Not All's Milk And Honey For Cows On Organic Farms
What Are Organic Milk Consumers Getting For Their Extra Money? One Of The Finest Bits Of Copy I've Ever Read On A Product Package
June 27, 2001
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va.--The organic milk carton from my local store says it was produced by "a family of family farms" where the cows wander cheerfully in from the pasture, to be milked as the sun sinks slowly toward the horizon.
The carton conjures up the image of a local farm where the smiling farmer pats each cow lovingly as he attaches the milker. I'm sure there are lots of such little organic dairy farms somewhere. But that isn't where my organic milk came from.
My milk came from the Horizon organic dairy, an international conglomerate that owns about 20,000 cows and often ships its milk thousands of miles in huge, refrigerated trucks. Much of its milk is produced with feeds irrigated by the very dams that the Sierra Club condemns for destroying ecosystems.
Since my milk is "ultra-pasteurized" for a long storage life, it likely came from Horizon's huge drylot dairy in Idaho, nearly two thousand miles away from my home in Virginia. That dairy has 3,400 cows that rarely taste fresh grass.
The Horizon-Idaho cows average nearly 22,000 pounds of milk each year, double the national average. So much for the easygoing, unstressed life lived on an organic dairy.
The slaughter rate at Horizon farms is likely to be high. Conventional farmers, faced with something like a mastitis infection (inflammation of the breast or udder), will give the cow an antibiotic, as people treat infections in their children and pets. They throw away the cow's milk until all traces of antibiotic are out of her system.
Horizon isn't allowed to use antibiotics, so they throw away the cow instead. The dairy's staff first try to treat the cow by milking out her udder four to eight times a day, hoping the infection will cure itself. If not, the cow is shipped to slaughter.
Antibiotics can't even be used on hoof infections, so Horizon has twice as many workers per cow as the average giant dairy, to trim problem hoofs, and change the cow's bandages. Cows with chronic foot problems are, of course, shipped to slaughter.
If a cow fails to get pregnant, the conventional farmer gives her a shot of a fertility hormone, prostaglandin. Horizon can't use it, so the barren cows go to slaughter.
Fortunately, Horizon's little calves can be given modern medications and feed supplements during their most vulnerable period of life. When they're a year old, however, they must go organic.
Southwestern Idaho is arid, so most of the Horizon farm's feed comes from irrigated land, the water supplied by dams in the mountains. Top organic quality feed is difficult to find, says David Terrell, the Horizon farm manager.
"Yields are easily compromised unless the grower has a good organic weed control program in place." Translated, that means organic feed crops as often so weed-infested the farm doesn't want them.
Terrell says it's especially hard to find protein for the cows.
Organic rules require only oilseed meals that have been crushed without solvent, but such oily meals are hard for cows to digest. Horizon has gone as far as Mexico and Canada to find its organic protein feeds.
Terrell says Horizon's milk sells for at least 50 percent more, so it can afford the high slaughter rates and high feed and labor costs. In fact, the company may add another 3,000 cows to its Idaho farm. I'm sure Horizon's milk is just as nutritious as other milk the only nutrition claim endorsed by the Organic Trade Association.
I'm sure Horizon milk is just as safe as other milk, though the association says food safety is "not what organic farming is about." The association, as well as the Department of Agriculture, remind us that organic farming is simply a different production system.
So what are consumers getting for their extra money? One of the finest bits of copy I've ever seen on a product package. Reading it makes you warm all over.
Meanwhile, Land O'Lakes is a farmer cooperative, owned by thousands of legitimate small family farms. Land O'Lakes markets equally safe and nutritious dairy products, mostly from cows that are really pastured on grass. But its cartons say only "Thank you for selecting quality products from Land O'Lakes," and give an 800-number to call if there's a problem.
Maybe Land O'Lakes should rethink its message to consumers.
This article appeared in Bridge News on June 22, 2001.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.