happy cows

Why Happy Cows Come from Organic Farms

Hormone-free milk comes from happy cows—who live on organic farms, according to this nonprofit's research.

Why Happy Cows Come from Organic Farms

Cows raised with organic methods have that certain something.

That happy cow staring back at you from the milk carton must be doing well. After all, the label says, she wasn’t treated with rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), rBST (recombinant bovine somatotropin), or antibiotics. So why opt for that gallon of organic milk sitting right next to her?

Sales of antibiotic- and hormone-free milk have jumped over the past few years, and survey after survey shows that people want milk free of those questionable additives out of concern for what they might be doing to their health. But by focusing on one or two aspects of dairy production, we’re missing the ways in which full-fledged organic dairies benefit the planet, says Charles Benbrook, PhD, chief scientist at The Organic Center, a nonprofit organic agriculture research organization, and developer of a calculator that quantifies the benefits of organic dairy production.

Benbrook analyzed all of the major inputs used on conventional dairy farms that aren’t allowed in organic operations: synthetic pesticides, nitrogen-based fertilizers, and animal drugs, such as antibiotics and hormones. He found that all the organic farms across the U.S., housing some 120,000 dairy cattle, were given 1.7 million fewer drug treatments than their nonorganic counterparts, which are not only shot full of growth hormones but also with hormones given to cattle to aid in reproduction. "For all the attention that’s been directed to rBGH, more attention is warranted to reproductive hormones," says Benbrook. "Far more of them are used and they’re used during lactation, while the cows are milking." Not much is known, he says, about the levels of these reproductive aids in a finished product, or what those aids may be doing to people.

Drug use aside, organic dairy cattle also kept 40 million pounds of fertilizer and 758,000 pounds of pesticides off fields and out of waterways.

When it comes to milk, “organic” means more than just a bowl of cereal free of antibiotics and growth hormones. "Any of those labels—natural, grass-fed, no antibiotics, no hormones—really do not encompass the system changes required on organic farms," says Benbrook. "In general, dairies that just take a single input out of the system but don’t change other aspects of their farming practices don’t have the beneficial impacts on animal health or farmland that’s possible on organic farms."

When you’re shopping for dairy products, here are a few things to keep in mind:

• Don’t be duped. "USDA Organic" is the only independently administered certification that will ensure your milk is free of added growth and reproductive hormones. “Antibiotic-free” and “Hormone-free” aren’t verified and can be misleading.

• Go local. Just like organic vegetable farms, organic dairies (or noncertified dairies that raise cattle organically) may be closer than you realize, allowing you to purchase products created locally. Find one at Also check local farmer’s markets for organic milk direct from small, local farms.

• Shop around. If you drink milk primarily for its nutritional value and want to save a little coin, check out other organic dairy products that may cost less. For example, plain organic yogurt has the same protein as milk and may be cheaper.


Published on: May 20, 2009

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Happy Cows

You should know better than to call a cow a "he" (first paragraph).

happy organic cows

Right on, Wendy. I am a veterinarian that treats both conventional and "organic" herds. While I am all for using better management and less antibiotics, the organic rules push these farmers to wait too long, and, in my opinion, cause needless suffering. Furthermore, I have seen a lot of "magic NATURAL foo-foo dust" injected, rubbed, infused, and IV'd into "organic" cows that makes me question whether I'd really want to drink their milk. At least the antibiotics have had some studies done on them for clearance time from the body. I also second the opinion of the other writer who stated that organic doesn't equal grazing. The larger "organic" dairies bring feed to the cows rather than let them graze. A cow can only walk so far from barn to pasture, limiting grazing operations to pretty moderate size, by today's standards. As for "happy" cows, I've seen large and small operations that were humane and comfortable, and I've seen large AND small that were horrid. As with about anything else, there are good caretakers and bad.


BTW the picture looks to be a herford (poled- hornless bred) which is a beef cow, not dairy. A Holstien, which irronicly is used by Chik filet, is the 'traditional' Dairy breed..; which is also unfortunate as industrilized food production is detroying our diversity in animals and plants.

happy cows?

Not hardly, Horizon dairy which produces most organic milk also houses their cows much the same way do other dairy industries. Inside, in stalls- not grazing in open fields. Their calves are still removed from them after collustrum to become veal if they are male and in some female ( if the need is not there to replace older cows) become rennant for cheese. After about 5 years when their production slows then they are shipped off to be butchered- a cow would normally live apx 20 years. If these cows are labled organic then they become organic beef, organic cheese, and organic veal in addition to their organic milk. they are not organically treated- i.e. grazing freely. Local dairies may have more leeway in their system but many cannot compete with the industrialized milk production. Low overhead, i.e. keeping them in barns, little or no acreage or pasture to manage makes it more cost effective for their investment. Just thought people should know the facts... not the hype.


The labels on what is organic is not regulated the way we think it is. That criteria is changing, but I am looking into what Wendy said. I would imagine they could treat but they would have to sell that cow afterwards...isn't there a time frame for purchasing cows.. have they had to NEVER be treated with anything?> I know that farming there is a 3 year period for verification.

happy organic cows

Organic is great as long as the cows don't develop mastitis, lung worm or some other infection. If they do farmers aren't allowed to treat them.....I think it is inhumane to let an animal suffer when an easy cure that most people would give to their children is readily available. There should be rules that allow an animal to be treated-perhaps increasing hold times for the milk following treatment-but it's only fair to take care of them in a humane way!

Happy Cows

"After all, the label says, he wasn’t treated with rBGH... or antibiotics. So why opt for that gallon of organic milk sitting right next to him?"

Uhmm, last I checked, cows are female. I don't imagine that treatment with rBGH would enable anyone to extract a gallon of milk from a bull.

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