Guest Post: Organic Versus Conventional Milk: Health Issues And Environmental Perspectives

Last week, guest poster Joanna Samuelson Lidback explained that milk – conventional or organic – is safe to drink and why her family has chosen to remain a “conventional” farm. Today, we have another guest post, this one from Kirstin Hendrickson, on health and environmental problems with large-scale dairy farming.

You may be wondering why on earth we’re spending so much time talking about milk on a parenting blog. That’s a good question, and I admit that we’ve gotten a bit off topic. However, I think that Americans, and especially our children, are far too disconnected from their food supply. It is important for us to understand where our food comes from and the impact of our buying decisions – and to pass that understanding on to our kids. Kirstin gives us more food for thought on organic vs. conventional milk, and I hope that the respectful discussion of these issues continues.

Organic Versus Conventional Milk: Health Issues And Environmental Perspectives

By Kirstin Hendrickson

Ah, the organic versus conventional debate. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by information flying around — much of which seems to change on a daily basis — with regard to whether organic is safer and healthier, or a scam directed at fearful parents. There are some important health issues associated with organic foods, but I don’t want to get into those in this post. Instead, I want to address all the reasons to buy organic food — specifically, organic milk — that AREN’T associated with individual health. Or at least, aren’t ostensibly associated with individual health.

A small, conventional dairy farm like the one described by Joanna Samuelson Lidback in this recent guest post on Science of Mom sounds lovely. Joanna paints a picture of an idyllic family farm, and I think it’s terrific that she and her family are raising dairy cattle so cleanly, despite forgoing the organic label. Hats off to Joanna. If everyone raised dairy cattle like she does, there’d be little reason to consider organic milk.


Joanna’s farm is the exception in the U.S. dairy industry, and a rare exception at that. Cattle raised like hers make up only a tiny fraction of the U.S. dairy herd. The vast majority of U.S. dairy cows are housed in animal feeding operations (AFOs), and specifically in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) (see D. Imhoff, ed [book], As defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an AFO is an animal housing operation that confines animals for more than 45 days per growing season, and does not produce vegetation within the confinement area. The narrower term CAFO refers to an AFO that: a) meets the size requirements for a large CAFO (by definition a number of animals that produces significant environmental pollution); or b) meets the size requirements for a medium or small CAFO and has been determined a significant contributor of pollution. Both AFOs and CAFOs are designed to be efficient means of producing a large quantity of animal product (meat, eggs, milk) on a relatively small plot of land (note the use of the word relatively; AFOs/CAFOs can be huge, but they take up far less land per animal than pasture would). By EPA definition, then, both AFOs and CAFOs are crowded, and CAFOs are major sources of environmental pollution. The EPA defines a factory farm as a CAFO, for instance, if animals come into direct contact with surface water and/or animal waste is piped into surface water. In addition to the CAFO being a significant environmental polluter, the conditions are also ideal for spreading disease. This is one of the reasons that animals housed in CAFOs are routinely dosed with antibiotics (see, for example, Raymond et al, Sawant et al, and Penn State College of Agricultural Science). The antibiotics necessitated by the very nature of a CAFO are the first major issue associated with conventional dairy farming. Milk from dairy cows, regardless of how they’re raised, is free from antibiotics. However, antibiotic overuse — meaning use of antibiotics in a prophylactic sense and as necessary for treatment of diseases spread through unnecessary husbandry practices — is promoting the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. While any conventional farming operation that utilizes excessive quantities of antibiotics can promote antibiotic-resistant bacteria (see, for example, Walczak et al), CAFOs are notorious breeding grounds for such species, which then spread outward (see, for instance, Chapin et al, Gibbs et al, Langford et al, Makovec et al, Pruden et al, Sapkota et al, Thames et al, Wells et al). If a person becomes infected with one of these antibiotic-resistant bacterial species, the resulting infection can be quite difficult to treat. Some examples of existing bacterial species that display antibiotic resistance include: Clostridium difficile, which causes severe diarrhea; Escherichia coli (E. coli), which causes severe — and sometimes fatal — food poisoning; Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which causes pneumonia and septic shock (among other things); Salmonella, which causes severe food poisoning; and Staphylococcus aureus (of the MRSA infection). Because conventional operations including CAFOs promote the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that then proliferate in the environment, it’s not necessary to have contact with or consume a conventionally-raised animal or product to be negatively impacted by these practices.

Manure runoff from a CAFO, photo from Environmental Protection Agency

Another major issue associated with CAFOs is that they produce tremendous amounts of concentrated environmental waste. While it can be argued that a certain number of livestock animals produce a certain quantity of waste-per-head, the concentrated nature of the CAFO increases its impact. Pastured animals in relatively low concentration produce manure (poop), which fertilizes the soil and is part of the natural nitrogen cycle. In low concentrations, poop is good for the soil. The manure produced in a CAFO, however, is exceedingly concentrated. There’s far too much of it for the land to absorb, so it runs off into the surface water (lakes and rivers) and leeches into the groundwater (aquifers that feed municipal supplies and wells). Nitrogen-containing compounds in the manure that are healthy for the soil in appropriate concentrations — including nitrates and nitrites — are very unhealthy in high concentrations. Excess nitrogen in the water affects its pH (acidity), killing fish and other aquatic organisms. It also promotes the excessive growth of algae, which in turn robs the water of oxygen and suffocates fish. The nitrogen spreads through the atmosphere and contributes to acid rain, which kills trees and aquatic life. Nitrogenous chemicals in drinking water are toxic, particularly to very young children; consumption of water high in nitrates and nitrites causes blue baby syndrome, which can be deadly. Then, too, there’s the fact that the nitrogen species in manure runoff (recall that by definition, CAFOs produce significant manure runoff in excess of what the land can absorb) are greenhouse gases. These gases contribute to global warming (Koneswaran et al, VandeHaar et al).

“Grazing” at the CAFO, photo from Environmental Protection Agency.

There are also animal welfare issues associated with CAFOs. First off, crowding leads to increased likelihood of animal injury and incidence of disease (Gurian-Sherman, D.). Animals housed in CAFOs are denied the pasture access that would be natural to such stock, and are fed modified diets that have major ramifications for animal health, as cows are not native consumers of grain (Pollan, M.). Absence of grass aside, the diet of the CAFO dairy cow leaves a lot to be desired. While the FDA no longer allows the feeding of cattle byproducts (cow brains, spinal cords, etc) to cattle, it’s perfectly legal to feed this meat waste to chickens (Sapkota et al). It’s then legal to turn around and feed what’s euphamistically called “chicken litter” — a mixture of feathers, feces, discarded chicken feed, and so forth that’s swept off the floors of chicken coops — to cattle. The majority of conventional cattle are therefore unwitting cannibals. Further, they eat a reasonable quantity of chicken feces. Does this affect the milk? No, not really. However, it’s a morally questionable way to treat an animal. Furthermore, it increases the likelihood of spreading “mad cow disease” — bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE — which is contracted by a cow when it consumes the contaminated meat of another infected cow. A case of BSE in a California dairy cow was reported just last week. Humans can get a fatal illness called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease if they consume the contaminated meat of a BSE-infected cow, regardless of how well the meat is cooked. While a “mad” dairy cow isn’t a risk to humans in a direct sense — the disease can’t be transmitted via milk — any BSE in U.S. cattle increases the risk of the infection spreading, and CAFO practices provide the perfect environment for transmitting BSE from one cow to another because of the de facto cannibalism.

Moreover, many conventional operations, CAFOs included, use the hormone recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) (though use has been falling somewhat in recent years). Joanna and previous Science of Mom guest poster Dr. Katie Schoenberg both pointed out (correctly) that there’s no difference between the milk produced by a cow given rBST and a cow not given rBST. A meta-analysis (a study of studies) of the effects of rBST revealed that rBST administration does increase milk production, and makes very little difference in milk composition (Dohoo et al). There is no reason to believe that rBST in milk has any effect whatsoever upon humans. Is milk from rBST-administered cows safe to drink? Absolutely. But whether milk from rBST cows is safe to drink isn’t the only issue. Despite the fact that two isolated studies, cited by­­­ Dr. Schoenberg in her guest post, showed no increase in the risk of mastitis in cows receiving rBST, there are a great number of studies that show the contrary. The Dohoo meta-analysis revealed that, looking at the combined data of 53 different studies, cows treated with rBST are 27% more likely to develop mastitis than untreated cows. Not only is this an animal welfare issue (as anyone who has ever had mastitis knows), it also contributes to the overuse of antibiotics and the development of antibiotic resistant bacterial species.

Despite the fact that milk from rBST-treated cows and that from cows not treated with rBST is nutritionally equivalent, the same can’t be said for conventional versus organic milk. The vast majority of conventionally farmed dairy cows — including all CAFO cows — are fed a diet comprised largely of grain (see, for example, Eastridge et al, Jenkins et al, VandeHaar et al). The cows do not graze on grass, as pastured,  organic farm dairy cows do. This produces a difference in the fatty acid (fat) profile of the milk from the cows. Compared to conventionally farmed cow milk, organic cow milk is significantly higher in omega-3 fatty acids (Ellis et al), which are anti-inflammatory, promote heart health, and help growing brains to develop. That organic milk is higher in omega-3s comes as little surprise, given that grass-fed beef is higher in omega-3 fatty acid than grain-fed beef. The Ellis study also found that organic cow milk has a lower omega-6:omega-3 fatty acid ratio than does conventional cow milk. American diets are notoriously high in omega-6 fatty acids, which are generally pro-inflammatory. A lower omega-6:omega-3 fatty acid ratio is an indicator of higher nutritional quality. Thus, though rBST doesn’t make a difference in milk quality, what the cows are eating most certainly does. The nutritional difference between conventional and organic milk is particularly important with regard to the whole milk (as opposed to skim) that is recommended for toddlers and young children.

Of course, organic milk (the USDA requirements for which preclude CAFO housing) is more expensive than conventional milk. Or at least, it appears that way. In reality, we pay more for conventional milk than we think we do, both in terms of the costs to the environment and in very literal monetary terms. CAFO farming is highly subsidized by the U.S. government, and taxpayer dollars go to supporting CAFOs. Grain subsidies for all CAFO livestock cost about $3.86 billion a year in taxpayer dollars (Starmer 2007), while cleaning up leakage from manure storage facilities (which barely mitigates the threat to the environment) is estimated to cost an additional $4.1 billion (Volland et al). It’s estimated that the direct public health costs associated with antibiotic overuse are around $1.5-3 billion a year (National Research Council, 1999 data), though this doesn’t include all the indirect costs, such as death and morbidity associated with antibiotic-resistant infection. CAFOs also affect the value of nearby properties by an estimated $26 billion in total loss (Mubarak et al). Conventional milk is cheap by the time it gets to the store, because taxpayers have already paid for it to the tune of billions of dollars a year.

Ultimately, the issue of organic versus conventional milk is one of consumer health. While a glass of organic skim milk may be quite similar to a glass of conventional skim milk, when it comes to 1%, 2%, or whole milk, organic is packed with healthier fats. Further, to buy conventional milk is to vote with one’s purchasing power for CAFO agriculture. To purchase conventional milk is to support continued government subsidies to CAFO operations, which drives the price of conventional milk down at the grocery store (but keeps the price high overall, because of all the tax dollars poured into the dairy industry). To purchase conventional milk is to vote for, among other things:

-Acid rain

-Animal mistreatment

-Antibiotic resistant bacteria and an increase in drug-resistant infections

-Blue baby warnings and deaths

-Cows that eat other cows…and chicken poop

-Decreased property values

-Global warming

-Higher taxes due to farm subsidies

-Increased risk of mad cow disease

-Increased risk of painful mastitis in cows

-Water pollution

Is all the conventional milk in the dairy aisle from CAFO cows? No, of course not. Joanna’s farm is an example of a non-CAFO, conventional farm with practices that sound quite ethical. If I could be sure that I was buying milk from a farm like Joanna’s, I’d be happy to serve it to my family. However, the vast majority of conventional milk in the dairy aisle does not come from farms like Joanna’s; it comes from CAFOs. For this reason, unless one is familiar with a particular conventional farm and its practices and purchases one’s milk expressly from that farm, conventional milk must be assumed to be CAFO milk, replete with its baggage.

The organic versus conventional debate is an insidious one. If conventional milk were significantly lower in nutrients than organic milk — or if there were data that showed it was high in harmful compounds — the vast majority of parents would stop buying it for their children. Providing for the health and welfare of our children is about more than just making sure the milk in the glass is nutritious, however; it is also about providing for our children’s (hopefully long) lives and livelihoods. It is about doing everything we can to avoid promoting antibiotic-resistant bacteria, so our children and grandchildren don’t succumb to a simple infection as humans so often did prior to the advent of antibiotics. It is about ensuring clean air for them to breathe, and clean water for them to drink. It is about setting an example of appropriate use of the land and the animals that live on it, so our children can follow in our footsteps. It is about maintaining our planet’s forests, oceans, and climate to the best of our abilities, and eschewing those practices that adversely impact them. It is about the big picture.

Author Bio: Kirstin Hendrickson is a science journalist and senior lecturer in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Arizona State University, where she focuses on sustainability and environmental issues. She has a PhD in Chemistry, and studies the reciprocal relationship between science and society and methods of communicating about science. She has written a textbook called Chemistry In The World, which focuses on the ways in which humans affect each other and the environment through chemistry. She blogs about evidence-based parenting and analyzes parenting-related research at


Chapin et al. Airborne multidrug-resistant bacteria isolated from a concentrated swine feeding operation. Environ Health Perspect. 2005 Feb;113(2):137-42.

Dohoo et al. A meta-analysis review of the effects of recombinant bovine somatotropin. 1. Methodology and effects on production. Can J Vet Res. 2003 Oct;67(4):241-51.

Dohoo et al. A meta-analysis review of the effects of recombinant bovine somatotropin. 2. Effects on animal health, reproductive performance, and culling. Can J Vet Res. 2003 Oct;67(4):252-64.

Eastridge et al. Major advances in applied dairy cattle nutrition. J Dairy Sci. 2006 Apr;89(4):1311-23.

Ellis et al. Comparing the fatty acid composition of organic and conventional milk. J Dairy Sci. 2006 Jun;89(6):1938-50.

Gibbs et al. Isolation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria from the air plume downwind of a swine confined or concentrated animal feeding operation. Environ Health Perspect. 2006 Jul;114(7):1032-7.

Imhoff, D., ed. CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories. Earth Aware Editions, 2010.

Jenkins et al. Major advances in nutrition: impact on milk composition. J Dairy Sci. 2006 Apr;89(4):1302-10.

Koneswaran et al. Global farm animal production and global warming: impacting and mitigating climate change. Environ Health Perspect. 2008 May;116(5):578-82.

Langford et al. Antibiotic resistance in gut bacteria from dairy calves: a dose response to the level of antibiotics fed in milk. J Dairy Sci. 2003 Dec;86(12):3963-6.

Makovec et al. Antimicrobial resistance of bacteria isolated from dairy cow milk samples submitted for bacterial culture: 8,905 samples (1994-2001). J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2003 Jun 1;222(11):1582-9.

Mubarak, H., T.G. Johnson, and K.K. Miller. 1999. The impacts of animal feeding operations on rural land values. Report R-99-02. College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, University of Missouri Columbia.

Mubarak, Johnson, and Miller 1999. Extrapolation from Mubarak, H., T.G. Johnson, and K.K. Miller. 1999. The impacts of animal feeding operations on rural land values. Report R-99-02. College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, University of Missouri Columbia, based on national CAFO numbers.

National Research Council (NRC). 1999. The use of drugs in food animals: Benefits and risks. National Academies of Science. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Extrapolation based on U.S. population of 300 million.

Pollan, M. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Penguin, 2007.

Pruden et al. Antibiotic resistance genes as emerging contaminants: studies in northern Colorado. Environ Sci Technol. 2006 Dec 1;40(23):7445-50.

Raymond et al. Assessment and promotion of judicious antibiotic use on dairy farms in Washington State. J Dairy Sci. 2006 Aug;89(8):3228-40.

Sapkota et al. Antibiotic-resistant enterococci and fecal indicators in surface water and groundwater impacted by a concentrated swine feeding operation. Environ Health Perspect. 2007 Jul;115(7):1040-5.

Sapkota et al. What do we feed to food-production animals? A review of animal feed ingredients and their potential impacts on human health. Environ Health Perspect. 2007 May;115(5):663-70. Epub 2007 Feb 8.

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Starmer, E. Personal communication with D. Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists. 2007, see Gurian-Sherman, D. Cafos Uncovered. Union of Concerned Scientists, 2008.

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57 thoughts on “Guest Post: Organic Versus Conventional Milk: Health Issues And Environmental Perspectives

  1. Kristin, interesting post and thank you for your positive comments about my farm. I appreciate them. I do, however, have friends who operate all different sizes and types of dairy farms, some that would be defined as CAFO, others organic, etc. I will read and re-read your post again to digest fully and review your citations. I think you bring up some important concerns that others may have as well.

    What is not clear to me here, is, when is the last time you were on a dairy farm? CAFO, AFO, organic or otherwise? I think it’s important if you have the opportunity to go and see and talk directly to dairy farmers if you have these concerns if you haven’t already.


  2. I have been on many different dairy farms of different size and scale over the years, the most recent only a few months ago. However, while I value the experience of talking to a dairy farmer in terms of increasing one’s “connectedness to the food chain,” the information I’ve provided here is scientific data that isn’t impacted by personal experience. Talking to a dairy farmer would not change the impact of antibiotic overuse on society, wouldn’t alter the fat profile of milk from grain-fed dairy cows, wouldn’t decrease the environmental impact of nitrogenous waste from manure runoff. Think of it this way; while talking to measles patients would certainly increase an epidemiologist’s sympathy for such an individual, there’s no reason a population disease specialist would need to have personal experience with measles in order to accurately track measles outbreaks across the country.


    • Thanks again, Kirstin (sorry for the typo earlier), for sharing your views. I think you’ve raised very good points of concern – environmental pollution and antibiotic resistance. In fact these are extremely important areas that we should all be concerned about – dairy farmers included!

      After reading your post, I read it as though you are totally against AFOs and CAFOs in any form or fashion even though vast majority of dairy farms except in the most temperate of climates fall into these categories. As I read your post, the first flag that went off is that while you correctly recited the definition of an AFO, the definition of a CAFO is not quite correct – you reference the medium size CAFO defintion which would need one of the two requirements you list plus have 200-699 mature dairy cows in the Dairy Industry. Any dairy farm over 700 mature cows is a large CAFO automatically without the separate requirement. These definitions were put in place by the EPA for regulatory purposes, regulations that all CAFOs must comply with or face termination. Some states actually have their own CAFO regulations, like for example, New York state but all have the same goals to protect the environment.

      I started to look at your references related to the citations within your post and I’ll just say again, I’m no scientist but I tried to make heads & tails of what you were saying in the article compared to what you cited for your scientific data. While I did not check every one, I do not follow why you would use a study from Thames et al of 28 calves that were fed more than conventional levels of antibiotics to support a statement about CAFOs being “notorious breeding grounds for such species, which then spread outward.” The results went on to say that feed antibiotics exerted little effect, though there was some, on the antibiotic resistance genes monitored in the study. It would probably be useful to know too that the use of medicated milk replacer is no longer permitted in the industry.

      I most whole-heartedly agree with your last few statements. I think it is ALL about the big picture. Producing food in the most efficient, safe, environmentally sound way and maybe at the same time finding more significant and meaningful contributions – like renewable energy through the growth in use of methane digesters for one example. I do not agree with using scientific data to make broad sweeping generalizations about all CAFOs however you define them or using one example and projecting it across the rest of the spectrum regardless of species or industry. I believe though that we all have our own opinions and will not agree on everything, hence we have the opportunity to offer and support choices. For us and for our farm, we utilize our resources in the best way we can – we have beautiful green, rolling hills, most suitable for grazing which I think is a pretty efficient way of doing things.

      I’m glad you’ve gotten out to a few dairy farms over the years, though I know there are many CAFOs that do a great job which you don’t seem to have visited or shared information on. In my opinion, using your analogy, dairy farmers are more like the nurses or case managers than the measles patients themselves. They’re the ones that are there everyday, doing the work, monitoring the “patients”. Talking to them about your concerns may actually be more worthwhile than appearing sympathetic.


      • Joanna,

        Actually, the definition I used for a CAFO was correct to the letter from the EPA. A large CAFO is defined by size alone (more than 700 dairy cows), while a medium or small CAFO must both meet the size requirements AND be a designated polluter as per EPA definition.

        Where I listed multiple citations for one point, all fit into making that point. For instance, I cited the Thames study because it was specific to cows AND demonstrated presence of antibiotic-resistant species, AND because it looked at a dose-dependent response.. No one study supported that point fully, which is why I listed many reference. It doesn’t matter whether or not medicated milk replacer is still used in the industry (and in fact, it is still available for purchase); antibiotics given in prophylactic fashion to any dairy cow at any stage of life will increase the likelihood of producing antibiotic resistant bacteria.

        I want to stress again, with regard to your last point, that science is not about personal experience. In fact, personal experience is essentially irrelevant in science. Not being a dairy farmer and not having visited a wide variety of CAFOs does not make me less qualified to read the peer-reviewed scientific research and summarize it. Visiting a CAFO would not make me any more qualified to talk about issues relating to antibiotic resistance, pollution, or the fat profile of milk. Whether a farmer cares about their cows is not the issue; the issue is one of policy and practice. I don’t need to have had measles to summarize the research that shows MMR vaccines are safe and effective. I don’t need to have been a drug addict to write a chapter in a chemistry textbook on pharmaceuticals and poisons. I don’t need to have had a C-section (or even a baby, for that matter) to write about the C-section rate in the U.S. In fact, the experiences of having had measles, been poisoned, or had a C-section would be not only irrelevant to such scientific discussions, they would be unprofessional and inappropriate to bring up in that context. You wrote from personal experience; you didn’t need to be a scientist to do so. I am writing as a scientist, using research done by others and reproduced countless times; I do not need personal experience with cows to do so.


      • Then to sum up, in trying to follow your science, I find flaws and would have hope you would have approached the subject with a more open mind in order to appreciate those of us who have a personal stake in the matter.


    • Joanna, where do you find flaws in the science? I’ve addressed everything you’ve brought up thus far, and have backed up everything with references. I’m happy to continue to discuss this with you, but I can’t help if I don’t know what you’re finding flaws with. Be aware, too, that there’s a difference between finding flaws with the science and simply disagreeing with me on principle.


      • And again, it is not illegal to feed chicken litter to cows. If you feel it is illegal, please provide documentation to back up your assertion.


        • I know in my state to sell or have an animal sold for slaughter, I must certify that the animal was not feed litter.


      • Then as a scientist, you should read the entire body of work in regards to antibiotic resistance from farms and environmental pollution. As a fellow scientist, I feel that the depth of your research is skewed to support your opinions and views. The view in which you are trying to persuade the readers to agree with. It would take me 2-3 weeks to provide a literature review of just one of the topics you covered.

        I will admit, there have been and there are problems, issues, or whatever you want to label them with food production. As a scientist, then you must know or at least recognize that what happens in the research world (what we research, our hypothesis, etc.) may or may not reflect what is truly happening in practice. You cannot make general sweeping conclusions based on a handful of studies. NOTHING in biological sciences is absolute. I can take any issue in dairy cattle product that has a depth of research and give you a number of studies with one conclusion and another with an opposite or null conclusion.

        I applaud the fact that you actually pulled some peer reviewed journal articles to ‘back-up’ your claims. However, I am very disappointed in the lack of literature research you actually performed. Here-in lies the danger of scientists trying to persuade opinion and policy.

        There are many holes and flaws in your presentation. There are many things that you fail to disclose or discuss that show “the big picture”. At some point in the future, I will do my best to present the bigger picture. But I do not currently have the luxury of time to do a true review of these topics and present them to the readers.

        There are so many flaws in your presentation and lack of full disclosure and information tha


      • Kristy,
        There is never 100% agreement in science, even among published research. I cited the articles that were in agreement with the preponderance of evidence. If you want to cite articles that show the contrary, please do so; it will make it easier to have a conversation if you back up your assertions with well-conducted scientific research.


      • One more thing; what makes you think I DIDN’T take weeks to do lit reviews? As a matter of fact, I teach a university-level class on this topic, so I am very up on the current research. I have developed my views (and the bibliography of sources from which I pulled my references) over years. The “handful” of studies I referenced are not the only ones I looked at. However, this post is meant to be informative for the non-scientist, not a meta-analysis for those in the industry. As such, it would be inappropriate and useless for me to cite hundreds and hundreds of papers. Rather, I selected the references that most clearly supported each of the points I wanted to make, and made sure that the references I selected were not showing outlying or aberrant results relative to the bulk of the data available. All I can say is that I am happy to discuss this more if you can be more specific than “many holes and flaws.”


      • This is a very interesting discussion…

        Strictly in terms of small-scale conventional dairy farm, I’m interested to know how much of a health and environmental impact the non-organic herbicides have. Also, how much more costly is the use of organic herbicides, in real terms? It seems to me that that must be the real difference in cost between organic/conventional for a free-range, small-scale farm. Leaving AFO/CAFO’s out of the equation for a minute. Neither of your posts addressed this cost impact of the herbicide requirement.

        “In fact, personal experience is essentially irrelevant in science.”

        To weigh in, I have to disagree with this, and so would many philosophers of science. For example, the answer to my question above is probably not to be found in the scientific literature. Practically speaking, science needs to know what questions are worth asking. Scientists can do either do this by noticing contradictions in past research, which presupposes loads of prior research on a topic, or (more common, actually) by designing an experiment with a specific vexing problem encountered ‘in the field’ in mind. In fact, no scientist conducts naive experiments. Science is the “institutionalization of facts through repeated observation,” ala. Karl Popper. You seem to treat science as a source of de-humanized truth, which it most certainly can never be! As Francis Bacon said, “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” Joanna’s point, which I agree with, is that direct experience on an organic farm is likely furnish a scientist (or consumer) with a sense of the *reasons* why certain economic decisions are made by farmers, let alone the scientific literature. That’s certainly relevant to someone like me, living in Wisconsin, with access to local, small-scale, free-range, yet non-organic creameries, and wanting to know if the extra pasture space required by organic regulations is a worthy economic and environmental sacrifice. Ultimately, I want to know if it’s *possible* to find a both non-organic and also environmentally conscious dairy farmer- and my standards for environmental consciousness are quite high. From Joanna’s post, it seems like it is possible (yay! $3 gallon of milk!), but her post is short on details.


      • This is a very interesting discussion…

        Strictly in terms of small-scale conventional dairy farm, I’m interested to know how much of a health and environmental impact the non-organic herbicides have. Also, how much more costly is the use of organic herbicides, in real terms? It seems to me that that must be the real difference in cost between organic/conventional for a free-range, small-scale farm. Leaving AFO/CAFO’s out of the equation for a minute. Neither of your posts addressed this cost impact of the herbicide requirement.

        “In fact, personal experience is essentially irrelevant in science.”

        To weigh in, I have to disagree with this, and so would many philosophers of science. For example, the answer to my question above is probably not to be found in the scientific literature. Practically speaking, science needs to know what questions are worth asking. Scientists can do either do this by noticing contradictions in past research, which presupposes loads of prior research on a topic, or (more common, actually) by designing an experiment with a specific vexing problem encountered ‘in the field’ in mind. In fact, no scientist conducts naive experiments. Science is the “institutionalization of facts through repeated observation,” ala. Karl Popper. You seem to treat science as a source of de-humanized truth, which it most certainly can never be! As Francis Bacon said, “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” Joanna’s point, which I agree with, is that direct experience on an organic farm is likely furnish a scientist (or consumer) with a sense of the *reasons* why certain economic decisions are made by farmers, let alone the scientific literature. That’s certainly relevant to someone like me, living in Wisconsin, with access to local, small-scale, free-range, yet non-organic creameries, and wanting to know if the extra pasture space required by organic regulations is a worthy economic and environmental sacrifice. Ultimately, I want to know if it’s *possible* to find a both non-organic and also environmentally conscious dairy farmer- and my standards for environmental consciousness are quite high. From Joanna’s post, it seems like it is possible (yay! $3 gallon of milk!), but her post is short on details.


  3. Pingback: Organic Versus Conventional Milk: Health Issues And Environmental Perspectives (Guest Post at Science of Mom) |

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I really appreciate how you’ve invited colleagues with different perspectives and true expertise to provide insight on this complex issue. For many of the reasons explained in this post, I just opt out of dairy almost entirely. I’ve been wanting to learn more about the history of milk promotion–the posters in schools, the sponsorship of nutrition education, the role of the Dairy Council in shaping the Food Guide (four food groups, pyramid, plate… what have you!).


  5. For an analysis on the environmental impact of dairy production, consider the study from Capper, et. al. JAS “The environmental impact of dairy production: 1944 compared with 2007,” they report “Modern dairy practices require considerably fewer resources than dairying in 1944 with 21% of animals, 23% of feedstuffs, 35% of the water, and only 10% of the land required to produce the same 1 billion kg of milk. Waste outputs were similarly reduced, with modern dairy systems producing 24% of the manure, 43% of CH4, and 56% of N2O per billion kg of milk compared with equivalent milk from historical dairying. The carbon footprint per billion kilograms of milk produced in 2007 was 37% of equivalent milk production in 1944.” This is an interesting study, because it normalizes relative to total milk produced, not individual cows, which is important because modern agriculture must produce more milk to meet food demands.

    The Ellis study showing differences in FA is interesting, but as a UK based bulk-tank study should be presented in contrast to a U.S. retail milk compositional study such as Vicini, et. al. JADA: “Survey of Retail Milk Composition as Affected by Label Claims Regarding Farm-Management Practices.” This study did not analyze Omega-3:Omega-6 ratios, but provides a good summary of the compositional differences in retail U.S. milk based on production system.

    The Dohoo study is a meta-analysis, where the Increased Risk Rate of mastitis is computed normalized to assumed cow-at-risk days and not against total milk produced. The correlation between increased milk production (from whatever source) and mastitis is well known and should be accounted for when performing a meta-analysis to examine if the variable under study (use of rBST) shows correlation.

    On a personal note, I find your “vote for” list inflammatory and unjustified. The reality is conventional milk production in its best form is the only answer to provide enough food at reasonable prices for an increasing world population. Well cared for animals provide the largest return on investment for any farmer and is the number one goal in production agriculture. As a society, it is odd that we demand efficiency in some sectors (i.e. energy, communications), but not another like agriculture. In addition, everyone should understand that purchasing food based on production scheme is a luxury. The most vulnerable in our society (including 1 in 6 who are food insecure) must not be scared into spending money unnecessarily on organic products.


    • David,
      A few points. First while conventional farming has reduced total manure output (etc) per unit of milk produced, the waste is localized onto increasingly smaller parcels of land, which creates the pollution problem I address here.

      With regard to nutrition, there is very little difference, nutritionally, between conventional and organic milk. The ONLY difference I know of is the omega-6:omega-3 ratio, which is why a study that failed to address that difference would be of limited utility.

      The Dohoo study, as a meta-analysis, is useful because it looks at mastitis risk in terms of the COW, rather than in terms of the milk produced. Because rBST increases milk production, if you look at mastitis risk relative to milk produced, it doesn’t look as though risk of mastitis is increased. With regard to animal welfare, however, the cow cares WHETHER she has mastitis and HOW OFTEN she has mastitis, not whether she has mastitis more frequently relative to how much milk she makes.

      The “vote for” language is quite common in science politics; spending patterns determine production. As such, any time a consumer makes a purchase, that consumer elects, indicates, “votes for” producers to make more of whatever he or she has purchased.

      Finally, the most vulnerable in our society would not be forced into buying cheap (and unwholesome) food if government subsidies didn’t go to the ingredients used to make that food. For instance, in the U.K., there’s almost no difference in the price of organic versus conventional milk; this is largely because there are no government subsidies defraying the cost of the conventional product. As such, wholesome, ethically-grown, environmentally-conscious food would NOT be a luxury if the subsidies for the alternative were ceased. Better yet, perhaps the subsidies will some day go to the producers of the ethically-grown, environmentally-conscious food…making IT cheaper in the supermarket!


      • Thanks for the reply.

        The key point of the Vicini study is to show that there is nothing to suggest a nutritional deficit in conventional milk and it is a wholesome, nutritious and affordable option for everyone. From Ellis: “There is now a strong need to verify a benefit to human health following consumption of low n-6:n-3 ratio (organic) milk.” Pischon, et al. AHA “Habitual Dietary Intake of n-3 and n-6 Fatty Acids in Relation to Inflammatory Markers Among US Men and Women” claim their “results do not support the hypothesis that n-6 fatty acids antagonize the effects of n-3 fatty acids. n-6 fatty acids may raise proinflammatory cytokine levels at low consumption of n-3 fatty acids. However, n-3 fatty acids in combination with n-6 fatty acids may decrease proinflammatory cytokine concentration. This may be one of the possible mechanisms for the observed beneficial effects of n-3 and n-6 fatty acid intake on chronic inflammatory diseases.” The ratio of n-6:n-3 is not enough to suggest conventional milk less healthy and to scare consumers into purchasing organic milk.

        As for mastitis, the single greatest risk factor is increased milk production. Capper et. al. claim “genetic selection, ration formulation, preventative health programs, improved cow comfort and better management practices” as the driving factors that have increased per cow milk production from 2000 to 9000 kg/cow from 1944 to 2007. It is a logical fallacy to suggest diary producers stop using each of those technologies due to increase risk of mastitis and it is a likewise specious argument against rBST.

        The math doesn’t work out on your subsidy argument. If there were $1billion in dairy subsidies and over 20 billion gallons of milk produced in the U.S. in 2011 (not all of it for fluid consumption), that equates to less than $0.05 per gallon of subsidy. That doesn’t account for the 40-50% ($2.50) difference in organic milk costs. Organic production schemes are inefficient and unsustainable; organic cows produce 0.65 gallons for every gallon produced conventionally. This doesn’t account for organic farm subsidies such as the EQIP Organic Initiative in the 2008 Farm Bill that subsidizes conventional to organic farm transition. To suggest all subsidies go to conventional farms is incorrect.

        As you point out “vote for” language is common in science politics. It has no place in scientific discussion and debate.


      • To address the issue of omega-3 versus omega-6 fatty acids (abbreviated as n-3 and n-6) raised by David, it seems that the argument (although never clearly stated) is that we don’t have to worry about our intake of n-6 and n-3. Later in the same paragraph, the comment “n-6 fatty acids may raise proinflammatory cytokine levels at low consumption of n-3 fatty acids” clearly shows that a high intake of n-6s and/or a low intake of n-3s is problematic. Although we cannot conclusively say what will happen in a variety of different scenarios (such as high n-6 with moderate n-3 or high n-6 with low n-3), it seems better to error on the side of caution with this one since we can say with a pretty high level of confidence that those with a higher intake of n-3s are much less likely to suffer cardiovascular events (this is the result of a longitudinal study performed in the US 20 years ago). How this effects kids? Eating a little too much n-6 in childhood is not going to give you a cardiovascular event in your teens. But eating too much n-6 every year for several decades might bring on an early cardiovascular event. Again, when we are talking about the possibility of a heart attack, I for one believe it is better to error on the side of caution when we are dealing with something that we can control.

        The other consideration to make is that in the typical diet of the US, there is no shortage of n-6 fatty acids since corn insidiously finds its way into so many foods. Corn is extremely high in n-6s where they make up approximately 55% of the total fat content of corn. On the other hand, n-3s in the diet are often in short supply. To further exacerbate that deficiency by feeding corn to cows (why we think this is a good idea, I can not even begin to imagine) is going to alter the fatty acid profile of meat and milk. Although I have not found exact values for milk, I do know that grass-fed beef generally has an n-6:n-3 ratio of about 2:1 while corn-fed beef has an n-6:n-3 ratio of about 4:1.

        As for “(scaring) consumers into purchasing organic milk.” I think consumers really need to take a look at their food supply and in general be scared (or at least
        skeptical) about it.

        As for “(scaring) consumers into purchasing organic milk.” I think consumers really need to take a look at their food supply and in general be scared, or at least skeptical, about it.


      • In our county, a map from our local conservation district shows the highest level of residual crop nutrients in the soil are located on farms with a small number of cows, mostly under 50 head, and graze their cows for a significant period of time throughout the year.


  6. I love the topics and the various perspectives you’ve been presenting here. I’ve heard a lot of mixed reviews about the value of organic vs. non organic milk, so it is good to read some educated discussions on the topic. My nutritionist friend swears by goat’s milk…potential future topic? I’m curious to hear the skinny on how that compares to cow’s milk or breastfeeding little ones…


  7. Hello! Lots of information in this post. I can’t say as that I agree with a lot of it but I can’t tackle everything here. Just wanted to throw a few points out there from my perspective. Obviously I am a dairy farmer. We milk about 100 cows in Wisconsin we do not practice organic management in our cows because I feel it limits the care I can give my cows. If we were an organic farm and had a sick calf or cow that needed antibiotics to get better we would have to sell the animal instead of just withholding milk until the milk is tested clear of antibiotics and I am way to attached to my girls to sell them if they get sick.
    However that’s not the point of my comment… First I want to point out that conventional milk does not automatically mean large farm and Organic milk does not mean small farm. There are farms of all size under both headings. Here in Wisconsin, the dairy state, the average dairy farm milks 100 cows.So to say the vast majority of milk comes from large farms is misleading. Under the rulings you have for AFO we would be considered an AFO because our girls do not go out to pasture from about November to April. If you have ever spent time in Wisconsin during the winter you would understand exactly why the cows don’t go out to pasture in the winter, there is none! This does not mean that the cows are confined, they come and go as they please in our freestall barn where they can walk around, lay down or eat whenever they want for 23 hours out of the day. The other hour of the day they are in the milking parlor.
    I think you may be reaching on your cannibalism point. While this sounds gross… With your theory if a person ate a chicken that ate a worm that came out of a grave, that person would be a cannibal. In addition to that, I can’t think of a single dairy that feeds chicken litter to their cows, considering we have large egg facilities in our area, if chicken litter was a good feed ingredient for cows someone around us would be using it. Instead chicken litter is generally bagged and sold as fertilizer.
    I give you lots of credit for taking the time to site what you are presenting, many times I see people spout off regurgitated facts without having anything to back them up. However I am sure that for every study you have listed here there are studies that prove the opposite or offer a totally different theory.

    I have to ask, based on this post, are you Vegan or do you choose a dairy free diet for yourself and your family? You seem to have some pretty extreme views on dairy and I wonder if there isn’t a bit of a bias in this post.


    • I completely agree (and hope the post made this clear) that organic does not equal “small,” and conventional does not equal “large.” I also agree that the organic farming business is not perfect or perfectly clean. I would buy milk ANY DAY OF THE WEEK from a conventional farm that I could visit personally, rather than from a large organic farm that I wasn’t familiar with. However, not everyone has that option or inclination. What I wanted to do in this post was help to answer questions for the mom standing in the grocery dairy aisle wondering “conventional or organic?”

      On the cannibalism point, I’m not reaching at all. The cow-on-cow cannibalism as a result of feed practices is the primary mechanism through which BSE spreads in the cattle industry. It is the reason the FDA prohibited the practice of directly feeding cattle meat waste to cows. Unfortunately, they did not prohibit the feeding of chicken litter…etc etc.

      I am not at all vegan! I enjoy meat (and choose organic, grass-fed beef for my family). I enjoy dairy, and as I am sure you will guess, I purchase organic from the grocery store. I am lucky to have some local (non-organic!) dairies that I also buy from. I don’t believe my views are extreme — I find they’re quite common among my science colleagues, though granted, my circle does not include dairy scientists — but of course, everyone will have their own opinions on what is extreme. As to bias, well, I am an environmental scientist, so perhaps we can safely say that I am biased toward whatever practices are most sustainable and ecologically sound.


      • I asked because we all have a biased view and I wanted to know more about where you were coming from. I appreciate that you are a meat eater and dairy consumer :)
        I did misread your point on the chicken feed issue you raised. However you glossed over where I said that I can’t think of a single dairy that uses chicken litter in their feed, despite that we live in an area where it is readily available. This leads me to believe that while it is possible that chicken litter could be used as an ingredient, real word application of this as an ingredient is probably not very widespread. When I looked online most of the research seems to point to the use of chicken litter as feed in countries where traditional forages are not grown or not grown in sufficient amounts. I will be asking some friends of mine that are dairy cattle nutritionists that have broader knowledge on alternative feed sources.


    • I should add, too, that there is not a parallel between my cow cannibalism example and your example of a person eating a chicken that ate a worm that came out of a grave. We’re not talking about a cow eating a chicken that ate cow…we’re talking about a cow eating chicken food that contains cow (the chicken poop is not the point; it’s the chicken FOOD that contains COW that gets swept up and fed back to cows).


      • Just saw this. This does not happen. I happened to work a summer years ago at a feed plant and watched as someone was fired, escorted to their locker and then out to their car because he lied about letting a load of cattle grain go through the mixer in the plant without a flush after chicken feed went through. They caught the load, it was disposed of – total loss – and they had to run the feed again. This is taken very seriously.


  8. Joanna, actually, it DOES happen. That you saw someone fired means that particular farm did not allow it. It is, however, legal. It is also well-documented (see Sapkota et al. What do we feed to food-production animals? A review of animal feed ingredients and their potential impacts on human health. Environ Health Perspect. 2007 May;115(5):663-70. Epub 2007 Feb 8.)

    Think about it this way: let’s say that I take my daughter to daycare and they tell me, “We won’t change cloth diapers.” Does that mean that NO daycare will change cloth diapers, or that it’s illegal to take my daughter to daycare in cloth diapers? Obviously not. It simply means that particular daycare doesn’t change cloth diapers. Others may. And it’s legal.


    • Okay, Kirstin, last comment from me tonight. I just read this study, albeit quickly – I see that while they cover several areas of concern, it calls for increased monitoring because there is actually little specific data collected concerning the amounts of the specific ingredients of concern that they list that are intentionally included in animal feed.

      It’s illegal to intentionally feed ingredients included in chicken feed to cows. If a feed company inadvertantly lets a load of cow feed go through the mixer right after the chicken feed without a flush it may potentially face prosecution. That’s why the guy was fired. Zero tolerance. Not to say it’s the same everywhere but more often than not. That’s it.


      • Joanna, is not illegal to feed chicken litter to cows. Perhaps when you say it’s illegal you’re referring to the ban on feeding poultry litter to cattle that the FDA proposed in 2003 in response to BSE. That ban was never enacted. The FDA revised their regulations regarding cattle feed in 2004, 2005, and 2008. None of those have included bans on poultry litter, and there has been no relevant legislation since.

        Alice, this comment is a duplicate of one up above, but I reposted it here because it flows better with this part of the comment conversation. Can you please delete the one up above? Thanks!


  9. Since none of the dairy farmers seem to be addressing the pollution issue, I would like to add that the contamination of ground water from “waste lagoons” is a major concern to not only drinking water but every living organism downstream. It seems that Joanna and Dairycarrie are trying to present a very rosy picture of what happens in a modern milk-producing operation yet forgetting the damage that results when we concentrate large amounts of animals that produce large amounts of waste. In addition to nitrates and nitrites, the increased level of ammonia in surface water is causing massive changes in our water chemistry. Ammonia runoff causes decreased oxygen levels in water–ultimately problematic for fish and other aquatic organisms. We see decreased oxygen levels wherever major rivers empty into the oceans with the Gulf of Mexico being one of the most studied examples. The Gulf actually has a dead zone where few aquatic organisms will grow due to the inadequate levels of oxygen in the water.

    I’m not an expert on what makes a CAFO vs an AFO but it seems to me that when you have a couple hundred dairy cows living in an area of just a few acres, you are going to have a waste problem. I am not blaming all of the ammonia issue on dairy farms since all agriculture shares the blame. That said, all of agriculture needs to clean up its act. There is no use producing all the food required to feed all of the earth’s people if the earth is no longer inhabitable. Organic agriculture takes a step in the right direction in terms of producing our food in a manner that sustains the earth instead of exploiting it. While Joanna and Dairycarrie have provided anecdotal evidence that there are plenty of non-organic dairies producing milk in a sustainable manner, when one drives the highways of California, the bulk of the larger operations that one observes are CAFOs. Since I believe in supporting anecdotal observations with real evidence, the rise of the CAFO in California is well documented in studies by UC Davis and the EPA–the average size of a CA dairy went from 367 cows in 1993 to 624 in 1998. And those numbers have been increasing almost every year since. A current (2011 data) USDA report estimates that the average CA dairy has 1,769 cows. CA is not alone in >1000 cows/dairy category–Wisconsin averages 1,265 cows/dairy (according to the same USDA report). So the evidence as I see it points to CAFOs representing the bulk of dairy production in this country since 34.4% of dairy production comes from California and Wisconsin.

    In case you are wondering about my credentials, I have a PhD in biochemistry and I teach biochemistry at the university level. In that capacity, I teach extensively about our diet, our food supply and the politics behind what we find on the shelves of our grocery stores. I have studied the farm bill extensively and know that there are some pretty large grants given to CAFOs for pollution abatement. And I do believe that we vote with our dollars. Sometimes, we vote for indentured servitude of people in other countries and sometimes we vote for maintaining animals in conditions in which we would never dream of living. Every now and then, we vote ethically. I’ll pay extra to vote ethically.


  10. Thank you for letting Kirstin be a guest blogger. After I read the last milk post from Joanna, I was left with so many “buts”. BUT what about the Omega 3 levels, BUT what about cows raised entirely on grain, BUT what about manure run-off.
    Kirstin addressed all of my objections and has pretty much come to the same conclusion: it is not so much about oganic vs conventional, but about how these cows are kept, what they are fed, etc.
    And Joanna, for what it’s worth, I would happily buy milk from a farm like yours.

    Kirstin, thank you for your well researched article. While I always enjoy reading a personal perspective, I really appreciate that you addressed this issue from a scientific perspective. As you said in one of the comments above, having personal experience does not change the facts.

    Let me go off on a little tangent here. In this and the last post, some of the dairy farmers have raised the issue that an organic dairy would have to either let a sick cow suffer or sell her. While this DOES seem a little extreme, I would imagine that it ensures that antibiotics are only ever given as a last resort. Which they should be in my opinion. I’m not a dairy farmer but I see this trend to give antibiotics to humans at the drop of a hat with the reasoning that not giving them would be unnecessary suffering. I would imagine an organic farmer would deal with a sick cow in a similar way that I deal with a sick child. First I try to prevent, if that fails, I try to treat without medication or with alternative medication and only if all else fails and the infection will not get better without them, will I give antibiotics. In humans, many infections will clear up on their own. I would expect a healthy cow can also fight disease.


    • Healthy cows can fight off many diseases and like you I am not generally for prophylactic use of antibiotics in cows. That being said I have on occasion used an antibiotic before symptoms have shown. As my husband and I build our dairy herd I will sometimes buy baby calves at dairy auctions. My breed of choice is Jersey cows and crossbred cows. A jersey cow is born with little to no reserves of fat. That has nothing to do with the diet of the mother and everything to do with the breed of cattle, it’s just how Jersey calves come out. If I buy a calf that is only a few days old and bring them home this calf will be facing the stress of a new environment and a new diet. Just like switching a baby to a different formula changing from one brand of milk replacer or whole milk to the brand that I use on my farm can cause stomach upset in a young calf. The calf will start to “scour” (diarrhea) and will become dehydrated. Because a Jersey is born without much for reserves they can go from fine to very, very sick in short order. I do not treat all of my newly purchased calves with antibiotics but if I have a calf who seems a little off or not as perky as it should be I may choose to use antibiotics. Sometimes I choose to wait it out and provide supportive therapy such as extra feedings, extra probiotics and in general extra attention to see if the calf can overcome the issues on its own. There isn’t a specific formula I follow to decide who to treat and who not to treat I do it from experience with the calves and gut feeling. I would say that out of 10 purchased calves I may treat 1 calf with antibiotics without having it present extreme symptoms to me.
      I do like to try and let our animals heal themselves. On our farm the most common issue we treat calves for is pneumonia. When I determine that a calf has pneumonia I will treat it immediately. I have not found an alternative treatment that provides much in the way of results for pneumonia and taking time to let a calf try and heal on it’s own only allows for damage to that calves lungs that will stay with it for the rest of it’s life. I don’t feel that the chance of one of my calves having permanent lung damage is worth the risk of withholding treatment. On an Organic dairy even a baby calf that is treated with antibiotics once can never be milked on that farm, even though she will be two years old before and any antibiotics will long be out of her system by the time she is a dairy cow providing milk.
      In our cows, especially in cases of mastitis we will always try to use products such as Udder Comfort, a topical lotion that promotes blood flow to the area to clear infection to help the cow clear out the infection on her own. The exception to the rule is any cow that has indications that the mastitis is caused by e.coli. A cow with e.coli mastitis is treated with some very heavy duty anitbiotics right away because e.coli mastitis is extremely quick moving and will kill a cow if it life saving measures are not taken. That being said we have had only a single e.coli mastitis case on our farm in the last year. Farmers are hesitant to use antibiotics on our dairy cows because if they are treated with antibiotics their milk absolutely can not enter the food chain. No milk from a cow means no income from her and a hit to the dairies pocketbook.
      I hope this clears up a few of your questions about antibiotic use in cows.


      • Joanna, the reason an organic calf can’t be treated with antibiotics has nothing to do with the milk. No one is worried about antibiotics getting into the milk. The concern is that allowing any antibiotic use increases the risk of development of antibiotic resistant bacteria. You do not need to consume the meat of or drink the milk from a cow that has been treated with antibiotics to be negatively impacted by antibiotic overuse. Because the FDA etc has determined that the best way to prevent antibiotic overuse is to have an all-or-nothing policy, there is no leeway with regard to use of antibiotics. I think this is unfortunate, and wish things could be different; there is a place for appropriate use of antibiotics in livestock just as there is in humans. Unfortunately, however, while antibiotics for humans are (mostly) controlled to the point that individuals can’t make decisions for themselves regarding whether they want to use them or not, the same is not true of livestock (the farmers/ranchers can make the decision rather than having to rely upon a medical professional).

        I want to emphasize again, because this point is so important, that no one is worried about antibiotics getting into the milk of a dairy cow; this is why the two year period between antibiotic treatment of a calf and production of milk by that same cow later on is irrelevant. The purpose of the “no antibiotics” policy is to prevent unnecessary use.


      • Carrie, not Joanna actually ;)
        What do you propose as to what to do with a calf that needs antibiotics to survive?
        I understand what the Organic rules spell out. I don’t believe that those rules are in the best interest of the animal. I mentioned the time period between a calf treated with antibiotics and the same animal producing milk because in my experience when I ask someone what their biggest worry about antibiotic use in cows is, the majority have told me they worry about antibiotics in their milk from treated cows. Very few think that a calf that has been treated with antibiotics is a threat to our milk supply.


  11. Great article! In general, as a conscientious consumer and non-farmer (though I love growing things, buy almost all my meat direct from the farmer, and have three paltry weeks of WWOOFing to my name) I end up siding with Kristin on these issues. When I’m in Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods I buy the organic yogurt, because I’ve got no chance to talk to the farmers right this second and it’s probably the more environmentally responsible choice (plus I love whole milk yogurt taste-wise, so I might be getting better fats if it’s grass-fed…no guarantee there unless they name the farm and the practices on the label). When I’m at the farmer’s market and there’s a great cheesemonger there, I try everything regardless of “certification” because I know I’m supporting a farmer directly. Organic certification, indeed, does seem to be a huge part of the problem for farmers, especially those attempting animal husbandry. There’s a new coffee shop down the street that makes lattes with milk from a local dairy, which the barista told me was organic, though I’ve seen their brand elsewhere in town and it’s clear they don’t pay for certification. I’d never tried their milk before and it was WAY better than my usual latte from our other favorite coffee shop. I dunno, to me organic and especially grass-fed cow’s milk really does taste better in my opinion (again, with lattes I tend to go full-fat or 2%, and the fats are really where I taste the difference).

    Getting back to the certification issue, I have bought meat in the past from a beef farmer who does not get organic certification but who does divide his herd into “conventional” and “grass-fed”. I thought this was ingenious as he didn’t have to worry too much about where his meat was going to be sold or having his costs run too high – his “conventional” herd (which had no-antibiotic feed and no added hormones) would cover him for meat that could be sold everywhere, and his “grass-fed” herd would gain a premium price, so long as he was able to maintain them (since they tended to take longer to grow to full weight). It’s probably harder for dairy farmers to take a “divide and conquer” approach, but it seems that stores like the big chains I mentioned above do promote “non-rBST”, “No hormones/antibiotics in feed” as a marketing tool, and having formal standards to meet lower than “‘full’ organic” might improve that. If a dairy farmer could separate out her cow who needed antibiotics (say, to save her life because she had non-rBST -related mastitis) and just have her still produce in a “non-organic” herd or capacity until she finished her antibiotics, the farmer would not run the risk of losing production related to having to treat a sick animal. Not sure how organic certification might be able to meet that capacity (it seems there’s lots about the certification itself that causes farmers to gripe, almost more than the organic farming practices) but surely more flexibility and discussion with farmers, and possibly different levels of standards, might help the issue.


    • I want to make clear first of all that the scenario you describe about having a antibiotic treated cow seperated out from the rest of the herd is exactly how it is done every day on every farm. A cow that is treated with antibiotics can not have her milk sold. That means that the treated cow is milked into a special bucket and her milk is dumped. On a non organic farm, when the cow’s milk has been tested and found to be clear of anitbiotics she may continue on in the herd and we can sell her milk. In an Organic herd a cow that is treated with antibiotics must be sold, even after her milk has been tested and is negative for antibiotics she is no longer organic and must leave the herd. Some organic diaries have conventional dairies that they sell their treated cows too. However a dairy farmer buying a treated cow is not ideal and more often a cow on an organic dairy that has mastitis or some other malady that doesn’t respond to the natural remedies that organic farms are allowed to use is culled and sold for beef. Antibiotics generally have a longer “meat hold” than “milk hold”. This means that a cow treated with antibiotics that tests negative for any residue in the milk still can’t be sold for beef for a longer period of time to make sure that the meat is also free from any antibiotic residue. An Organic farmer with a sick cow has the option of treating the cow with antibiotics, then continuing to feed her until the antibiotics are free from her system while dumping her milk and losing money only to have to sell her, most likely for beef or selling a cow that is sick before treating her with antibiotics so that he looses less money. I don’t prefer either option and that is one reason I choose not to farm organically.

      You have a good point. There is a middle ground here between the “Organic” and “Conventional” labels but there isn’t a special name or label for it. I call it “doing the best I can for my animals with what is available to me” way to long for a label but I strongly believe that the farmers that fit under the same label as me are the overwhelming majority.
      As far as splitting a dairy and having both organic and non organic cows on the same farm. It is virtually impossible. The regulations and physical necessities of having two herds just isn’t economical viable for 99% of farmers. That being said I do know of a local dairy that bottles their own milk and produces a line of dairy products that are available organic or non organic but this is only possible because they have built two farms, a manufacturing facility and a market to sell in for themselves. Not something that the majority of farms can do.
      Sorry that this got so long. These issues are extremely complicated and have tons of layers to them. I want to give as much knowledge as I can but at the same time I don’t want to hijack this entire conversation. :)


  12. This has been some very good conversation. Thanks to Kirstin for her initial post and for the conversation that followed. I got a bit bleary-eyed last night and apologize for the CAFO/AFO definition – Kirstin definitely had it correct in her post. And then I thought I was responding to a comment about cattle being fed chicken feed, which is not legal, but rather Kirstin spoke of chicken litter being fed to cows which just sounds crazy to me.

    While again, admittedly, a novice at following studies used to cite assertions in posts, I still did not follow the research cited for some of the, IMO, generalized comments made. I could not, however, voice my specific concerns as @David could above. This is not to say that I don’t agree that Kirstin brought up some very important issues. Though I think being in the industry and working with others around me and across the country I see a different side and perspective that hasn’t been shared here – specifically some of the sustainable practices that dairy farmers – conventional and organic – use, the rules that we must follow and those we set for ourselves; and the restrictions on the use of antibiotics that helps minimize the spread of ARGs. We obviously have to do a better job sharing that side and thanks to folks like @DairyCarrie for speaking up and talking about her farm.

    Above all, thanks to Alice for hosting what I’m sure she knew was to be a spirited debate.


    • Well, I’m not sure I anticipated that the debate would be this spirited:) But you’re welcome, Joanna. And thanks to everyone who contributed with their comments, questions, and points of discussion. I have learned a lot from you all, and I hope that readers have, too. I think we’ve gained insight into how milk is produced – the people who make it their life’s work, the cows that do the same, the safety of the product whether you choose organic or conventional, and the complexities and problems with modern food production. Maybe some readers have even been inspired to visit a local farm to see it for themselves. To me, that would be the best outcome to this discussion.


  13. Hi there! I enjoyed Joanna’s post last week supporting conventional dairies, and I appreciate the conversation that has followed after Kirsten’s post this week.
    My husband and I are conventional dairy farmers in Wisconsin. We have 145 Holstein cows. We are the parents of 3 young children. Like other parents, we want the best for our children. As caretakers of the cows who create a livelihood for us, it wouldn’t be wise to treat them unhumanely. We bend over backwards every day of the year to make our cows comfortable on our farm. More along the line of wanting the best for our children, we want to see them become the 6th generation of our family running this farm. We want the earth to still be a sustainable place for them to be able to make a living farming. It makes me sad that the majority of farmers who are like my husband and I, Joanna, and dairycarrie are put in a category along with those who aren’t as careful. Just as in any industry, there are the few bad folks who make the rest of us look bad. Some of the bad things that happen make headlines because they are accidents, and then it explodes into making all farmers look bad. We learn from our mistakes, like all humans.
    I have been around dairy farms all my life. I was raised on one. Many of my family members have dairy farms, and my husband and I surround ourselves with people who are also dairy farmers, or work in another facet of the industry. We are good people trying to make an honest living to feed the world in the most sustainable way that we know how. Sustainable doesn’t always mean organic.


  14. Wow! What a great discussion! I have to admit when I was forwarded this blog, my eyes got a little glazed over until I had time to sit down and thoroughly read through it and the following discussion. Way to go Kirstin on the well presented and written posting! It brought me back to my senior thesis days in college. I was impressed by the information given and the tone it took. You bring up areas of concern and things that I certainly don’t agree with; yet, I applaud your efforts to raise awareness.

    Being a wife, mother, and dairy farmer myself, I am very aware of what I am feeding my family. But as I read this, while I understand your point there are a few things in here that concern me.

    Our dairy is considered a CAFO and I take great offense to say we are “great causers of environmental pollution’. We easily spend millions of dollars for: professionally engineered plans for storage of our concentrated and leachate waste, the construction of the foresaid plans and the execution of fulfilling our nutrient management plans, which involves using that concentrated waste as fertilizer on our crop lands. And if things are not done to specifics, we can be fined at astronomical levels. So to say that we are not environmentally conscientious is untrue. I realize as was stated by a gentleman above, all agriculture shares the blame in harming the environment, but I believe we are doing our darndest to correct things.

    Secondly, I am only going to say that we have no “unwitting cannibals” on our farm and would say that is true for all dairies in our area to the best of my knowlegde.

    Thirdly, I just want to point out that sickness does occur, like it does in humans. I am sure you read studies constantly and know that generally if something is thoroughly proven one way, it leads to a different way of doing things. That has what has occurred in probably the last 5 years. The studies that were cited to the abuse of antibiotics were some of many that were proving that farmers, whether dairy, beef or swine, were using a lot of antibiotics. I think if these studies/surveys were redone in today’s climate they would find an overall decrease in the use of antibiotics in general. My dad always said that ‘back in the day’ there was nothing you couldn’t treat with penicillin, that thinking is 30 years old. In today’s age, I can honestly tell you we don’t even have a bottle of penicillin on the farm! We don’t use many drugs at all. We have the occasional pneumonia and mastitis, but we are using more homepathic means than ever before, because like a lot of producers we are more conscientious of what we are putting into our animals.

    Lastly, to say that the government subsidies are the reasons that milk prices in the store are so much different between milk and organic milk is ridiculous. Have you ever compared the cost to feed a cow organically vs. conventionally? That is the difference in the price, it just can not be done as efficiently on a cost basis as conventional feeding. That is not a scientific fact, it’s an economic fact! I give credit to organic farmers for sticking to it because it is not always easy. The only organic farming/consuming of organic products we take part of is what is harvested from our garden during the summer/fall. If you want to spend your money on the organic milk go right ahead that is your decision, but I have to make my food budget come out and prefer to buy the, as you put it, conventional milk.

    I hoped only to provide a little more information in regards to your article because I really did enjoy it and hope to follow your posts more. To give a little background, I have a B.S. in Ag Studies, Ag Economics and Spanish. My husband and I raise our three boys and farm with my entire family in Eastern Wisconsin. And I believe that our CAFO that produces conventional milk does not have ‘baggage’.


    • You make a good point, ALHL. Even on a farm our size, with 145 cows, we have just spent $10,000 dollars to get a new Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan, and engineering services that only provides us with a survey of our farm to let us know where we can improve environmentally. That doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions we will be spending in the future to make sure we can continue to be envionmentally safe as our farm progresses. There is no reason to blame the entire industry for things that have happened in the past. Like I said above, we are only human. We are learning from our mistakes, and the mistakes of others in past generations when there wasn’t as much knowledge. I, too, find myself keeping away from the organic products in the grocery store because of the price. I know that I am feeding a good product to my loved ones, even if it is ‘conventional’. I worked on an organic dairy farm in college. I had no reason to believe that he was doing things more sustainably than any other farm I have seen.


  15. Kirstin: I too spent nearly a decade in a university setting conducting research, teaching college courses and educating producers in the field of environmental studies, milk quality/animal health and cow comfort. However, my perspective is that my studies were actually in Animal Science and I had the experience to work directly with the industry and the farmers. I know first hand that the world outside of the four walls of a university setting can be vastly different than the world perceived from inside of that setting based on peer-reviewed journal articles alone.

    With that said, I do not have the time nor luxury to pull journal articles and proceed in a scientific data debate. However, I will address my major issue with your presentation. Although you claim that you want to focus on “the big picture” you leave out important details that play into the painting of that picture. You also use inflammatory language and make absolute statements that cause readers to believe that what you present IS absolute, although now you agree that it is not. My major issue with your line of logic is the failure to present the whole picture.

    “The vast majority of U.S. dairy cows are housed in animal feeding operations (AFOs),”

    ALL dairies (small, large, confined, pastured, organic, conventional) are by definition AFOs. All dairies must confine animals for some time during the day for the purpose of milking. EPA does not differentiate 5 minutes of confinement vs. 24 hours of confinement.

    All grazing dairies, including organic are AFOs because they will confine animals for at least 45 days during the year. The 45-day rule does not have to be 45 consecutive days, but 45 days over a 12 month period. There is not one area of this country in which animals can be grazed 365 days throughout the year. There are areas in which grazing can be done for 8-9 months out of the year, but there is always a time frame in which grass simply won’t grow.

    By EPA definition, horse show barns that host a show once per week are considered AFOs.

    “By EPA definition, then, both AFOs and CAFOs are crowded, and CAFOs are major sources of environmental pollution.”

    EPA never defines nor addresses ‘crowded’ conditions. How much space does a cow need? There is a huge body of research on cow comfort, spacing, bunk space requirements, social requirements, etc. Yet you never mention any of this. You make the assumption, or logical leap, that because animals are not housed on X number of acres and they are in barns…then it must be crowded. That is a human emotion and response placed on an area in which you do not have expertise.

    As for CAFOs being major “sources” of environmental pollution. You fail to mention that all CAFOs must have a manure storage and handling system that has been designed and built according to regulations. Your inflammatory presentation makes it seem that all CAFOs are piping manure straight out to a stream. When in fact, they must also develop, maintain and follow a comprehensive nutrient management plan in which they will apply manure to growing crops at a rate in which the plants can utilize the manure as a fertilizer. In order to get a permit and operate, CAFOs must have these plans in place prior to milking cows AND they must either own or rent enough cropland to utilize this manure appropriately in a manner (i.e. grow crops) in which they will not pollute the environment. Failure to have enough storage capacity (which is overbuilt to include 50-100 year flood events) or to follow their nutrient management plan results in fines and jail time.

    “The EPA defines a factory farm as a CAFO”

    The EPA has NEVER defined “factory farm.” That is a negative, derogatory label that has been applied to large farms without regards to the level of animal husbandry, health or management.

    “However, antibiotic overuse — meaning use of antibiotics in a prophylactic sense and as necessary for treatment of diseases spread through unnecessary husbandry practices — is promoting the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

    The research world is still studying this problem. You cannot definitively make this statement at this time. Overuse of antibiotics is certainly a concern, in veterinary medicine….as well as in human medicine.

    But your term of “overuse” is where I’m confused. How do you know it is being overused? Do you have a degree in veterinary medicine as well? Any dairy cow that is given antibiotics is taken out of production. If the industry was truly overusing antibiotics in dairy cows, then staying in business would be unsustainable due to the amount of money lost from milk withdrawal. That’s economics 101.

    “In low concentrations, poop is good for the soil. The manure produced in a CAFO, however, is exceedingly concentrated. There’s far too much of it for the land to absorb, so it runs off into the surface water (lakes and rivers) and leeches into the groundwater (aquifers that feed municipal supplies and wells).”

    Again, you do not address how a CAFO must manage their manure to ensure that the manure is used at appropriate fertilizer rates.

    “Nitrogenous chemicals in drinking water are toxic, particularly to very young children; consumption of water high in nitrates and nitrites causes blue baby syndrome, which can be deadly.”

    Yet this is not the only cause of blue baby syndrome. A congential heart or lung defect can also cause this. Do you have any statistics to explain how many children are actually diagnosed with BBS and how many were caused by nitrates vs. heart/lung defect?

    “(recall that by definition, CAFOs produce significant manure runoff in excess of what the land can absorb)”

    By definition, CAFOs produce a significant amount of manure. It is your assumption that it runs off.

    “greenhouse gases. These gases contribute to global warming”

    A by-product of rumination is methane. Period. A cow’s stomach is divided into 4 sections that each have their own function. The rumen holds microorganisms that digest feed and the end products of that microbe-digestion are what the animal absorbs and utilizes for energy, maintenance and production. A by-product of that microbe-digestion process is methane. There is nothing you can feed a cow or not feed a cow that will stop the production of methane. Cows have always produced greenhouse gases. All ruminant animals produce greenhouse gases. Dinosaurs produced greenhouse gases. To produce the same amount of milk utilized today on all grazing practices, we would need more cows due to the lowered production of pasture based cows. So, using your ideal, having all cows on pasture would lead to an increase in greenhouse gas.

    “First off, crowding leads to increased likelihood of animal injury and incidence of disease (Gurian-Sherman, D.).”

    Overcrowded dairies most definitely have animal health problems. But again, do you know what is considered crowded? How much area does a cow need? 200 sq ft per cow or 2 acres per cow? Is your belief of what is crowded vs. not crowded based on scientific study or just “what seems right”.

    “are fed modified diets that have major ramifications for animal health, as cows are not native consumers of grain”

    How much of what you consume is ‘native to human diets’? Just because a cow 2000 years ago did not eat it, does not mean that cows today have not evolved.

    “The vast majority of conventionally farmed dairy cows — including all CAFO cows — are fed a diet comprised largely of grain (see, for example, Eastridge et al, Jenkins et al, VandeHaar et al).”

    All dairies feed grain. Even organic. Even pasture based. Grass alone does not have enough energy to support animal maintenance, health, reproduction and production. The microbes in a cow’s rumen have the ability to adapt to wide range of feedstuffs. I will agree that there is a level in which over-feeding grain can cause animal health problems (and lowers milk production and is therefore counter-productive). The dairy nutritional sciences have spent 50 years research feed ingredients, their digestibility, what can/cannot be fed, at what levels, what can sufficiently maintain a producing cow, what will have a negative effect and at what level. Most dairies maintain a ratio of forage:grain of 70:30 or 60:40. Anything more than that, and yes you may have health issues.

    “Absence of grass aside”

    Yet you mention nothing of the forages that are fed to cows. Hay (a dried grass); haylage (a fermented grass); and silage (a fermented forage that can come from corn stalks, leaves and grain; or sorghum; or many other forages).

    “legal to turn around and feed what’s euphamistically called “chicken litter””

    Just because it is legal it does not mean the practice occurs. It’s legal to eat dog. But that does not mean the majority of Americans eat it. I do not support the practice of feeding chicken litter. No customer of mine or previous client (nearly 1000 dairy farms) have ever fed chicken litter, and I live/work where poultry is abundant. And my customers have farms that range from 25 cows to 8000 cows.

    “While a “mad” dairy cow isn’t a risk to humans in a direct sense — the disease can’t be transmitted via milk — any BSE in U.S. cattle increases the risk of the infection spreading, and CAFO practices provide the perfect environment for transmitting BSE from one cow to another because of the de facto cannibalism”

    For many years, we fed stuff to cattle that we shouldn’t have. We simply did not know the ramifications. But now we do. And things are changing. The US has one of the lowest incidence rates of BSE in any developed country. Can we ever have 100% BSE free – probably not because nothing is absolute. However, as an industry, we are constantly trying to improve food safety and security.

    In my opinion, you are using some science in an inflammatory presentation to demonize large farms and romanticizing smaller grass based (and organic) farms. Please do not romanticize farming. It is insulting. It does not help the farmer – of any size. It is a job in which you are on call 24/7. You cannot take sick days. You most likely do not take vacations. It is dirty. It is smelly. It is physically hard, gritty work. You are responsible for providing for your family, your animals, your employees and providing a SAFE and quality FOOD product to consumers. We’re not talking sneakers here. The people that milk cows for a living are a bit nuts, because most them do it despite the failed economies of dairying but because it is a passion. If a small business expands, most people say “congratulations, you are successful”…unless you are a farmer.

    I’m not saying there aren’t problems in animal production. There are. I’m not saying there aren’t irresponsible producers that use antibiotics without regard to the consumer, or producers that intentionally pollute the environment, or producers that mistreat their animals. There are. And these producers have farms that range in all sizes from small to large from conventional to organic. I can give you examples that I have seen first hand from organic dairies that would make your jaw drop – but I won’t, because I know they are not the majority.

    Less than 2% of the population in the United States is actively involved in farming. 2% of the population must feed 98% of the population.

    I will state that again for emphasis….Less than 2% of the US population is actively involved in farming.

    And the number of farms is constantly shrinking. Downsizing dairies in an attempt to create a ‘farming utopia’ will do nothing more than create a food shortage and cause prices for consumers to increase. The US spends less on food than any country in the world. (I am currently in a foreign country and for my lunch today, I paid $12 US dollars for a McDonald’s salad that was smaller than the US portion size.) In any economic environment, ask readers how much more they can expand their food budget. As stated in a previous comment 1 in 6 in this country are food insecure. That is the scariest statistic of all. No amount of subsidy or lack of subsidy will make organic food cheaper. It simply costs more to produce organic food. You have huge losses because you cannot use technologically tested, sound and safe methods to reduce waste that conventional systems have access to. (Caterpillars love grass and can devour an unprotected field in less than 14 hours.) Even if you removed all conventional systems, organic would still be expensive because you have to plant more than you’ll actually ever use to sacrifice to nature.


    • Thanks for your long and informative comment, Kristy on May 9, 2012 at 2:06 pm. I was also a bit surprised about the accusations of conventional dairy contributing more to nitrogen pollution as well as greenhouse gas emissions in the piece above.

      Organic cattle, which are fed organic grain, are reliant on the organic farming sector which has lower yields, more nitrogen run-off per products unit, more acidification potential, and more greenhouse gas emissions. I’ve written about this in my pieces about farming and the environment – or how I was sorely disappointed with the claims of organic farming after being an organic supporter for a decace. To my horror what I found was that organic was worse for the environment.

      A 2012 analysis of more than 100 studies of farming methods across Europe finds that:

      “Getting the same unit production from organic farming tended to lead to “higher ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions.” And while organic farming tends to use less energy, it also leads to “higher land use, eutrophication potential” – that’s the dead zones mentioned above – “and acidification potential per product unit.”

      Links to references in my piece here:

      Then there is another important tool, which is forbidden in organic farming but bringing big environmental benefits, the GMO crops. Here are studies on the key environmental impacts that crop biotechnology has had on global agriculture, review studies from 2012 and 2013:

      “The adoption of GM insect resistant and herbicide tolerant technology has reduced pesticide spraying by 553 million kg (-8.6%) and, as a result, decreased the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on these crops (as measured by the indicator the Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ)) by19.1%. The technology has also facilitated important cuts in fuel use and tillage changes, resulting in a significant reduction in the release of greenhouse gas emissions from the GM cropping area. In 2013, this was equivalent to removing 12.4 million cars from the roads.”

      I’ve written more about these issues, and included all reference links here:

      In there I also write about the potential for mistreatment because organic farmers have a financial incentive to withhold treatment (and use homeopathics as an ‘alternative’…) of sick animals, which was adressed in a paper titled: Animal Health and Welfare Issues Facing Organic Production Systems. It says:

      “The primary welfare risk identified in the literature in organic management systems appears to be related to biological function, specifically animal health. The other main domains of animal welfare including affective state and the ability to perform natural behaviors in organics systems have not been well studied. These domains however appear to be the ones that resonate most with consumers when they consider welfare in organic systems due to assumptions of increased outdoor access, space and ability to perform natural behaviors. This is a potential area for the organic livestock farming industry that needs to be quantified as it could be a documented benefit which would compensate for other deficiencies.”

      As mentioned above, the paper acknowledges the risks of alternative medicine and its potential result of prolonged animal suffering (for background, the prohibitive terms of the use of conventional medicine for USDA Organic can be found here §205.238 Livestock health care practice standard).

      The list of accusations of conventional dairy is really inflammatory. I used to work at a lab where nitrogen and ammonia levels where continually monitored in drinking water as well as natural waters in Sweden. Communal water was always of excellent quality. To make a claim that CAFOs contribute to ‘blue babies’ requires strong evidence indeed, as well as an assumption that water quality isn’t well regulated in the US, which I find hard to believe.


  16. Thanks to all of you who have participated in this engaging discussion. I wanted to let everyone know that, as I had surgery today and my arm is in a sling, my ability to respond to comments will be severly limited (I am typing this note “hunt and peck” style with my non-dominant hand. Anyway, I will respond as I am able, but to those who leave comments, thank you, and know that I am not purposely ignoring you!


  17. This is a great discussion! I am definately siding with the other ‘conventional’ dairy farmers on this post. My family and I run a 800 cow dairy in Northern, WI. I am the herdsperson, bookkeeper, mother to three lovely children and farmer’s wife. I am completely involved in all aspects of our farm and our family and would not want anything but the very best of my kids, neighbors, and all consumers who purchase dairy products.

    I could make a lot of the same arguments that others have made above, but that seems like a waste of time since it has already been done. So I am going to make this relatively short.

    The animals on our farm are our passion and livelyhood. We provide everything possible for they to be healthy, comfortable, calm and content cows, they in turn provide us with a way of living. We are there for them 24/7. If it means leaving Christmas dinner to take care of a sick cow, we’re there. If it means crawling out of bed at 2:30 am in January when it is -20 degrees F to assist in delivering a calf, we’re there. It doesn’t matter what time of day or what day of the year it is, we are always there to ensure that our cows that the best care that we can possibly give them. We try to keep them warm in the winter and cool in the summer, provide comfortable stalls and pens for them to lay in, good quality feed with a balanced ration for them to eat, and proper care if they do get sick or injured.

    We do use antibiotics to treat sick cows; however we have protocals in place that we follow, work closely with our verternarian and keep very accurate records to be certain that no antibiotics reach the food chain. I agree that over using antibiotics can create antibiotic-resistant bacteria problems; however, this is not a problem just with dairy cattle, it is a concern with all species including humans. I feel that we owe it to the cows to take care of them to our best ablitiy, if we can diagnose her and treat her to bring her back to a healthy state then we should.

    We are very aware of the environmental impact that our dairy has and we have a nutrient management plan that we follow very closely. We are also enrolled in a Land Stewardship program where we have actually turned some of our land into a wildlife habitat area.

    I am proud to be a ‘conventional’ farmer in WI. I am proud of what our family has accomplished and I look forward to raising my young kids on our family’s farm. I do look at the big picture and we all need to be watching out for our environment, not just the ‘conventional’ dairy farmers. As a mother, I definately want the absolute best for my kids but I have no problems buying ‘conventional’ dairy products.


  18. Pingback: Perspectives « Farm Life Love

  19. Pingback: Want to Understand The Latest Kids’ Health News? Ask Science Mom! – Simply Stated Blogs | Real Simple

  20. Very informative and detailed article. Thank you, Kirstin. No wonder many Canadians shift more and more towards eating almost exclusively organic food in spite of the cost. The major reason is of course not to have any health problem down the road, which probably not entirely unavoidable by just eating certified organic food. It is all understandable and such, except that it turns out that there are some important health issues correlated with organic foods. Really? Would you please elaborate more on this statement? By the way how is your arm, are you fully recovered? Wish you all the best.


  21. I’m aware that my comment comes long after this article was posted, but I feel compelled to mention an aspect of this debate that seems to have gone unsaid. Aside from animal welfare and environmental concerns, it is important to consider the consequences of bioaccumulated substances for our children and future generations.

    Fetuses and nursing infants are, literally, at the top of the food chain. As a consequence, the risks of exposure to residual pesticides and other harmful substances are magnified for infants. Risks are also higher for children than for adults as children consume more food, proportionally, as they grow.

    Consuming organic foods can help to reduce exposure to pesticides and other such substances. This is particularly important for meat products as animals are higher up the food chain than plants and many of the undesirable substances are fat-soluble.

    I’m not a scientist – and maybe that’s evident – but for more information on this regard I recommend ecologist Sandra Steingraber’s book “Having Faith.”


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