cows in field

Organic Dairy Production with the End in Mind

By Arden J. Nelson, DVM, and Diplomate, ABVP-Dairy

We are What We Eat

What we eat has a profound effect on what we are. Are we healthy? Are we fat? Are we dry-skinned? Are we diabetic? Are we allergic? Our human diet influences the initiation and outcomes of our diseases through nutrient imbalances. The most important diseases in our modern society are chronic diseases that are largely modifiable through nutrition.
I have been a dairy cattle veterinary nutrition consultant for over 34 years. I believe completely that “Nutrition is Everything to Dairy Cows”. Nutrition management controls all the important metabolic diseases of dairy cattle: milk fever, ketosis, retained placenta, metritis, displaced abomasums, decreased fertility, increased lameness, reproductive problems, and decreased production efficiency. Through controlling all these diseases, nutrition also controls premature culling for disease and production.

Nutrition management also impacts infectious disease by promoting healthy immune systems that are not prone to over-zealous responses. One example is the reduction in bulk milk SCC through ration changes alone. Fewer new mastitis infections and better spontaneous cure rates lower the bulk milk SCC.

This is in addition to nutrition being the largest expense on every dairy farm, and nutrition being the most important factor responsible for enhancing or inhibiting productivity. Nutrition is everything to dairy cows.

Nutrition is everything to us as humans also. Epigenetics, the effects of environment on the actions of our genes, can change the expression of our trans-generationally carried genetic code such that some genes are expressed, and others are suppressed from expression. This system of the environment (think nutrition, think pesticide exposure, think of the influence of our biome organisms in and on our bodies) affecting what genes are active during our lifetimes is of stunning impact by itself. But, what about the fact that these changes in gene activity can be passed on to future generations, again and again and again? This is truly mind boggling!! We are what we eat and our grandchildren will someday be what we eat now … Wow!

In a study of epigenetics, (See Figure 1) Waterland and Jirtle stopped the expression of the Agouti gene that produces coat color change, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer in Agouti mice by feeding methyl donors to the pregnant mouse mothers. Nearly all of the mouse pups were normal, meaning not Agouti! The methylation turned off the Agouti gene.

“These findings indicate that you are not only what you eat,
but what your mother and grandparents ate as well.”
by Dana C. Dolinoy, (Future Medicine LTD, 2007.)

Figure 1. Methyl donors in the diet of Agouti Mother Mice caused
the turning off of the Agouti gene, resulting in nearly 100% normal offspring.

What We Eat_methyldonors1

Our bacterial ‘roommates’

Recently, researchers have been uncovering the mysteries of the effects of our bacterial body inhabitants (the “human biome”). Each of us has more bacterial DNA in and on our bodies than we have human DNA. Does this mean that each of us is an ecosystem? YES! This population of bacteria influences our bodies in many ways. Examples of this synergy between human and biome: our biome aids in digestion of our food, influences whether we are obese or not, can influence allergies, perhaps even our chances of developing cancer. Some have suggested that we are mere decades away from treating/preventing of specific diseases with inoculation of our skin or digestive systems with a blend of selected bacterial populations. I submit that, in order for these bacterial populations to survive and thrive, we must provide the right nutrition for them, too. Not unlike the concept that a balance in rumen microflora is necessary for healthy and profitable milk production, our resident bacteria need our consideration of their nutritional happiness. Nutrition is everything to humans, too.

NEWS FLASH: “Milk is not milk.”

Contrary to recent conventional milk marketing theory, milk is not milk. While this is news that is quite unbelievable and unwelcome to many in the conventional dairy business, it is not news to organic dairymen. Organic producers know that organic milk is different.
Milk is one of the most changeable foods known to man. Whatever diet the cows eat is reflected in changes to the milk they produce, and usually this happens quickly. It is possible that we have been drinking the wrong milk for human health for the last 50-60 years because of the nutritional changes we have made in what we feed milk cows! Milk may not be the perfect food for calves or consumers IF WE FEED IMPROPER DIETS to the cows!

Breast milk may not be the perfect food for human babies if mothers don’t eat a proper diet – but that is a topic for another time.

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Organic Milk is Different

Certified organic milk is different than conventional milk, and this has been shown through four research studies reported from 2006 through 2013.

The latest and most thorough study was published in December 2013. This study compared Organic Valley milk with conventional milk processed in the same 14 plants across seven regions in the U.S. Milk samples were collected across 18 months of time. See Figure 2.
Benbrook and colleagues showed that: organic milk is 25% lower in omega-6, 62% higher in omega-3, and 18% higher in CLA than conventional milk.

Because dairy is a large part of the daily diet for dairy consumers, these changes in milk fatty acids are a significant help in correcting our PUFA intake imbalance.

Figure 2. Omega-6, Omega-3, and CLA levels in organic milk as percentage
of the conventional milk samples from the four studies shown in Table 1.
Notice the consistent results across the studies.

What We Eat_organicmilk3

Why is Organic Milk Different than Conventional Milk?

It is very simple. Organic cows eat different diets than conventional cows. Less grain, more forage, more pasture easily changes the Omega-6 and Omega-3 levels in milk. In a sense, this is returning to what cows ate prior to the cow dietary changes that started in about 1950. Prior to then, most foods were still naturally organic, because all of our crops were organic.

Milk Fatty Acids

Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) make up a small percentage of the total fatty acids in milk, but are a very important contributor to our health as milk consumers, and are easily altered through changes in cow diets. See Figure 3 for the fatty acid classes in cows’ milk. The PUFAs include omega-6, omega-3, and Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA).

Figure 3. The PUFAs make up only 4% of the fatty acids in milk,
but that 4% is very changeable, and VERY IMPORTANT to human health.

What We Eat_fattyacidus4

Our Problem is Omega-3 Deficiency

Much of our human imbalance in PUFA intake has arisen through two mistakes in our foods selection.

  • Mistake 1: We are feeding our food animals too much Omega-6 since about 1950. See Figure 4 for history of Omega-6:Omega-3 ratios in U.S. bovine milk. In the last 50 years, milk O6:O3 ratio has increased by 8 fold! All farm animal origin foods have been altered in this same way.
  • Mistake 2: We are eating too much vegetable oil origin omega-6 since 1960-1970. Vegetable oils are variable in PUFA types, but in general are very high in Omega-6. See Figure 5 for depiction of the timing of the “GREAT FAT CHANGE” in human diets in the U.S.A.

Who cares that Organic Milk has less O-6 and More O-3?

Figure 4. O6:O3 ratio in bovine milk from 1960 through 2008.
Ratio has increased 8 fold in 48 years.

What We Eat_figure45

You and every human in western societies should care. The largest nutritional problem we face today is Omega-3 deficiency. Our diet is high in Omega-6 and low in Omega-3. This is not good for us because our typical diet in the U.S. has an O-6 to O-3 ratio of 15:1 while our species has evolved through 2.5 million years on a diet that averaged 2:1. Is it any wonder that we are sick? If you are raising animals (think cows) and are feeding them a ration that is deficient in a very necessary nutrient (think effective fiber for rumen health), do you expect them to thrive in constant health? Do you expect them to suddenly successfully change from the thousands of years of slow genetic change that dictates what is necessary in their diet? Will they thrive if you feed your cows like pigs? Of course not! Yet, we are feeding our food animals so that our food of animal origin is not meeting our nutritional needs. We have changed our diet to an incorrect diet over the last 60 years. We humans have a dietary problem, and the problem is us!

Figure 5. The Great Fat CHANGE happened across ~30 years.
Bad fats include margarine and vegetable oils.
Good fats include cream, butter, lard, and tallow.

What We Eat_figure56

Begin with the End in mind

I challenge everyone involved in food production to begin with the end in mind. Who are you feeding and what do they need from your food?

Who consumes the organic milk you are making and what are their nutritional needs? With so many management challenges, why add one more to your list? Because nutrition is everything to cows and to humans. We humans are awakening slowly to the power of food to modulate our diseases. As more people become smarter about the food and disease connection, more people will want better fat balance in their diets. Organic milk will be part of that better human dietary balance that leads to better human health.

Better for Cows and People

Many changes to milk cow diets can be better for cows and better for milk consumers, too. One example is Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 and Omega-6 are two essential PUFAs for humans. We cannot make these, and therefore the designation “essential”. We also know that dairy cattle produce the same or more milk and breed better (See Figure 6) when they have more dietary Omega-3 than we have typically provided during the last 60 years. Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

Figure 6. Cows on Flaxseed (high Omega-3) supplemented diet conceived much better than cows on Sunflower seed (high Omega-6) supplemented diet. Milk production was the same, and pregnancy losses were lower on the flaxseed diet. (not shown)

It is simply that the changes we made starting 60 years ago in what we feed our dairy cattle were partially incorrect. Omega-3 decreased in cow diets because we started feeding more corn, less forage, and less pasture. Green forages and pasture grasses and forbs are a great source of omega-3 for dairy cows. When they eat enough Omega-3, their milk is higher in Omega-3, and their diet is closer to what they need. When we drink higher omega-3 milk, our diets are then closer to what we need! This is a no-brainer!

But is Omega-3 a Big Deal?


Each of the diseases on this list of western society human maladies is linked to omega-6 and omega-3 imbalance. How many of these have affected your family and friends?

Diabetes, obesity, heart attacks, depression,
Alzheimer’s, cancer, stroke, schizophrenia,
insulin resistance, asthma, arthritis, lupus,
ADHD, post-partum depression.

Does this appear to be a list of our common diseases in the U.S.? All 14 diseases have researched links to dietary omega-3 deficiency. (The Omega Diet, Simopoulos and Robinson)


What We Eat_table37

This is a list of the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. for 2010, in decreasing order (CDC data). The ones in red italics have researched connections to dietary omega-3 deficiency.
Six of the top ten killers in the U.S. are linked to Omega-3 dietary deficiency! Do you care yet?

Be Proud of Organic Milk

Be proud of the organic milk you are producing to feed humans a more balanced and healthier diet.

But, we have the knowledge to produce organic milk that is even higher in Omega-3. Shouldn’t we do this, too? Ask someone who now does care about Omega-3.

More Info on Omega-3, Omega-6 and CLA

You can find more information in articles and slide shows about fats in human nutrition at Go to the Learning Center and then choose your topic of interest. (Many slide shows on human breast milk are here as well.)

Dr. Nelson assists wife and partner Dr. Marguerita Cattell in the running of their Grade A, 100 percent grass fed, raw milk dairy in Windsor, Colorado. Food produced includes raw milk, raw milk cheese, raw beef, raw pork and raw eggs.