It’s Okay to Buy Plain ‘Ole Milk

I recently wrote a guest post for ScienceofMom.com. Here it is below:

My husband dairy farmer (DF) and I have a 30-cow dairy farm. That means we milk 30 cows. We also raise our own “youngstock” (young animals not yet in the milking herd) plus a few steers; so we have a total of about 65 head of cattle that we care for, both Holsteins and Jerseys at our farm. The Jerseys go back to a 4-H dairy project that I started with my family when I was a kid. They are all registered with names and unique personalities. Some of them have been with me for a long time with one family going back to the very first calves we owned. The Holsteins are my DF’s and they too have their own personalities but numbers instead of names as they are not registered. We do have pet names for some of them though, typically related to appearance or something that happened – like Pip, Slurpy and Whitey. Regardless, they are all now “our” girls.

 

My guess is that as you approach our place and see our girls grazing our rolling green hills in Northeast Vermont, you would maybe assume we are an organic herd. We are not and I will get into the why not at the end of this post.

 

The Prices of Milk in the Store

The average price of a gallon of “conventional” whole milk was $3.63 in March 2012. Organic milk was $4.02 per half-gallon or $8.04[1] for a full one. I wanted to get those figures out there so we know exactly what we’re talking about – a cost more than double. If you’re a family of five and buying ten gallons a week, those dollars add up fast. It’s been a pretty hot topic lately – given the shape the economy is and has been in, is the added expense worth it? 

 

If you ask me, I’d say no. Of course I would you might say – we produce milk that is not organic. But I know there are some people who choose the certified organic label for other items and extend that preference to milk, which is certainly okay too. But in my opinion, I think it’s irresponsible to make people feel guilty if they don’t want to or can’t shell out the extra cash for the label without an adequate explanation especially when budgets are tight.

 

When companies sell products obviously they’re looking for an edge. This comes in the form of price or quality for example, but ultimately their edge is based on consumer perception. Labels and other retail packaging are often used to convey a claim to alter the perception of the product in order to sell more or to sell at a higher price. This often leaves products without special labels looking inferior somehow with no adequate explanation. It underscores the importance for food and nutrition professionals to communicate science-based facts about food to the general public.

 

So then, what does the certified organic label on milk mean and why is it so much more expensive?

 

Milk is Milk

Firstly, compositionally, there is no significant difference between milk that comes from cows that are raised with organic practices or those that are from conventional farms[2]. The same nutrients and hormones exist in both, both are safe to consume and BOTH are free from antibiotics. Interesting to note, there is no way to test milk to determine whether it was from an organic farm or a conventional farm – either one that uses rBST or one that does not. Bottom line, milk is milk.

 

Because of the combination of nine essential nutrients, milk – organic or otherwise – packs a powerful punch for a healthy diet. The USDA and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences define essential nutrients as a dietary substance required for healthy body functioning. The nine found in milk are: Calcium, Potassium, Phosphorus, Protein, Vitamin D, Vitamin A, Vitamin B12, Riboflavin and Niacin. Sometimes, there can be a very slight difference in fat and protein levels between organic and conventional milk but this is thought to have more to do with diet than any other factor[3]. You might see this same difference in milk amongst different brands or from a local, seasonally grazed herd that may or may not be organic as well.

 

When it comes to safety, all milk sold in stores is processed to kill harmful bacteria – either through pasteurization or ultra-high temperature processing. However, milk, along with many other food products, is not a sterile product and thus some tolerance is allowed for bacteria counts. In a study examining the composition of milk from organic farms, milk from cows not treated with rBST and milk from conventional farms, the bacteria levels were found to be less in conventionally labeled milk than that of organic and rbST-free[4]. The difference was minimal however and all three were far below the federal limit.

 

Along those same lines, hormones are present in all milk – organic, rBST-free, conventional, chocolate, strawberry, coffee, skim, 2%, etc. The same study found different levels of hormones existing in the different samples of milk, though minor. Alice previously had a post that addressed some of these studies.

 

Finally to be absolutely clear, all milk on the shelf in the grocery store is free of antibiotics. Taking it a step further, organic farmers pledge not to use antibiotics on their cattle, or if they do the cow must exit the herd. On a conventional farm, if a cow is sick the farmer is allowed to use antibiotics to treat her. However, the milk she produces is withheld from comingling with the rest of the herd’s until it is tested and shown to be clear of the antibiotic. Many tests are done on the milk in its journey from farm to store shelf to ensure that there are no antibiotics present. The farmer risks losing his/her license to sell milk if antibiotics are found. This is not an area where farmers like to mess around!

 

Paying for the Farm Practices Promised

It’s really the steps before the milk is on the shelf that you pay for when you buy the organic label. That’s where the difference in price comes from. The USDA has attempted to reign in label claims by creating an official certification program for organic foods. It is more expensive to operate within these standards and organic farms must stay in compliance or they risk losing the ability to use the organic label and the premium that comes with it that helps to cover their higher costs.

 

The list of regulations organic producers must follow is found on the USDA’s National Organic Program’s web site. Generally, organic cows must eat organic feed grown with the use of pesticides approved for organic use[5], use organic medicine, graze organic pastures, etc. In fact, a recently updated regulation is a new pasture requirement that has made many large organic dairy farms reviewing their operations. Organic dairy and beef cattle as well as other ruminant livestock (like goats and sheep) must spend at least 120 days each year in pastures. While there’s no acre-per-cow requirement, the animals must receive at least 30 percent of their dry matter intake from the pasture during the grazing season. In hot, arid climates it has meant more costly irrigation to provide more pasture for their herd. This may affect the availability of organic milk in certain areas, let alone organic feed, meaning more truck miles spent shipping these items in and potentially increasing the carbon footprint.

 

While farm practices and philosophies may differ, the concern and care for the animals remain a top priority for dairy farmers. Keeping the cows healthy and comfortable goes a long way in their ability to produce milk. As a wise farmer once said, “Take care of the cows and they will take care of you.”

 

Show Me the Money!

While it’s true that you pay a premium for organic milk at the store and a farmer receives a higher milk price for organic milk, the economics of farming still come into play. Organic farmers pay more for organic grain and other organic inputs which doesn’t necessarily leave them in a better profit position than conventional farmers. This past year in particular inputs are up for all dairy farmers – feed, fuel, crop needs, repairs, supplies, etc. At the same time, the organic milk price on the farm has not gone up as quickly which has put a strain on at the farm making the idea of milking more organic cows not exactly attractive.

 

Another similarity organic and conventional milk share involves pay prices – just because you pay a higher price at the store and it increases from time to time does not mean that the farmer gets that premium. Organic milk has enjoyed huge gains in consumer consumption over the past few years. Recently, there has been a shortage of organic milk which has contributed to a rise in prices at the store. Despite half gallons of organic milk up 14 cents from December 2011 to December 2010, farmers only saw 6 cents of the increase[6]. Farmers are paid by the hundredweight (100 pounds, cwt.) for their milk, so the equivalent is $1.25 of a $3.26 per cwt.

 

Meanwhile, conventional dairy farmers had an increase of nearly $3.00 per cwt. during the same time period[7]. This is an important area where the two styles differ. Organic farms typically contract for a certain level of milk production with a processor thereby getting a fairly predictable price for a certain time period. Conventional dairies are left more to the whim of market forces, which means they would get higher high prices and lower lows. Today, as we get into for planting feed for the 2012 crop, conventional producers are gearing up for lower pay prices with higher costs of production while organic producers can take a little more comfort in their price, although they too will continue to have elevated expenses.

 

We Choose Not to be Certified Organic and Here’s Why

I’ve enjoyed writing this post as it’s offered me an opportunity to review why we do things the way we do them. Our reason is simple – we want to have all management tools available for our use. A good example is the use of antibiotics for medicine. If we have a cow that gets sick, which is not often, we want every option available to us to make her well again. It would not be sustainable on our 30-cow dairy to send every cow we treat with antibiotics away as some organic farms do, never mind that there are generations of cows behind her owned by us or our family members. I really can’t imagine saying goodbye to one of my girls because we were nursing her back to health; it seems counter-intuitive to me.

 

This is not to say that we do not support organic dairy farmers. We respect their choices and are happy to see the land put to productive use. At our farm, we also promote sustainable farming methods in an effort to maximally preserve our operation. We are excited about raising our family here and love the idea that maybe just maybe our son might be interested in taking over. Now I’m getting carried away – he is eight months old  this week.

 

I believe that all dairy farmers strive to produce an equally nutritious and high quality product. In the end, whether it’s organic or not, chocolate or skim, lactose free, the important thing to me is that you drink milk and feel good about it. As the saying goes, “It does a body good.”


[1] Milk Marketing Order Statistics: Retail Milk Prices. USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. March 2012.

[2] Vicini et al. Survey of Retail Milk Composition as Affected by Label Claims Regarding Farm-Management Practices. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2008: 1198-1203.

[3] Walker et al. Effects of Nutrition and Management on the Production of Milk Fat and Protein: a Review. Australian Journal of Agricultural Research. 2004.

[4] Vicini et al. Survey of Retail Milk Composition as Affected by Label Claims Regarding Farm-Management Practices. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2008: 1198-1203.

 

[5] A list of substances allowed and prohibited for use in organic crop and animal production can be found on the National Organic Program website. http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop

[6] Maltby. Organic Pay And Retail Price Update for April 2012. April 5, 2012. http://www.nodpa.com/payprice_update_04_05_2012.shtml

[7] Federal Milk Marketing Order One. Market Administrator’s Bulletin. December 2010 and December 2011. http://fmmone.com/

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3 Comments

Filed under Dairy Care, Dairy Industry

3 responses to “It’s Okay to Buy Plain ‘Ole Milk

  1. Pingback: Farmers’ Market Conversations Part II: Our Chosen Farming Practices | Farm Life Love

  2. Rey Castillo

    If RBST and Non-RBST is the same in milk, why RSBT(chemical) in milk?

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