Thursday, January 26, 2012

FAQ: "What's the difference between conventional and organic milk?"

Over the past few years, several of my friends have asked about the difference between conventional and organic milk.  There is A LOT of information available on this subject, so I won’t try to reinvent the wheel here.  I’ll simply give you an overview along with my take on the issue.

To start with, the terms “conventional” and “organic” refer to a farm’s method of production, not the actual milk. For a dairy to attain UDSA organic certification, it must fully incorporate and adopt a set of production methods that include a variety of specified “cultural, biological, and mechanical practices.” Guidelines include provisions on how often cows graze and have access to pasture, how their additional feed must be grown, and how their health is managed (read this USDA Factsheet for more info). Most dairies include some of the listed practices as part of their own standard operating procedures, but are considered “conventional” because they haven’t adopted all of the USDA’s organic guidelines.

"What do you mean we're not organic?
We're carbon-based life forms!"
A farm’s decision to use conventional or organic production methods is rarely as black and white as a Holstein dairy cow. Herd health, the availability of (or capacity to grow) feed, economics, and location are just a few of the factors farmers must take into consideration. Ultimately, dairy farms are going to use production methods that best allow them to a) raise healthy, comfortable cows that produce safe, nutritious milk, b) practice good stewardship of the natural resources around them, and c) provide a decent living for their family.

So what about those different jugs of milk sitting in the dairy case? The USDA, American Dietetic Association, and many other scientific studies have affirmed that conventionally and organically produced dairy products are equally safe and nutritious. Organic milk is rBST-free, and so are many brands of conventional milk. All milk undergoes stringent testing to ensure that it contains no trace of antibiotics or pesticides. Organic will cost more due to the farmer’s higher costs to produce it, and it may have a different flavor depending on the cows’ diet (true for all milk) or the pasteurization method used.

My family owns and operates a conventional dairy farm, and we have no hesitation whatsoever about consuming conventional milk and dairy products.  If you are equally as comfortable with our product, great! If you believe organic production is a better way of farming, our industry has you covered. There are options for nearly every preference of taste and philosophy, so make sure you and your family are getting three daily servings of whichever dairy products you most enjoy!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

FAQ: "Are there hormones in my milk?"

This is the second blog post in a three-part series attempting to answer a few frequently asked questions about milk. Yesterday I explained where people could buy our farm’s milk, and tomorrow I’ll touch on the differences between “conventional” and “organic” milk. As for today, I hope I can provide a good answer for all of you that have ever asked or wondered, “Are there hormones in my milk?”

Cows, like all living creatures that I’m aware of, naturally produce hormones in their bodies. Some of these hormones are found at very low (and very safe) levels in cows’ milk. Therefore, any dairy product you buy… whole milk, skim milk, “organic” milk, cheese, yogurt, etc…will contain traces of these naturally-occurring hormones. Perhaps where the issue has gotten confusing is in the use of supplemental rBST and the labeling of rBST-free milk.

Bovine Somatotropin is a protein hormone naturally produced in the pituitary gland of all dairy cattle. Supplemental levels of the hormone’s recombinant form (rBST) can be given to cows during certain times of their lactation to increase milk production. Essentially, the supplement helps a cow convert feed into milk more efficiently. The advantage to using rBST is that it can help a dairy produce more milk without adding more cows to the herd or growing/buying additional feed. The level of success of the supplement often depends on other factors such as feed quality and environment. We used rBST for a short time in our milking herd but did not see enough of a milk increase to warrant its continued use.  Due to that economic decision, our herd has been “rBST-free” now for well over 10 years.

example of rBST-free labeling
Numerous scientific studies have concluded that there is no difference in safety or nutrition between the milk and meat from cows that receive supplemental rBST and those that don’t. Despite this fact, many consumers have voiced their preference for milk from cows that have not received rBST supplements. As a result, several dairy processing companies have worked with cooperatives and individual dairies to secure an “rBST-free” milk supply. Many of these companies then include information on their milk jug labels or dairy food packaging identifying the product as rBST-free or containing "no artificial growth hormones".

The next time you’re standing at the dairy case in your local grocery store, please remember that ALL the milk you see before you is safe and nutritious.  Ultimately, the best dairy milk for you is whichever variety you enjoy the most, so make sure you’re including three servings of dairy products every day as part of your healthy diet!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

FAQ: "Where can I buy your milk?"

Our regional dairy check-off is one of the sponsors of this upcoming weekend's FoodBlogSouth Conference in Birmingham, and they've invited me to attend Saturday's morning session. I’ll be available to chat with attendees and answer questions they have about modern dairy farming and milk production.  I thought it might be beneficial ahead of the conference to blog about three of the most common questions I’m asked regarding milk production:  1) “Where can I buy your milk?”, 2) “Are there hormones in my milk?”, and 3) “What’s the difference between conventional and organic milk?”. I’ll tackle that first question today and the other two in the coming days.

“Where can I buy your milk?” is a question I am asked frequently. It’s a question I love getting, because it gives me the sense that people really do trust my family’s farm to produce milk that is safe and nutritious.  We do not process and market our own milk directly from our farm, though, so the answer is not as simple as telling people to look for the Gilmer Dairy Farm label in their local grocery store.

We and several other Alabama dairy families are members of a cooperative (Dairy Farmers of America) that markets our milk collectively to dairy processors. Our milk is currently being bought by the Borden Dairy Company of Alabama and processed/bottled in their Dothan facility (I think this is the only in-state company currently processing “homegrown” Alabama milk). All jugs of milk that come through that processing plant will be stamped with the code “01-3801” and can be found in grocery stores listed on the Borden website.

So, there’s a good chance you are enjoying milk from Alabama cows (maybe even ours) when you purchase milk in jugs containing the above code. Regardless of the brand name or origin, though, you are helping dairy farmers every single time you purchase dairy products. Make sure you and your family members are each getting three servings of delicious, nutritious dairy every day, and thank you for giving family farms like mine the opportunity to serve you!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A beautiful and busy start to 2012

Happy New Year, everyone! I'm sure you're probably happy indeed if you're getting the same kind of weather we're enjoying in Lamar County, Alabama. Yesterday was windy and today is cold, but it's clear and dry and the days are going to warm as the week progresses. It's the kind of weather well suited for getting things done around the farm.

Our field work this week includes a little planting and lots of fertilizing. We'll have about 60 cows and heifers pregnancy-checked on Thursday, and of course we'll be milking and feeding every day like always.

For a little more on this week's farm activities, check out my newest MooTube Minute video below.