It is probably not a big surprise to people who have been following the Vander Eyk Dairy news that the local rumors are that the dairy lost its certification because its cows did not have access to pasture as required under organic standards.
The Cornucopia Institute has questioned its compliance for years. Last month it lost its certification. I created a video eulogy to the dairy and since that time I’ve gotten emails suggesting that the dairy was seeking recertification. A Capital Press story earlier this week reported that they were in the certification process, but Samuel Fromartz now reports that they will not be recertifying the dairy, just the pasture.
Here in Tulare County, the nation’s leader in milk production, confinement dairy systems are the rule where land values are high. Herds are counted in the thousands. The number of cows approaches half a million. A 2006 population estimate puts the county’s human population at just over 400,000. It is very likely that we have more dairy cows than people here. If you throw in the beef cattle, the human population would have to do a lot of procreating to catch up. With these dairy systems, Tulare County does produce an impressive amount of milk for American consumers.
Dairy news is big news in this county and the local aggies are buzzing with Vander Eyk news since the Capital Press article. Locals do tend to notice that something is different about the Vander Eyk Dairy and local talk is supportive.
Apparently the age of the Vander Eyk herd is older than on conventional dairies and that is actually a virtue. In conventional systems, cows typically only produce for about three years. The synthetic growth hormone rbST plays a large part in cow burn out. The Vander Eyk Dairy as an organic dairy would not have used this hormone and could probably milk longer as a result.
Local scuttlebutt is that the Vander Eyk milk has a higher fat content than the rest of the Holstein milk produced in the county. The typical Tulare County cow lives on alfalfa hay and corn. Vander Eyk cows apparently also receive grass silage and grass hay. If you’ve seen my video, you have seen the cut green grass being hauled to the cows.
It is Different Even Without Pasture Access
And so with some key differences between this dairy and the rest of the dairies in the area, local opinion seems to be that the Vander Eyk Dairy has gotten the short end of the stick in losing its certification.
“It all came down to the number of days the cows walked on green grass,” said a local who felt like the milk quality should have stood for itself.
(Just to clarify from my own observations, it does not appear that the cows missed only a day or two of pasture time. There appears to be no pasture whatsoever at the dairy itself. The only fresh grass the cows receive appears to be when the dairy is harvesting its grass. They add the cut grass to the feed rations. Heifers did graze on pastureland this winter and spring. As of about last week, they were dining on a dirt lot. Of course, last week they were also not organic heifers.)
The Final Product
Because of my focus on food nutrients, I tend to agree with the locals that it is the end product that is critical. And while the Vander Eyks may have been producing a better milk than much of the rest of the county, it could have and should have been better still to carry the organic label (as long as the organic label requires pasture access).
Cows on pasture produce more of the beneficial Omega-3 fat alpha linoleic acid (ALA). Higher Vitamin A content is associated with that rich yellow color in butter from a cow on pasture. Milk from a cow on pasture is one of the best food sources of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Since CLA helps with weight loss, it is one of my current favorite beneficial fats.
Can we make too much of these differences between pastured and confined cows? Yes, I expect we can. If you are deficient in Vitamin A, adding butter from a cow grazing on pasture is one small change you can make. A bigger change is to eat beef liver, which also happens to be a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids. If you need more ALA, add flax seeds to your diet and eat fatty fish for the more critical Omega-3s EPA and DHA. If you need to lose weight, enjoy your milk because it will help you shave a pound here and there, but exercising is probably a pretty good idea as well.
Drinking the milk from a cow on pasture is one of the simple changes you can make to improve your diet. Small changes matter and the more changes we make, the better our overall diet will be. One small change I have made is to seek out butter from cows on pasture. If I am going to eat those calories anyway, I would like to maximize the essential nutrients they provide me.