Study Shows Organic Dairy Advantages

New report say organic cows provide milk through more but shorter lactations and live longer.

Published on: Nov 22, 2010
Grass-based organic dairy farming promotes cow health, enhances milk quality, and lightens the environmental footprint of dairy farming. Reproductive health problems on high-production, grain-based dairies lead to fewer and longer lactations, increasing costs and cutting lifelong production and revenue

Organic systems promote cow health and longevity by placing less stress on cows and feeding them healthier forage-based diets, while also improving the nutritional quality of milk, according to a new report released today by The Organic Center, Bolder, Colo.

"A Dairy Farm's Footprint: Evaluating the Impacts of Conventional and Organic Farming Systems" compares milk and meat production and revenue earned, feed intakes, the land and agricultural chemicals needed to produce feed, and the volume of wastes generated by representative, well-managed conventional dairy farms and also representative, well-managed organic farms. Key findings include:

The enhanced nutritional quality of milk from cows on forage based diets, and in particular Jersey cows, significantly reduces the volume of wastes generated on organic dairy farms. NRCS photo
The enhanced nutritional quality of milk from cows on forage based diets, and in particular Jersey cows, significantly reduces the volume of wastes generated on organic dairy farms. NRCS photo

* The average cow on organic dairy farms provides milk through twice as many, markedly shorter lactations and lives 1.5 to 2 years longer than cows on high-production conventional dairies.

* Because cows live and produce milk longer on organic farms, milking cow replacement rates are 30% to 46% lower, reducing the feed required and wastes generated by heifers raised as replacement animals.

* Cows on organic farms require 1.8 to 2.3 breeding attempts per calf carried to term, compared to 3.5 attempts on conventional farms.

* The enhanced nutritional quality of milk from cows on forage based diets, and in particular Jersey cows, significantly reduces the volume of wastes generated on organic dairy farms.

* The manure management systems common on most organic farms reduce manure methane emissions by 60% to 80%, and manure plus enteric methane emissions by 25% to 45%.

Reducing methane emissions is a critical goal for all dairy farmers because this greenhouse gas is 25-times more potent than CO2 in global warming potential. The report also notes that gross milk and meat sales revenues are about 50% higher per year of a cow's life on organic dairy farms, largely because of significantly greater milk revenue. Over the last five years, organic dairy farmers have received, on average, a premium of $10.98 per hundredweight of milk (average of $26.82 per hundredweight of organic milk compared to conventional average price of $15.93).

A team of dairy specialists worked with TOC to build the "Shades of Green" dairy farm calculator used to make the projections summarized above. TOC is also releasing today, free of charge, the SOG calculator, the full model results comparing the four representative farms, and a 92-page report providing detailed documentation and user instructions for the SOG calculator. 

"This is the first comprehensive analysis of the environmental footprint of alternative dairy farm management systems based on a fully described and freely disclosed, operational model," says Dr. Charles Benbrook, The Organic Center's Chief Scientist. 

Klaas Martens, a farmer in New York and one of the 14 report co-authors, predicted that, "This report and the SOG calculator will help all dairy farmers better understand how to improve both cow health and their bottom line, while also doing a better job reducing the environmental impact of dairy farming."

This Critical Issue Report, the SOG calculator, and the user manual are available at www.organic-center.org/SOG_Home.