Is Grass Fed Really the Best Option for Dairy Cows?

Reader Contribution by Steve Judge
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Lately there has been a lot of interest in grass-fed milk or milk that is produced by cows fed only grass on pasture or hay. The idea being that grain is evil and bad for the cows and the milk they produce.  I’d argue that this is one of the new marketing tactics for the dairy industry and may not be the best option for all dairy cows.

A couple of years ago I became interested enough in the concept of grass-fed to do some research. I milk Jersey cows and I was curious if I would save enough money to offset the loss of milk production and income I would suffer if I didn’t feed my cows grain. Milk production can drop by 30 percent or more when cows are no longer fed grain. It seemed like a fairly simple equation to solve, until I asked my vet, who is a very progressive practitioner. He studies holistic treatments and works extensively with organic dairies.  When I asked him about switching to only grass-fed, he urged me not to.  He said my cows were already thin enough and thought they would become dangerously thin if I stopped feeding them grain. Not only would their milk production drop but also they could develop breeding problems and not be able to regain the body condition needed when they become pregnant again. Dairy farmers call that getting bred back. 

I was a bit surprised and inquired about all the farmers he knows who have stopped feeding their cows grain. My vet told me he knew of a few farms that tried to go grain-less but he didn’t know of any that had succeeded. And we live in Vermont. So what gives? 

Based upon my continued research I have come to the following conclusion: beef cattle and dual purpose breeds of cows that have been bred for both milk and beef can sustain themselves on just grass and hay. They retain a healthy portion of the feed for their body condition. They put it on their back as fat. But cows that have been bred to maximize milk production, like Holsteins, Jerseys, and Guernseys are bred to convert the feed they eat into the milk they produce. They are not bred to put fat on their backs. They are bred to make milk. 

It is very difficult to fatten up a cow that produces a lot of milk. They will stay skinny and only begin to put on weight during the last few months of their lactation and during their dry period before they calve again.  It is essential that they do have good body condition when they calve so they have the reserves required to make all the milk they need without turning into skin and bones. A good dairy cow already looks like it is just skin and bones to the untrained eye.

In my opinion, grass-fed milk may be a workable concept for dual purpose breeds that don’t make a lot of milk like Short Horns, Devons and Dexters. They can give milk and maintain a healthy body condition without being fed grain. But to withhold all grain from dairy cattle bred to maximize milk production can often lead to skinny cows with health problems. Unfortunately the health and well being of the cows can be sacrificed for marketing purposes.

It’s really a matter of moderation. A small amount of grain is not bad for the cows or the milk they produce. They enjoy it and can make good milk if they are fed the right amount of grain. What is bad for cows is a diet of all corn or all corn silage or diets with very high concentrations of soy or other grains. Unfortunately cows can produce lots of milk on these high concentrate diets but they often suffer health problems and generally don’t live very long. The life of the average cow on a commercial dairy is approximately 4.5 years. A cow’s digestive system requires long-stemmed dry hay and grasses to remain healthy over the long run. A good balance of dry hay and grain, and small amounts of grain makes a healthy, happy cow that can produce milk for 10 years or longer. My oldest diary cow lived to be 17.

The take away is this: both farmers and consumers should be very wary of fads or extreme (one way or the other) animal management practices. Moderation in all things, avoid extremes and ask questions – especially when it comes to marketing fads.

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