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The Grass Really Is Greener

grass fed cows

Story at-a-glance -

  • More than half of the world’s calories (close to 60 percent) come from wheat, rice and corn, which is not only unhealthy but unsustainable
  • Conventionally farmed land can be converted to a healthy, thriving farm based on regenerative methods, including grazing cows on natural grasslands
  • The American Grassfed Association (AGA) recently introduced much-needed grass fed standards and certification for American-grown grass fed dairy, which will allow for greater transparency and conformity

By Dr. Mercola

There are a number of reasons to seek out grass fed dairy products. For foodies, the seasonal variations in flavor are a huge draw.

For the health-conscious, milk from cows raised primarily on pasture has been shown to be higher in many nutrients, including vitamin E, beta-carotene and the healthy fats omega-3 and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).1

On an environmental level, grass fed dairy has a considerably reduced footprint compared to the way most dairy is produced using concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

When cows eat grass, it's a closed-loop system that, as Maple Hill Creamery put it, "bypasses the considerable resources used to produce the [genetically engineered] corn, soybeans or grains to feed dairy cows."2

Farms producing grass fed dairy products are able to naturally regenerate the soil and maintain ecological balance without relying on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And on an ethical level, cows are designed to eat grass.

When they eat corn and grain, not only does the quality of their milk degrade but they live in a state of chronic inflammation, which increases their risk of infection and disease.

British Farmers Seek to Expand Grass Fed Dairy Industry

As in the U.S., in Britain grass fed milk makes up only a small portion of the dairy industry, but a number of small farmers are hoping to change that.

With conventional milk prices dropping, many farmers were forced out of the business. The number of dairy farms in England and Wales has dropped to under 9,500, down from 13,000 in 2007.3

Dairy farmer Neil Brealey, of Cotteswold Dairy in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, produces milk with the Pasture Promise, an NSF-certified label that guarantees cows have grazed outdoors for 180 days, are kept in a yard for an hour before and after milking, graze within 400 meters (437 yards) of water and come from a farm that does not euthanize male calves.4 He told The Guardian:5

"[Grass fed] is a fantastic opportunity to support traditional dairy farming because it is on a knife edge. We are extremely hopeful for free range and we want to be at the vanguard of it.

I think there is a possibility that we could get to 10 [percent] of the milk supply being free range. But even if we get to 4 [percent] or 5 [percent], it's a huge market."

Eliminating Inputs Must Be the Goal; Native Grasslands Accomplish This

By mimicking the natural behavior of migratory herds of wild grazing animals — meaning allowing livestock to graze freely, and moving the herd around in specific patterns — farmers can support nature's efforts to regenerate and thrive.

This kind of land management system promotes the reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) by sequestering it back into the soil where it can do a lot of good. Once in the earth, the CO2 can be safely stored for hundreds of years and adds to the soil's fertility.

In the video above, I speak with Will Harris, owner of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia. Harris is a pioneer of grass fed products and what he calls "a kinder, gentler agriculture."

His farm is a great demonstration of how you can convert conventionally farmed land to a healthy, thriving farm based on regenerative methods. Conventional chemical agriculture typically involves the growing of a single crop, such as corn — a strategy that decimates the soil.

Harris recently purchased the land I visited, where he's in the process of implementing regenerative principles to rebuild the soil and make it productive again.

The 220 acres he purchased for his expansion are adjacent to his old farm, which has been in his family for 150 years. He expects to be able to bring the current organic matter in the soil from its current baseline of about 0.5 percent to about 5 percent over the next two decades, with the help of grazing cows.

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How Grazing Cows Can Rejuvenate a Farm

Virginia farmer Joel Salatin calls himself a grass farmer, for it is the grass that transforms the sun into energy that his animals then feed on. By closely observing nature, Salatin created a rotational grazing system that not only allows the land to heal but also allows the animals to behave the way they were meant to.

Cows are moved every day, which mimics their natural patterns and promotes revegetation. Harris uses similar principles at his Georgia farm. By urinating and defecating on the land, the animals provide important nourishment for soil microbes.

Harris also spreads perennial grass seed on the bare land, which the cows will help trod into the ground. Besides adding manure, the hoof activity helps break down the hard cap on the land.

To get the animals to cover and "treat" the entire 220 acres, Harris entices the cows to move across the land by placing the hay at one end and the water at the other. This helps maximize the impact of their hooves on the land, and helps distribute the waste (manure and urine) more evenly across the property.

Now and then, they also move the feed in order to encourage the cows to take a different path. In short, the idea is to imitate nature as much as possible, which includes the migration of wild herds across the land. Some of Hariss' farm is already rejuvenated.

Perennial grass seed (about 15 pounds per acre) was spread out, and after being trodden into the ground by the animals for a few short weeks, the animals were removed to allow the grass to grow and mature. These perennial grasses help nourish the soil microbiome, which need the plant interaction.

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Industrial Agriculture Diminishes Diversity

More than half of the world's calories (close to 60 percent) come from wheat, rice and corn, which is not only unhealthy but unsustainable.6 As noted by bioGraphic:7

"The Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s introduced higher-yielding wheat and rice, hybrid maize, fertilizers and novel pesticides to farmers. The changes brought life-saving jumps in crop productivity, most profoundly in Asia. But globally, they drastically reduced the types of crops being grown.

Hundreds of edible species were marginalized in favor of a few calorie-rich grains. And within a few decades, agriculture had been transformed from a complex, diverse, regional enterprise to evermore simplified, industrial production."

At Crops for the Future, a research center for underutilized crops located in Malaysia, researchers are trying to bring back ancient plant species from obscurity in an attempt to bring back traditional agriculture. As Sayed Azam-Ali, the center's director, noted "Diversity is agriculture's greatest strength."

Unfortunately, as farmers increasingly plant mostly wheat, rice and corn (including for animal feed), more than 75 percent of crop genetic diversity has disappeared since the 1900s, "And that relentless march toward monoculture," bioGraphic noted, "leaves the homogenous fields more vulnerable to devastation by drought, pests and disease."8

Advocacy Groups Call on EPA to Close Pollution Loopholes

While raising livestock on pasture protects the environment, raising animals in CAFOs destroys it. U.S. CAFOs produce 500 million tons of manure annually, which is three times the amount of sewage produced by humans. This is far more manure than can be safely applied to farm fields and represents a top source of pollution in the U.S.9

Much of the waste is stored in open-air "lagoons" that may be breached by floodwaters from hurricanes. North Carolina waste lagoons, for instance, have overflowed due to hurricanes repeatedly: in 1996 following Hurricane Fran; in 1998 following Hurricane Bonnie; in 1999 following Hurricane Floyd; and in 2016 following Hurricane Matthew.

In early 2017, 35 advocacy groups, including Food & Water Watch, called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to close federal loopholes that are allowing CAFOs to continue polluting the planet. In a petition, the groups asked the EPA to require CAFOs housing a certain number of animals or using a certain kind of manure management system to obtain a permit.

The EPA has said that up to 75 percent of CAFOs need permits but only 40 percent have them. The petition also calls on the EPA to close the loophole that allows CAFOs to discharge pollutants when they're hit with severe storms, as the definition of storms that trigger the exemption is outdated and based on 1961 data. In addition, InsideClimate News reported:10

"The groups are also asking the agency to close a loophole that excludes these facilities from permitting requirements under an 'agricultural stormwater exemption.' That means, the groups say, that CAFOs are getting around permitting requirements. The Clean Water Act doesn't clearly outline what qualifies as an agricultural stormwater, leaving much room for legal interpretation, but the agency has authority to define it, the groups say."

Antibiotic Use Is Incentivized

Another problem of industrialized agriculture is the overuse of antibiotics, especially for purposes of growth promotion or providing low doses to prevent diseases that are likely to occur when animals are raised in dirty and overcrowded living conditions.

As a result, the threat of antimicrobial resistance is increasing around the globe, including in the European Union (EU), where the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released a new report on this urgent matter.11

Antimicrobial resistance refers to microorganisms — bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites — that, after exposure to antimicrobial drugs (such as antibiotics, antifungals, antivirals, antimalarials and anthelmintics), evolve and become impervious to them.12

The resulting "superbugs" pose a serious threat to public health. In the EU, 25,000 deaths occur every year due to infections caused by antimicrobial-resistant bacteria alone.13 Dr. Vytenis Andriukaitis, EU commissioner for health and food safety, said in a press release:14

"Antimicrobial resistance is an alarming threat putting human and animal health in danger. We have put substantial efforts to stop its rise, but this is not enough. We must be quicker, stronger and act on several fronts."

Unfortunately, the use of antibiotics is incentivized to farmers worldwide. Farmers in China, for instance, commonly give antibiotics to livestock. No prescription is needed, and the drugs are cheap, so many farmers routinely give them to their animals in the hope of preventing disease. As BBC news put it, there's hefty incentive for farmers to use them, despite the potential threat to humanity:15

" … [S]uppose I run a pig farm. Giving routine low doses of antibiotics to my pigs is the perfect way to breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But that is not my problem. My only incentive is to care about whether dosing my pigs seems to increase my revenues by more than the cost of the drugs. This is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons, where individuals rationally pursuing their own interests ultimately create a collective disaster."

The Best Grass Fed Certification for Dairy

Choosing grass fed dairy and meat is a powerful way to make a difference for your health, the environment and animal welfare. Ideally, get to know a farmer near you who is raising animals the right way, on pasture. If you don't know of such a farmer near you, it can be difficult to decipher truly grass fed products from those that may be fed silage, hay or even grains during certain times.

Fortunately, the American Grassfed Association (AGA) recently introduced much-needed grass fed standards and certification for American-grown grass fed dairy,16 which will allow for greater transparency and conformity.17 Prior to this certification, dairy could be sold as "grass fed" whether the cows ate solely grass, or received silage, hay or even grains during certain times. As reported by Organic Authority:18

"The new regulations are the product of a year's worth of collaboration amongst dairy producers like Organic Valley as well as certifiers like Pennsylvania Certified Organic and a team of scientists. 'We came up with a standard that's good for the animals, that satisfies what consumers want and expect when they see grass fed on the label, and that is economically feasible for farmers,' says AGA's communications director Marilyn Noble of the new regulations."

Considering how important a cow's diet is when it comes to the quality of its milk, especially when we're talking about RAW milk, as well as the potential for grasslands to restore health and diversity to the environment, I would strongly advise you to ensure your dairy is AGA certified as grass fed.