grass-fed cows

USDA Finds in Favor of Grass-Fed Cows

A study by USDA scientists finds that raising cows on grass, instead of in factory farms, produces fewer greenhouse-gas emissions and other pollutants.

by Marian Burros

USDA Finds in Favor of Grass-Fed Cows

Grass-fed cows are not only happier than confined cattle, USDA research shows they're better for the environment.

RODALE NEWS, WASHINGTON, DC—Perhaps a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), entitled “Putting Dairy Cows Out to Pasture—An Environmental Plus,” won't put an end to the controversy over whether cows raised outdoors on grass are better for the environment than cows raised on grain in confinement. But the USDA's findings on the matter are all the more remarkable considering that it's only in recent years that the agency has acknowledged there's a type of agriculture besides industrial agriculture, and it’s called sustainable.

THE DETAILS: Unknown to most of the general public, there have, in fact, been Ag Dept scientists toiling away at experiments that confirm the value of sustainable agriculture, producing reports like "Pecan Growers Boost Revenue by Growing Organically," and "Organic Cover Crops: More Seeds Means Fewer Weeds."

Still, the research conducted about dairy cows may be the USDA's most controversial yet. In fact, both sides continue to argue about which method of raising cattle is better for the environment.

C. Alan Rotz, PhD, an agricultural engineer for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service at University Park, Pennsylvania, and an adjunct professor at Penn State, was the lead researcher for the dairy cows study. And he says he is “tired of all the criticism” about cows raised on pasture. “There’s a place for grass-fed cows. There's nothing wrong with grass-based systems, and from an environmental point of view there are a lot of benefits,” he says.

According to the USDA’s Agricultural Research magazine for May/June 2011, Rotz’s peer-reviewed study, first published in a research journal in 2009, concludes that “a dairy cow living year-round in the great outdoors may leave a markedly smaller ecological hoofprint than her more sheltered sisters.”

To find out which system was best from a sustainable point of view, the researchers compared four methods of milk production: two with confined cattle, one producing 22,000 pounds of milk a year, another, 18,500 pounds, and a third in which the cows were on pasture for seven months a year, each cow producing 18,500 pounds of milk a year. The fourth group of cows was fed on pasture all year long, and produced almost 9,000 pounds less milk.

The study looked at the environmental problems each group of cows produced: ammonia emissions from manure, soil denitrification rates, nitrate leaching losses, soil erosion, and phosphorous losses from field runoff. Estimates for emission of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide were also taken.


Published on: June 27, 2011

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Re: Grass fed cows

I was a hooftrimmer for over 35 years in five states, over the years I worked for over 150 different dairy farmers. It was pretty interesting going to so many different farms and seeing how differently things could be done. I always had an interest in agriculture and it really was a great way to talk to a lot of people about what they were doing and why.

The problem is that many farms don't have access to year round pastures. Milk, a perishable item, used to have to be made close to the consumer base. Hence, the cycle of summer pasture, winter confinement and hay and grain feeding. As time went on and bigger machines were developed it seemed prudent to farm the land, sometimes far away, and deliver the feed to the cows. On pasture the cows will trample as much as they eat if one doesn't have a way to rotate the pastures daily. So, while I totally agree with this, and in fact only eat meat from grass fed cows myself, I have to say that a lot of what we don't like about agriculture today is the result of a response to a need to produce more product for more people.

I could get way into to this, but some of this stuff that we now see as unhealthy wasn't developed out of greed alone, but also out of need. In the old days (not so long ago now) ag people stuck together and helped each other improve their farm practices. Now it's kind of weird how they've been put into competition with each other for land, loans etc. It's the injection of large amounts of cash into something that just was not where one would think to invest in that way, that has caused so much destruction.

Who in their right mind would invest 30 - 50 million dollars in a dairy farm? The whole business has been ruined by speculators demanding ROI (return on investment). Commercial dairy farming hasn't been profitable for at least the last 7 years, with the cost of feed exceeding the value of the milk, yet I have seen ever larger investment herds out here in Colorado which almost always go broke. But, their owners usually walk away with a ton of money. It's simple, food is a necessity so it has become fashionable to invest in food production with the idea that someday it will have to be profitable even if it isn't now. So large (millions) loans get made, the farmer incorporates and is now an employee of this wonderful enterprise, and large salaries are paid. To him and his wife and his children etc. When the operation goes broke that money is still theirs. Isn't incorporation fun?

I lost quite a bit of money to a couple of these schemes by having let them pay me monthly. Sometimes they can go broke in a hurry and guess who is last in line for payment.

USDA Finds in Favor of Grass-Fed Cows

Suppose the USDA found that cows that are pasture-fed create more pollutants. Would they then, decide that all wild animals must be rounded up and placed in confined quarters? !!!
And, what about genetically engineered alfalfa in the study? Could that have a pollution connection?


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