. With every dairy herd he works with, Matt is looking to keep the cows as healthy as possible. He says, “Healthy cows, and well-fed cows not only produce more, and higher quality milk, but they have an easier time reproducing.” His goal is to help the dairymen he works with maintain the health of their herd while helping them produce the highest quality end-product possible.

So what does it take to develop a balanced diet for a cow?

Step 1: Determine what’s available

stored feed

Feed stored in these bags will remain fresh for over a year.

Matt works with many of his clients weekly to determine what the best mix of feedstuffs (in dairy-speak, a cow’s food is referred to as “feed or feedstuffs”) will be for that particular dairy. He starts by pulling samples of what the farmer has available – these can be stored crops that the farmer has grown and harvested or crops that the farmer has purchased. Matt sends the samples to a lab for analysis. He is looking for the total energy content of the feed as well as its specific protein & mineral content.

Step 2: Identify appropriate supplementals

Given what the farmer has on hand, Matt then considers what other feeds should be added to create a balanced ration for the cow. He considers things like…

  • What breed of cows does the farmer have (Holsteins, Jerseys or another breed)? Factoring in the breed will help Matt determine the type and amount of feed to give.
  • What ingredients are available at the best price? Given time of year and location, crop availability changes. He is looking for the right balance of protein, carbohydrate, and fat at a price that makes sense for the farmer. (Read more about what a cow eats)
  • What minerals should be added to help balance the ration?

Step 3: Determine the amount.

Once the feed types and balance has been established (the basic recipe), Matt has to determine portion size and proper ratios, and this can vary considerably based on the life stage of the cow. On any given dairy, a farmer will be tweaking the basic recipe and mixing up at least 5 or 6 different rations. (This is a bit like making 5-6 different meals for your family). Here is a general breakdown of what those different meals look like and who is eating them.

mixing feed

Farmers measure feedstuffs and mix each ration in a feed wagon

  • 1st time moms – these younger cows are still growing and learning, so the protein in their diet has to be a bit higher than veteran milk cows.
  • “Far Off Cows” refer to cows within 2 months of having a calf. These animals are are no longer being milked, and they are given a special diet, which is then tweaked just before she gives birth
  • “Close-Up Cows” are cows within 3 weeks of giving birth. At this point the cow’s diet is tweaked again to help boost her immune system and transition her to the type of food she will be getting when she rejoins the milk herd.
  • “Fresh Cows” have just given birth, their energy demands are extremely high, and they are also transitioning back to the milk herd
  • “High Cows” are peaking in milk production and their needs are sightly different than the others.
  • “Mid-Lactation” energy demands are not quite as high as “high cows” and these cows are transitioning to giving birth.
  • Young calves and heifers (young cows before they have calved) have different needs still…

Matt knows that he has the recipe just right when… 

  • The cows’ milk is full of great nutrients – protein & butterfat
  • The cows look and act healthy. (Dairy nutritionists routinely give cows a body condition score to assess weight and physical appearance, which depends heavily on a balanced diet).
  • The poop looks good. Just like humans, your gut will tell you when something isn’t quite right. Proper consistency and color help nutritionists identify a proper nutrient balance.

Dairy nutrition is a science and an art. Proper training, degree programs, certifications, and lots of field experience help professionals hone their ability to feed cows with care and precision. Matt works closely with dairymen, veterinarians, feed companies, and mineral distributers to ensure the best possible nutrition for the herds he serves.

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