Some questions on grass fed milk, and some answers, for Gwen

Gwen and the girls, feeding the cows
Gwen and the girls, feeding the cows bananas

We were fortunate to have a new friend visit the farm with her two kids for a tour. During and then after the tour I was asked some questions about our milk cow that I promised I would answer and the best way to answer is probably here on the blog.

Gwen had lots of questions about food and health, as most new parents do. In fact, one reoccurring theme I’m noticing as I give tours of the farm is that people are coming to natural food when they have kids. It’s interesting that we’ll cram most anything in our own mouths, but once we have a little bundle of drool and poo, oh wait, I meant bundle of joy to take care of, we change our habits. As the father of three I can say it’s exactly the same with us. I was so bad taking care of myself but for my kids I work my butt off.

Back to Gwen, one thing she was particularly interested in was raw milk and its different forms. Is organic milk close enough to raw? What about raw but from grain fed cows? How much pasture is enough pasture to not be an issue. These are all good and intelligent questions, ones that aren’t made any easier by the misinformation provided in our marketing systems for food.

I had taken some time to write-up my thoughts to try to help Gwen and was half way through a blog post about it when I opened my latest issue of The Stockman Grass Farmer and found an article by Kate Yegerlehner on grass-fed raw milk. By the way, you have to love a family that holds on to their old world spelling of their name and doesn’t Americanize it. My wife’s name (no not SWMBO, that’s what I call her) is very German and she’s quite proud of it.

So rather than write up my drivel for Gwen, I wrote to Kate instead and asked her if I could reprint her article here on our blog with a link to her own website, which you should definitely visit because she’s been gracious enough to post all of her very good Stockman Grass Farmer articles on her website along with a blog she maintains. Kate was very gracious and gave me permission to use her article. I was going to simply link to her article but they are files that you have to download to read so I’m going to reprint the article inline below so it’s easier to read. If you find value in what Kate has to say, she has a lot more on her website linked above.

Before I get to the article, I’d like to point out a few things. In the fifth paragraph, Kate notes that research has shown that it takes quite a while to have a “healthy profile” in a cow, but only a short time to loose it. 25 days vs. 5. This matches research I learned about in a grazing school on backgrounding cattle during the winter. Backgrounding is when you bring them into a feed lot and off of pasture when there isn’t any forage available, usually in the winter. Technically the cows are still grass fed (marketing, eh?)  but the research shows that the various measures of health like Omega 3 vs 6 change significantly during the backgrounding time and not for the good. And like the research that Kate references, it only takes a short time for the metrics to worsen and quite a bit longer for them to return to “pastured” beef quality. So your grass fed cow you purchased in April, if it was backgrounded from January to March 15th, it has the health profile closer to a grain fed cow than to a grass fed cow. That’s why Sam won’t be going to Chaudhry’s until June, because he’s been on hay all winter and I want a fresh grass cow. Plus they are all eating spring onions right now. Onion flavored beef, yuck.

All of this goes to Gwen’s question on Organic vs. pastured raw milk. Which is better? Based on the below article, and what I’ve learned over time, I’d try to get pastured milk over Organic as Organic still can mean grain fed and grain has a measurable difference in the health profile of the milk. So once again, it’s better to know your farmer than it is to know your brand.

The Big Deal about 100% Grass-fed

By Kate Yegerlehner

I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I have consumed raw milk for most of my 34 years of life, because I grew up as the daughter of a dairy farmer. There is no doubt in my mind that having access to fresh milk is one of the things that has contributed to my overall health, although saying so as a seller of said milk probably is illegal (Just ask Diamond Foods how the FDA felt about their walnut health claims).

Since the fall of 1999 our cows have been 100% grass-fed. Before that, our management strategies had been through several changes. In the 1980’s they received a total mixed ration, aided by all the expensive equipment necessary for such a diet. Harvestore silos, choppers and wagons, feed mixers…a beautiful collection of things that rust and break down. When we implemented MiG in the early 1990’s, we continued supplementing the cows’ diet with some grain until 1999 (we also grew corn and soybeans until 1999). In 2000 we ventured into direct marketing (we chose this route as opposed to expanding to remain viable selling in the commodity market), and decided that converting our dairy to 100% grass-fed would put us in a more specialized niche market.

I drank our raw milk during all of these stages. It hasn’t always been 100% grass-fed, but I have no recollection of ever being sick and attributing it to tainted raw dairy. I do know that as a kid I had some recurring bouts of things like tonsillitis (never had the tonsils removed though, and I’m fine now!) and strep throat, as well as the occasional bug that was going around. Yet I’m pretty sure I can count on one hand the number of times I have actually been ill in the past 12-14 years since we converted to 100% grass-fed and I moved back home from college. Coincidence? Could be multiple factors involved of course, but I am certainly willing to give at least some credit to regularly eating grass-fed dairy and beef.

Considerable scientific evidence has revealed that the milk (and the muscle fat in meat) from totally forage-fed cows contains elevated levels of certain nutrients such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), omega-3 fatty acid, and fat-soluble vitamins. CLA has been shown to inhibit tumor growth. Omega-3 appears to play a role in preventing obesity. Vitamins A, D, and E, which abound in grass-fed meat and milk, play critical roles in immune function among other things. And these are just some highlights.

Ruminants on fresh forages have the highest levels of these nutrients. Depending on where you live, there may be times of the year when you must feed stored forage, but it will have an impact on the nutrient profile of the milk and meat. And feeding even small amounts of grain will significantly alter the levels. The response is seen more quickly in the milk than the muscle fat. Dr. Tilak Dhiman of Utah State University found that it took a ruminant 25 days on pasture to reach its peak CLA level in the milk, but only 5 days after being removed from fresh pasture the levels dropped back down.

In addition to the extra good things found in pastured animal products, another important benefit is what is missing. Milk and meat from animals on a total-forage, no-grain diet appear to have a built-in protection against pathogens. The more starchy grains a cow eats, the more acidic her body becomes. Science has begun to show that disease initiates in an acidic body. A slightly alkaline environment in the body prevents it. I sometimes tell our customers and school tours that a cow eating a lot of starchy grain would be comparable to us eating a lot of sugar. It makes the body acidic and sets us up for a whole host of maladies! Can we handle small amounts of sugar and still be pretty healthy? Most of us can. A cow can handle a little grain too…but what grain would be naturally occurring in the grazer’s diet? The seedhead on the maturing grass plant! If the cow is healthier, it stands to reason the milk and meat would be that much healthier, too, and this is one of the biggest reasons why we choose not to feed grain to our cows.

Raw milk has many enzyme-based pathogen killers (including lactoferrin, xanthine oxidase, lactoperoxidase, lysozyme and nisin), but all enzymes are destroyed at the temperature required for pasteurization. Through the aid of BSK labs in Fresno, Organic Pastures of California had their organic raw milk injected with various pathogens, finding that the pathogens would not grow, and in fact diminished over time. This experiment was with raw milk from cows on pasture. I have a notion that the closer to “perfection” a cow’s diet gets (her God-ordained pasture diet with opportunity to browse on occasion, grown on healthy soils with ample minerals in balance and microbes, earthworms, and beneficial insects abounding), the more likely those pathogens are to either bow in submission or turn and run the other direction!

Jo Robinson, author of Why Grass-fed Is Best!, explains that grain-fed cattle are about 315 times more likely to harbor E. coli 0157:H7 than grass-fed cattle! She says the reason for this is two-fold. First, grass-fed animals have an overall lower count of bacteria. Second, in the grain-fed digestive tract, these pathogens adapt and become resistant to the more acidic environment. It’s not hard to imagine that during the slaughtering and butchering process, the meat could easily become tainted with these disease-causing bacteria. And to put the nail in the coffin, because they are acid-resistant they will be more likely to survive our own gauntlet of digestive juices as well. Get that pH up in your cows and you’ll nearly eliminate that problem!

Some people think it’s not possible to milk cows on total forage and keep them alive. Well, it depends on the adaptability of the cows and the quality of your forages, but it certainly is possible. We’ve not fed a speck of grain to any cow on our farm in 14 years (I should also mention we are seasonal). There have been some hard knocks along the way while learning how to manage pasture quality, soil building, and animal performance at the same time, to be sure. But we have no desire to turn back from this journey we’ve found ourselves on. A journey where our passion for people, animals, and the environment constantly intersect. We’re continuing to learn and adapt. The hard knocks could have been enough to make us question whether we should just forget it and go back to “Egypt”, like the ancient Israelites wanted to when they faced challenges in the wilderness as God and Moses led them towards the Promised Land. But life as a slave isn’t as much of a life as fear of the unknown would have us believe! And so we press on.

So if it’s true that cows are grazers designed to digest forages, and if it’s true that what they eat affects the nutritional composition of the meat and milk, and if research is indicating that an all-forage ration for the cow translates to better health for the person who drinks the milk or eats the meat, but your herd is still dependent on grain supplementation…what are you waiting for? What steps could you start taking to make your product even better?

The demand for real, healthy food continues to increase. We as farmers are responsible to the people we serve. We must do everything we can to produce food that is clean, safe, and life-enhancing. We give our customers the right and responsibility to ask questions of us and even inspect the farm. They trust us to provide them with healthy products, and we always seek to honor that trust. The relationships that develop when we interact with each other in this way play a vital role in keeping small businesses alive…and this may prove to be truer than ever as the future unfolds.

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