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Life is too short to eat bad food! Sharing great recipes, farm life, stories and photography from our Northern California dairy farm.

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June 30, 2010

Organic vs. Conventional Dairy Farms

all of the photos are of our 'girls' when they're grazing on some grass between milkings

Organic vs. “Conventional” dairy. Lately I’ve been reading some misconceptions, misleading information and just misinformation that’s been flying around the blogging world comparing the two.  We are a "conventional" farm and I wanted to respond with true information regarding this subject.

But may I first begin by saying, Dominic and I are friends with MANY dairymen and women, both conventional and organic. We are all friends with one another and have a mutual respect for one another. It is never “conventional” between the dairy farmers, it's just one big dairy community.  And I love that.

I think it is important to have both organic and conventional as long as we support dairy as a whole. What is extremely important to both organic and conventional dairy farmers is that our cows are healthy, comfortable and the product is nutritious and safe. My family drinks conventional and we have many family members that have lived well into their 90’s (and no broken bones that I can think of!)

My blogging friend, Barbara Martin aka Dairy Goddess brought up a good point:

“I’m not sure why we got labeled “conventional” when we are clearly progressive.”

First of all, what does “Conventional” mean? According to the dictionary:

con•ven•tion•al /kənˈvɛnʃənl/ Show Spelled[kuhn-ven-shuh-nl] Show IPA
1. conforming or adhering to accepted standards, as of conduct or taste: conventional behavior.

Dairy farmers are conventional in the way that we conform to all local, state and federal regulations. We are regulated by the government to be trained on water and air quality.

But we also see ourselves as progressive by always looking for new and innovative ways to improve cow health, comfort, providing the best diet we possibly can for our cows, and look for new ways to farm using less water and resources – the list goes on and on.

pro•gres•sive /prəˈgrɛsɪv/ Show Spelled[pruh-gres-iv] Show IPA
1. favoring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are, esp. in political matters: a progressive mayor.

2. making progress toward better conditions; employing or advocating more enlightened or liberal ideas, new or experimental methods, etc.: a progressive community.

The Difference

The biggest differences between organic and conventional dairy farms are: organic cows eat organic food (hay, silage and yes, grains too), organic farms may only use organic fertilizers and organic pesticides, the cows must receive 30% of their dry matter intake from pasture during the growing season (in CA, that’s 120 days & this is a new national organic standard that has just passed), the cows do not receive conventional wormers or antibiotics. When an organic cow is treated with antibiotics for an illness, she may never be milked in an organic herd again.  She must be removed from the dairy.

The nutrient content of organic milk is the same as standard milk and offers no additional health benefits compared to standard milk. Stringent government standards that include testing all types of milk for antibiotic and pesticide residues ensure that both organic milk and conventional milk are pure, safe and nutritious. Organic classification is not a judgment about the quality or safety of any product. As with all organic foods, it's the process that makes milk organic, not the final product.(

A conventional dairy farmer feeds the highest quality feeds available. Most of a conventional cow’s diet is made up of alfalfa, and silage (which is fermented grass), with cottonseed, tofu, corn & distillers dried grains (such as wheat) thrown into the mix as well. Our cows do go outside and bask in the sunlight at their own free will during the growing season as well. They are just not required to receive 30% of their dry matter intake from pasture.

Dairy Myths VS. Fact

Myth: All milk – except organic milk – contains antibiotics.

Fact: All milk is carefully tested for antibiotics. Any milk that tests positive is disposed of immediately, and does not enter into the food supply. Before the milk can be unloaded at the processing plant, each load is tested for antibiotic residues. If the milk shows no evidence of antibiotics, it is pumped into the plant's holding tanks for further processing. If the milk does not pass antibiotic testing, the entire truck load of milk is discarded and the farm samples are tested to find the source of the antibiotic residues. Regulatory action is taken against the farm with the positive antibiotic test. Positive antibiotic tests are rare, and account for far less than 1% of the tank loads of milk delivered to processing plants.

When we need to treat our cows with antibiotics, they are not milked into the milk tank. Their milk is dumped after being milked. They are not milked into the milk tank until ALL antibiotics are completely out of their system.

Myth: Organic cows rarely become ill because they are out on pasture.

Fact: Organic cows do become ill and when they do, they are either given a treatment that has been approved by the national organic standard or they are given conventional antibiotics then sold.

Myth: Hormones are given to ALL conventional cows .

Fact: We do not give our cows the rBST hormone. Some dairies do.  So here is some info on hormones and milk:

Hormones in milk include BST and rBST. BST is a natural hormone that occurs in cows and it functions to increase milk production. rBST is the synthetic form of this natural hormone in milk. In the early 1990s, after considerable testing, the FDA approved the use of rBST in milk production and the milk from rBST-supplemented cows is safe for human consumption. This has been affirmed and reaffirmed by the FDA, World Health Organization, American Medical Association, National Institute of Health and regulatory agencies in 30 countries. BST is species-specific, which means that it is biologically inactive in humans. In addition, pasteurization destroys 90% of BST and rBST in milk. The remaining trace amounts of this hormone in milk are broken down into inactive fragments (amino acids) by the gastrointestinal tract. Furthermore, studies linking the hormones in milk to the early onset of puberty are false; both hormones are “cow-specific,” meaning they have no effect on the human body. Since the milk produced is identical, producers are not required to label whether or not their cows are treated with rBST; however, some producers that do not use rBST often market their milk as “rBST-free.” Milk produced by treated and untreated cows is exactly the same and offers the same nutritional value. (dairy council of CA)

Myth: The reason the price of milk is going up in the grocery store is so dairy farmers can get rich.

Fact: On average, dairy farmers receive 30 cents of every retail dollar (normally). But in the past year and a half, all conventional dairy farmers have been losing money every month (thousands of dollars every month) we are definitely not in it for the money. So why do we continue?  We love our cows and we love the business we’re in, it's our way of life and that's what keeps us going and hopefully we will all be able to sustain our dairy business.

Myth: Large farms aren’t family farms.

Fact: According to USDA, about 99 percent of all U.S. dairy farms are family-owned and operated.

Myth: Large, “corporate farms” force small, family farms out of business.

Fact: There are approximately more than 60,000 dairy farms in America and the approximate average herd size is 150 cows. According to USDA, the majority (77 percent) of all U.S. dairy farms have less than 100 cows.

Myth: Pesticides are overused and end up in milk.

Fact: Pesticides are not a health concern in any milk products. Thorough testing and stringent government standards ensure that all milk is safe, pure and nutritious. Dairy farmers consistently meet or exceed safety regulations on pesticide use.

Myth: Tail Docking is done by conventional dairies.

Fact: Tail Docking has been banned in California. The only animals I know, personally, to have docked tails are dogs. Tail docking is frowned upon in the dairy industry. Most all other dairy farmers nationwide do not oppose a ban on tail docking. Tail docking is a practice that was experimented with 10 years ago or so to see if there would be a benefit to milk quality. It was soon discovered there was no advantage to the dairy farmer, the cow, or the milk so the practice soon ended. Unfortunately, there are a select few dairies out there that still practice this.

Myth: Organic cows are milked twice a day and conventional cows are milked three times a day.

Fact: Conventional cows are milked twice a day (our 200 cows are, and same with all the dairies that I'm familiar with). It is not common practice to milk three times a day but some larger dairies do it.

Myth: Today’s dairy cow is treated like nothing more than a milk machine. Organic cows are not pressured to produce more than 50 lbs of milk per day where conventional cows are made to produce over 100 lbs of milk per day.

Fact: Dairy cows must be healthy and well cared for in order to produce pure, wholesome milk. Which means their comfort is greatly important. Conventional cows produce, on average, 65 lbs of milk per day. (US Dept. of Ag)

Myth: Dairy cows are kept in cramped, dirty quarters without access to the outdoors.

Fact: Cow comfort is very important to dairy farmers. Ensuring that clean, dry bedding is available to cows at all times, in addition to providing healthy living conditions, and as a stress free environment as possible are top priorities to dairy farmers that I know personally.

Myth: Baby calves are mistreated and don’t receive proper attention.

Fact: To help protect calves, dairy farmers place them in clean, dry, individual pens shortly after birth to control their environment, administer proper nutrition and vaccinations, and get them off to a healthy start.
At age 5 months, our calves are sent out to "The Woods" until they are 13 or 14 months old.

Myth: Modern dairy farmers don’t practice sustainable agriculture.

Fact: Dairy farmers depend on land, air and water as part of their livelihood. In fact, dairy farms must follow strict state and local water quality regulations, and meet standards for manure storage, handling and recycling per guidelines from state and federal agencies.

Nutrition (national dairy council):

Milk is a Nutrient-Rich Powerhouse!

One 8-ounce servings gives kids as much:
•Calcium as 2 1/4 cups of broccoli
•Potassium as a small banana
•Magnesium as a cup of raw spinach
•Vitamin A as two baby carrots
•Phosphorous as 1 cup of kidney beans
•Vitamin D as 3 1/2 ounces of cooked salmon
Healthy bones. Diets rich in milk and milk products can reduce the risk of fractures now and osteoporosis, the brittle bone disease, later in life.

Better nutrient intake. Drinking milk is associated with more nutritious diets and adequate intake of many nutrients.

Key nutrients for kids. Milk provides calcium, magnesium and potassium, three of the five nutrients that most kids don't get enough of. One 8-ounce serving of milk provides 30% of the Daily Value for calcium, 11% of the Daily Value for potassium, and 8% of the Daily Value for magnesium

I hope this answers many questions you may have regarding the difference between organic and conventional milk.  But if not, feel free to ask :)  And to my organic dairy friends out there, feel free to chime in as well.

Happy Wednesday!
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Unknown said...

Thanks for the great information Nancy, it's important to be informed about what we consume and to clear up misconceptions.

Katie said...

Nancy, this is a GREAT blog post. Thank you for listening, engaging and educating. I love your blog, photos, recipes and writing.
Katie from North Dakota

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad I found your blog. I've already learned so much!

Leah Beyer said...

Excellent post. I am going to be referring some of my friends to this post. Thanks for being so thorough!

Lele said...

This is so great! I feel like so many of us who go spouting off about farming practices have never actually been to a farm or met a farmer. It's so great getting an inside perspective.

Samantha said...

This is an excellent post! I found you through the comments section of Carrots n Cake--thank you for adding your perspective. I love food blogs, but sometimes all of the hoopla about all the "labels" on food make me cringe--certain foods are put on a pedestal while others by "conventional farmers" are demonized. And its exciting your in Cali--I'm an ag teacher in Visalia!

Dairy Woman Strong said...

Thanks so much for this post!!! I like it "progressive" too! I might steal that!

Brittany said...

Just recently found your blog. We are in NC and we do milk 3 times a day as does the dairy next door to us, maybe it is more common on the east coast and twice a day on the west coast, I'm not sure. This is great info to is exactly right

Nicole said...

Thank you! This is a great post! As another wife of a dairyman I am so happy to see you clearing up some of the common myths!! Great work!

Brittany said...

Great information - Love that "According to USDA, about 99 percent of all U.S. dairy farms are family-owned and operated".

Jen said...

This was a great post. I am so happy to hear about the differences between organic and conventional, and to learn more about conventional and your dairy farm. Unfortunately, I am not sure that all dairy farmers treat their cows the way you do. But, I am so happy that you do!

Mary said...

This is a fabulous post! Its great to hear the real truth and be able to understand the difference between conventional and organic dairy farms.

Unknown said...

Love all the great information. Thanks for sharing!

Cassie said...

I love this post! When I was younger I spent most of my summers at a dairy farm as part of the 4H club, and it was one of my most favorite memories. All this demonizing of "conventional" farming makes me so sad, because I know how much love and pride my 4H family put into their farm! Thanks for the great information :)

Anonymous said...

I have a milk question...but I guess it's not really based on organic vs. conventional. I heard someone say that the process of pasteurization ruins the fats found naturally in milk, and therefore it's better to drink raw milk. Do you know anything about this and if it is true?

Anonymous said...

Came to this site from Carrots n Cake... This post seems to be a little biased and based on the experiences of your own farm.
Example Fact: Cow comfort is very important to dairy farmers. Ensuring that clean, dry bedding is available to cows at all times, in addition to providing healthy living conditions, and as a stress free environment as possible are top priorities to dairy farmers.
This is posted after Tina saw the cows cramped in the barn sleeping on tires covered with sand. It seems there is a huge variance between conventional dairy farms.

Lauren @ Sassy Molassy said...

Great information and follow up regarding conventional vs organic. Thanks!

megan said...

Great post. I love this. It seems like 'organic' is such a buzz word these days, and while I'm sure it's good for you, etc, it doesn't mean people should demonize "conventional" practices. Thank you so much for putting this out there. I personally have no problem drinking non-organic milk and it's kept me healthy for 27 years. :)

Nancy Grossi ~ Churned In Cali ~ The Wife of a Dairyman said...

Dear Anonymous from Carrots n Cake, I created an additional post on my blog due to all the misinformation that has been flying around regarding conventional dairy. My ORIGINAL post on pasture time for dairy cows is dated April 27th titled "Leisure Time for Dairy Cows" that you can look up in my archives. There is also another post from back in January that shows bedding we use for our cows...we use sand. The purpose of this blog post is to inform the public that most conventional dairy farms practice excellent care and love for their cows. Thanks for the comment.

Nancy Grossi ~ Churned In Cali ~ The Wife of a Dairyman said...

Dear Anonymous with the milk question,
Research shows no meaningful difference between nutrient content of pasteurized and unpasteurized milk. Here is the link to the FDA information:
Thank you for the comment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the information! My father-in-law's family dairy farms out in WA, and they feel the same way. Following you from MBC.

Cheyenne said...

You did an absolutely FANTASTIC job writing this post. I'm so glad I found your blog!

A huge pat on the back to you for being so thorough, informative, and accurate. Great work, great work!!!

x said...

Great post! Now I must satisfy my craving for a large glass of cold whole milk! Yum!

Pat Tillett said...

Wow! This is the stuff that attracted me to your blog "back in the day." This stuff is amazingly interesting! It would be nice if more people knew these things.
Great great post Nancy...

Unknown said...

Really interesting post. Thanks for all the research and info!!! Now following from MBC, you can find me at

Jennie Yuen said...

Hi! Following you from MBC. Great blog and nice photos.

Brenda said...

Thanks for the great post. I'm always glad to see a post telling the true story of dairy. I'm a dairy producer in Ohio and agree there is lots of misinformation out there about organic vs conventional milk. Check out my Dairy Mom Blog at

Unknown said...

Great post, Nancy. Almost everything in your Blog can be changed from "dairy cattle" to "beef cattle" and from "milk" to "beef".

Lisa said...

I linked to you from MSM. There is a lot of debate on organic milk vs. non-organic. You are very knowledgeable, and I wanted to ask: so IS it better to purchase organic milk or non-organic milk that is rBST free? We do not have a source for raw milk. I am curious b/c it is so confusing to me! I thought the "bad" part of non-organic was the rBST hormone???

Nancy Grossi ~ Churned In Cali ~ The Wife of a Dairyman said...

@Lisa, I always tell people to do what they feel is best for their own family. I personally don't like this organic vs. conventional craze that is happening right now with produce and milk, it makes it sound like buying anything conventional is unsafe and I don't believe that to be true. We have a conventional dairy and I feel it's plenty safe buying conventional milk.....even if we bought milk, I would buy conventional. We do not use hormones at our dairy and you can buy, as you know, rBST free conventional milk if you're worried about hormones. Hope this helps!

Unknown said...

Jen, I can assure you that dairy farmers have to consider the comfort of their cows or we cannot survive in this business. We actually have a very narrow profit margin over the long term, and at times it is a negative figure. So we do everything we can to help the cow meet her needs so she is productive.

Anonymous- sand is a very acceptable bedding for cows as it reduces the risk of injuries to their feet and legs as they get up and down and reduces the risk of bacteria affecting their udder.

Lisa, I am a nurse and I know that the technology used for rBST is the exact same technology that we use to make humulin insulin for our diabetic patients. We are esctatic with this technology as it allows us to reduce the problems that might be encountered otherwise. In the dairy industry it has been repeatedly tested with no untoward effects despite all the questions that were asked when it was initially released.

Dairy farmers and their families do want what is best for their cows. I have been involved my entire life, as the local, county, district, state and national level. This involves interacting with thousands of dairy persons over the years and I do know that they all want to do the right thing.

Beth said...

Thanks for your post, it's so important to get multiple perspectives on agricultural practices, especially those involving meat and milk animals. I'm taking my first animal science class at the university level this semester and in the one introductory lecture I got on dairy farming, the professor talked all about the business side of the industry. He seemed to have a very corporate perspective and made it sound like little consideration is given to animal health and well-being in the pursuit of more and more profits. I'm glad to read that conventional dairy farming does not automatically equal bad conditions.

Laurie said...

Hi Nancy,

I very much enjoyed reading your blurb in the GAW Report today. I was particularly interested in reading it as we were in Wisconsin this summer visiting relatives and decided to stop at a local family-owned dairy farm for a tour. Our tour guide (the wife) was telling us that the bottom line in milk is that there is really no difference in the end product between organic and conventional dairies. And, if you have the extra money to buy organic, great, but basically you are wasting your money. I had a hard time believing that until I read the info from your blog which was very detailed and informative.

So, I just have to ask the bottom line question again, what then is the benefit of buying organic? Just one’s philosophical opinion that it is better for the cow and the environment?

I just have to add too that the dairy we visited in Wisconsin was docking their cows’ tails and told us it kept the cows and hence the milk, cleaner. I didn’t like seeing it then and after hearing from you that it is frowned upon by the dairy industry, am even more disturbed.

Thank you again for the great information!

Kind regards,


Nancy Grossi ~ Churned In Cali ~ The Wife of a Dairyman said...


Thank you for reading my post and asking questions. As you know by reading my blog, we have a conventional dairy. I think it's really a matter of personal preference and what you feel comfortable buying and feeding your family. I know with the milk industry, conventional milk is just as wholesome and nutritious and in my opinion-tastes the same as conventional milk. The reason I posted the information regarding conventional vs. organic milk is that I witnessed misinformation being passed around regarding antibiotics being in conventional milk......which is not true. I couldn't believe the amount of people that believed this!

So for us, there is no benefit to buying organic milk. I hope this helps to answer your question. Please let me know if you have any other questions!

Thank you for reading :) ~Nancy

Alex said...

Such an awesome blog! :-) I love it -- great post! I am so happy when I see people like you providing the essential care and love that animals (and the food distributed to people coming from the animals) need. I didn't know before some of the things you posted -- thanks for the info!


Psst: Come check out my charity blog:
Please become a follower! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for such great information! It's nice to get a fresh perspective out there on a really important topic.

Anonymous said...

i do love most of your posts, but see that you are biased towards tail docking and you let everyone know. we dock tails on our cows to reduce the likelihood of injury, improved cleanliness, and easier handling at milking time. with our fly control program in place our cows do great with docking - it does not hurt them. you mention dogs have docked tails, but thats basically for aesthetic reasons vs docking for functionality. tail docking is not frowned upon in the dairy industry, its frowned upon towards the dairy industry. i know many CA dairy farmers that were devasted that this ban passed and many more who are hoping it doesn't come to their state. to them it seems like non-farmers are controlling how they can run their business, because everyone else seems to think they know whats best for the animals. it serves a function for many farmers, and though maybe you don't agree with it doesn't mean its wrong. it seems like many people are only concerned about how things look: you can dock tails on a dog, but a cow looks better with a long tail so i guess you can't dock them? until it is deemed the docking of all animal tails is unnecessary, why are cows and the dairymen being hurt the most? i think until a person has personal experience with both only then can you make your own decision. i personally see it as form vs function with any animal - whats the most important aspect for you?

Nancy Grossi ~ Churned In Cali ~ The Wife of a Dairyman said...

@anonymous, As you probably know, here in CA tail docking has been banned for cows and I don't know of any dairy farmers, personally that have had their cow's tails docked. If it was legal here in CA, we wouldn't dock tails as we don't see the need to do so on our farm. But I appreciate your information with regards to tail docking, it helps me to better understand the reasoning behind it. Thanks for the comment:)

Anonymous said...

I had a really hard time reading this post. Being an organic dairy farmer - on a VERY small farm at that, a lot of the "myths" posted above are the very reasons why organic farming is growing. But then I had to sit back and realize that you're speaking from your own perspective, as all of us do. You obviously treat your cows and do business in a humane, ethical way. Lots of farms do, whether they're "organic" or "conventional", but like in any profession - there are those that aren't ethical and they seem to overshadow those that do. Everyone thinks that the way they do things is the best way. I think as farmers we can only farm how we feel is best and let consumers decide for themselves what is best for their families. Like you said, the dairy world is one big family - there isn't competition, we just do things differently.

Anonymous said...

From one dairy wife to another... THANK YOU!!! This was a great story and I plan on sending more people your way to read this article.

Anonymous said...

I find this site Hilarious. Anybody else feel like that thewifeofadairyfarmer is trying to sell you on MILK? and since when does anybody trust the government on the regulations that they put out and are suppose to "monitor".
I will give thewifeofadairyfarmer some credit to how she sounds like they actually do care about there animals, unfortunately on the tours I have taken of dairy farms showed a much different story.
I do find it interesting that we are one of the only mammals that feel like we need milk after we are weened from it. So are we actually even suppose to be drinking it after that? a matter of opinion, I am sure.
Good luck on your decisions about organic or conventional, There are a ton of studies out there showing what the big difference is. Not just someone selling the products opinion.