What Makes Milk Organic? New Standard Proposed

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Organic dairy farmer Roman Stoltzfoos of Springwood Farm in Kinzers, PA.  He produces milk sold unde i

Organic dairy farmer Roman Stoltzfoos of Springwood Farm in Kinzers, Pa. He supports rules clarifying what it means for milk to be certified as organic. Allison Aubrey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Allison Aubrey/NPR
Organic dairy farmer Roman Stoltzfoos of Springwood Farm in Kinzers, PA.  He produces milk sold unde

Organic dairy farmer Roman Stoltzfoos of Springwood Farm in Kinzers, Pa. He supports rules clarifying what it means for milk to be certified as organic.

Allison Aubrey/NPR
Cows at Springwood Farm in Kinzers, PA produce organic milk i

Cows at Stoltzfoos' farm produce organic milk. From March to December, these cows spend most days out in pasture grazing on fresh grass, alfalfa and clover. Allison Aubrey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Allison Aubrey/NPR
Cows at Springwood Farm in Kinzers, PA produce organic milk

Cows at Stoltzfoos' farm produce organic milk. From March to December, these cows spend most days out in pasture grazing on fresh grass, alfalfa and clover.

Allison Aubrey/NPR
Springwood Dairy Farm in Kinzers, PA. i

The organic milk produced at Springwood is sold under the label Natural by Nature. Allison Aubrey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Allison Aubrey/NPR
Springwood Dairy Farm in Kinzers, PA.

The organic milk produced at Springwood is sold under the label Natural by Nature.

Allison Aubrey/NPR

When consumers pay top dollar for organic milk, they know they're getting dairy that's free of synthetic growth hormones, pesticides and antibiotics.

Now there's a move to ensure cows are feeding on plenty of fresh grass if producers want to label the milk as organic.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued draft rules that would require cows to be on pasture during the entire grazing season. The regulation would also require that cows on organic dairy farms get a minimum of 30 percent of their diet from grazing.

The proposals are intended to close a loophole that has allowed some huge feedlots, with thousands of cows, to sell their milk as organic even though their cows rarely graze on fresh grass.

It's not a perfect proposal, according to the organic watchdog group The Cornucopia Institute. "What we need to do is level the playing field" says Cornucopia's Mark Kastel.

100 Percent Grass-Fed

Natural by Nature is an organic co-op in Pennsylvania that sells milk produced by dairy farmers who have switched to grass-feeding operations. Mennonite farmer Roman Stoltzfoos of Kinzers, Pa., is among the co-op's producers. Stoltzfoos says he supports the USDA's proposed rule, with some modifications.

"We need to know that if someone is certified organic — that this means the same thing to everyone." says Stoltzfoos.

During a tour of his dairy operation, Stoltzfoos walks with his herd of about 100 cows as they make their way from a patch of pasture to a milking barn. "They walk at least a mile and a half a day on average," he says. In comparison, some dairy cows kept on conventional farms are confined on concrete feedlots.

As they graze, Stoltzfoos' cows eat a smorgasbord of different types of grasses and fresh clover. Pointing to one cow, Stoltzfoos says the animals like to seek out a variety. "She likes clover. It's high in protein," he notes.

Grass-Fed Cows Are Healthier

Grazing cows that eat a forage-based diet tend to have healthier digestive systems. "That is the best approach to suit their system" says Gillian Butler, an animal nutritionist with the Nafferton Ecological Farming Group at Newcastle University in Great Britain. "The further you go away from that, the more problems you're likely to have."

A few years ago, Butler had a hunch that cows that ate lots of grass and clover, which is rich in an important omega-3 fatty acid called ALA, would produce milk with more of the omega-3 as well. To test this theory, she did a study with dairy cows in the UK. She compared the milk of cows that ate a forage-based diet with the milk of cows fed concentrated feed and corn silage.

"We were extremely surprised at the order of magnitude of the difference. We were getting an extra 60 percent of omega-3 in our organic milk," Butler says.

She found that the differences in their milk were greatest in the summer months when cows, especially those on organic farms, graze the most. Her findings were published earlier this year in the Journal of Food Science and Agriculture.

"We know these fatty acids are good for us," says Butler. "And we know that grass-feeding leads to higher levels. What we don't know is: Is organic milk better for us?" What's needed next, she says, are some studies in people. Detecting any particular health benefit could be tough and could take many years.

The cut-off date to weigh in on the USDA's proposal is Dec. 23.

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